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How to Make HD Radio a Huge Success

A No-Nonsense Marketing Smart Tip May 3 2006

Content is king – or so goes the cliché.

That’s why one of our key assumptions in the HD radio equation has been to craft a wide variety of content options that will draw listeners like bees to honey.

But here’s the thing:

The utility of HD radio is largely dependent on the purchase of a new radio. It’s only great if you can hear it (assuming it is great then).

That means we can’t simply provide listeners with more options and get out of their way. We have to actually move hardware. Somebody, somewhere, needs to buy a radio. Yet what listeners want to hear and what they want to buy are certainly two different things.

Is your radio “broken”?

The real competitor to HD radio is not satellite radio. It’s not the iPod. It’s the radio in your car, on your desk, and in your living room. And folks will only purchase a new radio if they view their current one as “broken” – that is, if they view current content or technology options as deficient (this, for example, is why satellite radio is increasingly the home of “premium” content – because “premium” content makes “free” content look deficient – it “breaks” your radio).

Because all that HD content requires you to buy a new radio, the “hardware” (radio) and “software” (programming) are inextricably linked. You can’t sell one without the other because you can’t buy or experience one without the other.

What do the consumers say?

Has there ever been an occasion where scores of average radio listeners were placed in front of HD radios, given time to play with the devices, and asked their thoughts and opinions about them? In our zeal to advance the plot of HD Radio, have we done homework with actual radios and actual people in the same room?

And if we’ve done it, then why haven’t the results been as publicized as, say, the number of terrestrial stations now in HD?

For better or worse, HD radio isn’t about “push” – it’s about “pull.” Word-of-mouth can be sparked, but it can’t be manufactured. It’s an organic process which can only be nudged along. And no matter how you look at it, the opinions in the driver’s seat are those of the consumer, not mine and not yours.

The job of engineers

HD Radio is one of innumerable technological solutions to what are presumably the problems of consumers. It is critically important that we understand the “magic formula” for consumer acceptance of new technology – otherwise we risk running hard and fast down the wrong road.

It is the job of great engineers to create great engineering – to dream the big dreams and breathe life into them. It is not their job to think like a consumer. And over the cliff between those worlds is the bottomless pit into which most new technology products fall.

The formula for success

That’s where Pip Coburn comes in. In his upcoming book, The Change Function: Why Some Technologies Take Off and Other Crash and Burn, he notes that miracles of technologists rarely yield commercial success. As Coburn writes: “They build it, but we don’t always come.”

Why do people adopt a new technology? “People change habits,” Coburn says, “when the pain of their current situation exceeds their perceived pain of adopting a possible solution.” How much “pain” do radio listeners feel now? What’s “broken” about radio that HD will fix?

And how effective is our HD fix? How inherently appealing? How easy is it to use? How friendly? How fashionable? How much fun? How powerful? How logical? How attractive? How functional? Not just the content but the radios themselves. These factors are important – and they involve both the software and the hardware. While HD radio may be free to hear, the receiver is certainly not free to buy. And as Coburn notes dryly, “there is no market-clearing price for an ugly shirt.”

Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from the success of the iPod isn’t about the desirability of an mp3 player. It’s about the unity of form and function, the convergence of design and benefit and user experience and emotion. All dressed up like an mp3 player.

In the world of branding, everything matters.

Unlocking success for HD Radio

Coburn argues that “the technologies that stand the best chance of winning us over are enhanced editions of products we already understand.” Our challenge is to “identify or intensify a customer crisis [or] reduce the perceived pain of adoption.”

So what’s the key to unlock success for HD radio? We must start by listening. And by asking ourselves some questions:

– Are listeners confusing HD radio with HDTV? If so, does that make it easier for them to understand HD radio’s benefits – or much harder? – Are we doing a good job of convincing consumers that HD radios are more “painless” than the easy and well understood ones in their cars, on their desks, and in their clocks right now? – What’s the right price for a radio that’s more complicated and expensive than the one that’s working just fine? – How many hoops will consumers wish to jump through to get these radios? Is HD radio being positioned as a hobbyist item, a curiosity, or the next generation of radio that you can’t live without? – Does HD’s largely low-cost, niche-based content create a strong enough value proposition to make current radios more “painful” than their HD kin (just as Howard Stern’s departure to satellite made morning radio more “painful” than satellite for tons of new Sirius subscribers)?

Relieve Pain

Coburn relates a story from a meeting he attended recently where a frustrated technologist exclaimed “We have to build products for morons.”

No. You have to build solutions to problems and relieve pain. You must put consumers in the same room as radios, listen to them, and learn from them. You must give them what they want and what they can only dream of.

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