Media’s Red-Headed Stepchild

Our agency recently pitched a prospect with the theme of the discussion being bringing audio “back from the dead.” It wasn’t that they weren’t spending, but everything that they’ve been doing recently smacked of neglecting the channel completely. They had previously been strong voices in podcast, but subsequently had allowed competitors to come in and dominate that space. They had been solid in radio, but the spend had withered away to minimal levels. The brand had almost disappeared completely from audio as a whole, while competitors were building a much higher audio Share of Voice in the channel.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen it: audio, and radio specifically, has become the “red-headed stepchild” of the marketing mix. Audio is not sexy in the way some digital and social channels are, and TV often takes precedence in offline channels (and often rightly so). In fact, there is even data to suggest that many marketers are slow and reluctant to even consider audio to begin with. Among a survey of top brands and agencies, audio ranked 6th out of 10 channels as the best marketing channel (assessed by its ability to deliver on a variety of marketers’ needs.)

We were seeing positive signals for radio, and for several clients, steadily increasing audio budgets because of them.

The common perception is not the truth. I first started noticing this back when I was involved in a number of econometric models at a prior agency. More and more consistently, we were seeing positive signals for radio, and for several clients, steadily increasing audio budgets because of them. When presenting quarterly budgets to a large client, for example, we had recommended another increase. The CFO and CEO raised an eyebrow, but the CMO shared he’d recently returned from a conference of CMOs and there was a lot of positive buzz about radio (the old becomes new again).

But this reconsideration of radio is not entirely new. P&G famously returned to audio in the beginning of 2017. A traditionally TV-led company, they had been investing more and more heavily in digital channels for many years. After a series of increasingly concerning revelations about the digital market (digital & bot fraud, lack of accountability, misrepresentation of audience numbers, and lack of agency transparency) P&G cut hundreds of millions of dollars from their digital budgets. Radio was a big beneficiary, seeing a 6x growth in investment in 2017 compared to 2016. Unsurprisingly, in 2018 P&G then posted its strongest quarterly sales growth in 5 years. And by 2019 it had doubled the volume of spots it was running on radio (compared to 2018) and was the third-largest advertiser in the channel (after Geico and Home Depot.) Needless to say, for a company like P&G, there are teams of analytic and data scientists quantifying and evaluating media impact to inform their future budgeting decisions.

The focus of our article today is a report called “Re-Evaluating Media”, commissioned by RadioCenter in the UK (full disclosure: this is a company advocating for radio) but researched and authored by media auditors and consultants Ebiquity* (so we can assume the data wasn’t completely biased). The report is very helpful for understanding and quantifying how media are misperceived or erroneously ignored by marketers.

Ebiquity first interviewed a hundred or so brand marketers and senior agency staff to get a sense of what was most important to them in terms of media channels. The channels considered in the analysis were cinema, direct mail, magazines, newspapers, online display, online video, OOH, radio, social media, and TV. What they were looking for from these channels were certain criteria:

  • Targets the right people in the right place at the right time
  • Increases campaign ROI
  • Triggers a positive emotional response
  • Increases brand salience
  • Maximizes campaign reach
  • Gets your ads noticed
  • Low-cost audience delivery
  • Builds campaign frequency
  • Guarantees a (brand) safe environment
  • Short-term sales response
  • Transparent third-party audience measurement
  • Low production cost

Using survey responses, they applied a MaxDiff analysis to assign a weight to each of these items. The relative weights (importance) of these factors were as follows:

Next, they scored each of the ten media channels against each of these attributes. Some of the scoring was self-evident (e.g comparing CPMs) or easy to evaluate based on the capabilities and realities of a channel (e.g. low production cost.) The other scores were calculated by reviewing findings from over 75 industry studies and research publications**, in addition to Ebiquity’s own large set of data on channel pricing and effectiveness, ROI, etc. from their media audits and modeling projects.

For example, to evaluate TV against one specific media attribute (increases campaign ROI, for example), three different publication sources were found to be relevant and evaluated: “MarketReach: The Private Life of Mail” (2015); “Radio the ROI Multiplier” (2013), and ”The Ebiquity Database” (2014-2017). These studies all included data and findings on TV ROI, and so the results of all these studies were incorporated into the Ebiquity analysis.

Radio is indeed the “red-headed stepchild” of the marketing mix.

Sticking with ROI for a second, here is a chart showing the channels’ ability to actually drive ROI, based on the research papers, databases, and models that were evaluated (on the left-hand side), compared to the perceptions of the marketers (the right-hand side.) In this case, there was some (perhaps unexpected!) alignment between marketers’ perceptions and the evidence — both put TV top and Radio second for driving ROI. It’s interesting, though, to see social media at #3 in terms of people’s perceptions but much lower based on the evidence assessed.

The conclusion of this study across ALL the channel attributes? Well, it’s very much in line with our pitch, and reflective of what we have seen in the industry for years. Radio is indeed the “red-headed stepchild” of the marketing mix. If you ask marketers and agencies about it, it is ranked low on their list of channels at #6, below cinema and above newspapers. The evidence, however, ranks it at #2, behind only TV. Here is the final table of results:

Radio is the only channel other than TV to score over 100 on the weighted attributes.

It’s curious — and perhaps suspicious — to see the clear clustering of digital channels in the bottom half and offline channels in the top half. This is probably a function of the attributes against which the media were scored. Obviously, not all digital channels are good at driving emotional response, achieving brand salience, or maximizing reach. Even the much-hyped targeting capabilities of digital are arguably overestimated.

In summary, pay attention to the data, not to the industry’s received wisdom, which is not wise at all. And, of course, don’t ignore your audio channels. I actually have a “red-headed stepchild” (I’ve spared her the embarrassment of posting a picture, but it’s true), and my developing relationship with her has been one of the great joys of my life! I implore you to develop a relationship with media’s “red-headed stepchild” as soon as you can.

*Interviewees were not informed that the research was commissioned by the Radiocentre. All research was carried out in accordance with the Code of Conduct of the Market Research Society.

** To qualify, these studies needed to be recent – conducted after 2010, have a transparent methodology, and be in the public domain.

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