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 a story.

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 Webcasting.

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 our story.

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 world.

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:

  1. 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 now.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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:
  5. 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.
  6. 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."
  7. 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.

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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.