Webcasting-Hitting the Sweet Spot
eRadio Magazine, November 1999
By John Silliman Dodge
Let's talk about the sweet spot, that point on the marketing curve
where what you have to offer is exactly what people want next. Not
more of what they already have or what they'll be wanting in 2001.
I mean the immediate future. And to see
the future more clearly it helps to study the past. Let me tell you
In the early spring of 1997 I went to work for Microsoft.
They pulled a career music and radio guy into their technology loop
because they needed someone with the other
kind of programming skills to create content that would demonstrate
the datacasting potential of the soon-to-be unreleased Windows 98.
"Push" technology was front-page news in the business press. The desktop
computer was the new point of convergence for all media. We knew that
the successful deployment of interactive television was only a matter
of time and when it finally came it would shift everything. To get
there all we had to do was pass through an interim stage we called
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Immediately our small team launches into development.
We make an interactive top ten music countdown show complete with
videos, eye-popping graphics, a host, voting, chat, artist background
info, links to labels, e-commerce and e-fanmail back to the bands.
We make a JokeZone featuring the funniest, rudest collection of interactive
sound effects yet collected. (I had just come from programming KidStar
Interactive, a national children's network and I know what makes
kids laugh.) We make a very cool segment starring film composer John
Williams on the art and science of making music for movies. In one
month of frenzy we finish the demos and damn, they're good.
The Meeting is booked.
Quick sidebar: Microsoft's interest in Webcasting
was not to become an end-to-end player like a Sony who owns every
link in the chain from intellectual property to distribution channels
to delivery devices. They repeatedly state, "We are not a media
company." They just want to sell operating systems, particularly
CE, the slim version of Windows into the TV set-top box market. They
obviously understand the technology piece. That';s why they bought
WebTV. But what few people at MS fully understood at the time was
the powerful relationship between the New York and LA communities.
The advertisers needed to pay for this new medium as they have paid
for every other. But advertising agencies and big media buyers were
looking for favorable CPM's. The production industry was quite
interested in creating programming for ITV as soon as there were enough
capable viewers. Until that time, they'd just as soon milk the
syndication cow and make more episodes of Ally McBeal, thank you very
much. Getting this trio of conflicting interests-technology,
content production and advertising-to make music together continues
to be a huge challenge for Microsoft and everyone else. But back to
It's showtime in the living room of the Microsoft
Home, a wired to the rafters simulation of a suburban house complete
with the largest flat screen television ever made hooked to a data
pipe the size of the Lincoln Tunnel. We're pitching our demos
to Bob Bejan, the head of the new Microsoft Network and famous for
his brilliant mind and infinitesimal span of attention. We've
got eight maybe nine seconds to make the right impression or the project
dies. We're...ah, nervous.
Bob bounces in and flops on the couch. He's as
Hollywood as MS gets in sweats, high tops and color-rimmed glasses
that look like they have built-in LED';s. "So whaddya got?"
We run the demos. His eyes catch fire. He perches on the edge of the
sofa. He starts speaking in his trademark staccato style. "And
we could do this, we can do that, we could..." Positive
feedback streams out of his mouth until, bam, like that, he's
up and off to the next Big Meeting. We break for lunch, stunned. Omigod,
we just got the deal.
Fast forward six weeks later. Bob's not picking
up our calls. Bob's not answering mail. Rumor is there's
about to be a "reorg." (MS redraws divisions and plays
musical chairs with heads about twice a year, disproving the theory
that you must be small to be nimble). Not only does our Webcasting
project get iced but a dozen of MSN's Web "shows,"
many of Bob's brainchildren, go with it. Soon the wind is whistling
through empty office space on Microsoft's RedWest campus.
What happened? In the words of Paul Saffo of the Institute
of the Future, Bejan mistook a clear view for a short distance. The
bold concepts and complex features he was most attracted to (ours
included) had severe delivery challenges in the skinny pipe world
of a 14.4 kbps modem. Bob wanted the flash and the glory, the future
promise of the Web right now. He wanted TV, movies, interactive magazines
and Radio all rolled into one. He was a way-ahead-of-his-time broadband
guy trapped in a narrowband world. He just couldn't simplify
and adapt to a "where do you want to go TODAY" world.
It's as dangerous to be too far in front of the
curve as too far behind. As we design, develop and deploy our Webcasting
plans, we have to accept the discipline that current technology imposes.
