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As radio looks to open new revenue streams, more stations are finding gold in the messages that scroll across the dashboard display on car radio receivers. For them, RDS (Radio Data System) technology is both a station-branding platform and a growing sales tool.

RDS allows small amounts of digital info to be embedded in FM radio broadcasts. Most stations have for years used the technology to display artist and song info or the station’s moniker, call letters or slogan. But for savvy operators, including Beasley Broadcast Group, CBS Radio and Crista Radio Group, this visual pipeline to the consumer has recently become a form of marketing real estate to be monetized in a host of new ways.

In addition to synchronizing RDS messages with over-the-air ads, stations are taking advantage of this valuable canvas during the music and the times disc jockeys talk. One broadcaster sold a national campaign for $1 million that ran for an entire year across all of its stations, using only a fraction of its available RDS inventory, according to Joe Harb, president and CEO of media tech company Quu Interactive, which offers RDS services to radio stations. But most RDS inventory is sold locally.

For Radio One, the dashboard interface has become another vital touch point for communicating with consumers. “We look for other ways to deliver a message for our clients that makes sense for the audience, that fits naturally into the content and things that we do,” says Tim Hall, senior director of Digital sales and operations, Radio One/Interactive One Local. And while many of its clients are mainly interested in securing spot advertising, Hall says it’s incumbent upon sellers to educate them on all the other channels Radio One can use to deliver a message, from mentions on blogs and social media posts to presence at live events. Visual RDS ads that complement the audio message are now part of the integrated solutions Radio One offers. Beyond adding an additional ad channel, they also build frequency for on-air campaigns. “Anytime you can go back to a client and say, here’s the reach and frequency of your on-air campaign and now we’re going to add to that this many messages being rotated across the dash of somebody’s car, that’s pretty powerful. It’s about layering all the different messages and all the different connection points into campaigns,” Hall says.

Clients taking advantage of this extra layer are deploying different execution strategies. Some synchronize their visual message to be displayed on the dashboard at the same time the commercial airs. A handful of others have opted in to a share of voice sponsorship approach. This allows a limited number of client messages to rotate along with programming messages on dashboard displays. So instead of repeating the artist/song title or station info over and over during music, brief ad messages are inserted to run between the song info displays. Using Quu’s platform, Radio One stations remove the artist and title one minute after the song starts and insert an ad for a car dealer or another client. The visual displayed is independent of the song airing and the message doesn’t have to be hardcoded by the station to the commercial or specific content.

“When you set up a campaign like that, owning a certain percentage share of voice, the client gets a far greater number of messages on RDS than if it was directly related to how many commercials they bought,” Hall explains. “It’s more valuable as a share of voice platform to run on a regular basis.” In fact, some Radio One clients pay a $20,000-$40,000 annual fee per station to be among the small number of clients in rotation.

Broadcasters selling RDS inventory say it has helped them up-sell existing clients. Depending on spot price, stations are charging an additional premium of 10%-20% to display a synchronized RDS message while the spot airs. But with advertisers always on the prowl for the next bright shiny object, RDS ads have also been embraced by new customers who see it is part of a big idea. “It’s a product that can help get new business,” Hall says.

When it comes to the most effective messages for clients to display in RDS feeds, broadcasters say they shun displaying a phone number or short code for a text offer, due to safety concerns. “The most effective message is an easy call to action to respond to once they get to their destination and get to a computer or are able to use a mobile device,” Hall notes. And just like on the air, advertisers are buying specific dayparts to better target their messages. Restaurants can show commuters a meal offer at lunchtime or a dinner message on the way home, hitting consumers at key consideration times during their day.

Quu has upped the game for RDS inventory with a demand-side platform that allows agencies to buy RDS inventory of participating stations programmatically. Clients include Beasley, Radio One and Cox Media Group, among other smaller operators. With 250 station clients in all of the major markets except those in California, Quu offers RDS ads to agencies and advertisers using a network business model, sharing revenue with participating stations for the inventory it sells. Quu says Beasley is using RDS across its entire platform.

The system enables buyers to insert RDS ads in specific dayparts, such as the early commute for a QSR’s breakfast menu. Agencies can have the module at their location and place RDS buys targeted to particular songs, tied to specific ads, or entirely independent of both by market, format, group or region.

“This is the next evolution of audio, whether via a broadcast signal or digital stream,” Hall says. “It’s being able to connect a visual message with an audio message in real time.”

INSIDE STORY PART TWO: For Valuable RDS Space, It’s Ads Vs. Station Promo Time.