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.  

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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. 

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