It's the same way your production director is limited by 60
seconds no matter how grand his commercial concept is. Your fantasy
user-listener might be sucking down megabits per second off the Corpnet
and able to enjoy better-than-TV video and motion graphics, but the
numbers tell you to stick with what will translate in a 28.8/56K modem
According to Jupiter Communications, projections of
online-subscriber growth show the plain old dial-up modem growing
from 30MM to roughly 50MM users by 2003. Neither cable modems nor
their nearest rival, DSL will crack 10MM in that time. For all the
press and marketing hoopla that the telcos and cable companies are
generating for broadband, it's simply not a Main Street phenomenon
yet. (That said, your screechy modem dial-up sequence will eventually
become a quaint memory; full penetration of broadband is inevitable
because it's blazingly fast, it looks tremendous and it's
always on.) The good news is that creative techs are coming up with
more ways to get around limitations, to push out more content out
using less bandwidth. Meanwhile even as you plan for tomorrow, align
your features and programming to the technical requirements of today's
audience. For example, if a piece of video looks really jerky even
at 56Kbps, consider the value of posting it. If it's a video
of Sheryl Crow kissing your morning guy, disregard that last sentence
and run with it.
Speaking of kissing, the old KISS rule applies to your
Web. It's very tempting to install every conceivable feature
plus the kitchen sink on your site because you CAN. Better to keep
it simple and do a few things exceedingly well. It's a matter
of separating and prioritizing the "must-haves" from the
'nice-to-haves." By all means, run your brainstorming
exercises and go nuts with all the possibilities. You can always leave
auctions, interactive dating and 3-D virtual city fly-overs for the
next iteration. But when it's time to create the short list,
here are seven features your site must have right away:
- Sound. Those of you who are restricted by corporate policy from streaming your broadcast signal
are excused, sort of. The rest, come on. This is what we do best.
Yes, it costs. But the opportunities are greater than the outlay.
In addition to the value of brand extension, the money to pay for
this can come from audio/visual advertising, affiliate agreements,
classified advertising, recruitment advertising, banner ads, sponsorships,
direct e-commerce, Webcasting sponsorships, email (including ads,
sponsorships and pay-for-performance), affinity group relationship
marketing and other non-trad sources you're probably thinking up right
- Community and concert events. It's the
number one item of listener interest and a great tool to promote frequent
return visits. Give the people what they want and be sure to keep it
fresh and up to the minute.
- Song title and artist information. Ideally
you include links to a commerce partner plus album art, artist background
data and song samples. But minimally, your song list needs to go on
the Web. This frees your announcers from backselling and performs a
valuable listener service at the same time. Do this and the most important
person in your office, the receptionist, will worship you for it.
- Multichannel feedback. The PD, the MD,
the announcers, everybody needs to give and get as much feedback from
the audience as possible. Your ratings and revenue depend on the accuracy
of your pulse taking. The PD should sit in the chat seat at least once
a month and take the good, the bad and the ugly. The MD should have
a weekly dialog with listeners about new music. "Here's what we're looking
at and why we think it's good. What do you and your friends think?"
The announcers should split phone requests and E-requests 50/50. Part
of their daily do needs to be audience communication via email. This
feedback channel is so important to Sales and Marketing that it gets
its own bullet:
- Personal information. You want listeners
to tell you everything about themselves. And you should make it worth
their while. Many people think that small electronic files called "cookies"
will gather all the Website visitor information they need. Hardly. Here's
the 101 on how cookies work: The Web server reads your PC's browser
to determine what operating system you're using, your browser make and
model, your IP address and provider and occasionally even your email
address. The server uses this info to send you a tiny amount of personalized
data called a cookie, which your browser stores as a text file on your
hard drive. Next time you visit, the server asks your browser for the
contents of any cookie it previously sent to you. If that info exists
it's sent back to the server, which reads the cookie and calls up your
associated data. You have to wonder how valuable this level of information
is, particularly considering your IP address can change every time you
logon and begin a new session. Your server logs won't give you the good
stuff. For real information with programming and sales value you need
to get listeners to register. Do whatever it takes to incentivize the
audience in sufficient numbers, then ask: What's your zip code, age,
sex, income and education level, what industry do you work in, what
other stations do you listen to and when/where, what are your hobbies,
what newspapers and magazines do you read, what are your TV habits,
where do you shop, what major purchases or vacations do you anticipate
in the next six months?
