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KSJO 92.3 – Good Product, Bad Marketing. A Case Study

By - March 06, 2011

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This is a story of a radio station – you know, those old school, pre-Internet media outlets that folks my age grew up listening to. I’ve always been rather fond of radio, in a nostalgic way, and I’ve had an off again, on again relationship with it over the years. For the past few years, it’s been mostly off – I only listen to AM sports radio (my beloved Giants) and NPR on FM. Whenever I get a new car, I get six months free of Sirius, and I check into Howard Stern, but then the trial period ends, and I just don’t feel like the subscription price is worth it, particularly given it’s not transferrable to any of my other cars.

Now, back in the day, radio really meant something. Remember the FM radio boom? If you’re over 40 or so, you probably do – the peak was the 1970s, where, according to Wikipedia “FM radio experienced a golden age of integrity programming, with disc jockeys playing what they wanted, including album cuts not designated as “singles” and lengthy progressive rock tracks.”

In case you’re wondering, it was this period of time that inspired the name of my company Federated Media, or FM – the explosion of independent voice in radio during the 1970s was quite similar to the explosion of independent voices on the web today….but I’m taking a detour. Back to my story…

So a week or so ago I find myself stuck in my car for longer than my average commute, and both sports radio and NPR were, for various reasons, insufferable (which they both can be quite often). I listen to my own music a lot as I work or work out, so I wasn’t hankering to plug in my own tunes (and it’s impossible to do so while driving if you want to make a call, thanks Audi!).

I was looking for something new – in short, I was in discovery mode.

So what did I do? Well, I reverted back to my 1970s roots, and I started flipping around the FM dial. Nearly everything I landed on was terrible – the same old top-40 pop or lowest-common-denominator format crap that’s infected this increasingly irrelevant industry for more than ten years (I’m looking at you, Alice 97.3!).

Then I landed on 92.3 – KSJO – and out came, of all bands, the Local Natives.

Now the Local Natives aren’t utterly arcane, but they aren’t exactly mainstream either (at least, they weren’t a year ago. I’ve heard their music in commercials recently, but that’s pretty standard these days). In short, it was quite surprising to find them on the radio at all, and the song being played was not one of their better-known ones – it was, in old FM parlance, a “B side.”

The next song was of a similar mindset, something by The National I think, or maybe it was Band of Horses or Morning Benders. After that was a deep Broken Bells track. Every one of these bands I have gone to see live, at a festival like Bonnaroo or Austin City Limits, or at a music hall like The Independent in San Francisco. This was music I really connected with, one song after another.

Experiencing what felt like *my* music being played on the radio was a total shock – it had been nearly 30 years since a radio station was a community I wanted to be part of – a badge I’d wear, so to speak. And anyone who reads this site knows that my definition of a truly successful “publication” is one that has a voice and point of view which draws a community together.

Here I had found a real publication of a radio station. What a novelty!

Over the past few days I’ve been actually listening to KSJO because the music is good – I know nearly all of it, and that which I don’t know is interesting – I wanted to know more. Oddly, the format of the station is “DJ-less” – there’s no one telling me the names of the bands – in fact, I’ve never even heard the station break for an advertisement (a red flag, to my mind – clearly this couldn’t last).

The only break between songs is an ongoing, pre-recorded “campaign” called “Save Alternative,” voiced in a rather irritating manner by a young woman trying to be a bit too cool for school. Given that the “save alternative” stuff was pretty minimal, it didn’t drive me off the station, I was digging the music and I was intrigued by this new entrant on the dial. At some point the woman’s voice mentioned “savealternative.com” so of course, I decided to check it out online. Clearly, whoever had just bought the station was working up some kind of promotion around this, and I figured they must be starting it commercial free.

Here’s where the story goes south.

On the site, there’s nothing but a page imploring visitors to join “SALT”, the “Save ALTernative Cult”. “Justice is coming” the site promises. Ick. Maybe I’m not in the demo, but honestly, all this “us vs. the man” stuff is pretty cliche. Justice for whom? Folks tired of shitty radio? OK, but really, do I need to join a cult for this?

But even though the voice was off putting, I signed up to be on their email list, because the music was just that good. In other words, the product was great, even though the marketing, so far, was way off key.

The marketing only got worse, at least in practice. In fact, it’s rather a case study of what NOT to do if you have a product so good, people actually do work to tell you more about themselves.

