While other forms of marketing and advertising are on the rise, don’t count out radio just yet. The truth of the matter is that radio advertising can be very effective in a number of ways: 

  • as one part of an overall marketing mix 
  • for the right businesses/at the right time 
  • with the right conditions 
  • with the right expectations 

I know firsthand that radio is a great place to reach and influence peopleI used to work in radio marketing/promotion and advertising sales. In fact, I come from a family of radio people, and by the end of my 13-year radio career I was selling advertising for some of Toronto’s biggest radio stations. In my time working in radio, as well as observing as a kid growing up fascinated by my family’s business, I saw a lot of successful promotions and ad campaigns. Its undoubtable that radio can move people.  I also saw some not so successful campaigns as well. I made the switch to digital marketing in 2012 to be a part of this continuously growing space that is immensely important for businesses. 

When I was working in radio advertising, helping advertisers plan and launch advertising campaigns, I remember a point when this “Google PPC” thing really started to take off for our clients (probably around 2009-ish). 

Advertisers were telling me that their Google advertising campaigns were driving x amount of leads and/or customers per month – and they were starting to pour money into it. 

I wished I could show my clients the same kinds of success metrics specifically from our radio campaigns, but radio advertising does not work in that way – it can be very hard to directly attribute return on investment. But that is not to say that “radio doesn’t work.” 

The Marketing Mix 

For multinational brands or national big box storesradio is a no brainer. 

For local, direct businesses with less than unlimited budgets, sometimes radio is a great fit, and sometimes its not. 

In my opinion, advertising on the radio isn’t the very first or only thing to do. Radio advertising is a good tactic to add into your overall marketing mix. Radio’s biggest power is in wide reaching branding and awareness, which can sometimes be seen as more of an elective luxury for some local direct businesses (and/or can also be seen as a multiplier for other tactics the marketing mix) 

Compare this to something like Search Engine Marketing, which is more of a necessary utility – to be there at the bottom of the funnel when a consumer is searching online to start the sales process. Which is why Search Engine Marketing (Google Ads) and SEO are the first places I’d recommend investing (in most cases). 

Budget transparency 

Radio advertisers often feel the effects of their branding, but sometimes can struggle to make an on-paper case to justify dollarfordollar, the budget being spent. This is largely because radio is ubiquitous. Listeners may not even really know that having heard about a company on the radio was the thing that pushed them to contact and purchase from a business. 

Radio audiences 

When you buy radio advertising, you are investing in a large, mixed audience – something to ask yourself when looking at radio stations; what percent of the station(s)’ audience are likely to become your customer? What percentage of the audience are in the market for my product/service right now 

Radio is Push Marketing. You’re putting a message out there to an audience, regardless of where they are in the sales funnel or purchasing decision (maybe some of them will never be a prospective customer, or maybe they just aren’t in the market for your products/services – keep in mind you’re paying for those listeners too).  

Radio listeners can be loyal and habitual, and for this reason, radio is great for branding and awareness. There is a famous Canadian mattress store chain with hundreds of locations who advertise all the time on the radio (you probably know their jingle). A consumer might only buy a mattress once every 5 – 10 years. But for this companyadvertising on the radio all the time makes sense, to make sure to grow brand awareness so that when consumers eventually find themselves in need of a mattress, hopefully consumers will think of them first and search them by brand name and find a location near them 

But are you in a position where you can continue to invest and wait for the audience to organically find themselves in need?  

If you need to drive new leads, conversions and sales today, there are other more efficient ways to first go after the low hanging fruit, before looking at radio advertising (or to run alongside radio, if your budget permits). One great example of this type of advertising tactic is PPC Google Ads – “Pull Marketing – where the audience who see your ad consists only of people who are actively searching for keywords that are indicative of interest in your products. 

I would always recommend having a strategy to address the ready to buy audience first. 

Also, I would recommend social media as a high priority in the marketing mix, as social media offers a good opportunity for branding and awareness, with the ability to pick more targeted audiences, which can be a lower barrier to entry than radio, cost wise. 