Your listeners are willing to share this information with you if 1)
you've taught them to trust you, and 2) you give them an incentive
to share and tell them exactly what you intend to do with the information.
Full disclosure. It's not the best, it's the only way to
deal with grownups.
- Trackability-the dot.com advertisers and
their agencies are coming to expect it. The rest of the client base
will follow. Soon the tired old saying, &"I know half of my advertising
works, I just don't know which half" will be replaced with,
"I know exactly which half of my advertising works. I'll
pay you for that half."
- Newsletters-this feature will pay for
itself immediately. It's sponsorable, it's cheap and easy
to produce, it's a great "reminder vehicle" for your
specific promotions and your general brand, and it'17;s targetable
any which way you want to slice and dice your database.
A Short Set of Features to Be Wary Of:
Gosh, the pictures from our station promotion in Golden Gate Park
sure look great. Before you scan a high-resolution photograph and
load it onto your site, try this test. Get a 28.8Kbps connection to
the Internet and count the number of seconds it takes for a similar
photo page to load. If you can count past the magic number seven you're
in trouble. Experienced Webmasters keep their pages light-meaning
that the combined file space of all the elements on the page-text,
graphics, photos, etc.-shouldn't exceed a relatively small
number. Otherwise it's "click and wait" for your
users. They simply won't tolerate the delay.
Many an art director has observed that text on the Web is plug-ugly
these days. "To get the look I want, I need complete control
over the layout, the font, the graphics." So they convert text
files into graphic files and voila, these pages now look fantastic.
They also take forever to load. One, two, three, four...
Plug-ins are little pieces of software that enable sound or animations
to happen on your page. Flash, ShockWave, even RealAudio. The drawback
is that you have to send people away from your site to download the required
thingee. Maybe they come back. But maybe the receiving site presents some
cool information and one thing leads to another. Literally. Many is the
night I went searching for something specific and three hours later realized
I knew everything there was to know about, say, the dietary habits of
koala bears. Also, corporate policy often forbids the downloading of any
outside software onto machines wired to the network. (The Windows Media
team should love this-their player comes bundled with the operating system,
no plug-in required.) I'm not suggesting that you beware of plug-ins,
only that you be aware of the ramifications.
Integrate, educate, and communicate. In time the Web will become
your most important channel and your broadcast signal will exist primarily
to promote your Web. While that pendulum slowly shifts, it helps to
think of your broadcast channel and your Web channel as two arms on
same body. Integrate these two channels so that one continually references
and hands off to the other. Integrate from a programming but not a
sales perspective. Peter Winters of Cox Interactive Media warns, "Don't
position your Web as an extension or worse yet, a value add of the
old medium. It's a brand new medium that carries your same brand.
Even sell against radio if you must." Educate your airstaff
and sales staff so they understand the extent to which things are
fundamentally changing. You're in the integrated media business
now. You have a real time, two-way communication link with your audience.
Communicate the value of your approach to your advertisers, particularly
your local advertisers. This may be slightly ahead of where their
thinking is. This is where they'll want to go next and your
challenge is to present it as attractive and available right now.
A brief note about realism and patience: I just read that Fox TV
pulled one of its new shows after three episodes. Next thing you know
we'll be fading to black seven minutes into the premiere. "Personally
I loved it but the numbers just weren't there, babe."
Don't follow suit and yank your plan before it has time to register
on your audience and your advertisers. Do your homework and then allocate
sufficient resources and time for the new project to take root and
work. You'spend $250,000 to launch a new music format with
no guarantees that it will return your investment. Don't freak
about half that much for a new Web channel.
Part of my youth was spent in Texas where I liked to go duck hunting
with my uncle. "Lead the duck" he would advise. By that
he meant, "don't aim for where the duck is, aim for where
he's going." That's the same way Wayne Gretsky sees
(saw) the hockey puck. Duck or puck, the message for us is to aim
just ahead of a moving target if we want to hit the sweet spot. Just
ahead but not too far. Deliver the Web features and programming that
works for the leading edge of today's audience, today's
computer capabilities, today's modem and bandwidth considerations.
But remember that if the majority of the audience doesn't get
it, or worse, can't get it, we've missed the point of
the exercise. Don't get wrapped around the axle trying to come
up with the "future of Radio." Who the heck knows what
that will be? But tomorrow's Radio experience, where things
are headed next, that's something
we have the tools and are getting the knowledge to deliver. See you
on the Web.