Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Observations on NPR One

The slogan for the NPR One app is “Public Radio Made Personal. The purpose of the app is to help the user create a more customized listening experience.  Stories can be skipped. A recommendation engine personalizes the line-up of offerings. The app draws on NPR’s most current news content, archival pieces, and content from local NPR stations.

NPR One is a good start for what it is trying to do and it will get better. Here are a few early observations about its potential impact on NPR and NPR News stations.

Sonic Station Branding Needs to Improve – a Lot

When it comes to cobranding, NPR News stations fare better in NPR One than in any of NPR’s previous digital audio efforts. An NPR One listening session begins with an NPR/Station cobranded audio ID. Local station newscasts and stories appear throughout listening sessions. Occasionally, there is a second NPR/Station cobranded audio ID, but there is nowhere close to the amount of NPR/Station cobranding listeners hear when using the radio.

That sonic cobranding over the past three decades was an integral part of building the NPR brand and strong station brands. That sonic cobranding is still needed today to maintain strong station brands. It is probably the single most important element of helping stations of all sizes solidify their place in the digital media space.

This is extremely important given that NPR is prohibited by policy from raising money directly from listeners. In order to protect the existing listener-support model, every listening session in the NPR One space has to have NPR/Station cobranding that is as good, or better, than what listeners have experienced over the past three decades. Stations have to get equal credit with NPR for creating quality listening experiences in the digital space or fundraising revenues will eventually drop.

No Sense of Place, No Sense of Time, Inconsistent Pacing

Sense of Place, Sense of Time, and Pacing are three vital aspects of the radio listening experience for many people, especially in the morning. The radio programming elements that create Sense of Place, Sense of Time, and Pacing – time, segment time posts, weather, local information, forward promotion, etc. – are absent from NPR One.

This will be perfectly fine for many NPR One listeners. Some will even embrace it and use NPR One exclusively. It could even be a substantial audience. But the absence of these elements will prevent NPR One from being a “radio killing” app.

The more likely scenario is that NPR One will share substantial audiences with NPR News stations. These shared audiences will want varied listening experiences. It’s not difficult to imagine someone listening to an NPR station live via stream or over the air in morning and afternoon drive and then using NPR One to customize their listening experience during other dayparts. This is something worth testing within the NPR One app, including testing “live now” promotion of key interviews on national and local talk shows.

Weaker Branding of NPR Programs and NPR Hosts

NPR One is creating a bit of a branding mess for NPR's hosts and programs. I’ve heard NPR’s Steve Inskeep, David Greene, Melissa Block, and Scott Simon all introducing stories within the same listening session. It is sometimes difficult to sense who the host is supposed to be. Likewise, the names of multiple NPR programs can appear within the same listening session.

In its current state, the NPR One App transcends the NPR’s major sub-brands such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered. That might just be one of the inevitable side effects of personalizing the listening experience. The source programs of content could end up being irrelevant in NPR One and the role of the programs hosts could be more correspondent-like than host-like.

Pre-Atomization of Content

Atomizing content is curating it in a way that extends its shelf life and makes it easier to discover and consume in the digital space. It is my understanding that a lot of NPR News content is currently atomized after it is presented on the newsmagazines. That’s why, when listening to NPR content on demand, you can still hear a program outcue at the end of an interview or a reference to “this morning” when a host introduces a story. Those are elements of good radio programming that are unnecessary, and even problematic, in the NPR One space.

Expect this to change. Expect more of what you hear in Morning Edition and All Things Considered to be pre-atomized; to be produced to be NPR One-ready without as much editing work on the back end.  Will it change the way NPR’s newsmagazines sound on the radio?  Probably. Will pre-atomization of content hurt the audience performance of Morning Edition and All Things Considered? We don’t know. Maybe it could help.

Maybe the pre-atomization of NPR content will create new branding opportunities for stations around NPR’s flagship programs. Presently, stations face challenges establishing their own brand in the NPR News programs without excising elements of the NPR brand. A more atomized Morning Edition or All Things Considered just might be the best approach to helping stations create stronger local brands without running away from their NPR identity. More on that in a future posting. 

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Increasing Importance of Station Branding in the Digital Space

Well, the blog unintentionally ended up on hiatus for almost 10 months as I launched Emodus Research to study the emotional connections public radio listeners have with NPR and with their stations.

That research is yielding some fascinating insights. Even the process of planning and evaluating that research has uncovered, for me at least, the increasing importance of branding in public radio, particularly when it comes to digital listening and listener support.

I covered some of this in an article published at Current.org about NPR stations staying relevant in the digital age.

We know that station audiences will fragment as more listening options become available. In our research, we're trying to figure how much audience stations might gain, keep, or lose along the way and how valuable those listeners are to a station's membership fundraising.

Here are some of the issues that have surfaced as we consider the implications of this fragmentation.

1. It is well-established that listening to public radio leads to giving to public radio. In that past, all of that listening was station-branded to some degree. Today, an increasing amount of public radio listening is going to digital brands, particularly NPR, that cannot monetize that listening through individual giving. 

2. Based on industry benchmarks, every 1,000,000 hours of listening that shifts from stations to NPR has the potential of costing public radio 250 givers and $30,000 in gross membership contributions. 

For perspective, it takes 200,000 people listening 5 hours per week to generate 1,000,000 hours of listening.

So 200,000 people switching from station-branded listening to NPR-only listening for an entire year (a loss of 52,000,000 hours) could cost public radio 13,000 current or future givers and just over $1.5 million.

Downloads of NPR apps are in the millions. There is a huge financial downside to shifting existing and generating new listening to NPR platforms that are not strongly co-branded with stations. 

3. Failure to convert NPR-direct listening into listener contributions -- at the station or national level -- risks making NPR more dependent on corporate support as stations' ability to pay for NPR declines. Corporate support will likely have to be NPR's fastest growing income segment to keep up with expenses.

Neither the public nor NPR stations will benefit from an NPR that must put corporate support first to survive, but we see that already beginning to happen. The pressure to create new corporate sponsorship opportunities is great. It has strongly influenced the discussion around how NPR News programs are structured (program clocks), the development of digital offerings, and the drive to promise sponsors prime adjacencies to content that puts their sponsorship in a favorable context. 

Let's bring this back to branding. By policy, NPR cannot raise money directly from listeners.  It has no meaningful way to generate listener revenue from NPR-only digital listening.  It stands to reason then that NPR would want to cobrand every single NPR digital listening occasion with an NPR station. 

That branding has to be as good or better than it is today so listeners understand that the station is a key provider of their listening experiences. Anything short of that will cost public radio givers and membership revenue. Yet today, even with NPR One, digital cobranding isn't even close to what is heard on the radio.

More on that, and other NPR One thoughts, in the next post.  


Footnote:  Here's one additional thought about audience fragmentation.  It might hurt station underwriting income before it hurts membership income.

Our research is beginning to show that givers who put high value on Sense of Place and the station's local efforts are more financially valuable than listeners who perceive the station as a middle-man between them and NPR.

There's more research to be done, but an audience drop of 25% might not result in an equal drop in station membership revenue. However, a 25% drop in audience, particularly during the NPR News programs, might have an even larger impact on a station's ability to sell underwriting.