Consumer Surveys · April 8, 2016

Hacking the Commuter Code:
What really happens when commuters are driving?

By Edison Research

For a huge percentage of Americans, a significant chunk of their lives is spent in their cars.   According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, over 90% of households have a car, over 85% of workers travel to work, by car – and the overwhelming majority of them are alone for that ride.
And the time in the car is increasing.  In 1982 motorists spent an average of 16 hours a year sitting in traffic. In 2015, the average urban commuter spent about 42 hours a year stuck in traffic jams.

There are studies out there that tell us about what people are listening to but this is the first study that gets down to a more granular level – how often do drivers switch, what’s playing when they switch, and what do they switch to? In “Hacking the Commuter Code,” we conducted a large national survey of commuters and in addition we developed a new methodology to capture the actual, second by second, in-car audio behaviors of commuters across the country.

People switch for a variety of reasons: they switch when they hear commercials, but they also switch while they are listening to a song, looking for a better song.

We have never-before-seen data – for instance we learned that an AM/FM listener switches the station an average of 22 times per commute, while listeners to other platforms switch an average of 9.3 times.

As the leaders in research about all forms of audio – we at Edison want to take a very detailed look into what is going on in cars with regard to what people are listening to.  And in particular in this study we look at the most regular drivers: commuters. People who drive to work or other places on a regular, daily basis.

3.87According to our latest Share of Ear™ study, commuters spend an average of 87 minutes each day listening to audio in their cars.

In the late fall of 2015 we conducted two new studies to look further at how people – specifically commuters – engage with audio while they are in their car. Together, these studies comprise “Hacking the Commuter Code.”

Our first study was an online survey of over eleven hundred American adults who commute to work for more than 20 minutes and commute to work alone. 4.survey

Our sample had an average commute length of 35 minutes.  We asked our respondents generally about audio usage.  Keeping in mind that some people make phone calls and others do drive in silence – nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of respondents, 97%, say they listen to audio while they are on their commutes. 6.97%

Respondents told us that they use a lot of different platforms for audio in their cars.  Traditional broadcast radio is the overwhelming leader, with 90% of respondents saying they use it.  There’s a huge drop off down to the CD player, which is being used by 62% of commuters.  Over half listen to their own digital music files, 42% listen to streaming internet radio services such as Pandora,  and 36% listen to streamed AM/FM radio.  Just over one in three listen to SiriusXM while commuting; 19% of respondents listen to Audiobooks, and  17% listen to podcasts. If you’re wondering how there are eight different platforms on this list being used in the car, it’s because there’s a lot of switching going on in the car. On average, commuters told us they (at least sometimes) use more than three different audio platforms while they are commuting. 7.everlistento

The new wave in audio usage in the car is employing one’s smartphone to listen.    In total, 61% of the commuters in our survey told us they listen using their mobile device.   Of course for so many of today’s consumers, their entire lives are tethered to their phones. So it is natural that they want to consume audio in the car using the same device they utilize outside the car; the device that likely stores digital files and the device that has apps for easy streaming of products like Pandora, podcasts, and other services.

When we asked about what people use the most, AM/FM radio is the dominant player as of today.    More than half of our sample said the radio is what they use most both going to and coming home from work.  But there is some change when we compare the morning drive to the evening drive. While AM/FM radio listening decreases from the morning to the afternoon, owned digital music files, Streaming Internet Radio and CD listening increase.

Let’s see what they are listening to on AM/FM radio during these commutes to see if we can explain the decrease.  Going to work, 59% of AM/FM listeners are tuned to music.  Going home, that number increases to 63%.   We consistently see that interest in music is higher after one’s work day. graph2

And when we asked the ‘deserted island’ question – which one would you choose if you could only have one – radio remains way out ahead of the other options – although it falls back a bit. graph3

But things are changing.  We can see this when we look at the age of the car that people drive.  While 43% of everyone chose AM/FM Radio as the one item they would pick if they would only have one –  as you can see that percentage varies by the age of the car one commutes in.  As you can see, all the newer forms of audio are used more in newer cars. graph4

And among those people who have ever listened to Streaming audio in their cars – Streaming Audio – like Pandora– exceeds AM/FM.  So we do get a sense that as people have more options, they use more options. 

There are unique aspects to listening to audio in the car, especially when driving alone.  First – one is often listening more closely.  And switching around is usually rather easy to do.  So we wanted to look at these behaviors as well.

