The Decline of Contesting

A No-Nonsense Marketing Smart Tip January 5, 2006

Way back in the 1930s, researchers discovered something unusual. When groups of employees were asked to participate in trial programs, their productivity increased – no matter what program they participated in. When the lights got brighter, productivity went up. When a group was tested in dimmer lighting, same thing. When they were given more breaks, productivity rose. When they tested working longer hours, ditto.

In other words, the results had nothing to do with what these subjects were asked to participate in and everything to do with being asked to participate in something. Simply being invited into the process provided them involvement, gratification, and a positive emotional bond with their company.

Their productivity rose no matter what the test conditions because being responsive to their opinions increased the likelihood that they would do what the company hired them to do. This is known as the “Hawthorne Effect,” named for the Chicago plant where the original study took place.

What Does This Mean for Radio?

When you demonstrate that you respond to the input of your audience before asking them for more listening, you are more likely to get more listening.

Consider an auditorium music test. At the end of your music tests do you disclose who sponsored the research and why? If not, you should. Because every single one of those respondents will instantly become an evangelist for your cause. It is your station they will punch up when they return to their cars. They will tell their friends that they helped shape your music (which is, indeed, their music). They will listen to you with new ears in the knowledge that they are the architects of your programming.

Radio gives lots of lip service to the idea that “your opinion counts,” but we provide precious little evidence that it actually does. Inviting on-air feedback and airing testimonials is viewed more as a marketing gimmick than a genuine invitation to participate. Yet the Hawthorne Effect suggests that if we genuinely dialogue with our listeners and make them influential in our decision-making it will pay back to us in listenership no matter what we end up doing as a result of that dialogue. It’s not that we need to do whatever listeners tell us, it’s that we need to involve the audience in our process. That alone will influence their listenership.

The Cost of a Bribe

It constantly surprises me that our industry places such massive faith in contesting, which every listener recognizes as abject bribery. On a stick we wave a prize carrot that listeners don’t have the remotest chance of winning. One of the audience’s annoyances is that we seem to think they’re stupid.

Has your station, your group, ever tallied the outcome of your contesting in terms of its ability to move the ratings needle over time? For example, if you do contest direct mail is it the direct mail that moves the needle or the contest? If you do contest TV is it the contest that moves the needle or the TV? How often do your contests fail? If you don’t measure this, you’ll never know. You’ll be the victim of your assumptions.

Try presenting the audience with this option: Would you like our station to offer you a slim chance to win a bunch of money if you jump through a series of hoops designed to manipulate your listening behavior? Or would you prefer to participate in a dialogue with our station as part of a large advisory board where we genuinely invite your input, respond to it, act on it, and report back to you our actions, even as we ask you to listen more? Would you, in other words, prefer to be a pawn in our game of ratings chess or an involved part of our station community?

Which do you think is more likely to build your audience and do so for the long-term?

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