What Audio can learn from NBA Basketball and the Video Game Industry Mistakes

“Don’t hate the player, hate the game” is a quote most often used in defense of taking a less acceptable – but supposedly faster, cheaper, or more efficient – route to success. With clients I often refer to it as “gaming the system”. It inevitably happens when the economic crunch sets in: rising production costs, falling commercial income, and an increasingly crowded market space. A (usually very high paid) consultant comes in and tries to identify the individual components of what makes a “successful” audio product based on whatever the metric is you are measured by. Sometimes it’s breaking through the cume-gate in a traditional callout based listening measurement; sometimes it’s a magical number of users or subscribers to report to the board, or something completely different. The entire station is then geared around just this one lever. These measures all have one thing in common: replacing the less tangible concept of a “great product” with an easily measured and manipulated metric. Most of these measures also have one thing in common: they sacrifice making a great overall audio for “gaming the system”. 

The NBA playoffs have come and gone, ending with a great underdog story, but that wasn’t the interesting part. That happened on the sidelines, in a post-game interview with James Harden of the Houston Rockets. He is now famously quoted as saying:

I just want a fair chance, man. Just call the game the way it’s supposed to be called and we’ll live with the results. It’s plain and simple.”

If you don’t follow basketball, Harden and his team are – on paper – one of the greatest players and teams of our current era, and by rights should or could have won the championship at least once in recent years. James Harden has become infamous for abusing (or cleverly utilizing, depending in who you ask) the foul rules of basketball. When a player is fouled, he gets up to two “free” points, and the opponent is limited to the number of fouls he can make before he must leave the game. Since going to the Houston Rockets in 2013 he has been in the top 3 for number of foul shots taken every single year and led the category in all but 2 of those years. He is a master at making opponents foul him to reap the benefits. No other player even comes close.

One-Trick Pony

Why does this matter? Abusing the rules to net a result is a great tactic until the rules get changed. Then your “gaming the system” method comes crashing down, just as it did in the playoffs for the Rockets. His quote came after a game where the referees weren’t calling fouls the way he expected them to, and the entire winning concept went out the window. The problem was only made worse when instead of switching to more conventional winning strategy the team tried twice as hard to milk the fouls.

One of our most frequently asked questions is how well RadioAnalyzer can emulate the official ratings tools of our clients (which differ, depending on country). They are actually asking the wrong question and our answer is always the same. RadioAnalyzer teaches you how to create a better product, increase your listening, and achieve a better result in your official ratings. Trying to find a magic prediction tool to measure another measurement is, quite honestly, foolish. Making the greatest product you can and marketing it correctly will always get you a better result, and it works! Check out this article from Mikkel for a prime example from some of our European clients’ success.

Our most successful clients all have one thing in common: they create great, complete stations and focus on growing their audience and improving their overall product. RadioAnalyzer lets them see what works and where they need to make changes on a day to day basis, and how engaged their audience is above and beyond the promotions and incentives. If, however, your road to success is purely based on manipulating a questionnaire form or a ratings mechanics instead of creating a great audio product that listeners want to have, you are setting yourself up for failure. 

Too Much of a Good Thing

If you have ever heard the term “loot box” you either play video games or have children that do. It is essentially a bonus or cosmetic effect for the player that they can buy for a small fee – but not directly. You buy a “loot box” that has a chance to contain the effect you want. In essence: it’s gambling. The concept in moderation was a good one for the industry – video game production costs have been rising steadily in the past few decades due to changes in technology, the need to be accessible online, and  increased competition (sound familiar radio people?), and loot boxes were a great additional income. So great that EA – one of the biggest game publishers – made 800 million dollars in profit in 2016 with them. Then someone got greedy, and they released Star Wars Battlefront 2 where significant portions of the game were locked behind loot boxes. Players noticed. EA’s response can only be described as a PR nightmare, and the backlash was immediate and extremely damaging. Not only did the game not sell, but they were forced to remove or weaken the cash-grabbing mechanics they had built into the game which were a huge part of the projected income. The incident also led to politicians worldwide examining their monetization practices in the game (and drafting legislation to ban them) and ultimately losing EA 3.1 Billion in stock value. 

Buying or milking your listeners with money mechanics instead of an actual product doesn’t create long term loyalty or success. They will eventually notice that it’s just a lot of chrome without anything underneath. It might net you a short-term benefit, but it isn’t sustainable. German Radio experienced a similar crash after a cash-win craze a few years back. Stations were giving away six and seven figure (yes, 1 million) amounts of cash to listeners. Not only did listeners tire of the over-promotion and the lack of content on the stations, but many stations kept trying to find ways to keep the payouts low or even keep them from happening. The listeners noticed and chose to listen less or not at all. Politicians also got involved and created new gambling related restrictions that caused the “good thing” to be dropped from all stations.  

The Secret to Success

There isn’t a magic formula that will turn any station into a long-term winner, but we have found our most successful clients share the following attributes:

1.     They cover the fundamentals. They will market a gimmick to get noticed but build upon a foundation of real entertainment. 

2.     They create an engaging, enjoyable product first, and then fine tune the execution to maximize the result in the metric that matters. Often, there is now more than one (i.e. unique stream listeners AND callout-based quarter hour listening). 

3.     They offer incentives only as an end result of engaging content, not as a self-serving tune-in device. If the game isn’t fun to listen to or fun to play, it isn’t done on air, no matter how expensive or attractive the prize is. 

4.     They constantly monitor and improve their program. They build on long-term listener loyalty, and not on a quick-fix. 

Looking to make the absolute best audio you can? We will help you identify what works and what doesn’t and transform your creative audio ideas into something that will leave your audience wanting more. Reach out and we are happy to tell you how.