The Arbitron Wobblies

Mark Ramsey’s latest post has some words of wisdom for PDs wed to the Arbitron ratings:

Suffice it to say that anyone who worships the minute-by-minute Gods without building a brand worth listening to over the long haul, worth discovering, and worth returning to is a fool.

As he notes, quoting from an Inside Radio piece:

For some programmers it’s a waiting game to see if PPM results change as panelists move in and out of the panel — especially when just a handful can move the ratings needle. Arbitron says monthly panel turnover is 4-6% for panels that have been reporting less than 18 months and 6-10% for mature panels. What can be PPM negative in one quarter may be positive six months later.

Remember, this is the Arbitron Portable People Meter that comes with the disclaimer “PPM ratings are based on audience estimates and are the opinion of Arbitron and should not be relied on for precise accuracy or precise representativeness of a demographic or radio market.” Mark continues:

In other words, don’t worship today’s numbers too religiously (pun intended) because there’s a good chance that they’ll change. And soon. And maybe a lot.

And that’s because they’re unstable. Big changes can be manifested by one panelist with a quirky habit who suddenly appears or vanishes in the sample like a poltergeist above an ancient Indian burial ground.

When we see programmers waiting to “see if PPM results change as panelists move in and out of the panel” what we are doing is playing the panel, not playing for the audience.

Yes, I know, ratings have fluctuated at random ever since the first listener put her pencil to the first diary. But wasn’t the premise behind the considerable expense of PPM both its accuracy and its stability (and stability is certainly what you need to project the appearance of accuracy)?

His conclusion:

So build your brands. Evolve with the happiness of your audience in mind. And that will help buffer you from a ratings sample that is more wobbly than Lindsay Lohan’s judgment.

If a “handful of listeners can move the ratings needle” then your job is to create a brand resistant to those wobbles in the real world of audiences and advertisers.

And that does not happen minute-by-minute.

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