Do You Really Understand Your Audience?

By Alan Burns

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
-Steven Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

How well do you understand your target audience, your core listener?  Why is that important – isn’t it enough to know which songs they want to hear?  Those two questions can help take you or your organization from good to great, your ratings from average to stellar.  I can answer them for most radio stations:  a) you don’t understand your audience well enough, and b) it’s tremendously important that you get better at it.

Here are two questions you should be able to answer if you program a music radio station:

  1. How many of your target listeners will say that your station understands them very well?
  2. What’s the number one thing they want from your radio station?

By the end of this article I’ll give you the answer to question 1, and the most common wrong answer to question 2.

In the business world (think retailing and services), knowing as much as possible about your customer is accepted as one of the foundations of success.  One case study I saw recently showed the customer value of a financial firm increasing by as much as 70% after the company made a concerted effort to understand its “audience” better.

But as growth coach Dave Kahle says “The expression ‘know your customers’ has been proclaimed from the pages of marketing books and the lips of marketing gurus so often that it has become a cliché.” However, it’s been my experience that, while everyone gives lip service to the concept, very few businesses really practice it. A recent study concluded that 80% of brands lack the customer data to drive effective marketing campaigns.

Here’s how important really understanding your target in radio is:  the more they feel your station understands them, the more they will listen, the more likely they’ll be to become P1s of your station, and ultimately the more likely they will be to cooperate with a ratings survey.

My company, Alan Burns and Associates, has been conducting national studies of female radio listeners in the U.S., primarily those who listen to contemporary formats Top 40, Hot AC, and Mainstream AC, since 2010. In the very first study we noticed that women who agreed that there was a radio station in their area that “really, really understands me” were more likely to say they were listening to radio more lately than in the past, and the radio listening of those who disagreed with the statement ended up to be declining.

We dug a little deeper in the next study and found that heavy radio listeners were 54% more likely than light listeners to feel there was a station that really “got” them. “Heavy/deep” listeners to Top 40 stations were almost 75% more likely to feel deeply understood. It was becoming clear that understanding the audience better led to more listeners/listening and thus better ratings and revenue.

With help from our friends at Strategic Solutions Research, we recently completed our latest national study of 2000 female radio listeners aged 15-54, and in this year’s study we dug even deeper into how well women felt radio understood them, and how important this might be to radio stations.

We will present the results of the entire study at this year’s Canadian Music Week, but here are a few quick highlights relating to the importance of understanding the target thoroughly:

  • Great news – most women felt more understood by the radio station they listen to most than by cosmetics manufacturers and fashion buyers.
  • On the other hand, only 36% of these women felt the station they listen to most understood them very well, and
  • The more a woman feels a radio station understands her, the greater the likelihood that she will be a heavy listener, a P1 listener of that station, an opinion leader who will generate good word-of-mouth about the station, and the more likely she will be to cooperate with a ratings survey (Numeris, Nielsen, etc.).

In other words, the deeper your understanding of your audience, the nicer your life will be because you’ll be more successful in your chosen profession.

“Most of the successful people I know are the ones who do more listening than talking.”
– Bernard Baruch, Financier and Industrialist

So the answer to question number 1 at the beginning of this article – how many of your target listeners will say your station understands them very well – is 36%. That’s for an average radio station. Great radio stations will be higher. Very few if any Program Directors know what their station’s number really is.

Most music radio PDs think they know the answer to question 2, which was “what is the one single most important thing women want your station to do?”  The most common answer I get to that question from programmers is “play their favorite songs, obviously!” But that’s wrong – it’s number 2 on their priorities and an important part of accomplishing what women want most.

Number 1 is… to be revealed at our Canadian Music Week session. Hope you can join us for CMW. If you can’t make it to Toronto, and you want to know what number 1 is, shoot me an email via

Alan Burns is the Founder of Alan Burns and Associates, which has provided consulting to hundreds of AC, CHR and Gold AC radio station clients since 1985. 

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