How Digital Distribution and Evaluation Will Impact Public Service Advertising

Aggressive Promotion Yields Significant Results

By Bill Goodwill

It is no surprise to see that digital transmission has now become the de facto standard for distribution of media content, particularly for shorter videos such as PSA messages, which do not require expansive bandwidth.

First let’s define the terms. Digital distribution (also called content delivery, online distribution, or electronic software distribution), is the delivery of media content over an online delivery medium, such as the Internet, thus bypassing physical distribution methods, such as paper, compact discs, and DVDs.

Content distributed online may be streamed or downloaded, and often consists of books, films and television programs, music, software, and video games. Streaming involves downloading and using content at a user's request, or "on-demand", rather than allowing a user to store it permanently. By contrast, fully downloading content to a hard drive or other form of storage media may allow offline access in the future.

“Pull” vs “Push” Delivery

For PSAs there are two basic ways to get the media to use messages in the public interest. First we can “pull” the media to a website where messages can be downloaded, or we can “push” messages out to the media using a variety of different digital distribution companies.

There are two obstacles to the “pull” model, and one of them is that you need to use some device such as blast emails, newsletters, direct mail, etc. to let the media know the URL where the PSAs can be downloaded. Secondly, stations are essentially spoiled when it comes to PSAs, because for years they have had all the messages they could ever use delivered right on their desktop along with promotional materials to explain the importance of the campaigns. If they have to take any step to go to an external website and download PSAs, that is a serious impediment to usage, not to mention the time it takes to download very large Hi-Def digital files.

However, one of the advantages of the pull model is that stations can view the PSAs in various lengths and there is some background information on both the client organization and the campaign itself. Five years ago we created our own digital download site called PSA Digital and to see how we handle both TV and radio digital files, go to:

The “push” method uses the latest technology to get the PSAs out to traffic directors at stations, who then route the messages to the appropriate person at the station, i.e. community affairs director, program director, or public service director.

Good News vs Bad News

The good news about digital distribution is we no longer have to design as many collateral pieces, get them approved and printed, which shortens the distribution timeline and also saves money. The bad news is that we lose some control over the gatekeeper influence process, because we are no longer dealing with them directly. In the past PSAs were sent directly to the decision-maker at the station. In the digital world, files are sent to the Traffic Director who controls the dedicated server at the station, and we need a way to tell that person where to send the files. We use a digital Traffic Instructions Form to ensure the decision-maker gets the files they need.

Creating the Distribution Plan

Since our mailing lists of media contacts which have been developed over three decades are undoubtedly different than those used by the service which feeds the digital files to stations, we merge the two files to ensure there are no duplicates or omissions. In terms of quantities, PSAs can be distributed to as many as 2,160 broadcast TV stations and 294 national networks, and up to 10,000 radio stations and networks. The cost of these distribution schemes is based on the number of stations targeted.

Role of Promotion

One of the hallmark of the campaigns distributed by Goodwill Communications is that we believe in the power of promotion. Five years ago we did not do anything to promote our client campaigns, thinking that our clients either had internal PR staff or external agencies who fulfilled that function. However, public service advertising is a special field within the mass communications profession, and many PR or ad agencies simply do not understand the process.

Accordingly, we began to add a suite of promotional services to our client campaigns which include:

  • Posting client files to our PSA Digital Website where they can be viewed and downloaded in broadcast quality with the Nielsen SIGMA code embedded in the files

  • Posting client PSAs to the National Association of Broadcasters’ Spot Center download site to give the messages external credibility

  • Using well designed blast emails such as the one shown below to let stations know where they can download PSAs; sending these to the media, as well as to state broadcast associations located in every state

  • Distributing a digital storyboard and a newsletter to provide background Information on the client campaign such as shown below

  • Using PR Web to disseminate a news release to 30,000 online journalists, bloggers and reporters. This tactic allows journalists to actually see the PSA which is embedded in the release – another way for us to reach important media contacts

  • Posting our client PSAs to our branded You Tube site called: PSA USA

  • Finally, and most importantly, having our outreach specialist, Margaret Kessler, personally contact the 153 national cable networks in our database to pitch our PSAs to them.

Does Promotion Work?

