The more time Paul and I spend with teams of media pros – content creators, marketers, managers – the more sensitized we've become to assessing the ROI of digital. On the one hand, there is a multitude of “white boards” available to anyone in radio on which to dream up content on any number of platforms. But that means picking and choosing the best opportunities in which to create, market, and monetize.
We may look back at 2023 as the Year of Content Reckoning for media organizations, especially radio companies. Many bets have simply not paid off for broadcasters. Some have turned out to be downright debacles, leading to staff layoffs, department shutdowns, and worse. There may be lots of reasons for these epic fails, including not having the expertise or the capital for these initiatives to be successful. But an important ingredient to have efficient and effective content creation is determining its degree of doability. How difficult, expensive, and staff intensive is it to make stuff? Is there a market for it? And do you have the team that can attract advertisers and sponsors?
Sadly, there is no surefire way of precisely making these determinations. Tastes change, new platforms appear, old ones erode. All this leads to an environment where it may be precarious for strategists to make the best calls. But there are ways to lessen the odds of failure. Doing one's due diligence by conducting research is no guarantee of success. But it can increase the chances for a true digital win, something that has eluded so many in radio.
I am increasingly fascinated by games. Most of us play them – on our phones, on airplanes, on coffee breaks, while waiting for the dentist or a plane to take off, at night with friends and strangers. And when we run across one that becomes a habit as games often do, we love the routine and regularity of games that resonate, challenge, and entertain over months and even years.
Thanks to our mobile phones, we are rarely if ever bored. There's always a distraction waiting in our pockets and purses. And more often than not, it's a game of one kind or another that helps us pass the time.
The New York Times recently reached a new milestone – 1o million subscribers to any of its platforms, including the traditional online newspaper as well as subscription verticals that include Cooking, Wirecutter, the Athletic, NYT Audio, and of course, Games. We don't know precisely which is the biggest and most popular, but my money in on their Games piece.
It all started with their crossword puzzle franchise. The face of it – Will Shortz – is like the Beatles in crossword world. He not only is the New York Times' editor of crossword puzzles, but hosts a radio segment each weekend on NPR as their “puzzle master.”
Shortz is the biggest name in the space. He is a crossword puzzle rock star. For years, the Times was sitting on this asset, a part of their everyday newspaper, as well as their Sunday edition. But it was simply a piece of integrated content, rather than a standalone asset they could monetize with subscriptions.
They have built on Shortz's core product. Beyond crosswords, the Times has bolstered its Games content in recent years with other addictive games, including Spelling Bee, their new Connections game, and perhaps the biggest breakthrough in recent years, Wordle.
By now, you likely know the story of Wordle, a wildly popular game the Times recently bought for a pittance. It is the simplest but perhaps most scalable of head games.
Hooky pastimes like Wordle make it relatively easy for this platform to remain habit-forming and sustainable. Once you've got the format, a great game – whether it's Wordle, “Jeopardy,” or “The 7:30 Song Challenge” – has a life of its own.
Compared to the expense and difficulty of news coverage, podcast production, video creation, and other Times' content creation, Games may be the simplest to produce.
To test the waters, we started asking about online game play in our Public Radio Techsurvey a couple years ago. I began to notice more and more people not only playing these games, but joining and participating in communities that formed around them. This allows participants to play together, compare notes, challenge one another, and in general, heighten and prolong the experience.
Here is the “state of play” from PRTS 2023 among core public radio listeners, especially women. Note (upper right), online word game daily play is rock steady over the last two years, building even more confidence in the concept:
This data is intriguing. Long-time radio pros know that when their strategies are humming, their stations become part of the fabric of people's routines. Listening out of habit isn't just a good thing. It's a great thing.
It means that when it's working, radio provides the soundtrack of a listener's life. Whether it's getting hooked on a personality, a genre or style of music, or anything else, the key to long-term success in radio often translates to being rooted in the ritual of listeners' lives.
In our popular “Why Radio?” chart we create in our commercial, public, and Christian music Techsurveys, we're always looking to uncover the motivations behind why audiences continue to make radio a part of their routines – even with all the competitive options available to them. A look at this year's Techsurvey 2023 shows that “habit” continues to be a key variable in repeated usage:
After music, personality, the ease of listening in the car, and radio being “free,” the listening habit is solidly in the 5-spot, mentioned by more than half (56%) of our respondents as a main reason why radio remains an ongoing part of their lives.
But think about the impact of COVID these past few years on our routines. Many people are still not in the car as much as they once were, specifically not commuting to and from work. What toll has that taken on radio's morning and afternoon drive personality ratings, now going on four years? How many people who were habitual listeners pre-pandemic now find themselves involved in very different routines on their WFH days?
While that reality has not been good for radio, “listening” isn't the only thing radio's customers are capable of doing. That's the lesson The New York Times has learned in recent years. Not all its customers read the news online or in print these days. And that's OK.
Some check out recipes, others are involved in tech or sports, while many others are now in the routine of playing online games, puzzles, and brain challenges – every day. And the Times now has great verticals that fill these needs.
For radio programmers and managers, habit was defined as encouraging a listener to preset their station on her car radio. Today, it's a different way of defining routine and habit.
As the Times is proving, attracting current readers and even non-customers to good, sound content creation is just plain smart. And as we're learning with some of our “Near Adjacent” research efforts in partnership with Mark Ramsey, there are other alternatives to attracting consumers…and their dollars. This new research allows us to identify these content pools for radio stations in much like the Times has done with their readers.
I continued to be intrigued by the games space for radio. And over the weekend, Bill Jacobs stumbled upon a “Rock and Roll Crosswords” book by Todd Santos last year.
These puzzles are described as New York Times-style, which means they're not easy, they're clever, and they're entertaining. And for rock trivia fans, they should be challenging.
In fact, the Times' Shortz calls Santos' book “definitive rock trivia.” Other endorsements by rock luminaries include these:
“Well I'm sure I'll get a couple of THESE answers!” – Todd Rundgren
“Over the moon with these! Keep on puzzlin'!” – Spin Doctors
“YEAH!” – Stone Gossard (Pearl Jam)
A look at the Amazon page offering Santos' book also reveals a whole slew of different puzzle games and books that are music trivia oriented – just the type of core material stations or companies could collaborate on – or create their own.
Speaking of which, I ran across a word search generator online. And in just a few minutes, I was able to create my own game.
To build new revenue streams that are “Near Adjacent” to our core radio audiences, we're going to need research and source material. But these related content plays are within reach for strategic teams looking to make a Times-like play.
Of course, “games” aren't the only thing rockers, or country fans, or sports fanatics, or pop devotees care about. There are all sorts of verticals radio operators could be identifying, and then using their “megaphones” to spread the word – generating page views and perhaps even subscriptions.
In the same way the Times innovated their way out of their hole, radio companies may need to write a whole new playbook.
And that could lead to a whole new way of playing the game.
To join the hundreds of stations already signed up for Techsurvey 2024, develop your own “business intelligence” and register here.
To learn more about our “Near Adjacent” research model in collaboration with Mark Ramsey, check it out here.
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