Another $250 million for HD radio

When it comes to HD radio, I too often feel like I’m the kid who can plainly see the Emperor has no clothes.

And this is a shame. Because the notion behind HD radio is terrific. But many of the engineering decisions, the manufacturing decisions, the advertising and marketing strategy, and just about any other salient element of the HD radio process has been handled in such a manner that better decisions could easily be made by flipping a series of coins.

I don’t blame the HD radio establishment for this because I think they’re executing their instructions. Nor do I blame the high-priced marketing and branding consultants who have to work with what they have to work with. Nor the merchants who are, after all, getting free radio advertising out of this deal.

The fault goes to the beginning and to the top.

You can’t expect to win over an audience for a new technology when the motivation for the existence of that technology is based on the needs of an industry rather than an audience. If you add up all the consumer research that led to the architecture and content of HD radio (as opposed to variables like “awareness tracking”) I’ll bet it barely creaks into the four figures.

Not that great ideas require high levels of consumer research. They don’t. But they do require a great idea. And great ideas are usually improved by consumer feedback.

Where it’s invited and acknowledged.

Now comes word that a new marketing thrust is in store for HD, just as the industry presumably wraps up the last $200 million dollar marketing effort with what can only be described as lackluster results.

This time, however, the promo time is valued at $250 million. Says Business Week:

The first directive will be to educate consumers about HD radio and why it is different from regular AM and FM radio. The spots will also promote how these new programming formats can be tailored more deeply in specific genres, says Peter Ferrara, chief executive of the HD Digital Radio Alliance. “We also want people to know there will be no subscription fees, unlike satellite radio,” he says. “People have enough monthly expenses, from cell phones to Starbucks.

Yes, folks do have enough monthly expenses. And for the right product they’ll gladly have more than enough. It turns out that consumers will pay for products they value and will not pay for ones they don’t.

Further, the goals for this campaign strike me as identical to the goals for the last one.

The other interesting point about the Business Week piece is the decidedly skeptical tone of it:

HD radio faces huge challenges. Foremost is getting consumers to understand exactly what it is—technology that squeezes more programming into one frequency. As a result, existing stations can offer side channels, presumably with higher-quality sound. But early reviews of the HD offerings have not been so rosy, with critics zeroing in on patchy signal strength and the inability to find stations.

Not exactly the shock and awe that a hot new technology characteristically inspires (note to HD radio marketers: Jargon like “side channel” will do little to further your cause).

That said, Business Week is wrong about the foremost challenge. It’s not to communicate what HD radio is. It’s to communicate what problem HD radio solves.

Good luck.

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