Do Ratings Respondents Cheat?
The stories about ratings respondents cheating abound. Some are true and some are urban legend. The issue is, how do you manage and program in a world of statistical sampling, measurement error, and non-response biases that may be working against your format? A good place to start is to try and separate the facts from the fiction.
But first let’s just set the stage with a real life situation. Let’s say the book just came out, and your station drops 3 ranker positions and puts you out of the most desirable buy demo in your market. Every single logical bone in your body tells you this should have been a great book. But no, it’s the worst book you’ve had in three years. So you sit and sweat. Rate cards may be changed. Your Sales Manager is suggesting programming changes. Your competition has a staff Celebration Party. Incentive bonus dollars fly out the window. You may even begin to question the format and twelve weeks worth of solid programming.
Fact vs. Fiction
So what is the truth? Do ratings respondents actually wear these Portable People Meters all of the time? Who gets the meters anyway? How can one family stay in a panel for at least a year, and sometimes even two years? What does Arbitron consider “cheating”? What do the PPM respondents tell us about their own real life experiences?
All these questions matter. They matter because your livelihood depends on it. There are two worlds. The world according to the people who actually listen to your radio station, and the world according to the people who agree to carry a meter for a year. They are not exactly the same. You need to know and understand the differences and program accordingly.
Here is what we do know: around 70% of the population refuses to cooperate with any rating service. That doesn’t necessarily mean they are cheating. It means they either don’t pick up their phones or open their mail from unknown companies. Some people shun the door to door solicitors that ask them to participate in a media research project. Others believe the cash incentive is not worth their time.
We also know that the sampling unit is not an individual. The sampling unit is a family unit. That can range from a single individual to a family of ten. If there is more than one individual over the age of 12, then everyone in the family is asked to participate. Do you want your entire family to be involved in a research project? Maybe not.
If you are asked to carry a meter, you have to keep it moving. If you can’t be bothered to carry a meter, is that cheating? How about if you already carry around a cell phone, a set of keys, a wallet or a purse, and don’t want to clip something onto your belt? Are you a cheater then? Docked meters fire up alerts in the home office and those respondents are encouraged to carry the meter or risk being thrown out. So if you decide not to carry a meter is that cheating? What if you go on vacation or have an extended hospital stay?
What if you attach your meter to your ceiling fan and leave a radio on? Maybe put it on your dog’s collar and let him roam the household while you head off to the grocery store. Is that cheating? After all…the meter is moving.
Let me make one thing crystal clear: my own research has found that the vast majority of the ratings respondents are responsible and caring individuals who diligently try to follow the instructions, carry the meters, and accept their monthly cash payments as a happy reward. They don’t want to cheat, and they try very hard not to cheat.
Therefore the question of cheating does not reside on the shoulders of the respondents. It resides on the nature of the sample and that’s what can drive you crazy when you go from first to worst in just one book. You need to deeply understand how PPM sampling really works and then you can intelligently react to the good books and the inevitable bad books without putting a gun to your head…or to your format.
Tell us your stories. What have you experienced in your lifetime? Have you experienced mostly real numbers and how many of them were just “system problems?” Maybe to this day you still really aren’t sure what happened. But then again… that my friend is exactly the problem.