Hook Clusters: A Love/Hate Relationship

Hook clusters. Those little audio productions of small groups of music hooks edited together to represent formats or types of music. They can be a powerful tool or a powerful distraction.

If you’re doing a study looking for a format hole in a market, hook clusters of 5 or 6 hooks representing a sample half hour of a format, let’s call them “format montages,” are the best tool available. We like rotating at least two functionally-identical format montages with different songs and artists for each format.

If you’re doing a library music test for a new station or a station that’s been repositioned to the point that its current core listeners are irrelevant, then those same format montages are a great tool. Rotating at least two functionally-identical format montages with different songs and artists becomes even more critical in this situation. We remember vividly a montage-screened library test many years ago where the last hook in the one montage being used was a Phil Collins track. It was no surprise that all the Phil Collins and Genesis cuts tested ranked among the top 20 titles in the test.

If you’re doing a library music test for a well-established station, the case for format montages gets trickier. Too often hook clusters in that situation eliminate cumers who fall just outside the sound of the cluster, but contribute significant TSL to the station. Taking their voice out of the music test has the potential to reduce their TSL to the station.

So far we’ve been talking about hook clusters of 5 or 6 hooks that represent station formats. The other type of hook clusters are those where 3 or 4 hooks are used to represent a style of music. These are often used in perceptual studies. When programmers start thinking about how to represent their station music library, the clusters start to multiply and large amounts of questionnaire inventory are eaten up.

Many respondents are able to imagine a 30-second grouping of hooks as a radio format. The stations they’ve listened to form a framework to help them. So, format montages can be very effective.

Shorter 3-hook clusters representing styles or types of music, let’s call them “style clusters,” are different. Those of us in radio programming think a lot about categorizing music, but it’s not so common among normal people.

Respondents are more likely to hear these “style clusters” as one good song and two so-so ones. Programmers can conceive of a cluster of power ballads, but respondents hear a great song and two others trying to rip off the sound of their favorite band. When we look at the songs in a “style cluster” using statistical cluster analysis in music tests, we often find that the songs don’t cluster together – that is, the same respondents don’t have similar reactions to the songs.

In a perceptual interview, we can get more meaningful answers about music direction for a station facing off pairs of format montages and asking respondents to choose which one they prefer (after all, that’s the question we really want answered most of the time).

Moreover, in the time it takes for a respondent to listen to each 3-song style cluster, he or she could have answered two questions. Once the cluster has been played, most stations want to ask the appeal of the cluster and what station or stations respondents think of for playing that style. So, a study with, say, 15 style clusters eats up 60 questions – approaching half of the question inventory of a typical perceptual interview.

In the time spent having respondents listening to and answering questions about a bunch of style clusters, you could instead:

  • Have them respond to a fairly long list of statements aiming to get to the bottom of how they really feel about the station and important competitors.
  • Ask them about the things they love about living in your market, so that you could reflect those things in your imaging.
  • Inquire about their favorite things to do in your market, so that you could craft promotions around those things.
  • Find out about TV shows, movies, comedians and other entertainment they love, to get clues on how to make them laugh or touch them emotionally.
  • Learn about the other sources they’re using to get access to music.
  • Have them listen to and respond about station imaging pieces – to make sure those pieces are really communicating the things you want.

Here’s to getting actionable answers to the burning questions you have concerning your stations!