The anatomy of radio advertising

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For many nonprofits, radio is an effective advertising medium and a relatively inexpensive way to get your message across to a large audience. Today, the radio business is an extremely competitive industry, with stations employing several account representatives to compete for advertising dollars. In Vancouver alone, less than 10% of the overall marketing dollars spent are allocated to radio. Couple that with the fact that there are at least 16 legitimate stations in the city, and you can see why some stations can get desperate to make a sale. If you’re working for a nonprofit in Canada, this is to your advantage.

From defining your key message and target demographic, to understanding the internal workings of radio advertising, if you know how to play the game, radio can be an affordable way to attract donors to your cause.

Narrow down your message and demographic

Before beginning to look at radio stations, there are two vital things that you must do. First and foremost, define your organization’s key message. This is what makes your organization stand apart from the rest and the reason you’re advertising in the first place. Try to answer this: why should someone make a donation? Or if it’s more specific, like an event, ask yourself: why would someone want to attend? Ideally, your key message should be succinct and intriguing for the audience. If possible, add an emotional aspect to details such as who, what, why, when, where, and how will help to hook the audience. Overall, a key message should be powerful, give an emotional hit, and get the point across. Once you have this defined, you’ll be able to work efficiently with the station’s advertising department to ensure you get a great commercial on the air.

Secondly, you must define your target demographic. Who are your donors? Where do they live? How old are they? Are they primarily male or female? Most nonprofits already have this information, although it doesn’t hurt to take a closer look. This will help you find the station(s) that will communicate best with your audience.

Working with the radio station

So you’ve got your key message, you know your demo inside and out, what’s next? Now you’re ready to find a station. BBM Canada, which provides broadcast measurement and consumer behaviour data, will have the radio market rankings posted on their website, showing you who the top dogs are in your city. I would recommend starting with the top five radio stations in your market and going from there. Most radio stations’ websites have a sales inquiries section, which is the best place to start for contact information. From there, a quick phone call requesting their rate card and target demo info will get you the initial information you need...but beware, this usually opens the flood gates for solicitation from sales reps.

Now comes the fun part: narrowing down which station(s) work best for your audience, and more importantly, your budget. Once you’re confident with your choices, it’s time to deal with a sales rep. Just remember nothing is set in stone and there’s always room for negotiating. When dealing with a sales rep, it’s good to know that most nonprofits are entitled to a bonus schedule, meaning you get a ratio of free spots (commercials) to paid spots. I would recommend going with 30 second spots. You may be offered five or ten second sponsorship ads, but unless you plan on advertising the same message for a long period of time, stick with the 30s.

Here are a few tips when dealing with a sales rep (or account executive):

  • Always make it clear that you’re shopping around and looking at other stations in the market. Explain that your budget is very limited and you can only advertise on stations that offer the best value on your investment.
  • Explain that because you are a nonprofit organization, it’s much easier for you to purchase advertising with a strong bonus schedule, and that this will influence your decision to do a long-term buy with a station. In some cases you may want to say that you will only proceed with advertising opportunities that offer, at minimum, a bonus one for one schedule (remember everything is negotiable).
  • In many cases you can also respectfully request that any available web page space be allocated to support your campaign at no cost. When dealing with radio sales reps, it’s good to know the rules, before you play the game. Before you sign off on a contract and finalize your schedule, it’s also a good idea to request a transmission certificate (proof of performance) for all advertising flights, paid and non-paid, after contract. This ensures that you get what you’ve been promised, and it will also help you determine if you want to advertise with the station again.

    Composing your message

    Now that the paperwork is out of the way, the time has come for your sales rep to put you in contact with the radio station’s creative department. Your primary point of contact will be the writer. This is the person who will write your commercial(s), and hand it off to the production department who gets an announcer to read the script, and adds music and sound effects where appropriate.

    In order to get an effective script written you need two things. One, a strong key message (which you should already have at this point) and two, lots of time (a rushed writer is not a good thing). If you can, give your writer at least a couple of weeks before your spots go to air.

    Once it is ready, the writer will send you a script for approval. Keep in mind that at this stage, subjective changes are not going to help the cause. You have to assume that your writer is a pro, and that they know what will work best for their radio station. Your job at this stage is not to change a word here or there, it’s to think of the big picture. Is the script getting your key message across to your audience? Is it memorable? Is there an emotional hook? Does if flow well? Once you’re 100% with the script, request that you hear the spot before it goes to air. Once you get the produced spot, again, remember to think big picture. A different music bed or announcer is probably not going to help get your message across.

    If you’re using several stations, or if your spot is generic enough to be used several times over a long period, look at purchasing your spot from the radio station (known as going "off station"). When you purchase radio advertising, the cost of writing and producing your commercials is included. However, if you decide to use this spot elsewhere, there is a charge for writing, production, music licensing, and the announcer. In most cases you can purchase your spot for approximately $500, which allows you to use your commercials anywhere, for as long as you like. This is to your advantage if you’re advertising on several stations at the same time, as consistency is key.

    At this point, you’re done. You now know the ins and outs of radio advertising. Just be sure to gauge your advertising, and monitor whether your investment has paid off, as this will help you with future advertising decisions. Hopefully it’ll do wonders for your organization.

    Good luck!

    Ted Peterson is a writer, currently working in the Development Office at the University of British Columbia. Prior to his life on campus, Ted was a senior writer for a variety of Vancouver radio stations, and later worked in media relations for a public relations agency.

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