The Undying Radio: Familiarity Breeds Success

A new study by Prof. Morgan Ward of SMU Cox finds people prefer the familiar to the new in music.

Marketing Professor Morgan Ward

Do you enjoy 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?

Taylor Swift
Taylor Swift on stage.

Many music listeners, especially the younger generations, want to perceive themselves as listening to cool music. But new research by SMU Cox Marketing Professor Morgan Ward and co-authors says otherwise when it comes to real choices. In the music arena, consumers tend to "believe" they prefer newer songs but their actual choices are driven by familiarity.

Many have this belief that people are driven toward novelty, says Ward. "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 until now there has been little research examining which force will dominate.

Morgan Ward of SMU Cox School of Business
Prof. Morgan Ward

This new research indicates that our behavior trumps what the media portrays. Ward explains, "In life we have many day-to-day decisions and responsibilities. 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."

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% of the U.S. population, and U.S. radio advertising netted $17.4 billion in revenues. The authors suggest offering and/or 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."

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