We asked those who listen to commercial radio what they do when commercials come on.  Things divide pretty much into quarters in terms of what people report that they do when they hear commercials.   The biggest group – 29% say they pretty much stay tuned.   But about 23% report tuning away immediately.  Remember this number – we will be revisiting this later in this report.  There are other groups who say they tune away after a time –  and about 70% in general do say that they tune away at some point during commercials.  This has clear potential implications for radio advertisers. 10

We also asked our respondents to tell us the main reason they switch a radio station when they do.   The most common response was commercials, but as you can see other items do lead to changes as well.  11.openend

When you look at those who listen to Pandora during their commute, you can see a dramatic shift in behavior: 61% do not switch at during commercial breaks, more than double the portion of AM/FM radio listeners who said they don’t switch.  Only 12% of Pandora listeners tune away immediately, compared to 23% of radio listeners.

But these are just general impressions.  We had the idea to look even more closely.  We came up with an entirely new research design to look at what drivers are doing inside their cars.

We recruited commuters from all over the country and asked them to mount a GoPro camera in their cars. 12.gopro

We were sent everyone’s videos and then we had a team of trained coders break the information down on a second-by-second basis for:

  • What they were listening to
  • What kind of content they were consuming – news, talk, music, sports etc.
  • If they switched, when they switched, and what was playing when they switched

Our coders captured nearly 1800 switches – instances where people physically changed a station or from platform to platform.

We captured about 2,974 minutes of video and on average  people made about 18 switches during a commute, although there was an enormous range in behaviors.

In particular, those listening to AM/FM Radio made way more switches than those listening to other options, such as SiriusXM, or to CDs, or streaming audio, such as perhaps Pandora.  People made more than twice as many switches per commute when listening to radio – 22 – than when listening to other options which was 9.3 times per commute.

Now, most of the time, switches happened while music was playing.  After all, the majority of time listening to radio or anything else is spent listening to music.

However, we were able to drill down into the instances where content switched from music, talk, etc. to commercials.

Our coders recorded that in 24% of the cases when content switched to commercials, the commuter switched away within 15 seconds.  15.24%You’ll recall that in our survey, the same percentage self-reported this same behavior.  You’ll remember that 23% from before.  So it certainly seems that this is probably the case –  about one-quarter of commuters tune away from commercials as soon as they come on.





  • In-Car Audio is a dynamic space

The newer the car, the more options commuters have for listening to audio.  While those with older cars largely only have AM/FM Radio and perhaps a CD player – newer models have Satellite Radio and easy access to streamed audio and digital files.  And when people have more options – it is clear that they use more options.  While the automotive market turns over slowly – with each click of the dial it becomes a bit more complex and competitive.

  • Easy access to changes leads to lots of switching

By comparison to typical at-home or at-work listening environments, in the car consumers have the buttons right at their fingertips at most times.  This leads to many people switching regularly.  Fewer than one-in-three of our respondents mostly set their audio and enjoy it through their typical commutes.  A large majority switch around regularly; and one-in-five switch around almost compulsively.

  • Content providers need to think about a fast-twitch switching environment

If you are targeting the in-car environment, you have to think about how to keep people on your product.  If it’s music, it has to be the right song every time.  If it’s talk, it has to be compelling.  And in particular you have to think about how commercials fit in.  A certain percentage will tune away the moment a commercial comes on.  However, content providers who depend on advertising have to consider how to best get those commercials heard.  The content that wraps the commercials needs to make people want to stay, and of course the commercials need to be relevant and breaks simply can’t be too long in the in-car environment.

  • Advertisers and Marketers need to consider these findings

Like those Geico ads that are ‘over in five seconds’ before adding another ten of humorous nothingness, audio advertisers need to consider the trigger-fingers of listeners in an in-car environment.  Consider how to grab people’s attention in the first five seconds of a spot if you hope to limit tune-out within that spot.  And there should probably be more of a premium for first-in-the-pod position in a break, or more of a discount for spots as a break continues.  These elements might particularly be relevant for online alternatives, for instance Pandora which seldom plays two spots in a row but interrupts more times per hour than AM/FM does.  The knowledge that only one or two commercials is coming may reduce the quick-twitch tune-outs.

Over the last 15 years the interior of a car has transformed. Consumer behavior is transforming at the same time.  We at Edison look forward to continuing to track changes in the audio space as they happen.

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