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The Midweek Motivator – The Fog Of Measurement

“It would be wrong to play a very popular song if it didn’t fit the station’s brand. You have to weigh long-term decline against a short term ratings gain.” Jon Coleman 

Shortly after Nielsen’s “People Meter” (PPM) supplanted the listening Diary as Radio’s measurement breakthrough it was to be expected contradictions and confusion would abound. Since Socrates was a sophomore the erstwhile Arbitron’s “Listening Diary” was the golden ticket: we were expected to accept that listeners from Boston to Bakersfield would dutifully record their weekly radio listening in a hand-held “diary.” Listeners were asked to keep their Diary over the course of a week, diligently filling in the times and spaces wherein they listened.

Ad placement to hiring and firing were at least in-part dependent on how respondents addressed their listening Diaries. Fast forward: beyond market ranks in the 50’s, PPM doesn’t exist so in the remaining rated markets an unfortunate paradox haunts the rating process since all of the remaining American radio markets still rely on listener Diary-keeping. And, since Nielsen acquired Arbitron the hue and cry rises: “will we ever see Meters in more radio markets?” 

A while back Jon Coleman, a voice for credulity, addressed some misconceptions. They’re as concerning today as they were when Jon proffered them. Myth one: “PPM numbers are more stable and reliable than Diary data and that we can immediately discern what works and what doesn’t.” In fact said Coleman, “while numbers can be stable, wobbles still exist.” Addressing a second myth around “stability” Coleman added, “The size is still too small to make firm judgments on a day-after spike or drop. While a song or a content piece may show no in-the-moment impact, it still makes an impression leading to more or less listening in the future.” The message suggests the data should only be deemed reliable in the aggregate, over a period of time. 

Working with PPM Audience Development Group has agreed that “tune-out” is a stronger indicator than “tune-in” which warns us that just because ratings don’t spike on trying new content, that doesn’t mean that over a period of time that content won’t build inertia. Dramatic events like format changes, loss of an incumbent morning show or the addition of an NFL franchise can and do drive PPM inertia. Less tactical changes such as a slight format re-vector usually show little rapid meter movement. Let’s address one more PPM myth: “brands don’t matter much. It’s mainly a question of execution.” If you buy that one, stand on your head and whistle. Brands are everything and to reinforce that premise we need to go outside of Nielsen’s neighborhood to study the truth about incumbent brands and those who seek to become one. 

To that end Coleman added a relevant reference to a Starbucks analogy where they discovered long lines during rush hour actually improved their mellow ambiance! Applied to programming practices it would be a bad idea to play a spiking song or artist if it doesn’t fit the station’s brand promise…short term gain or eventual decline? 

Each of us who navigate competitive programming for our clients’ financial betterment must always keep in mind-ratings or no ratings-whatever we do should absolutely weigh potential for long-term format / brand decline against short term spikes that are really only paper swords.