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The Undying Radio: Familiarity breeds content when it comes to listeners and music

Many music listeners want to perceive themselves as receptive to novel music. But new research says otherwise when it comes to our choices, says Morgan Ward in SMU’s Cox School of Business.

Tension between the novel and the familiar leads to interesting insights for marketers.

The research offers lessons in how actual behavior trumps media portrayals of consumers’ perennial desires for novelty.

Study shows that when offered the choice, listeners opt for familiar tunes, despite belief people prefer constant novelty

Are you tired of hearing Taylor Swift’s familiar “You Belong with Me” played over and over again? Or are you part of the cool set of music listeners, identifying the next great hit or indie band on the rise? Many music listeners, especially the younger generations, want to perceive themselves as listening to cool music. But new research says otherwise when it comes to real choices, says SMU’s Morgan Ward, an assistant professor of marketing in the Cox School of Business.

The tension between the novel and the familiar leads to interesting insights for marketers. The research offers lessons about how actual behavior trumps media portrayals of consumers’ perennial desire for the novel.

Many have this intuition that people are driven toward novelty, says Ward, a co-author of the study. “We believe we want to listen to new music, or anything that is novel, but when we observe what people actually choose, they tend to choose what is familiar.” There is a persistent tension in music choice between the opposing forces of the known and familiar versus the novel and new, write the authors. People do exhibit both tendencies in their consumption choices. But there is little research examining which force will dominate.

The research indicates that our behavior trumps what the media portrays.

“In life we have many day-to-day decisions and responsibilities,” Ward says. “We are sorting through so much information; and at the end of the day, we are ‘cognitive misers.’ That is, we do not want to spend so much time on making choices, which is very depleting. Research backs this up. Choosing something familiar is easy to process and comfortable. The desire to not expend so much energy on choices is what I believe drives these findings.”

Ward co-authored “The Same Old Song: The Power of Familiarity in Music Choice” with Joseph Goodman of Washington University, and Julie Irwin of University of Texas, Austin. It appears in Marketing Letters, including online.

Play on
The music industry is over $30 billion dollars strong. Web radio now exceeds 57 million consumers each week. Traditional radio formats continue to endure, despite cries that radio is dead. According to Radio Advertising Bureau, in 2011 radio reached nearly 95 percent of the U.S. population, and U.S. radio advertising netted $17.4 billion in revenues. The authors suggest offering and emphasizing songs consumers want is good marketing strategy, as is choosing to advertise in venues that play preferred music.

“People were under the impression that radio was no longer relevant,” notes Ward. “Radio is very relevant. We now have new forms of music on popular websites like Pandora and Spotify, where these brands are already maximizing insights such as ours. They present the consumer with music they already like but it is presented in new ways that allow for an easy transition. These sites are successful because they are using the idea of familiarity.”

Across four studies, findings indicate that familiarity is a stronger predictor of music choice than other prevalent measures such as liking and satiation. Consumers pick music that they are familiar with even when they believe they would prefer less familiar music. This research is a first to quantify the effect of familiarity versus other forces — including liking — on consumer choice and to determine the power of these variables on actual market behavior. The authors note that an extensive body of psychology literature “does not provide much actionable managerial guidance for marketers as to which stimulus a consumer will actually choose in a particular product category.”

The authors’ second test shows that people are likely to choose music based on familiarity, even when they will have to actually listen to the music versus an intent. In fact, familiarity predicts choice above and beyond liking, and it has a stronger direct effect on choice. “Liking” is a commonly used variable in marketing research. Especially in the music domain, perceived coolness is a factor. Ward mentions, “We measure this by having respondents make choices individually; if they had their peers observing their choices, they might have chosen differently, trying to make cool choices in front of their peers.”

A heavy load?
Also factored into the study is one’s stimulation levels and cognitive load. For example, the authors predict and prove that when a person is engaged in an activity requiring more stimulation, they prefer more familiar music. Imagine someone jogging or driving in rush-hour traffic, two tasks which already consume some of the listener’s bandwidth. The opposite is also true: in a less stimulating environment, the novel can be better handled. Blaring some new tune while outdoors playing Frisbee with your black Lab is perfectly doable. One’s “cognitive load” is particularly relevant to music choice because listening to music often involves other activities such as driving, exercising or working with “audio wallpaper” playing softly in the background.

A general finding is that consumers do not want to be over-stimulated, says Ward. Optimal stimulation has been researched since the 1980s. “People typically operate at a low level of desire for stimulation in their everyday surroundings or they seek it at certain times. There are people who like jumping out of airplanes and scaling cliffs in Nepal, but this is more of a chronic state of being versus a consumption choice.”

Familiarity however is a major driver of actual music choice and market share, according to results. They note that emphasis on novelty in the music domain, by consumers and people protesting the current state of the music business, is misplaced. While consumers indicate that they want more novelty, in fact their choices suggest that they do not.

Impact on the playlist
When testing consumers about a particular music choice or a particular playlist, marketers would do well to bypass consumers’ notions of what they want, and instead ask how familiar consumers are with the music, the research indicates. Familiarity is as powerful, and sometimes more powerful, than any other measure of music preference in the studies. “Satiation measures,” how tired of a song one is, at least for predicting reduced preference for music, is counterproductive.

For music outlets with playlists, findings suggest the best strategy is to concentrate on familiar songs, even if consumers say they want more novelty. When a new song is introduced, the authors suggest it should be played often and be offered to consumers through promotions. For music platforms allowing users to create a playlist, such as iTunes, marketers should heavily promote and make familiar music, easy to find for purchase, and should not emphasize unfamiliar music. The researchers predict the success of Apps such as Spotify and Pandora, which offer newly released music that has many familiar elements, such as familiar artists, styles, and melodies.

The authors believe that this familiarity story would play a powerful role in other artistic categories other than music, such as the entertainment, food and the visual arts. Many popular movies include familiar actors and plots, and same goes for popular restaurants seeming to serve essentially the same food. The researchers point to people not needing stimulation in these types of product categories, as in music.

The Eagles, Rolling Stones, Cold Play and Taylor Swift may yet live on another century. — Jennifer Warren

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By Margaret Allen

Senior research writer, SMU Public Affairs