Radio advertising is just one piece of the puzzle 

Radio does compliment digital marketing wellI’m always excited when I hear that one of our clients are starting a radio campaign.  I know that they (and their metrics in our digital marketing campaigns) are going to enjoy the benefits of the added brand awareness, which in many cases can mean increased click through rates on Google Search results and Social Media adsand just overall an increase in leads due to higher trust/familiarity. I know If I do a search for something, and one of the results I see is a company who I’ve heard of before, I’m more likely to click on that result/ad on the first page of Google. And I’m probably more likely to call the known entity versus unknown competitors who are also advertising on Google. 

Radio advertising can drive increased Google search activity. 

If I was selling radio ads in this day and age, I would want to know that my prospective new radio clients are already doing Search Engine Marketing on Google and/or SEO – it would likely be a hard rule I would have as a pre-qualifier to launch new radio Ad Campaigns. 

Why? What do people do when they hear about something that interests them? They Google it.  They may not always Google companies by name, they may Google business categories and products. When people do Google a business name, its likely that competitors will be bidding to advertise for the keyword of competitor business names as well. Gone are the days when people would write down a phone number, they hear on a radio commercial, people are not going to stop and write it down. Why? Because we all know we don’t have to write stuff down – we can just Google it.  Most of the time we aren’t even going to try to remember the website URL – we are just going to Google the business name. If we didn’t quite hear the namewe’ll Google whatever we recall as keywords will help us get there.  

So in order to make sure that your competitors don’t cash in on your radio advertising dollars, making sure you’ve got the right Digital Strategy to accompany radio ads and catch the inevitable searches will be one of the first keys to an effective radio campaign.  This is interesting for radio advertisers and radio advertising reps out there, because in a lot of cases, in terms of attribution, a phone call or a website conversion after a Google search which was inspired by a radio ad, is still going to look like your Google Ads or organic search results won you this website visit/lead (which speaks to how tricky radio advertising can be to determine return on investment). 

Having radio advertising as one piece to an overall strategy is the way to do radio, all things work together. 

The Right Businesses and the Right Time 

Radio advertising is not cheap. I believe it offers great value, but the barrier to entry is high. The amount of time and money that a business needs to invest before they start seeing results from radio advertising can be prohibitively high (but rewarding, if you can wait for the lagging effects).  

As for the type of businesses radio can be effective for, in my opinion, radio is best suited for businesses with bigger ticket products and services (or high customer lifetime value) and/or businesses with multiple locations/sales channels who can take advantage of economies of scale. The more opportunities you have to be of service to the radio station’s entire listener base, the better.  

An example of this, let’s say you have one store in Mississauga (assuming you rely on foot traffic to your location), and you’re paying for a radio station that covers all of the extended Greater Toronto Area; what percentage of the overall listeners are realistically able and willing to travel to your location from afar (for your specific product/service)? Perhaps if the ticket price is big enough and you have a strong Value Proposition/offer, people will be willing to travel across the city – only you will really know this based on your business and competition – but its worth considering – is radio too mass marketing for your business? 

On the other side, if you have multiple locations across the city/countryadvertising on the radio makes more sense – you’re paying for one campaign that can drive activity for multiple stores  

If you don’t rely on foot traffic and you can sell your products/services online, will you be able to sell enough volume to recoup your radio advertising spend (are your profit margins and your sales volume conducive to investing this much yet in your business evolutionary journey)?  

When does radio advertising NOT make sense? 

1) Serves local customer base 

For some businesses, radio might not make sense at all. An example of this would be hyper local small businesses like barbers/hair salonsWith radioyou pay for the entire audience/geography, and most people aren’t willing to travel too far for a hair cut (unless they have a previous relationship with their hair person). Not only that, but one single location hair stylist would likely not be able to book enough hair appointments at their ticket price/margins to make the large investment to even break evenFor the one location barber, Google Ads and Social media, where you can focus more locally would be more effective. 

