Eric Blais’ Rethinking Media: It’s all about the experience

Radio Reimagined

The theme of this year’s Radio Show in Dallas, Texas in September was Reimagined. Since attendance had been waning, organizers reinvented the show’s content, to excellent effect. This year’s show provided attendees with great examples of U.S. radio stations that were weathering the digital disruption. The mood, though subdued, was optimistic, with excitement in the air. In sharp contrast, I felt that the Ontario Association of Broadcasters (OAB) was struggling, at its conference this November, to make sense of the industry’s future.

Winning strategies among the model stations in the U.S. varied widely: on-demand listening (e.g. podcasts); new content production (e.g. online news briefs and smart-speaker audio briefs); adopting new channels (e.g. magazines and live events); and providing professional services (e.g. digital marketing, graphic design and consulting work). Some continued to define their principle value proposition as Audio while others placed Content at the centre of their efforts. As a result, these radio groups were not just surviving, they were thriving!

At the 2018 Radio Show, Futurist and Publicis Groupe’s Chief Growth Officer Rishad Tobaccowala said: “The colonization of the eyes is over; now it’s the colonization of the ears.” The idea is that by now, every moment in our day is available for staring at a screen, consuming content, is saturated. However, there remain many moments each day during which audio could still be consumed.

Entercom CEO David Field recommended that the radio industry shift to impressions-based selling (a transition StatsRadio can help Canadian radio broadcasters with). Mary Berner, CEO of Cumulus Media said, “We need to be where our audiences are.” To do this, we need to understand who our audiences are, as illustrated in the second article in this series, and where our audiences live, as discussed in the third article in this series. Finally, Robert Pittman, CEO of iHeartMedia, stated that our industry needs to stop making decisions based on our own behaviour; by virtue of our professional lives, we are not representative of our audiences.

With that, let’s go further along our journey with a dive into empathy – the central component of design thinking – and a more thorough understanding of our audiences’ experience.

Existing Process

From what I’ve observed in various broadcast, media and related organizations, most business decisions result from quantitative data reviews and subsequent heuristic evaluations based on a matrix of assumptions, few to none of which are tested. Little to no empirical evidence justifies these assumptions and resulting decisions that, as per Robert Pittman, are being made by people who cannot, by definition, accurately represent their audience.

User Experience

Quantitative data can provide a valuable snapshot of what happened in the past. We must be careful, though not to misread that as “what will happen in the future.” Numbers can’t even begin to suggest why what happened in the past happened.

That’s why I urge companies to apply user experience (UX) best practices to their media decision-making. This will highlight breaks in the system, improve brand relationships with audiences, provide areas ripe for innovation, and stop audiences from leaving. In digital circles, UX design is applied to the user interface. It studies and delivers the expectations and emotional reaction users have when performing various tasks.

UX will also guide, or at least influence, consumer behaviour. In commercial and advertising circles, UX design is used to map out each customer’s journey. The resulting map highlights all touchpoints between that customer and the brand in order to illicit future purchase considerations and influence future behaviours.

A variety of research techniques are currently available for this mapping, including data analysis, focus groups, surveys and eye-tracking. Studying why the past happened informs your designs for audience experiences in the future. Have a look at OCAD U’s Super Ordinary Lab Design Research Techniques website as a place to start. And, for those of you skeptical of how bad design can negatively impact user experience, I suggest reviewing Don Norman’s classic book, The Design of Everyday Things.

By using several design-research techniques in a coordinated study, your company will be able to base business decisions on a multi-dimensional understanding of its consumers. A mixed research method will draw a richness of data simply not available when relying solely on sales data, google analytics, or any other number-based data sets. Interviews and observation, for instance, provide context and impetus. A seasoned interviewer will dig up nuggets of enriching information not seen anywhere else.

Consider this example of data revealed by a participant in one ethnographic study:

“I listen to the radio when I cook and when I drive. When I cook is the only time I listen to Jazz, it inspires me. I alternate between a live Jazz show on a French radio station, a local Toronto Jazz radio station and a New Orleans Jazz radio station. I usually cook and therefore listen to the aforementioned stations during the hours of 5:00 and 7:00 pm. I stream the stations on proprietary apps or through the station website and listen using a JBL CLIP portable Bluetooth speaker. I do have a Google Home Mini but I always choose to stream through my phone. I never switch between stations. I choose one and stick to it. I also don’t listen to all three and make a choice. My choice is made before I start. My attention to whatever is playing wavers. If I don’t concentrate on what I’m doing, dinner is burnt.”

“I drive my partner’s ten-year-old Hyundai Sante Fe. I have access to AM/FM stations as well as satellite radio and I can stream from my iPhone through Bluetooth. When I drive, I switch between stations. The reasons vary greatly. If I’m driving in Toronto, I switch between stations because I don’t like the commercial, I don’t like the song, I don’t like the topic of conversation, I don’t like the announcer’s voice, the reception is poor or because I lose reception all together. My attention to whatever is playing on the radio wavers depending on if I’m stuck in traffic, at a crossing light or if my travel is uninterrupted.”

“When I drive long distance, which happens quite frequently, I switch mostly because I lose reception. During those trips, I usually listen to satellite radio. This solves that problem. I do switch between stations on satellite radio but less frequently. Outside of my favourite three stations, I rarely explore others. I also listen to audio books and podcasts on these trips. I usually am quite attentive, especially when I’m highway driving. When I listen to an FM or AM station, switching between stations is quite easy. I can either use the buttons on my steering wheel or use the buttons on the dashboard display. I’ve pre-programmed some of my favourite stations, but I always forget how to do so. I need to refer to the manual each time I want to program. I therefore rarely take the time to do so and memorize the frequency number instead.”

“The sound quality isn’t as crisp when I drive long distance and I often find myself turning the volume up. Of course, this is more pronounced if it’s summer and I have the windows down. There are moments when I’m driving if I’m emotionally tired, not feeling well or particularly irritated where I don’t turn on the radio.”

A quick, key-word-frequency analysis of this transcript highlights some of the problems this participant experiences: loss of or poor reception and difficulty programming favourite stations. It also demonstrates the participants’ choices of solution to the problems: flip to another station, use the scan function to find another station; or listen to satellite radio or streamed media.

“Big deal,” some of you are saying. “The threat of substitution for radio stations is nothing new to us. We always found ways to keep audiences engaged as loyal listeners and viewers.”

Yes, we did – but the old solutions are working less and less well. What’s my empirical evidence? Quantitative data showing that people listen and view for shorter periods of time. A drop-off rate that is quite substantive. Again, I assert that before answering the question “What can we do about it?” we must understand why it is happening. Design research puts users at the centre, allows us to frame the problem properly and to innovate using a user-centric, human-centric, approach.

(Collecting data – even qualitative data – is one thing; analyzing it is another, which I’ll leave for a future column.)

How many of you had a UX consultant review your website? How well do you know your audiences in multi-dimensional ways? How confident are you that you can attract them and re-attract them once they’ve left? With today’s high threat of substitution, how do you ensure that your clients’ advertising messages are being heard?

Bonus Questions

How much of what you know about your audience is derived from empirical evidence? Is the rest anecdotal? Based on yourselves? Imagined?

If you did gather empirical evidence, whom did you observe and what percentage of your audience do they represent?

Let me know your thoughts, so we can learn from one another. Reach me directly at


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Eric Leo Blais
Eric Leo Blais
Eric Leo Blais, MDes Strategic Foresight & Innovation, is the Director, Customer Success at StatsRadio.

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