I'm not sure precisely what's going on as we wrap up Q1 here in the already tumultuous 2021. But I do know this…
Many of you are asking fundamental questions about the A-B-Cs of what you've been doing your entire careers.
That's because the health, economic, societal, and political underpinnings of our world have become unmoored. Our already unstable environment was turned upside-down by COVID.
And as we move into what appears to be a new phase, you're asking questions. Lots of them.
Will people go back to work – and their workplaces – necessitating more time in cars, and by extension, listening to radio?
As car dashboards include more and more “infotainment” options, will radio hold onto its pole position?
Have consumers – even those aging Baby Boomers – gotten more tech-smart during the pandemic, making it easier to reach them on new devices. (Or will we lose them to new content on these platforms?)
COVID may be a global pandemic, but its impacts have been very local – education, health rules, vaccine access, you name it. Will that usher in a new period where the local marketplace and community will become even more important to the broadcast radio business?
I could go on.
That's because so many things we used to think of as “givens” are now up in the air. We're not exactly sure how things will settle in post-COVID. And that's why we need to do our homework.
We need research.
But not just any research.
We need to understand how radio in 2021 fits into their changing lifestreams. Because it's different now.
We can't just ask them the same questions we always have because their lives have changed. When you consider that 1/3 of small businesses could close as a result of the shockwaves of the pandemic, we're dealing with a different environment – for radio programmers and sellers.
And we need to reconnect with them. The vaccine rate is quickly growing, mindsets are changing, and there's a sense of tentative hopefulness in the air.
How can we learn about the audience, and how they've changed during the last tumultuous 365 days? How can we learn how to better entertain and inform them? How can we give them the emotional sustenance they're looking for?
How do we understand our brands' changing roles in their lives – whether we play Dua Lipa, Debussy, or the Doors?
If we think a by-the-book data dump will suffice for taking the temperature of our audience today – how they're feeling and what they're thinking, and what they want from their radio listening experience in 2021 – we're kidding ourselves.
In a normal year, perceptual tracking studies will usually do just fine. But when we experience a shocking, life-changing, cataclysmic event, all bets are off. You need more flavor, emotion, and stories to guide your programing, marketing, and sales.
One of the most useful studies has been an ongoing project from the Mindshare agency – what they call the “New Normal Tracker.” MediaPost reports that in the last year, they've conducted 19 survey “waves.” I blogged about this research back during “wave 13” last August.
This time around, they tracked emotional changes among 1,000 Americans from “wave 1” at the pandemic's onset (March 2020) all the way to today – “wave 19” (February 2021) – and it's certainly interesting.
To boil it all down, hopefulness is up, but so is the sense of feeling unprepared, scared, and worried. So, how do we square these seemingly contradictory emotions? What explains these numbers? How do we get to the bottom of this?
We need to listen to people, hear their stories, and accept the fact that many of the “sure things” we could always count on have been shaken to their core.
It used to be that people mindlessly turned on the radio, without a lot of forethought.
They jumped into a car, they turned on the radio. They got to work, the radio went on. They went to the beach, they grabbed the boom box.
It's not that simple anymore. There are options – everywhere. You can pretty much listen to any song anytime you want on virtually every device. You can pull up just about any piece of content – a song, a movie, a TV show, a how-to video – right now, often at no charge or for a small fee. Want it commercial-free? You can pay a little more, and get it served up that way.
So, how are programmers, sales and market managers, and corporate leaders going to build strategies that can be successful in a post-COVID environment? With data, of course. But what kind?
A new think piece in the Harvard Business Review by strategist Graham Kenney is a great starting point. Titled “Data Is Great – But It's Not A Replacement For Talking To Customers,” Kenney makes the point that leaving strategy up to the dataheads in the IT department is no substitute for going directly to the source – in radio's case, listeners.
Conducting quantitative surveys after you do the harder work of first listening to listeners (or former listeners) is the only way to ensure you're asking the right questions. So many of radio's perceptual studies make assumptions about what matters to consumers, and the questionnaires often reflect that.
But when you take the time to query your target listeners – and actually listen to them – you might hear a very different story.
Kenney points to the reality that over-reliance on big data can be a fatal flaw, because it is already historic and therefore, static.
The dynamic we've all been feeling – especially the last 12 months – is instability and change. Things are not the way they used to be – on myriad fronts. We've had to adjust. We've had to change our expectations and our goals.
And so, we need to gain an understanding of how consumers are thinking and feeling – not just “Who's the '80s station?”
To assume we already know the elusive new answers by asking the same old questions puts us in jeopardy of missing this moment.
I applaud any station with the pockets and the foresight to commission audience research in 2021. But I would absolutely advise tacking on a qualitative piece ahead of cementing a questionnaire, and spending the money and time it takes to interview hundreds of people.
As Kenney concludes:
“Real insights come from seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. You will only ever get that by truly engaging with customers and listening to their stories.”
For 100 years, broadcast radio has been part of the fabric and routine of millions of Americans lives.
But now, the pandemic's disruptiveness demands we don't just assume we understand what people have gone through, and are currently experiencing – socially, financially, and psychologically. And these changes have impacted the media choices they make.
Kenney provides examples from Toyota and Adobe – two companies with a “culture of customer listening.”
In broadcast radio, there's been precious little time or bandwidth to even answer the studio lines (assuming people are still calling). And we've all learned how to scroll through the colorful comments on social media, embracing those that support our mission while ignoring the “trolls” who won't even identify themselves.
There is truth in looking into the eyes of the audience and listening to their words. In 2020, Jacobs Media conducted more research than in many years, between our three Techsurveys and our COVID waves in April, May, and October.
But it was our Zoom groups where we gained insight, perspective, and yes, empathy. That's when respondents told us about their fears, their boredom, their families, and their emotional states.
In the same way people revel in telling us where they were on 9/11 – nearly two decades later – that same phenomenon is happening with their tales about COVID.
Where they were when the lockdowns began. How they felt when all sports were cancelled. Concert tickets purchased but never used. Vacations not taken. Family events – weddings, anniversaries, parties, even funerals – all put on hold.
It's where we also heard about the power of a comforting radio personality, as well as a station that supports its local businesses, and gives shout-outs to essential workers.
Those aren't perceptions – they are realities.
You don't get that from a spreadsheet, correlations, ratios, and regression analysis.
You get it from listening.
We spend our careers trying to get them to listen to us.
Right now, we need to be willing to listen to them.
- Ignore Those Video Game Stereotypes – Women Are Major Players - April 15, 2021
- Why Work From Home Eats Radio Station Culture For Lunch - April 14, 2021
- Why The “Howard Stern Question” Works For Almost All Radio Stations - April 13, 2021