However, for a large chain of hair cutters/stylists with multiple locations all over the city/country, who can take advantage of the economies of scale, radio makes a lot of sense to grow brand awareness (and then I’d still be recommending the accompaniment of the right local digital strategy to capture the bottom of funnel local customers) 

2) Niche product/service 

Another example of a business where radio may not be the best fit, would be a niche product/service like irrigation systems. On the other handhome lawn care advertising on radio and digital makes sense – a big percentage of most radio listeners will be in market for home lawn care, but for irrigation systems and sprinkler services – they have a smaller more targeted audienceso radio might not make as much sense given the niche customer base for Irrigation Systems (A pure digital advertising strategy might be a better fit) 

In the case of companies with small niche, a digital ad strategy like Google Ads would make more sense where you’re literally only paying for the niche audience who are searching for your services and click on your ad and visit your website. Perhaps instead of Radio, you could look for other push marketing/branding opportunitieslike social media or publications specific to your nichesuch as industry magazines, blogs, podcasts etc. 

That said, perhaps if you’re a big enough Irrigation/Sprinkler company and are already taking full advantage of the lowest hanging fruit on Google Search Ads, Social Media and other more niche push and pull marketing tactics, but you’re still looking for ways to increase market share  then you might be able to find a radio station who’s listeners are more likely to be business owners, but you’d have to do the math on how long you can pour big radio advertising dollars into an audience that might not yield leads at a high enough or fast enough rate. 

I’ll address this a bit more in this post when I talk about making sure the audience target is correct, amongst some other factors, to make your radio ad spend effective. 

The Right Conditions 

I would say there are three key conditions that need to be addressed in order to make a radio campaign effective. The Offer (and the “Creative”), the Targeting, and the Frequency. 

A) The Offer (and theCreative) 

What are you selling? Meaning what are you trying to achieve  as a result of the radio ad. Your aisn’t going to sell your product or service, YOU ARE. Try something to get the prospective customer in the door. Sell them on the idea of calling you for consultation, or sell them on the idea of going to your website and checking you out etc. What is the hook that is going to intrigue them? 

What is the ‘creative’ like (what will the ad say/sound like)? What is the call to action? 

Is there a call to action? If your radio commercial’s overarching message is “This is who we are and we’re the best at what we do,” that’s not going to be as effective as something like “We’re the best at what we do – call us today and learn how you can get 20% off your first session.” 

How effective your radio ads will depend on what the offer is and what the product is. 

Even if it’s a great deal like 30% off the price of a boat, there are only so many people in the market to buy a boat right now – your results might be slower. 

However, to give an extreme opposite example, if your offer is something like “come to our location and get a free 1 ounce gold coin” ($1,000+ in value), you’re going to have a bunch of people at your door, directly correlating to the time when your ad aired on the radio. 

Every radio ad needs to have a good offer and/or good creative. If your offer and the way its presented (the “Creative”) addresses your audience’s real needshas a compelling call to action and offer, then you are on the right track. If you don’t have an ‘offer’ and you are simply promoting your business, then you could be looking at a tougher time getting specific results (or maybe you’re simply trying to hammer your brand name out there for awareness, in which case you know that you’re getting into a campaign that isn’t trying to drive a specific set of actions). 

What a radio campaign needs to address first and foremost – are you offering good deal and is your commercial interesting/memorable enough to inspire people to do something (or think differently about you)? 

B) The Targeting

For radio advertising, targeting the right sets of ears to hear the right message is critical. The individuals who will be hearing your radio commercials are going to be important for selecting the right radio station(s) to advertise on.  

What are the demographics of the listener profile of the radio stations you’re looking at advertising on? If you’re a B2B company, perhaps a younger pop station isn’t going to have as many business owners/decision makers, versus, a talk radio or news station. If you’re trying to sell high end luxury cars you probably won’t want to advertise on a radio station whose audience consists of people who are more likely to buy an economical sedan. 

Not just demographics but geography can play a factor as well. This was sort of covered already, but if you’re a one location store (who relies on foot traffic to your location), and you’re paying for a radio station that covers way more geography than your customer base usually consists of, what percentage of the stations’ overall listeners are realistically able and willing to travel to your location? This does tie back to “The Offer. If the offer/creative is good enough, perhaps customers will travel – I’d be willing to drive 50 km to purchase something if the product and deal is right, and if I don’t believe that anyone is offering the same value locally. 

