The innovative spirit at work

“Everyone at Harvard is inventing something. Harvard undergraduates believe inventing a job is better than finding a job.”

That’s what Harvard President Larry Summers told the Winklevoss twins when they whined about Mark Zuckerberg stealing their idea in the movie, The Social Network.  Summers urged them to “let their imaginations run away with them on a new project.”

11 fearless forecasts for 2015

Not a creature was stirring, not counting of course the Internet’s 152 million bloggers trying to finish the year with something touching and clever. At CRN headquarters in Connecticut, our prognosticators were up late sorting through buzzwords like “programmatic,” “storytelling,” and “connected car” to determine the 11 headlines you most certainly will read at some point during 2015:

Beacons: industry must take note

For many marketers, the simple joy and efficiency of using a medium that touches 244 million Americans each week is validation enough. But for those who feel the enormity of radio’s reach alone doesn’t cut it, the key to the medium’s future could be how it integrates with sexier platforms and provides a catalyst to drive consumers to the digital medium du jour.

Time to rethink marketing?

About 500 consumers tell us that they seldom listen to an entire radio commercial, that even if they do, they usually tune out by the second spot in a commercial break, and that radio ads have a slim chance of influencing their purchase decision. They also tell us that creative content is most likely to win them over. So what are we to make of this?

Quality content so simple it's frightening

I experienced something so simple the other morning that brings value to advertisers, radio stations, audiences and communities and almost frightens me to even say it: great local over-the-air radio.

My normal “commute” to work was a little different that day: I found myself in the car for a good 45 minutes between driving my daughter to school and my dogs to daycare. In the spirit of breaking routine, I decided for a change to listen to Minneapolis’ 96.3 K-Twin“Quality Rock” of the Eighties and Nineties — think Jack-FM with personality.

Two of the three morning hosts are also personalities on the local KARE 11 TV news, so I thought I would check out their shtick.  I found myself staying tuned after a song leading into a commercial break because they teased a contest called “Wait a Minute, I Know That!” — an obvious rip-off of NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me!” which CRN has always cited as the type of quality on-air contesting that is very effective.

After the break, Chris from White Bear Lake called in to compete against co-host Eric Perkins. There was some wonderful banter between him and the hosts. They each got three multiple-choice questions based on pop culture. They both got two out of three correct, so they had to go to a tiebreaker which wasn’t going to happen until after the next commercial break.

I would guess many people did what I did, I stayed tuned! Why? It was engaging, fun and entertaining. It wasn’t complicated, the listener didn’t have to go to a website, tweet or post a photo on Facebook. All he had to do was call in, engage with the personalities and answer a couple of simple questions. What a concept.

Unfortunately, Chris from White Bear Lake lost, but he did get a consolation prize: the newly released CD from Brian Setzer. Do you know what he would’ve received if he had won?  A mug!

We sometimes make the world too complicated. Learning a new marketing term every day. Hopping on the bandwagon to trends we don’t fully understand. Integrate with this. Integrate with that.

We have research (coming soon) that confirms people like to enter fun contests and also listen in as other participants sweat it out. It was a wonderful 15-minute bit.  It was refreshing, validating and inspiring – even if the last thing I would have needed was another mug. The only thing missing was an opportunistic title sponsor to anchor the segment and deliver a corresponding spot to run alone during the break. Sometimes marketers try to outthink themselves. In those cases, they often wind up scratching their heads.

Patrick Leeney, a 24-year veteran of the broadcast business, is Vice President at CRN International and based in Minneapolis.

Latest wake-up call

“I read the news today, oh boy.” It concerns spot radio revenue’s declining performance through the first half of 2014 and the increased revenue for digital darlings like Pandora and Spotify (but not yet making a profit).

Concerned broadcasters believe business is soft in general and look to the encouraging signs of digital growth and non-spot revenue. But as social media and digital audio sources proliferate, terrestrial radio will fall by the wayside unless broadcasters truly address the major issues staring them in the face. Long spot clusters and other negative on-air clutter continue to drive younger listeners on a search for something better. Further, as those in the money demo age and a younger generation not weaned on radio continue their march to “audio consumption dominance,” the radio industry is indeed facing the crossroads. Radio needs to wake up pronto.

The industry knows that playing in the digital space is not a defensive strategy but where people expect to find information, entertainment and social engagement.  Radio is still searching for the secret to being successful at it. Emmis CEO Jeff Smulyan exclaimed at a recent digital radio industry meeting, ”I’m still trying to figure out how to make money with my digital assets.”

