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How Nielsen Can Transform Arbitron


I wasn't sure what to think at first. After all, Nielsen went into the radio ratings business and only stuck with it for two years before they  realized the industry would not embrace it. It wasn't for lack of trying -- Lorraine Hadfield put her heart and soul into it. Yet they were  using a paper-diary methodology in an increasingly digital world. The promise of PPM was a lot to go up against.

It was also difficult to get radio companies to pay for two services, even with the prospect of eventually abandoning Arbitron. But Nielsen clearly still sees radio as a powerful place to invest, and its purchase of Arbitron makes perfect sense.

The Advertiser Perception
Though Arbitron has been a powerhouse and has been before the agency world for decades, there is no doubt that Nielsen holds a highly  esteemed position in the minds of advertisers. My guess is that its re-entry into radio will send a message: If radio is interesting enough for Nielsen to invest in it, there must be something to this radio thing. My guess is that Nielsen will bring the radio industry greater credibility with advertisers.

So should Nielsen keep the Arbitron name? I think it should become Nielsen/Arbitron to make sure everyone recognizes that Arbitron is  now a Nielsen division. It benefits them, benefits radio, and strengthens the Arbitron brand.

But what about measurement techniques? What about PPM?

Special Meetings With Broadcasters
If I were running this newly acquired division of Nielsen, I'd say the first step is simply to be all ears. In spite of significant improvements  over the years, Arbitron is still perceived by many in radio as a necessary evil. There are decades of pent-up anger over unresolved issues, mostly based on thug-like practices from years or even decades ago. Though today it's a different Arbitron, there's no doubt that old wounds heal slowly.

The first step, therefore, needs to be a series of meetings with radio groups and owners at all levels and market sizes -- not just the big guns. There should be high-level meetings with leaders in formats that feel PPM has disadvantaged them (Hispanic, Urban, Talk, etc.).

Share Your Voice Now
Now is the time for radio to speak up again, loudly, about the issues related to PPM: how it has damaged some formats, concerns about numbers dropping sharply after first-hour listening (due to uncontrolled exposure to radio), how PPM has resulted in lower prices for radio across the board, and a bevy of other issues. Rather than ignoring the elephant in the room, the air needs to be cleared and radio overall needs to feel the issues are being resolved.

I think our industry is exhausted, and has largely given up on discussing the PPM. But these concerns are still in the back of our minds, and need to be properly addressed. Nielsen should also meet with people like Ed Christian and others who have some valid ideas to make PPM stronger. This is the time for every operator and every manager in radio to speak up and share your true feelings about what you feel needs to be addressed.

We also need to see new life breathed into the Arbitron Radio Advisory Council to make sure the industry is fully represented and that Nielsen will be listening and, more importantly, responding. Frankly, Nielsen needs to understand the vitriol that still surrounds the PPM and make sure they can resolve the issues to radio's satisfaction.

Solving Radio's Giant Problem
It is in Nielsen's best interest, as it was in Arbitron's, to keep radio thriving and healthy. (Some would argue that radio doesn't need Arbitron, but I'll not address that today.) At our Forecast conference last month, it was revealed that radio has a serious credibility problem in the agency community, based on two primary issues: 1) the lack of evidence that radio actually works and 2) the belief that radio is no longer relevant in a digital world.

Nielsen has the brand strength and credibility to conduct an in-depth study of radio's viability as an industry -- something I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. Radio needs to invest in proving our ability to drive business, as other media has done, so firm metrics can be provided to advertisers. This is an excellent opportunity for Nielsen to help radio get to the next level.

Partnership, Not Forced Relationship
Finally, Nielsen needs to understand that it's in their interest to create a real partnership with radio. The company needs to make sure the culture of Nielsen/Arbitron is about making sure radio remains successful. (I'm not talking about keeping numbers falsely high, but  working with us to develop the tools needed to take us to the next level.) Talk is cheap, and action is what radio needs from the new  Nielsen/Arbitron.

Under New Management
I'm heartened by Nielsen's acquisition of Arbitron. They have an opportunity to strengthen radio, to give radio more credibility, and to  move us into the digital era both literally and perceptually. But most of all, I'm encouraged by the fact that Nielsen has a history of  listening, and my guess is that they will truly transform Arbitron. Though I've been encouraged by the actions taken by the Arbitron team  over the past couple of years, it's still been like that restaurant you tolerate and keep going back to, but always wish was better. The  "Under New Management" sign hanging out gives us all hope that the service and the food will improve. 

Time is of the essence, though. Quick action, quick listening, and bold actions are what will prove to radio that Nielsen is truly serious  about making Arbitron the partner it should be.

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