Here I was, a fan of the product who converted from an on air listener to taking action on the web – I actually filled out an online form. As any marketer knows, that makes me one of the most valuable potential customers that station could ever have – in particular as I was an early adopter. It turns out, the station was sold on Feb 28, 2011 to a new owner, and this format was barely a week old by the time I filled out the form. And while I don’t want to make too big a deal of it, I think I’d qualify as an influencer – I’ve got a few hundred thousand followers of my RSS and Twitter feeds. I wanted to tell people about the new station, but…well, while the product was great, the marketing was now in the way. I wasn’t sure I wanted to send folks to savealternative.com. It was a bit too…cheesy. I couldn’t endorse it. (I didn’t even want to “Like” it on Facebook.)

So I gave them my email address and other info, including some of the bands I liked, and that was that. The homepage promised I’d find out about local bands and other promotions, and that sounded good. There’s literally nothing else on the site, not even a playlist (which was the main reason I went to the site in the first place).

I was still curious about the station, and wanted to know the playlist, and I figured the “regular station” must have a site as well. A bit of Googling landed me at a very odd place – it had some of the playlist info I was looking for, but it also had a slide show with pictures of the Kim Kardashian in a tiny swimsuit and a bunch of other random, corporate rock crap – not exactly consistent with the product which drew me in the first place.

In short, I was utterly confused. Today, as I wrote this post, I tried to find that site again, and for now anyway, the site is offline (there’s another one related to the sale here, again, with nothing on it). I probably saw a site in transition as the ownership was being transferred. But first impressions are critical to growing a viral and evangelistic audience, and so far, the new owners were blowing it.

I’m not trying to pile on here, but it does get worse. It’s been a week since I gave “savealternative.com” my email address, and so far, it’s been crickets. I didn’t even get a confirmation email thanking me for joining up. I want to connect, I want to become part of the community implied by this fresh new voice on the radio, but…whoever’s running marketing there is fumbling around in the dark.

I for one hope they find the light switch. And for any of you planning digital marketing campaigns, keep this case study in mind. If you’ve got a great product, make sure your marketing and comms pay it off online. Your early evangelizers are the spark that amplify your brand. Don’t snuff it out before it has a chance to catch fire.

NB: I’ve been thinking a lot about local and location-based marketing in advance of FM’s Austin Signal event this week. If any brand is location-based, it’s a local radio station…hence the long post…

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11 thoughts on “KSJO 92.3 – Good Product, Bad Marketing. A Case Study

  1. cunti says:

    Hi john, I like how you explain about bad marketing on your case study and I like it.
    “I’m not trying to pile on here, but it does get worse”

  2. kimberlee chase says:

    Mystery Solved…or maybe not! I found this station …same time frame…same demog as you too…LOVED it…then could not find it…keep us posted…if you hear back…they have/had a good thing..def a market for it…

  3. Jordan says:

    Well, I guess you can’t be good at everything. I would prefer your scenario, bad marketing, great product, vs. great marketing, crappy product. In the end, the product keeps people coming back…or so I would like to think.

  4. nice topic and good to hear that music still excites you. have you spent any time listening to kfjc, ksjs, kkup or any of the numerous non-commercial outlets in that area? kfjc was the first station on the web, i guarantee their site is in unity with the overall message.

    i take it you heard about the legendary kusf being sold. college and community radio do EVERYTHING better than commercial radio. spin it to the left mr. battelle!

    ksjo used to be one of the best rock stations in the country. sigh.

  5. Great product, vs. great marketing, crappy product. In the end, the product keeps people coming back. Thanks you John.

  6. Grant says:

    As a long-time radio vet I have seen situations like this repeatedly. It’s surprising how bad many radio stations are at selling themselves when are literally in the business of selling themselves.

  7. actually, sometimes the worst product goes viral and earns millions with excellent marketing. Most of the times this happens and creates an inverse way of marketing.

  8. Julia says:

    Great post — exactly what I was feeling. But any insight now that they’re off the air? Their Facebook page offers clues, but there’s a lot of disappointment. Most of the listeners knew it wouldn’t last, but it’s still hard to go back to the same white noise we’ve been listening to….

  9. Frannie says:

    Unfortunately, the format for KSJO 92.3 changed mid last week. It is now a Chinese format (ugh!)…The company that owns the station is called Principle Broadcasting and appears to be based on the East Coast. I’ve googled them to try to find an email address to send my complaints to about the new format, but there isn’t a whole lot of info on them. I would like to start some sort of petition or protest of sorts to get the “old” – save alternative – format back. I live in the South Bay & listened to KSJO off and on since it’s inception over 40 years ago! I want my KSJO back!!!! Any ideas???

  10. maryland used says:

    I’m really enjoying the theme/design of your web site. Do you ever run into any internet browser compatibility problems? A couple of my blog visitors have complained about my site not operating correctly in Explorer but looks great in Firefox. Do you have any solutions to help fix this issue?

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