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What if Christmas Music on Radio Isn’t Popular After All?


The routine is familiar: At least one radio station in every market flips to “All Christmas” music around Thanksgiving, thus dominating the Nielsen ratings before and during the holiday period.

The interpretation: Everybody wants to hear Christmas tunes during the holiday season. So let’s go all in and market the heck out of it!

But what if something else is going on here? What if Christmas music is the thing you hear when you’re in the right place rather than being the thing you seek out? What if Christmas music on the radio isn’t really as popular as we think it is?

Some time ago a friend with deep experience in the online radio world explained that by his analysis, the appeal we see for Christmas music on the radio was not reflected in online streaming. The massive bulge of interest simply didn’t exist. In other words, listeners online were not seeking out this content to the same degree that Nielsen suggests for terrestrial radio.

Perhaps online listeners are different. Perhaps he didn’t look deeply enough. Or maybe something else is going on. Maybe radio listeners aren’t seeking out Christmas music, but Christmas music is seeking out radio listeners.

Here’s what we know about Nielsen ratings: The larger your reach, the better your chances for gangbuster ratings. The more different people sample your station, the better your odds for strong numbers.

That means there’s an advantage to any venue where large numbers of people are gathered to listen to one stream of content at one time, because a predictable fraction of these people will be carrying a PPM meter.

What is that place?

It’s the mall or other major shopping plazas and anchor stores.

And what are the stores at the mall playing during the holiday season?

Christmas tunes, including in some cases Christmas radio.

So it may not be that listeners seek out Christmas music radio stations, it may be that merchants seek it out. Listeners are simply in the right place at the right time and holding the right measuring devices.What if Merchants like Christmas music more than Radio Listeners do? Click To Tweet

That would explain why listeners routinely tell us that they would prefer their favorite stations not to switch to All-Christmas during the holiday season, yet those stations which do go All-Christmas tend to be the ratings winners anyway.

That would explain why the numbers rise as Christmas approaches. It’s not just interest in Christmas music that’s rising, it’s the human churn through the mall that’s rising.

That would explain why Christmas station ratings tend to peak in the week before Christmas. That’s when everyone’s at the mall.

That would explain why ratings for Christmas music stations are extraordinarily high even among Men, who are not the target audience for the genre. These men, too, are at the mall. In fact, I would bet that Male numbers rise more sharply as Christmas approaches because that’s when they tend to finally show up at the mall.

This is just a theory, mind you. It could be wrong. Then again, it could be right. I don’t have the ratings data to prove or disprove it, but you may.

So what if I’m right?

If so, then we have the marketing for Christmas stations all wrong.

Instead of selling Christmas radio to listeners, we should be selling it to merchants. Merchants are our audience, not listeners. Listeners are just the folks measuring what the merchants want them to listen to.

That would mean your outdoor campaign or your home direct mail campaign to pitch holiday listening are wasted. You should be talking to merchants, not consumers!

That would mean that you should not be researching your Christmas library among listeners, you should be testing it among merchants, ideally tagging the songs that are most positively associated with “increased propensity to buy.”

None of this means the stations leading the ratings at holiday-time don’t deserve those numbers, of course. But if you don’t understand why those numbers exist you can’t maximize those numbers. This becomes a lesson in Marketing 101: Understand who the “customer” is and what they want.

Even when the “customer” has a retail sales license.

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