We want radio to succeed. To grow and flourish.  We’ve enjoyed great relationships with radio stations because we try to provide for clients the type of content that makes people want to listen and listen longer:  new ideas, better prizes, new opportunities for personality / listener engagement, content.  Our campaigns provide radio stations with compelling programming – good for both the station and the brand.

The bigger picture question is what listeners want. Millennials want more music and fewer interruptions. But they also want fun, interesting content and a connection.  Everyone knows what they don’t want: those 10- or 12-unit stop sets. Engaging the listener with out-of-stop-set programming, fun contesting and desirable prizes, content that makes people pay attention and personalities who connect with them is what makes radio stand out. It’s always enlightening to hear a new advertiser say, “I didn’t know you could do that.”

Today more than ever, doing things differently and breaking from some traditional marketing staples will make a big difference in listeners’ perception. The latest industry numbers don’t lie, and how many wake-up calls do we need? The virtues of out-of-stop-set tactics: We believe making the client / product / service stand out is what successful radio marketing is all about, thus creating greater time spent listening.

Ron Pell, a veteran of the radio business, is Director of Media Relations for CRN International.

On customer service

Blogger’s note: Jim’s recent post about customer service on the CRN blog was a result of observations, experiences and by-the-water-cooler conversations. One of the internal debates was whether Exemplary Customer Service (ECS) can be taught; I argued “no.”  At CRN we take pride in our service and philosophy.  I believed from the start ECS is an inherent characteristic.  The following was an internal memo I wrote a while ago, which inspired the debate and Jim’s blog post.  It was suggested that we run it in a public forum.  So here it is.  We welcome your comments.

Exemplary customer service is ingrained.  It is in the company’s genetic coding and intrinsic to the culture.  It permeates everything.  It is both conscious and unconscious.

It cannot be taught or acquired.  It can be enhanced, embellished, celebrated, championed and tweaked.

It cannot mysteriously occur just because it is written on a mission or values statement or published in an annual report.

It is the air an ECS organization breathes. It is instinctive and can be triggered in a nanosecond.  The people who populate these organizations are keenly aware of service even when they are not at work.  Their endorphins kick in when they experience it at restaurants, shops, and their day-to-day dealings.  They bristle in frustration when it is absent, or when they are put on hold for hours.

People who work in these companies get excited – almost in a nerdy way – by stories of great customer service.

If your company doesn’t have it, don’t sweat it.  There are a lot of awful customer service companies out there – one giant telecommunications company is about to become close to a monopoly and its service record is notoriously dreadful.

Some sketchy customer service companies do quite well because they are the lowest cost provider, and don’t make ECS a priority or value. You know who they are.

Exemplary customer service is not the measure of success, but it sure helps.  An ECS company can’t help being that; it is in its DNA.  It doesn’t mean it is perfect or never slips, even in service.  But like a rubber band wrapped around a pole, a great customer service organization always snaps back to its core.

Defining ECS can only be done by stories.  When you ask for a 30-cent brass wing nut in a hardware store and the associate walks you to the aisle until you’re happy as opposed to just saying, “Aisle 45,” you’ve just experienced ECS.

Conversely, the other day, we asked a media sales rep at a company we deal with for an MP3 file of a segment of a show that featured our company.  He sent us an email back with a name of a person we can call to get it.  And while he did reply, an ECS employee would have walked the halls, secured the audio and sent it to us.

ECS isn’t always obvious; in fact, most of it exists out of customer sight.  I recall a small business Microsoft project.  Something was troubling.  Even though we planned to deliver way beyond spec and Microsoft would have been overjoyed, we noticed that the plan was not gender balanced.  We did in-depth research into the product target — census track, small business data — and found their buyers and influencers were disproportionately male. We made the internal decision to adjust the media plan at our cost to insure its success, also adding more news stations. And unless someone from Microsoft is reading this, to this day, they never knew. The campaign exceeded everyone’s expectations and began a five-year relationship with the software giant.

There was never a moment when we hesitated. No need to brag to the client. This is not a business strategy, it is an unconscious practice. An ECS company does not look at short-term gain; it’s in business for the long haul.

