Down by the Old Media Stream

Since the Web first started taking over the Internet years ago with the advent of “browsers” like Mosaic, a myriad of comparisons have been made to the varying forms of media that were already in existence. Those enthusiastic about the Web and its possibilities at the time, though previously unknown and unimagined, ebulliently toasted its foreseeable dominance of media and anxiously equated it with offline media formats that have had a dynastic reign for decades:

“It’s like print, only you can interact with it!”

“It’s like TV, only you can lean forward into the content.”

“It’s like newspaper, only you can talk back.”

Talk of convergence was rampant throughout the industry. But it was Progressive Networks’ RealAudio (now RealNetworks) that really brought an old media format to the Web: audio.

Streaming Audio Rocks

Though primitive at first, with inconsistent quality, audio led and continues to lead the way for streaming media. With faster speed connections and improvement in technology, the streaming of media continues to improve. There is no doubt about it. Streaming media is here to stay. But it is audio that still rides at the fore and is finally big enough to do something with.

From advertising to entertainment, streaming media is currently being used and experimented with in many ways. A recent study by Market Decisions Corporation revealed that streaming usage has doubled in the past 18 months. But much of the ad industry’s current involvement with streaming has been primarily exploratory.

When you walk around the office, do you hear music coming from desktops that is being streamed from some genre-specific channel from a provider like Spinner? Or maybe a few employees wear headphones to avoid disturbing their fellow workers?

Streaming audio’s quality has finally improved to the point of radio-quality and sometimes near CD-quality sound. Since January, online audio usage has gone up some 48 percent. It is a very male-skewed medium (73 percent), but its usage pattern is much like traditional radio. Eighty-nine percent of usage occurs Monday through Friday. And finally, it is a very young medium; 54 percent of users are younger than 35.

How Can Streaming Audio Be Sold?

So why aren’t advertisers getting onboard? There are plenty of desirable demos out there streaming audio at times when audiences are not being reached by any other messages. Why haven’t agencies gotten their clients onboard, even if only to experiment?

The main reason is those selling streaming audio are having a hard time finding the right person at an agency to approach with their offerings. Second, no one at the agency is sure who the right person is, either.

If a call comes in to an agency from Lightningcast, whom should the caller speak to? The radio planners and buyers should understand what is being offered, right? But it is audio formats coming through a computer over the Web. So the rep is told, “Talk to the online guys.” The rep calls the online guys, but they don’t get it unless the inventory is coming in the form of impressions and banners. They say, “Maybe the account exec will know what to do with this.” So the rep calls the account exec, who understands even less than both the online folks and the traditional radio folks. Alas, a good opportunity goes unrealized.

And finally, no one is sure of the best way to position, buy, and sell streaming audio. Impressions? Spots? Gross rating points (GRPs)?

How, then, can agencies and advertisers take advantage of streaming audio?

Positioning a New Ad Vehicle

Streaming audio as an advertising vehicle needs to be made comprehensible to media people and brand managers who already understand radio. First, positioning.

Streaming audio, for the time being, needs to be positioned like it is radio — midday radio daypart, to be exact. When buying radio schedules, buyers have four main dayparts they can buy: a.m. drive, midday, p.m. drive, and evening/weekends.

The midday daypart used to be a way to supplement your radio schedule and get messages into the ears of working people listening to the radio in the office. Classic-rock and easy-listening stations have the formats of choice. But with streaming audio, advertisers trying to reach any demographic or psychographic can get their messages out to their audiences not only locally — as most radio is bought — but nationally, because they can buy the specific genre or format only and not a whole radio schedule. And again, they can speak to their audiences at a time when no other “speaking” is being done.

Defining Ad Units

Next thing is to determine inventory units. I propose that per-spot and GRPs serve as the currency. For formats that have a great deal of listeners, it is easy to determine what the GRPs would be and how an advertiser’s online radio schedule fits the overall communication impact of an offline radio schedule. Advertisers could use online audio-streaming buys as a “midday daypart” to supplement their offline radio buys.

I am hardly proposing a silver bullet, but someone has to start somewhere with something. There is no doubt about the significance of streaming audio and what it could mean to advertisers. If we could just explain it to them so they can hear the music and follow the piper…

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