By Tom Webster, VP Edison Media Research
Recently, I attended the Jacobs Media Rock Summit, held at this year’s R&R convention in Los Angeles. Among the highlights of this excellent event was a session with Zephyr Teachout, who directed Howard Dean’s Internet operations during his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination. By now, most of us are familiar with Dean’s success at turning an Internet-based, grassroots organization into a formidable database of over a half million online supporters. What was most surprising to me about this session was Teachout’s revelation that she was essentially a Luddite when she joined the campaign. The Internet was viewed as a means of “opening up the problem” (her words) of mobilizing Dean’s supporters to the supporters themselves. Rather than attempt to control the online community they had built, Teachout and the rest of Dean’s Internet staff allowed it to grow in an entirely organic (and chaotic) fashion. In doing so, they were able to create an incredibly rich community that continues to thrive long after the official “campaign” has ended.
Let’s stop demonizing the contest…enthusiast, and find ways to tap into this tremendous reservoir of passion and goodwill.
The real secret to their success lay in identifying the true evangelists within their ranks, and empowering them to organize their own communities and campaign efforts without interference. The campaign’s blog and online tools became an infrastructure designed merely to enable connectivity, and not to “broadcast” messages from authorized campaign representatives. By fostering a genuine interest in allowing people to connect (rather than be marketed to), the Dean campaign was able to build tremendous trust and credibility with their wired supporters. Of course, there is a certain risk of letting the inmates run the asylum here (and there were some frightening, off-topic excursions on the campaign’s official blog), but the campaign trusted their most ardent supporters to be supportive—and they responded with passion, creativity and vigor.
Building an online database like this is an enviable achievement—and a daunting task. Many of the programmers in attendance were motivated to try, but skeptical about their chances for success. The Dean database was powerful precisely because its members were given power; however, there is more to it than that. They were also passionate about the cause—a central touchstone around which the community could rally. If your radio station is generating that kind of passion, you can stop reading right here. Otherwise, you face two challenges—who to motivate, and how to motivate them.
In Jon Berry and Ed Keller’s recent book, The Influentials, the authors argue that one in ten Americans are opinion leaders, subtly and overtly guiding the discourse and choices of the other 90%. They advocate courting these “influentials” and also tracking their changing wants and needs for future marketing campaigns and new product introductions. Now, if you have ever done focus groups for your radio station, you have seen at least one manifestation of the ‘influentials”—often, they are the people who attempt (either consciously or unconsciously) to “hijack” your groups by strongly asserting their opinions and monopolizing the conversations. A skilled moderator will, of course, regain control of such a session, ensuring that all viewpoints are heard and weighted equally. There is a danger in being too even-handed about this, however. Often, in our zeal to capture the opinions of the “silent majority,” we tend to give less credence to the opinions of these peer group dominators. Since it is tempting to view them as “poisoning” the focus group, we sometimes discount their opinions as “not representative” of the mainstream.
There is a tacit assumption here that the opinions of the peer group dominator alter or suppress the “majority” opinions of the less vocal participants. But what if the latter group doesn’t actually have strong opinions one way or the other about your station? What if their opinions are not being suppressed, but actually informed by the behavior of the one-in-ten who take a strong position? I once worked with a program director in a large market who insisted that the people who hijack your focus groups should be allowed to do so—after all, if they are willing to put it all out on the line in front of a group of strangers, they will certainly not hesitate to express their opinion about your station in their workplace, before co-workers who simply don’t feel as strongly. If one motivated person in an office feels strongly that “Sunny 104.5” is the best station to listen to at work, then maybe, for all intents and purposes, it is. If you can win the hearts and minds of the one-in-ten who care about what is on the radio, maybe you win the war.
So, who are these people, and how do we reach them? These are the people who light up your phones and send in faxes—often, however, to complain. They complain that you play too much Michael Bolton, or not enough Metallica. They complain that you took “Carlos and the Chicken” off the morning, or that you don’t play enough local artists. In short, there is often no unifying theme to these calls other than to express dissatisfaction. Clearly, a database of malcontents with no shared positive direction is not the Eightfold Path to direct marketing nirvana.
Several of the programmers who attended the Teachout session wondered aloud if a community could be built around the artists on the station. If a rock station, for example, could build an online community enabling fans of Nickelback to chat, share stories and swap files, surely listeners would sign up and agree to be put on the station’s mailing list. After all, Napster was little more than infrastructure to enable connectivity (like the Dean blog) and it managed to attract 25 million registered members. There are two problems with this approach, however. The first is that it is unlikely that there is any one artist on your station that would generate the kind of unified, positive energy that the Dean campaign tapped into. What happens to that database when Nickelback disappears from your playlist?
