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HD Marketing: Time to Go ‘Big-League’

HD Radio broadcasters need to stop congratulating themselves for their promotion of the format so far and get serious about the Herculean task in front of them.

HD Radio broadcasters need to stop congratulating themselves for their promotion of the format so far and get serious about the Herculean task in front of them.

The most important technological change in radio broadcasting since FM stereo is going to fail if station owners, their alliance and Ibiquity do not approach this as a major-league marketing problem. So far they’ve not.

Reliable numbers of digital radio consumption are hard to come by but that will change as more data firms scrutinize the format. What will they find?

(click thumbnail)A recent study from Bridge Ratings indicates that among Americans using various mobile audio media, traditional terrestrial radio continues to dominate market penetration. In the number of people listening for five minutes or more in a typical week, radio outpaces even cell phones.

But while 93.5 percent of us listen to radio and 30 percent use iPods and other MP3 players, HD Radio is off the chart the wrong way. The percentage using HD Radio in a given week: 0.0015. Last year at this time: 0.001.

Bridge thinks 57 million Americans listen to some form of Internet radio in a typical week; and satellite has about 15 million subscribers. Meanwhile HD Radio reaches 450,000 weekly users; and I think that estimate probably is high. The company believes the digital format reaches less than 1 percent of the U.S. population.

And when asked if they intend to listen “more, the same or less” in the coming year, owners of HD Radio showed the largest decrease among those who plan to listen “more.” People who are signing on to HD Radio are not finding reason to hang around.

In fairness we must note that respondents might not have understood what they were being asked. For instance I can easily picture consumers thinking they have heard HD Radio when what they’ve heard, perhaps, are ads for it. But this is because the typical American consumer still doesn’t know what HD Radio is, much less can they explain to you in 10 seconds or less the basic reasons for buying one.

The marketing of HD Radio to date is vastly under-funded and underachieving.

All well and good are promises to air lots of radio spots, and supporters of that approach can cite a powerful argument: “If we believe in the medium of radio, we should use the medium of radio.”

That’s true. But professional marketers also know that a radio campaign is but one piece in a successful national, full-blown marketing push.

Don’t tell me about the value of radio ads you’ve “donated” to this cause. Tell me how much cash you’ve spent on other media.

I want to see TV spots, newspaper ads, aggressive receiver co-op programs, giveaways on college campuses tied to hip musical talent.

I want HD Radio user blogs, cover stories on Crutchfield catalogues and a heck of a lot more radio airtime than we’ve heard to date.

I want 20 times more discussion than we’ve heard about fresh programming on multicast channels and I want our industry leaders to celebrate those innovations. (The problem here is that I’m asking established players to celebrate the very people who disrupt their established practices. Hard to do, but forward-thinking executives are capable of that, and I believe at least some big radio groups are led by such executives.)

Basically I want HD Radio’s equivalent of the satellite receiver falling out of the sky and onto American TV screens.

Satellite radio offers a lesson to us. That infant industry was successful in substantially moving the awareness meter of American consumers. Satellite has other problems; whether it will succeed will depend more on keeping ahead of its outrageous startup costs than in selling its essential benefits.

Radio doesn’t suffer from that burden. The IBOC format was chosen in large part exactly because it plays to radio’s strengths and existing infrastructure. It’s time to capitalize on the competitive advantage and spend money on telling people about a better product already available to them on the dial.

Don’t wait until every radio station and every market has HD Radio coverage. Let demand push supply. When a “buzz” bubbles up from among a key group of trendsetters in Boston, Chicago or L.A., the station rollout will take care of itself. But we need the buzz first.

The radio industry has not launched a major-league marketing campaign to promote HD Radio. The time is now.

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