A so-called “client facing” example of ECS, which earned CRN a 20-year relationship with Hormel, came early.  Hormel took over the Ski Watch radio syndication sponsorship from Campbell’s Soup.  CRN also printed an ad-supported Ski Watch Ski Atlas with comprehensive maps and information — 125,000 copies.  As part of Hormel’s sponsorship, it received a credit on the front page and full-page product ads on the back and inside covers.  There were other advertisers. Among them was an ad provided to Campbell’s as a freebee for an unrelated project we were doing for them.

The marketing director of Hormel called me up screaming mad.  “How dare you have an ad for a competitor in the Ski Watch Atlas.  We are the Ski Watch sponsor.”  I started to explain that the atlas was an independent publication, quite like Ski Magazine.  I stopped in mid sentence, “Rick, I’ll recall the copies and reprint it.”

He was flabbergasted. We, a small company, were willing to bite the bullet at what must have been a great expense to make him happy and feel whole.  Beyond expectations.

Every year for 15 years at an annual Hormel-CRN dinner, Rick would get up and retell that story.

Not a strategy. It’s as natural as walking. It’s how an ECS company thinks, feels, hires, acts, and chats around the water cooler. It’s in every high-five. And 40 years later, while we talk about the unique things we’ve done, our broadcast and marketing innovations, and the results we’ve garnered for the largest companies in the world, it’s the tales of how CRN went way beyond to help our clients that bring us the most joy.

When memories sell

What is the most famous street in America? Some may say it’s Fifth Avenue in New York, Newbury Street in Boston, or Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. If you grew up when I did, though, you’d have to add Park Place to that list.

Not too long ago Hasbro approached CRN looking for a way to revive sales of its classic board games. Immediately, images of my childhood leapt to mind. I remembered playing iconic games like Monopoly, Scrabble, Life and Yahtzee regularly with my friends and my family, just as our parents had done before us and their parents before them. These games were as much a part of our everyday lives as they were a part of American culture. And they provided me with some of the best memories from my childhood.

Monopoly was my personal favorite. I always wanted the car for my token, and I liked to be the banker when I could. I distinctly remember sitting around the kitchen table playing with my parents and sisters. If we were lucky, extended family members played with us as well. I loved the really big games the most, the ones where everyone played. While it wasn’t that long ago, you have to remember it was before the high-tech world of smart phones and tablets and the Internet. There weren’t as many distractions then, and not as much competed for our time and attention. Life wasn’t as solitary or as multitasked. It was a time where basic social skills and interaction were central to children’s lives.

Given these games’ longevity, powerful brand recognition and ubiquity in our minds, Hasbro had simply planned on doing traditional radio brand spots. While it’s true that everyone knows what happens when you go “directly to jail,” most people today hold little more than nostalgia for the once-common staples of the everyday American household. You are more likely to find a computer, iPad or Wii in someone’s home, and the only place you’d encounter Monopoly is at the slots in a casino.

CRN is known as an innovator in the radio space—able to break through the ad clutter for our clients, get their messages to stand out instead of being buried in stop sets. We immediately began looking for non-traditional ways to get consumers to react to and purchase Hasbro’s games.

Inspired by that beautiful and simple time in each of our childhoods, we decided to pursue the personal connection we felt with the games and our memories. We sent the games to stations and encouraged on-air personalities to indulge in the nostalgia and connection to material culture, relate their own memories on the air and try out a game night with their own families. We then leveraged the positivity of that experience through the power of their recommendations to their listeners. These were unscripted, off the cuff, and organic—and immediately a hit. Personalities inspired their listeners to purchase the games and create family game nights of their own.  To further capitalize on the excitement and momentum, we also had stations give away the games daily to listeners. Who doesn’t like getting free stuff? After all, I always loved landing on “Free Parking.”

Then we took it up another notch and allowed a winner a chance to head home for the holidays. What better way to connect people to that feeling than by providing them with an opportunity to create those magic moments being conveyed on air—in their own lives? Throughout the day, we continuously reminded people to purchase the games and presented them as an alternative to the mind-numbing video game culture so prevalent today. It was a perfect solution to keep kids occupied on rainy days while engaging their minds and social skills.

Our greatest triumph was exceeding the client’s expectations by creating a campaign that surrounded Hasbro’s consumer from more than one angle. We generated content more engaging than what would have appeared in the traditional spots they initially figured they’d do. For the same amount of money, we gave them far more exposure and left them with a little something to reminisce about fondly. For them, the added value was just like passing go!

Jonathan Vartelas is a Director of Strategy and Development for CRN International. 

