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How Brands Leverage Radio’s Unique Listener Loyalty
  • October 15 2012

Allstate bought the naming rights to WGN's radio studio.

In a time when advertisers are looking to engage with consumers more deeply via social channels, radio is leveraging its legions of fans to remain a vital part of the media mix. National networks and local stations are using this bond to provide brands with ways to reach their listeners that go beyond the 30- or 60-second spot. Instead, they are using the kinship listeners feel for their stations and radio personalities to create content-rich programs that can be shared online and via social and mobile.

Taking advantage of the strong followings stations have with their local audiences is nothing new. It’s long been the central point of differentiation for radio. What’s different today is how they are broadening that value into a multiplatform environment that puts AM/FM broadcast at the center of programs that can also include a station’s website, its Facebook and Twitter feeds, live events and even naming rights.

“Our research shows how insanely pervasive radio is,” says media analyst Alice K. Sylvester, COO of Media Behavior Institute. “People identify with the station and its local identity and they stick with it. It becomes a bit of a badge for them. They become part of a community that shares the enjoyment.”

To expand its presence in its hometown Chicago market, Allstate has gone far beyond simply running its “Mayhem” spots. Instead, it has set itself up to own different parts of local broadcasts, aligning its brand with relevant content. Traffic reports are branded with the “Good Hands” name on local CBS outlets. And the renovated street-level studio for WGN, the flagship Tribune Company station, in September was renamed the Allstate Showcase Studio, a deal that includes on-air naming recognition as well as an interior studio wrap featuring Allstate graphics.

“There’s an emotional tie that comes in when you can make a connection with a DJ. Now we’re able to take that connection and extend it as far as possible,” says Cecilia Bizon, VP, media director at Starcom in Chicago, which handled the Allstate media program.

Radio is using this position to maintain its revenue in the face of greater media competition. Radio’s revenue in 2011 was $17.4 billion, up 1 percent from the previous year, according to the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB). But during that time, RAB notes, the biggest segments of growth were off-air promotions (7 percent higher) and digital revenue (up 15 percent).

“Cross-channel platform capabilities extend radio beyond the traditional AM/FM band,” says Erica Farber, president and CEO of RAB. “Historically, radio would go in with a campaign of 30s and 60s. Now, when you’re sitting with a client, radio has multiple ways to reach. Yes, the audio is strong. But we can let those walls go down and create any program we want.”

“The starting point is you have this fabulous footprint and loyal consumer base,” concurs Sean Creamer, EVP and COO of measurement company Arbitron. “That affinity and loyalty now extends to visiting the website.”

Even in today’s noisy media market, radio has kept its listenership. The latest Arbitron figures show that 93 percent of Americans adults—or 242 million people—listen to radio each week, a number that has remained constant over the past year.

“We have fans, not consumers,” says Tim Murphy, VP of digital strategy and enterprise platforms for Entercom Communications. “They’re not points on a research slide. We swim in an engagement pool no one else has.”

According to Radio Tomorrow, a study based on a poll of 40,000 consumers released last month by Alan Burns & Associates and Triton Digital, consumers have a more personal relationship with radio than with other media. Half (50 percent) said that radio feels like one of their friends, well ahead of the number who said that of TV (31 percent) or a website (26 percent). The study also found that consumers trust radio more than any other medium for information about a product or service. Nearly a quarter (23 percent) indicated that radio ads are “honest and believable”—putting it first in that category.

“The big takeaway is that radio still wins as a medium people find energizes them, relaxes them, puts them in a better mood and helps them have a good time,” says Jen Sullivan, VP of marketing at Triton.

The trust factor allows station personalities to tacitly endorse products through voiced reads. But now stations are able to follow these endorsements through the purchase funnel, says Entercom’s Murphy. He notes, for example, that Boston talk radio host Howie Carr is “proven to move goods and services.” But now, instead of ending at the broadcast message, the station follows up with direct email to its listeners. “We can use the database building we’ve done to extend endorsements,” says Murphy. “We can collect and qualify leads. It makes us an accountable medium.”

For a brand like Six Flags, radio is an essential part of its media mix because even though it has a national presence, it needs to generate local interest to drive people to its 19 amusement parks. James Geiser, VP of marketing and sales, says the company is particularly drawn to radio’s ability to engage consumers via its on-air personalities. “We have to get as much out of it as possible to leverage the strength of the medium,” he notes. “We try to feed content to the stations. That’s a fertile ground for us.”

For example, to promote its Halloween-themed Fright Fest, Six Flags brought local DJs to the parks and recorded them while they were riding on coasters or going through the haunted house. In Dallas, the morning DJ was sent fried cockroaches—people willing to eat them were given free admission to the park—and the pictures were posted to the station’s website. On Power 106 in Los Angeles, a hip-hop station with a particularly strong social media following, on-air contests for Fright Fest tickets require a visit to the station’s website, and promotions are regularly pushed out using its Twitter feeds and Facebook pages.

What these brands recognize—and what radio stations and networks are acknowledging—is that content that can be shared to radio’s loyal listeners can drive the brand conversation. In the current flu season, Walgreens has its pharmacists go into the DJ booth to administer flu shots to hosts on-air. “It goes beyond the ad schedule into content sponsorship,” says Christine Kubisztal, director of media services for the retailer, noting that the goal is to use radio to build a personal relationship with its pharmacists.

Kubisztal adds that, although it is not part of the formal program, these flu stunts get viral coverage. “It extends into other vehicles. They’ll film it and you can watch your favorite DJ get a shot,” she says.

CBS Radio, through its Altitude Group, helped craft the Walgreens program and works with national brands such as Dodge, MasterCard and Bank of America to reach more deeply into CBS’s 28 local markets. “We’re using our stations and we’re multiplexing on mobile, social, iPads and letting it flow,” explains Rich Lobel, EVP of the Altitude Group. “Broadcast is the megaphone, the loudspeaker. It’s the way to get excitement out in a big way.”

For Fiat, CBS and Altitude took a slightly off-center approach to align with the values of the “life is best when driven” tagline used for the relaunch of the auto brand. It created a series of two-minute vignettes featuring storytellers riffing on the theme of what drives them. These were aired in fixed positions on CBS radio stations in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and Orlando. Additional 15-second tune-in spots drove further engagement.

Each on-air vignette encouraged listeners to visit the Fiat USA Facebook page to view video of the entire story archived on the site. The videos were also placed directly on the stations’ websites. Through video pre-polls, streaming, time-based takeovers and contextually relevant placements, the digital distribution became the long tail of the radio campaign.

“We’re creating content experiences that leverage the assets of broadcast and can continue on other platforms,” says Lobel.

It’s that kind of local reach that brands still believe drives radio’s return. “From a creative side, radio can be magic,” says Lisa Cochrane, SVP of marketing at Allstate. “It allows theater of the mind, especially when you’re dealing with an intangible subject like protecting your stuff.”