Commentary

Raised On The Radio

Anyone else remember a time when radio DJs were not all super-caffeinated -- but nicely anesthetized? The need to fill air time with fast-paced chatter is so profound now that drive-time shows seem to require a trio in the studio and "Wayne, Our Eye Guy in the Sky" playing the straight man. Maybe I was spoiled by '70s FM rock. Even NPR seems a bit too chipper for me. Back in the day, I remember when we kept our DJs well stoned and searching minutes for the next word. "That was.....Leon Russell...Lavender.......................Blue." Personally, nowadays, I wouldn't mind if Fresh Air's Terry Gross took a couple of hits before air time.

And so I am not the best guy to judge radio or radio audiences, but I am intrigued by some of the ways that stations are embracing SMS -- both as a promotional tool and as a way to build community. A Portland, Maine station, Citadel's WJBQ had its second annual "Q Baby Idol" contest, which had people email in their cutest baby pictures and asked listeners to vote by email and SMS on the winner. According to promotions director Tim Moore, "last year we had over 400,000 emails and 231,000 text votes. This year we had 904,000 texts and 250,000 emails." Not only are the volumes of text votes enormous (i.e. potential ad space in the response text messages) but the supplanting of email with SMS is noteworthy.

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Moore says that for his younger listeners, email is passé. "I have an email database of about 12,000, and response to it is fantastic, but it is all in the upper demos, not teens." He expects the text database soon to outpace his email community.

"One station spent 12 years building an email list to 25,000. We were at 50% of that community in six months," says Martin Kristiseter, founder and executive vice president, mSnap, which powers text programs at WJBQ and hundreds of other stations around the U.S. MSnap provides a platform to radio stations for free and retains the right to the traffic for in-text ads and cross-promoting to mobile content. It shares learnings and templates across the network.

Contests like free concert tickets and private concerts for a winning high school can generate phenomenal SMS volumes. Whether through double opt-in or through an over-air disclaimer when they are prompted to text in, the users are converted into SMS community members.

For an Atlanta country station, the offer of a private concert by Kellie Pickler led to a war among high schools and over 2 million texts in about nine days of promotion. Because so many SMS users are voting serially, the actual number of community sign-ups resulting from these campaigns is a fraction of the SMS volume. But still, Kristiseter says that only about 20% drop out of a radio SMS community when an on-air disclaimer is used, and less than 10% drop out when they sign up via a double opt-in. In essence the promotion kick starts the community, which then can be leveraged in many ways.

The SMS database is a lot more flexible for certain things. For instance, a radio station can use it for a kind of "stealth marketing" when a DJ is broadcasting from a local merchant. Moore says that the over-air prompts to "come on down" to an auto dealership may not work very well all the time. But if the DJ brings along 50 CDs and then hits only your list of opted-in SMS club members with an offer of free CDs to the first 50 visitors, suddenly a crowd shows up. "It is a great marketing tool for the station and it glides under the radar," he says.

During ratings periods, Moore can hit his club on the Thursday survey day with a contest offer to tune in and win when they hear a secret word mentioned on air. Instant audience.

Radio has a unique hold on the people who are loyal to it, and so the medium offers a special kind of fit with SMS response. It is a lot cheaper than TV for running a prompt, and the text-in message can run throughout the day. Kristiseter says that in comparisons of the effectiveness of various media acting as triggers for SMS response, outdoor advertising and radio were among the most successful, but they work at different rates. Outdoor promotions take several months to achieve the same response rate as a single week of radio mentions. TV and radio both perform well, but TV is much more expensive.

Of course, being a trusted correspondent in a consumer's SMS ring is an invitation for abuse. As brands get closer to users, the need for restraint becomes greater. Two to four SMS messages a month from a text "club" seems to be the accepted norm lately, unless the subscription is to text alerts that you expect with greater frequency. I have always said that mobile media is going to press some of our own rhetoric about wanting "relationships" with consumers. Are brands really ready to trade value for attention?

As for me, I am not sure SMS would fit any of my favorite laconic DJs of yesteryear. This clearly is a medium made for the radio of 2008, not 1974. The potheads at WNEW-FM in New York would space out on the shortcode before they even got to the end of the prompt. "That was Foghat before that three hour set of King Crimson. Just remember...to get your free Emerson Lake...and Palmer tickets for...the Garden show...just text in 'Hoedown' to...to.......well, wherever you texted to last time for the Yes shows."

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