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Ignore the Ratings

A No-Nonsense Marketing Smart Tip February 16, 2005

After doing years of research and eyeballing years of ratings, it’s impossible to come away without concluding one inescapable fact: Most of the variation we see in our ratings from one month to the next is random motion, unrelated to any of our actions or real listening changes and largely a function of Arbitron’s imperfect methodology and the inherent limitations of audience measurement.

Try this exercise

Write down your monthly trends for an entire year. Now remove the highest and the lowest numbers, a trick statisticians use to subtract what are called “outliers.” Chart the ten numbers that remain in Excel. Draw a trend line through those numbers. In the vast majority of cases where there have been no major market disturbances, that trend will not be up, it will not be down. That trend will be flat.

What does this mean? It means your ratings haven’t budged all year, that’s what. All those sleepless nights prior to the release of trends, all those upticks and downturns, all the agita. For nothing.

But I can’t ignore the Ratings!

Sorry, but obsessing on ratings rather than strategy is bass-ackwards. If you focus on developing and executing a strategy you can increase your chances for consistently strong ratings. If, instead, you jerk every time the Arbitron hammer strikes your knee, you will engage in desperate, aimless actions in response to random measurement fluctuations. Your station will be the proverbial chicken without its head.

Strategy will drive Ratings

If you know what you’re doing and you do the right things, higher ratings will be your reward. That is, strategy will drive ratings. Ratings should not drive strategy. Smart stations know this and focus on strategy first. Many stations conduct regular Perceptual Studies and follow a determined course. They are not led like a dog on Arbitron’s leash.

In fact, the biggest reason to do a Perceptual Study is not to “research the audience,” it’s to develop and set the station’s strategy for the coming months. That strategy, more than anything else, translates to higher ratings.

What is a “strategy”? It’s a profile of what you will play, whom you will target, what you will stand for, what your priorities are, etc. It’s the whole enchilada. It’s the definition of your station brand itself.

Every station should take its eye off the rear-view mirror and look to the rating periods yet to come. As the legendary filmmaker Ed Wood put it, “Remember, my friends, future events such as these will affect you in the future.”

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