Sometimes Tracking Needs to be Wrong to be Right

By Wayne Clouten, BPR


What should we expect from tracking research?

A lot of people expect it to be a guide to what their station will receive in the official ratings survey and if it doesn’t do that then it’s not “accurate” or “working”.  If the sample construction and questionnaire has been designed to mimic the official survey then that sort of expectation is reasonable. Another important consideration is how similar the survey methodology of the tracking is to the survey methodology of the official ratings in your country.

The greater benefit of tracking however is gaining an understanding of WHY things happen in the official survey and this is where devoting attention to questions about such things as listener preferences and motivation, content, the competitive environment and brand position are critical.  A tracking design based solely on trying to predict the official survey will likely not capture any insight about WHY things happen because there simply won’t be enough questionnaire time or budget left to get the job done.

The other problem with making the value proposition of your tracking just about its ability to predict the outcome of a survey result, is the (and we will be charitable) very “fluid” nature of survey results which often report inexplicable movements from survey to survey.  Sometimes trying to predict the official survey is like predicting the direction of a burning cat.

Most stations conducting weekly tracking research will use a questionnaire design which combines tracking questions (station share & cume etc) with some strategic/perceptual questions.  In many respects such a design is a compromise between offering some visibility on the next survey result and some insight about how to shape and position your product.

The other view is that tracking should be about seeing things before they are measured in the official survey giving a Program Director time to respond to a problem or opportunity. In this regard tracking ideally provides visibility on what lies a few months ahead.  Many Program Director’s much prefer this approach as you can do something with this knowledge however tracking that does this job well won’t necessarily correlate with your next official survey result.

One of the most important functions of tracking is to maintain a focus on your key performance indicators and strategic direction even when the official survey result may not be good or is bouncing around.  In this respect tracking can prevent a station from becoming schizophrenic and changing direction every time there is some nuance in the official survey.  There are many stories to be told about how tracking helped a station stay on course and navigate to success despite the official survey failing to measure that momentum until months after.

The key issue is having a clear perspective on what you expect from your tracking because it has a huge impact on the sample construction and questionnaire design.  It’s like going to the Doctor. Do you visit the Doctor who can predict the day of your death? or do you go to the Doctor you can tell you what to change in order to avoid death?

At the end of the day tracking should be about helping a Program Director make the right decisions.  It is best employed as a reference tool, something to provide a guiding light and provide insight into why things happen.  Sometimes to help you the most, tracking won’t correlate with the next official survey result but that doesn’t necessarily mean its “wrong”.



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