by Tracy Johnson
The key to sustainable ratings success is to attract a large, loyal fan base that actually participate in the ratings process. Active participants share many traits, which are detailed here. But to win the Ratings Game, broadcasters should understand the ratings process, beginning with how a listener becomes a ratings respondent. Warning: the following information about woefully small sample sizes may disturb, shock and frustrate you.
Ratings companies have a difficult mission. In today’s over-communicated world, everyone is asking consumers to respond to a survey or poll. It’s probably happened to you several times just this week.
It’s become such a problem, finding a valid sample for research has become a major issue for every industry. That’s especially the case for radio surveys.
Most respondents are contacted using one of three methods. Each has obvious flaws.
Phone Calls: Historically, this has been the preferred method of finding respondents. But as Caller ID has become universal, unwanted solicitations have skyrocketed and landlines have become extinct, it’s more difficult to recruit ratings respondents by telephone. Would you actually answer a call from a number you don’t recognize? Neither do most others.
Direct Mail: Some ratings companies try to find respondents by sending a letter or packet of information to households. This is not only expensive, but response rates have become microscopic. Most pieces end up being recycled with grocery ads and other unwanted solicitations.
Knocking on Doors: When a stranger comes to your door offering cash or gifts to participate in a survey, most of us would probably be suspicious. But ratings companies continue this method of recruitment because of the struggle in the other tactics.
So ratings companies have a big problem. It’s hard to attract valid sample sizes to participate.
In addition to contacting listeners, convincing them to become a ratings respondent is even more difficult. Assuming a ratings company is able to find a potential participant, here’s what they’re asked to do:
If a diary market, the respondent is asked to carry a paper and pencil to write down every radio station they listen to, including start and stop times. Then mail it back in. Since most listening takes place in the car, how do you think that is going to work out?
No wonder sample sizes are inadequate to the point of being ridiculous. And, it’s no surprise that each respondent expects to be paid for their time.
And they do get paid. Some of them significantly.
Each respondent receives regular cash compensation. The amount is a bit of a mystery, but I know of first-hand instances of hard-to-recruit demographics getting $1,000 per month plus bonuses.
Most ratings companies have a harder time finding young participants. Male audiences are also notoriously more difficult to recruit. The harder it is to fill the quota, the greater the payoff.
It’s also common to offer even more prizes if the respondent listens to more radio! Some are awarded points for more listening. The points can be redeemed for prizes in an exclusive online catalog. This inflates actual radio listening, of course. But then, this is not the only problem with the sample.
For some, the incentive to play the Ratings Game is so strong, a user actually asks friends or coworkers to carry their meter for them. I know of one 22-year-old male that said:
I don’t listen to the radio or even like it really. But they’re paying me and my dad so much, I can’t afford to say no. My friends and I switch off carrying the meter every week or so. We’ve been doing it for about a year.
The end result is that sample sizes are painfully low. No responsible manager would make decisions based on this data, yet millions of dollars a year are spent advertising to listeners based on it.
There are thousands of horror stories about the ratings process. I’m not going to recount them, but here are a couple of highlights… or rather, lowlights:
Ratings services understand the problem, though they are careful about admitting how bad it has become. Much research has gone into alternatives, but none have been adopted. Each new idea introduces more potential problems.
Many have suggested using smartphones to track listening. That certainly solves some problems for PPM markets, as an app-based meter would theoretically record listening taking place on headphones. And it would be far easier to convince participation than requiring them to carry a pager-like device!
It may also solve some of the recruitment issues, with in-app and social media advertising seeking respondents. Yet, it introduces other issues. For example, even though smartphones have become much more common, it would still exclude a percentage of the potential population. This may increase sample sizes but reduce reliability of the type of person that would participate.
There are many problems, but small sample sizes may be the single biggest issue with radio ratings today. The entire process is flawed. But until broadcasters and the advertising community become more vocal and proactive, major changes are unlikely.
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