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Spring 2005 The Eight Secrets of Great Radio Ads

A good radio commercial pulls customers. A bad commercial disappears into thin air. How do you make a good one? By knowing a few basics—and the eight secrets. Start with the basics—take a look at three common approaches to creating radio ads.

The testimonial approach: A customer (real or not) describes a problem and how your retail business solved it. Listeners picture themselves in the same boat and helped the same way—by you. (A big trend here is using two actors as a married couple or coworkers or friends.)

The we’re-the-best approach describes a benefit customers can get only from you.

And the humor approach makes listeners laugh and listen, either because it’s just plain funny or it’s a situation they recognize. You can use humor in testimonial and we’re-the-best ads, too. But for any humorous ad to work, the humor has to be tied to the marketing goal, says Jeff Hedquist, president of Hedquist Productions. Plus, they have to be genuinely funny, unlike the many (usually home-grown) ads that aren’t. Unfunny humor ads will backfire. And now, the eight secrets…

1. Make just one selling point.

You need a core message that shows how your store meets listeners’ needs, says William West, president of Radio Works. “Pick one attractive message and stick with it throughout the commercial.” Decide what distinguishes you from competitors: The best selection? The best prices? The best service? See what your competitors are doing and then zero in on the one aspect that sets your store apart. You might also ask your customers why they shop with you.

Make the message specific—”fast, friendly service” is vague, and it doesn’t impress. Not only is the phrase worn out, but customers expect fast, friendly service at a minimum. West also advises retailers against using other hackneyed ad-speak phrases such as “In business for 11 years.” What listeners want are solutions: tell them how you’ll make their lives better.

Bonus tip: Broadcast the same core message in a series of radio ads rather than trying a different message in each ad.

2. Hook them with an irresistible opening.

Listeners will tune out the whole commercial if you don’t hook them with an opening they can’t resist. And hook them fast. “You have only two or three seconds to establish a bond,” says Robert Baran, president of Bob Baran Productions. So you need an “emotional bullet” up front, he says. Commercials work better if they appeal to the heart, not the head. “People buy for emotional reasons,” he says. If you can tie into listeners’ emotions first, they’ll be much more open to your message. In fact, most ads (TV and print, too) key on an emotion—love, anxiety, hope, anger, pride… Listen or watch for it in a few ads tonight—you’ll spot it.

But no matter how you start an ad, never tell listeners that a commercial is about to start—they’ll tune right out.

Bonus tip: Keep everything focused on the core message you want to get across.

3. Give them reasons to shop now.

Here’s the reality of radio: Take advantage of the immediacy of the moment, or you lose it. That means you have to create urgency. “Radio is the most urgent of all advertising media,” says Bob Jump, president of Studio Center Broadcast Productions. Unlike print, radio has no shelf life. No page to tear out, no coupon to bring in—just a moment of sound, here and gone. And so is the money you spend on that ad if it doesn’t spur action.

“You want to take advantage of that urgency,” says Jump. Announce the “final days” or even “final hours” of a sale or other promotion at your store—”After Friday, this sale is history,” goes one typical line. To get in on the sale, listeners have to get to your store soon.

Bonus tip: Offer a gift to anyone who mentions the radio ad when they come in. This also gives you a way to measure the ad’s pull.

4. Tell them what to do.

Your message will be lost if you don’t give listeners specific action steps for a happy shopping experience, says Daniel Aron, president of No Soap Productions in New York. In essence, you’re “asking for the sale,” that critical step in the sales process.

The action step may be as simple as “Stop by today—we close at 9:30. We’re right here in the Village Green Mall on Hunt Club. Look for our blue kiosk near the food court!” The directions are easy to process: Instead of a menu of days and hours, the listener gets just today’s closing time. Instead of complex directions (“east entrance, upper level,” etc.), the listener gets a landmark and a visual blue clue—all easy to remember.

5. Don’t wander.

Stick to the core message you started with. As soon as you leave that path, your listener gets lost. “Keep it simple,” says Daniel Price, president of Oink Ink Radio in New York. The best radio spots sell the image and personality of the business, he says, but instead, “too many retailers decide they want to mention one thing after another… The whole thing ends up being a brochure with a bulleted list of points.” And that’s useless.

Bonus tip: Don’t over-produce the commercial. Rely on good copy, not jingles and sound effects to get attention. (P.S. Don’t use sounds like sirens or car crashes. Drivers say hearing those sounds in the car is confusing and alarming.)

6. Use conversational everyday language.

Too many advertisers believe they have to sound “formal” or “high-falutin’” to sound authoritative and convincing. Couldn’t be more wrong. Stilted, formal language tips off listeners that this is a sales pitch. It sounds terrible—and phony. So does talking too fast. Just use everyday language as if you’re talking to one person. That goes for dialogue for an ad’s fictional characters, too.

“Radio listeners want to feel closeness, not distance,” says West. Remember, your ad is actually interrupting a radio program—interrupting the music or talk show they’re listening to. So it has to be personable, inviting and easy to understand.

Bonus tip: Use “you” early and often. Listeners love hearing it. “People mentally tune out until something involves them—then they start listening,” says Aron. “You” grabs them and makes the ad more personal and immediate.

7. Repeat your core message.

Stating a benefit once isn’t enough. You have to repeat it so listeners remember it. Again, unlike print, radio has no way to convey a message customers can retain after a single shot. And if the message comes only at the top of the ad, it’s even harder. A listener doesn’t consciously notice the first four or five seconds of a radio ad, says Aron: she hears that part unconsciously. So if your core message is there and only there, it’s lost. You need to repeat it at least once, and many experts advise a third time near the end. But, Aron says, “sometimes twice is enough—if you do it well.”

Bonus tip: Run your ad several times on one station rather than once on several stations. Why? Because listeners tend to stick with one station.

8. Unify all of your advertising.

You don’t want a bunch of different messages going to the market,” says Baran. If you’re doing print as well as radio, adapt and use the focus of your radio in your print ads. You can take this a step further: mention the ads you have in other local media. For example, at the end of the radio spot, invite listeners to find your ad in the newspaper, says Price, something like, “Look for our $5-off coupon in today’s Daily Blute.”

It’s about time

So there you have it. To get your commercials made and get them on the air, you can call a local ad agency or radio station for help with creative and production issues. Before you buy radio time, ask likely stations in your area to give you their listener profiles—ages, gender, income, etc.—for each time slot. Then choose the slot that gives you the most listeners who match your target customers.

Radio time is sold by program and time of day. “Morning drive” (when listeners drive to work) and “afternoon drive” (the drive home) are the highest rates; midday rates are lower; and evening and late-night are usually lowest. Also less than drive-time is “run of station.” This lets the station air your commercial when it has an open slot. Another (but sometimes pricey) option is time on a well-known, nationally syndicated show. “A certain number of spots are given to local stations,” says West, who calls them “great opportunities for advertisers.” Imagine: your ads on a national program. The prestige! And yet you pay local rates, and your ads go out to the station’s listening area—your market.

But whether you run them on national or hometown shows, remember the eight secrets for great radio ads, wherever they are on the dial.


Linda Saracino

Saracino has been a freelance writer and editor for 18+ years.

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