There is also targeting to consider within the selected radio station – picking the right times of day for your commercials to air. Most people want their ads to air in the morning drive and afternoon drive times, where the most listeners usually are. Depending on budgets, its not always possible to air only in prime time. Maybe it makes sense to advertise during specialty segments (weather or sports reports), or during specialty shows, even in the overnight, when the audience is lower (and ads are cheaper), but the people who are listening at that time might be your people.  

So, in conjunction with having a great offer/creative, its important to target the right audience of radio listeners who are more likely to be your customers.  

C) The Frequency

All three of these things need to be harmonious; the offer/creative, the target and finally, the frequency of messaging 

If you’ve got a good offerpresented in a memorable way, and youre telling it to the right people, then communicating it only once is not going to be enough.  

Radio is more of a passive medium. People listen to radio when they are doing other things (driving, working, exercising etc.). People don’t hear a radio commercial and always “call now,” or immediately turn their car around and go and buy something. And they don’t usually make a point to go and tell the business owner “Hey I heard your commercial and had to come right over!” 

People hear a radio commercial and most of the time they go about their day.   

Therefore, frequency of messaging will be important (and can be costly). Radio listeners will need to hear your commercial enough times and be moved by the message to eventually act. Or, when they are acting on their own accord, they need to have heard your commercial enough time to recall you, then they have a better chance to go and Google your company name specifically rather than search general keywords (Think ABC Cars” versus “X brand car dealerships near me.” ) 

You will need to make sure you’re telling the same people the same thing over and over again – your radio ads are going to be heard by people who aren’t in a position to act right at that moment (unlike PPC Ads mentioned earlier in this post, where  ads appear at the moment when people are looking to act).  

The frequency recommendations for how many times a radio listener typically needs to hear your commercial to be effective have changed over the years, along with the radio ratings measurement, so I’ll leave the radio frequency recommendationto the radio people. But I can say this, if you’re advertising on a radio station that has hundreds of thousands to 1 million+ listeners in their reach, while those are big numbers, you’re not actually going to reach ALL of them, unless you’re there for a long time, and/or run a lot of commercials each day in a shorter time. 

To achieve frequency and reach, you need to the same listeners to hear the same message over and over to get it into their heads and spark action. 

This will mean more than a few commercials per day – including peak times  for weeks/months depending on your goals.  Or it could mean airing a higher number of daily commercials for a shorter period, depending on the type of product you’re offering and your objectives. Different strategies would be required to promote an event, versus a Car, versus Lawn care. This all adds up when it comes to budgetRadio is not cheap – it has good value, but its not cheap. 

The Right Expectations 

When it comes to expectations and indications of success for a radio campaign, unfortunately, not enough customers will tell you that they heard your ad and subsequently made a purchase. Unlike digital advertising, there isn’t a conversion pathway that you can see (people can’t click on a radio ad, and as aforementioned, people arenalways ‘calling now’ when they hear an ad, more than they are finding you on their own time). 

Ideally, you want people to hear you and see you all over (radio, social media, search as etc.), so much so that they might not even know which message actually influenced them.   

Some metrics to keep an eye on (other than overall sales and leads), which could be attributed to your radio advertising; your overall website traffic/conversions (lifts in direct to site website traffic, organic traffic, Google searches for your brand name)improved click through rates on your search engine marketinand social media campaigns and so on. The expectations for each radio advertising campaign will vary with the  tactics and strategies, but one thing is uniform, radio advertising is unlikely to be the smoking gun that you can attribute specific sales to When using radio in conjunction with other advertising and marketing, look for multiple leading signals that its making an overall difference and multiplying all other efforts. 

In conclusion, I don’t recommend radio advertising to everyone, but if you’re the right kind of business, have patience, and a good digital plan to capture the online activity your radio campaign can stimulate, then yes, radio can be effective! 

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Geordan Johnston