Customer Service and Marketing

Customer service in corporate America is exceptional. Just ask any executive about his or her company, and you’ll see what I mean. Then ask anyone you know to share a recent bad experience, and it’s instantly at the tip of his or her lips.

“Outstanding customer service” is the easiest claim you can make about your organization, whether it’s true or not. That doesn’t make it right, but it can provide a marketer’s dream. The claim works particularly well with people with whom you’ve never done business. The only way they can know for sure is to commission your company, deal with your people, purchase your product, and experience your service.

A recent post of 10 inspirational, creative and impactful examples of customer service rekindled our fascination with this subject. Not to mention CRN’s recent naming of a new director of client services who is bringing some refreshing ideas to the role. From a marketing perspective, outstanding customer service has to be more than just a process. It has to transcend mere conscious competency to the point where you don’t even think about it and just do it. It has to permeate the organization. It’s one thing to set up internal systems and then train the people on your front lines; it’s another to embed customer service into your culture. It’s a dangerous thing to hop on the service bandwagon and cross your fingers.

Exemplary customer service does not occur magically just because it appears on a list of core values. Some would suggest it can’t even be taught or acquired, although it certainly can be enhanced, embellished, celebrated, championed, and tweaked. Exemplary customer service is instinctive, so much so that people who “get it” can be triggered in a nanosecond. It kicks in for these people even when they are not at work because it’s part of their DNA. These are the same people who easily bristle in frustration when it is absent.

If you really do have “it,” what a great asset. It is not the ultimate measure of business success, but it sure helps. No company is perfect, but like a rubber band wrapped around a pole, a great customer service organization always snaps back to its core. Great customer service equates to people who are more inclined to work with you. If you don’t have it and say you do, eventually that will catch up with you and likely require a different set of marketing skills.

An example of visible quality service is the hardware store person who answers your query by literally walking you to the product, rather than pointing in the direction of Aisle 43 and saying “over there.” A little thing – but it makes and leaves an impression.

Then consider a visible form of questionable service that occurred recently when we asked one of our media reps for an MP3 file of a show segment that featured our company. While he did reply by emailing us the name of the person we could contact for the file, he could have delivered quality service and walked down the hall and just gotten it for us.

Perceptions about customer service can often be traced directly to marketing, so it is necessary to take it seriously. It’s funny how service and marketing both play off the emotions of the recipient. While everyone recalls classic commercials and marketing slogans, people also speak passionately about their best and worst customer service experiences.  And they are remembered and recalled years later, to the great fortune or detriment of their providers.

There’s no replacement for great customer service and no excuse for bad customer service. And never have there been more outlets for consumers to share their stories at both extremes. J.D. Power, which studies the topic extensively, compiled this list of brands that deliver outstanding customer service. Hats off to companies that strive to please the customer as second nature rather than as an orchestrated attempt to create a new marketing sound bite.

Creating effective campaigns

When you use radio beyond the conventional advertisement stop set, your brand radically increases its chances of achieving results far beyond expectations.

Two recent developments speak further to the ineffectiveness of lengthy stop sets and the effectiveness of non-traditional radio marketing.

The first was Entercom’s gamble to experiment at a Seattle radio station with fewer ad slots per hour and shorter stop sets as well. The intent, of course, would be to draw listeners with more programming, and in turn appeal to advertisers via a larger engaged audience. At the same time, advertisers are questioning more than ever the ROI of their messages appearing at the tail end of long stop sets. Good for them.

The other development was a random poll CRN conducted in which a majority of 75 marketers said they feel a combination of non-traditional advertising tactics such as branded content and promotions generate stronger results for their brands.

Think of these non-traditional marketing tactics as the antithesis of conventional radio. They take salient product communication points and place them inside programming segments when consumers are actively listening to radio. Radio as a marketing medium works here because it provides listeners with compelling communication they seek, enjoy and believe.

When working properly, this strategy accomplishes three things: (1) it removes the message from the clutter of many ads; (2) it creates the right content to capture listeners’ attention when they are primed for it; and (3) it effectively helps consumers engage and relate to the brand, hopefully to buy something. We’ve seen time and again how this avenue of translates into consumer response.

Good companies spend lots of money on radio advertising – in the billions of dollars – with the optimism and confidence you’d give any medium that delivers 244 million Americans every week. Their expectations should be high.

CRN uses radio differently—way beyond advertising. By taking brand messages out of the stop set and delivering them to consumers in ways they want to hear, we are able to change consumer behavior, make people fall in love. That’s the power of radio.