The “Statistical Abstract of the United States”, a weighty, riveting (that’s veiled sarcasm, its dry as dust) tome produced by the United States Census Bureau, states that the number of hours America spends with radio has fallen from 836 hours per year per person in 2003 (about 16 per week) to a projected 716 hours in 2009 per person (about 13.7 hours per week).

However, Arbitron, the media and marketing research company that tracks radio listening, among other things, released a study Monday (3/22/11) that states that listenership among people 12 years of age and older actually rose in 2010. Arbitron’s numbers say that an average of 241.6 million people in this group listened to conventional radio stations each week last year, an increase of 2.1 million over 2009.

Carol Hanley, Arbitron’s executive VP of Sales and Marketing, commented, “Radio is much stronger than the general perception of it has been”.

My response is: “Maybe”.

If you’re in charge of marketing somewhere, and you’re thinking about spending some money on radio spots, here are some things to consider:

The renewed vigor of radio listenership numbers is due in no small part to the increase in Hispanic radio stations and the Hispanic listeners that come with them. Radio added 1.1 million Hispanic listeners in the United States last year. As an industry analyst (not with Arbitron) pointed out recently, the state of Texas alone went from 25 Spanish-language stations in 2000 to 154 Spanish-language stations in 2009, and at least a few more were added in 2010, although those numbers are not yet out. That’s great if Hispanics is one of your target markets, but not so meaningful if this group is not in your target demographics.

From 2000 to 2010, radio lost a little over half of its teen and young adult audience base. Cellphones, smartphones, the internet, video games, etc. all took a chunk out of radio’s listening base in this age group, and it doesn’t look as if that trend is going to tail off anytime soon. If your target customer is in this age group, think hard about the relative efficiency of acquiring customers this way.

On the plus side, the strong ability of radio to sell on a local basis is undiminished. If you’re a local HVAC contractor, an automobile dealer, a national chain that wants to run a regional special, or a local SPCA offering special adoption fees this month, it’s tough to beat radio for its reach and immediacy when compared to the cost of other customer acquisition platforms. There are 115.6 million homes in the United States that have a radio in them, and the average home in the United States has 8 radio receivers in it. Now, that is the very definition of medium ubiquity.

This ubiquity is one of the reasons radio advertising grew to $17.3 billion USD last year, up 6% from last year. It’s still a very strong contender in terms of all the media platforms available to the business advertiser.

So, from my perspective, the good news from Arbitron deserves a more nuanced analysis. Yes, radio is very strong in some advertising applications, but there are some performance gaps inherent in the medium.

Of course, it’s worth noting that a judicious purchase of targeted radio advertising can overcome even those inherent liabilities of radio’s reach. For instance, clients report excellent results for radio advertising in the teen and young adult demographic (you know, the demographic that is abandoning radio) when they buy minutes on the AM radio broadcasts of local high school and college football and basketball that exist in almost every part of the country. The advertising rates for these broadcasts are inexpensive, and it is a broadcast that generally cannot be accessed live via any other medium like internet or television.

While we are on the subject of purchasing minutes, I just want to give a heads-up to business owners that have not previously purchased radio time – it is generally not as structured a process as you might be used to in terms of other advertising being sold to you. If it is a face-to-face sale, you may be surprised at how casually the salesperson is dressed, how uninformed that person might be about sales per listening impression or sales per campaign ratios, etc. Conversely, if the salesperson is from a large national chain of radio stations, they might have a professional look and approach, but after they leave, you might feel like you want to take a shower. Their whole pitch is not how good their station is, but rather, how bad everyone else’s station is. And they’re going for the close every 30 seconds. It’s a pretty hard sell sometimes.

Just a heads-up, that’s all. My advice to swat all that aside and power through the sales process, and make the best, most informed decision you can regarding radio advertising for your business. It may not be a viable medium for your business at all, but, then again, depending on your business and the customers you wish to target, it may be worth a good, long look.

Brendan Moore is a Principal Consultant with Cedar Point Consulting, a management consulting practice based in the Washington, DC area, where he advises businesses in marketing, sales, front-end operations, and strategy. Cedar Point Consulting can be found at http://www.cedarpointconsulting.com.

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