The second, and more insurmountable problem is your station’s lack of credibility or traction as an online resource for information about artists. That train left the station some time ago—I already gave you the link for Nickelback. There just simply isn’t room on your listeners’ mental shelves for another Britney Spears online community, when they are already posting at www.britneyspears.com, www.britney.com. www.britney-spears.com or www.britney.org.
If artists are not an effective way to build an online community, how else might a station tap into its “influentials” in a positive and empowering way? Certainly there is the talent angle—a Howard Stern message board, if applicable, is a no-brainer. Not every station has a Howard Stern, of course. There is, however, another solid core of individuals who call your station frequently, send you faxes and postcards, and almost never complain. Yet this group is demonized almost as much as the focus group bullies previously discussed. In fact, some programmers have a special name for these people—yes, I am talking about the “contest pig.”
You already have a database of these people—they are not necessarily P1’s of your music, but they enter every contest, listen at 9:00, 2:00 and 5:00, and are in the habit of writing down song titles of the last 10 songs played. I have been involved in several projects that utilized station databases for research purposes, and in most cases there was an effort to “clean” the database of “CP’s” before handing it over to the recruiters. I am certainly not suggesting that you allow “CP’s” to drive your station research—no minority group should ever be overrepresented in a valid sample. But there is no reason not to make use of these names in other, new and exciting ways. Instead of seeing the “CP” as swine, we should view them as pearls—the “one-in-ten” influential who is motivated by a positive (love of contesting and station promotions) and not a negative.
Many radio stations demonize the contest-lover (I hereby retire “CP” for all time) because they are in the database for the “wrong” reasons. They may not love the music on the station, and they certainly should not be overrepresented in things like callout or music testing. But is there really a “wrong” reason to love your station? Because if you really do own the contesting position in your market, make no mistake—these people do love your station. I have seen it in countless focus groups—respondents may love or hate certain artists or jocks, but when someone says “I love it when they give away a trip a day!” does anyone usually counter that? The only things people might complain about in relation to contesting are clutter issues—and those are execution problems, not a manifestation of anti-contesting fervor.
So, let’s return to the idea of an online community. Your station may not be able to build a credible and vibrant community based around 50 Cent, but not only could you “own” online contesting in your market, you could also build a genuine, valuable service for your listeners—especially the “one-in-ten” who are likely to spread the good word. See, there are active online communities for contest and sweepstakes players, but they aren’t especially compelling. Google a few and see what I mean—you will come up with sites like www.online-sweepstakes.com, www.contesthound.com. www.contestguide.com and www.sweepstakesonline.com. Nothing against these sites or the folks who run them, but since they derive their revenue from online advertising, often the entire site looks like one gigantic, annoying pop-up ad. Contest lovers must—and do—fight through a lot of barriers to content in order to sign up and benefit from these sites. But since your goal is (or should be) to cultivate an active, passionate online community (and not sell pop-ups for Spyware removers) you can and should do better.
What if your station built an online portal for your contest-loving listeners—one that not only informed them (and automatically entered them) into your own promotions, but also contests and promotions for other businesses in your market? Or even nationwide? Or (he swallows hard) rival stations? What if you used a service like Textin2Win to send registered community members text messages telling them that their name was just called on the air, and they had 96 minutes to call in and win? If your station built a compelling, content-rich portal for listeners to become aware of, enter, and even track their entries to various contests and promotions, I guarantee that these influentials would feel a genuine passion for your station. What’s more, they might tell a friend. Not only do you get an active and passionate online database, you also get the ultimate expression of brand loyalty—they will spread the word.
Again, let me be clear about one thing—programming your station to please the contest lover is just as dangerous as filling your music test with only P2’s—you run a tremendous risk of losing the plot, as my friends in the UK would say. But let’s stop demonizing the contest…enthusiast, and find ways to tap into this tremendous reservoir of passion and goodwill. Remember, successful online communities are true exchanges of value. Very few listeners actually win anything from your station. But if your station’s web site alerted me to another contest that I knew nothing about, and provided me with the tools to enter and even track my entries, I would derive value from that exchange whether I won the thing or not. And I might even tell a friend. From such small steps, revolutions are born, even if they end with a blood-curdling scream in Iowa.
Tom Webster is a Vice President with Edison Media Research and has conducted hundreds of market research studies within the radio, technology and Internet industries. The opinions expressed here are his own and can be found on the edisonresearch.com web site each month. Tom can be reached at 919.260.0228 or TWebster@edisonresearch.com.