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Growing Audience Goes Beyond Distribution, Content Strategies Need to Adjust Too

[ 0 ] December 19, 2012 |

It may at first sound counterintuitive, but one of the best options the BBG has for growing audience is to better serve the audience it already has…

In its latest strategic plan, the BBG stated an aspirational goal of reaching an audience of 216 million people each week by 2016.

That goal felt a bit harder to achieve last month when the agency announced that the BBG global audience for 2012 was 175 million weekly, down from 187 million weekly in 2011.

As much as we would like to see the line on the audience chart to rise at a 45-degree angle every year, we know it’s more realistic to expect gains and losses along the way. In 2012, for example, audiences we up in Ethiopia and Libya, but down in Indonesia and Egypt.

So how can the BBG add more than 40 million new viewers, listeners, and readers in four years — in an environment with more media competition and budget austerity? It won’t be easy, but it’s not a lost cause.

There are a number of tactics that could do wonders for the goal of 216 by 2016.

Most discussions about audience increases center around the need for additional distribution and marketing. While those arguments are completely valid, and the Office of Strategy and Development signs new distribution deals every week, at some point the conversation needs to turn to content. For purposes of this argument, we’ll focus on a couple of broad ideas.

Consider this premise:

One of the best ways to increase the BBG audience is to work to better serve the audience it already has.

It sounds it bit crazy until you compare just two numbers from BBG audience research. The first number is the previously mentioned audience estimate of 175 million people every week.

The second number is the BBG’s annual audience figure. That number hovers around 300 million.

This means that without a single additional affiliate, satellite transponder, transmitter, or billboard, 300 million people know about BBG services and check them out at least once a year. However, our metric is weekly audience — and just less than 60% of that 300 million spend time with us on a weekly basis. It’s notable that other large international broadcasters such as the BBC, Deutsche Welle, and Radio France International also use weekly reach as their prime audience metric.

It’s hardly surprising that BBG broadcasters would have groups of heavy viewers and listeners and occasional viewers and listeners. Virtually all product-driven businesses have similar subsets of customers.

Think about your own media consumption and you’ll undoubtedly see similar patterns of heavy and occasional use. These patterns can fluctuate based on news cycle, or even be seasonal. I, for example, don’t spend much time with WCBS-AM/New York this time of year, but will become a very heavy user once baseball season comes and the station starts broadcasting New York Yankees games.

Incoming president of CNN Worldwide, Jeff Zucker, in referencing the ups and downs of the news cycle, said that CNN needed to be relevant more than 25 nights a year. That is, the channel, like all channels, needs to constantly work to turn occasional viewers into regular viewers.

It’s no different for BBG broadcasters. I can recall some ten years ago attending focus groups for RFE/RL’s Radio Svoboda in Moscow. A few attendees at the time talked about rarely listening to Svoboda — unless there was a crisis. One respondent said Russia needed Svoboda “just in case.”

We may wholeheartedly agree, but realistically, “just in case” may be an increasingly tough sell on a budget-conscious Capitol Hill.

For any of us on the product side, our job is to take a potential customer that just walked in the door, and turn that person into a regular. Whether it’s VOA news, Levis blue jeans, or Dannon yogurt — the job at hand is largely the same.

With 125 million people aware of and using BBG news services annually but not weekly, there is a significant opportunity to turn at least some of them into more regular users – if the content is compelling and offered in a way that makes it easier to consume.

First Steps

One of the biggest obstacles to consumption of BBG content is something I call The Law of Media Clutter.

It’s a simple rule of thumb stating that as media options increase in a given market, appointment viewing and listening decreases.

Again, think about your own media consumption. It’s just harder than it used to be to remember to sit down and watch your favorite TV show on Tuesday nights at 8:30 pm. It’s a global phenomenon.

Unfortunately, for many BBG broadcasters with affiliation strategies, getting lost in the media clutter is becoming as big a threat as jamming.

An adjustment to counter The Law of Media Clutter is to employ a reach and frequency strategy. That is, get the content aired as many times as possible in an effort to reach a larger audience. Generally, this is how most cable television channels are programmed — develop a hit show, and air it almost constantly. Consumer media behavior is such that as people channel surf, new viewers find the program every time.

For example, VOA Urdu’s Zindagi 360 looks like a hit in its 7 p.m. Friday time slot. But even a single replay of the show on Saturday or Sunday morning would make it an even bigger hit in Pakistan, growing its audience and reinforcing the brand.

There are many other content strategies, such as employing short-form tactics that would enhance affiliation prospects.

To reiterate, the objective is not just to find new audiences, but also converting current audiences from annual users to occasional users (think monthly), and then the occasional to weekly.

Acknowledging that the content itself is an integral part of audience growth is the first step. Accepting the truth behind The Law of Media Clutter is another.

In the Office of Strategy and Development, we have conducted an analysis of all BBG broadcasters and language services, comparing annual versus weekly reach where such data is available. The analysis is not intended to make judgements on the quality of content, but rather look for consistencies and best practices among the top performers that might be applied elsewhere.

All BBG language services would do well to brainstorm how they might convert just 1 in 10 of their occasional viewers or listeners into weekly viewers or listeners. Converting just that ten percent would yield weekly audience growth of more than 12 million people across the BBG — all the while serving their core audiences better.

Additional specific tactics will come in future posts.

- Paul Marszalek
Office of Strategy and Development

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