This may be the most difficult question of all to answer. But using data from our client campaigns we know two things. First, a extensive review of evaluation data shows a direct correlation between the campaign performance where promotional tactics were part of our distribution plan, versus those without a promotional component.

Secondly, it stands to reason that if a TV or radio public service director has received your PSAs previously…if the creative message is compelling...if they believe in your cause….and if you truly are operating in the public interest, there is a much greater chance they will use your PSAs, no matter how they are delivered. But, that is where the salesmanship comes in; you have to prove it to them.

In PSA workshops when I ask attendees what the primary audience for their campaign is, they often respond by saying, “parents,” “teens” or “the elderly.” In my view these are all the wrong answers. The correct answer is media gatekeepers, because if you do not engage them in your campaign you are not going to even get on the air. You also need to build positive long-term relationships with the media and promotional tactics help you do this.

Evaluation Impact

In a fully digital distribution world, there are some evaluation implications to be considered.
For the past 20 years or so, all of our TV PSA campaigns distributed to broadcast TV stations included a special code which allows the A.C. Nielsen Company to track actual TV PSA usage in all 212 Designated Market Areas of the U.S. 24/7 and in all days of the year.

It has been a superb system of PSA monitoring, which has brought tremendous credibility to the murky world of PSA usage.

For radio, however, it is a different story.  While radio offers PSA planners many advantages, such as cheaper production cost and the ability to target specific audiences, it also has some weaknesses, and one of them is getting accurate evaluation data.

The primary way radio PSA exposure has been evaluated is Business Reply Cards (BRCs), which have some significant limitations.  First, only about 20% of stations return them, and we know from sending reminder postcards that many stations use PSAs, but do not report that usage.  We try to make it very easy to use the BRCs by putting simple information stations can circle to indicate frequency and duration of usage.  We also provide free return postage, but still many stations do not take the time to return them, meaning the client gets no credit for usage.

Now the A.C. Nielsen Company – the same firm which provides accurate broadcast TV monitoring – has developed technology to monitor radio PSA exposure. The service,  called Spot,Trac,  offers  radio tracking in 140 markets, covering over 2000 radio stations across the U.S. and Canada, including satellite and national networks.

"Fingerprint" Technology

Nielsen SIGMA radio detections are collected using what is called “pattern recognition technology,” which works very similar to fingerprint detections.

Generically, it is called “passive monitoring,” because there is no need to place a code on the radio master. We simply send the audio files to Nielsen and they create the patterns to track each creative. However, there are some creative requirements to consider that could greatly affect results, which include:

  • Audio must be unique in order to be reported individually. For example, if a 30 second PSA is cut down to 15 seconds, Nielsen cannot identify and report them individually unless there is enough difference between the audio tracks. There must be a different voice or background on each creative. A new or different phone number is not considered unique.

  • The entire spot is encoded in 6-second segments. If it is a 30 second spot, which has 5 segments and 3 of the 5 match, while 2 do not, the 3 are generally going to match as a duplicate for the first pattern already in the system. Nielsen also allows us to submit the audio to be monitored, and their system will tell us if there is enough of a difference for unique reporting.

The following are the minimum requirements for audio files to be tracked. If your file does not meet these requirements, the release will be rejected.

  • MPEG 1.0 layer 3
  • Stereo (mpeg file must be created with one of the following bit values: 00 - stereo, 01 - joint stereo, or 10 - dual channel stereo)
  • Minimum 128kbit (may be higher but not necessary) and 44100Hz or 44.1KhZ
  • Files cannot include headers
  • Minimum of 15 seconds for the spot is required
  • Clients can use Audacity software to convert the MP3 to stereo, or make minor changes.

Finally, since Nielsen does not provide universal coverage of all radio stations that regularly use PSAs, we still have to send stations a BRC to collect as much usage as we can from stations that are not monitored by Nielsen. Our software is programmed to avoid redundant reporting between these two sources and on our client Executive Summary reports they will see separate usage data for these two evaluation sources.

Just as Sir Aldous Huxley wrote in his groundbreaking novel in 1931 called Brave New Worlds about the fear of losing individual identity in the fast-paced world of the future, we must either embrace these new ways of doing things, or we will no longer be relevant, as change swirls about us.