Those Darn Commercials

Commercial breaks pay the bills but hurt ratings. Or at least that’s what most radio pros think.

Wrong. Not only do commercials pay the bills and make sure radio stations make a profit, they are also widely accepted by listeners as an element that has to be in the mix; listeners do not run away once the break starts.

Listeners might not exactly love the disruptions in music and content, but planning the breaks better and educating advertisers on listener behaviour can improve the relationship between listeners and those ”darn” breaks even more.

We believe most radio stations would be well advised to try and sell fewer commercials at a slightly higher price – call it ”going exclusive” if you will. Ourstudies show that duration of the individual break and the total quantity of commercials in the clock are key factors for listeners.

It’s No Secret You Have Commercials

To try and get to the bottom of what commercials mean to ratings, we conducted a survey on ratings numbers from five radio stations in five different European countries. The overall results suggest that listeners already know which channels have commercials and which do not. So when they choose to listen to a commercial station, they are willing to sit through the commercials to enjoy the rest.

We analyzed how listeners tuned in and out during more than 750 commercial breaks to find that in 48% of the breaks, more or the same number of listeners were still hanging on at the end of the break compared to when it started.

The breaks we tested were spread evenly in the hours between 06 in the morning and 18 in late drive.

We also submitted 750 plays of randomly selected songs to the same test, spread over different different dayparts. We found that 53% of the songs performed positively or neutral.

So yes, songs are a slightly better attraction than commercials – but the majority of breaks do not cause the number of simultaneous listeners to drop.

Don’t Crowd Drive Time

On two of our five test radio stations we went in deep to analyze the difference in reactions towards commercial breaks in the different dayparts.

The result was not exactly counter intuitive. During the morning and afternoon commute periods listeners will react with less patience towards commercials than they do once they have arrived at work.

In our opinion these reaction patterns are a result of the usage situation: sitting in the car or using public transportation the listener has easy access to switch channels or fire up their own playlist and they are listening with a higher degree of attention than at any other point during the day since there is little else to do. Once at work or occupied with domestic tasks it takes an extended effort to change the audio source and most listeners are more or less only using the audio as a background filler.

Subsequently, if you decrease the amount of commercials just a little in drive and increase the number of commercials during midday, TSL pr. session will increase and thus, ratings improve.

From an advertisers perspective this model doesn’t sound like a fair deal, but that’s where the concept of ”going exclusive” comes in play. Cutting down the number of commercials during mornings and drive because listeners have higher attention levels and thus are more sensitive to long commercial breaks will make sense to most business people – and also provide radio stations with a brilliant argument why a slot in the morning and drive commercial breaks should cost more.

Duration Is Key

The notion of ”going exclusive” becomes even more important when zooming in on the hundreds of breaks we analyzed for irregular listener migration. Grouping the breaks after duration, we discovered an average ”pain barrier” somewhere between 4 and 5 minutes into the break. Not to be understood in the sense that listeners will run away in large numbers, but that is where the outgoing flow of listeners on average begin to differ from the ”normal” patterns in the same timeslot.

Inside the orange circle on the illustration below is an example of what happens to listener migration once the break runs for too long. The blue line shows average listening in this timeslot, and it is clear to see that some listeners always leave when the break comes on. However, incoming listeners normally make up for the loss quickly.

But not on this day, where the red line – actual listening – fall behind average once it hits the ”pain barrier”. No wonder: the break is almost 9 minutes long.

We also studied average reactions to commercials grouped by total number of commercial minutes per hour regardless of the individual break duration. This part of the study reveals a total ”pain barrier” of 12 minutes pr. hour.

Talk & Commercials: Not a Good Combo

Journalists: cover your ears. Our research shows that ending a short voice break containing news, sports or other spoken content with a commercial block is not a good idea. Listeners perceive the whole duration of the break (talk + commercials combined) as one chunk. Inside the black circle on the illustration it’s clear to see how listeners (red line) run away as soon as the news- break is over and the commercials start.

And while we are on that subject: remember the world does not ”reset” when the clock passes the hour mark. Lots of radio stations air commercials in the last five minutes of the hour and news/sport/traffic weather just after the hour mark. Two 5-minute breaks in the clock but a 10 (!) minute break for the listener. And those can really hurt ratings.

Mind the Quality

For those who want to attempt the ”going exclusive” there is one more point to cover: form and quality of the individual commercial. We have found generic non-imaginative commercials to cause more negative migration, so our advice is to start treating the commercial block with the same criteria as other types of content.

Explaining higher production costs to clients isn’t even too hard: no one likes a shouting man and a cheap production jingle. Not even the advertiser. And if you insist even commercial breaks should be something to be proud of, listeners will reward you by hanging on a little longer.