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How To Create An Effective Radio Commercial

By: John Melley

John Melley is the Production Director for Boston's award winning Mix 98-5 (WBMX). John is known for creating effective radio commercials that sell for the station and its clients and for the great character voices he uses in commercials, promotions and announcements. Writing the copy for many of his clients allows him to be creative, using straight or character voices, music and sound effects. For more information and to contact John visit

The Sales Department is going to kill me for saying this, but….

The focus of this article will provide a few tips to those who are considering using radio to promote their business. Radio can be very effective when trying to reach your market. It can make your phone ring like mad if done properly. It can also leave you with a bad taste in your mouth if done poorly and without an understanding of how it works.

When I sit down with a new client of our radio station I try to get an idea about their business and what they want to accomplish with their ad. I also want to know whom they're targeting with their product or service.

After I get that information from them, the next question I ask frequently generates an uncomfortable silence and some nervous twitching on the part of the salesperson.
"What was the most recent commercial you heard on the radio today?"

"Huh?" (Picture a perplexed face and a mind racing to remember any ad.)

Nine times out of ten they can't remember the last ad they heard. At this point they may be thinking, "What did I just get myself into? This is going to be a waste of money."

The salesperson is more than likely thinking something like, "Thanks a bunch, John. You are gonna kill this deal for me."

Then I ask them a more focused question. I pick out a particular product or service and ask them to name a company who provides it.

A very successful business in my area is Jordan's Furniture. If you live anywhere near Boston, you know about Jordan's Furniture. The owners of Jordan's are two brothers who built their business from scratch and they are on the radio and television constantly.

The question I pose goes something like, "If I asked you to tell me where you could buy a new mattress, what would you say?" More often than not their answer is "Jordan's" or one of Jordan's competitors. This exchange points out to them that advertising does indeed work. It makes them more comfortable and it makes the salesperson less nervous. More importantly it provides the client a glimpse at HOW advertising on the radio works.

From the client's point of view their ad is the most important thing on the air. This is understandable. They're paying for it. Clients want to know the spot times so they know when to listen for their ad. They want copies of it to play at home and at the office. If they're relatively new to radio they're excited by the possibilities. They should be excited. It is exciting. The problem is the client forgets how people listen to the radio.

Do you listen to the radio for the commercials? The answer is you probably don't.
Asking the client "What was the most recent commercial you heard on the radio today?" forces the client to put themselves in the shoes of a listener and not an advertiser.

A successful radio campaign needs two things. It needs consistency and it needs a clear message.

A script should focus on one product or service, two at the most. People move in and out of your target market constantly. Not everyone is in the market for a new mattress, or a new car or your product or service each day. You need to be on the air on a regular basis talking about how great your product or service is, so when the listener moves into your target market, they think of you. You are what they call "Top of Mind." They hear the ad and go to your web site, call you or walk through your door.

The worst spots are where the client thinks that because they're paying for 60 seconds of airtime, they better cram every possible syllable into it. It becomes a list of every product and service they have, hours of operation, etc. Commercials like these become a boring list of clutter and noise and people tune them out. Those clients have wasted their money.

If you offer more than one or two products or services, create another commercial for it and put it into rotation with the first one. Just be sure each message gets out enough times for it to register with people. Some research has shown that people need to hear an ad or promotion 20 or more times before it registers with them. Remember, target market and top of mind.

If you can't afford to focus on one product or service that you offer, and have your ad run at decent times on a consistent basis, then I would advise you to save your money and find another method of advertising. Unless you've got an offer that everyone needs and it doesn't matter what the ad says, you're going to say radio doesn't work, and in your case, you'll be correct.

Once you have figured out what your focus is you need to make sure your message gets out to listeners effectively. How the message gets delivered, i.e. serious, humorous, etc. depends on a lot of things, but basically the listener should know your product/service, your name and how to reach you at the end of 60 seconds. The best way to do this is to write a "clean" commercial.

Eliminate the clutter and clichés. Granted, the following list of phrases may be pet peeves of mine, but listen to your radio and you'll be amazed at how many times you hear them. I'm talking about phrases like "It's that time of year again (fill in appropriate holiday.") "__________'s just around the corner." What corner is _________around? It's not necessary. It's not even true. I've looked around many corners for Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, etc. and I have yet to find any them around a corner waiting for me.

There are other phrases that everybody uses. Let's take "Friendly and Knowledgeable Sales Staff," Okay, there is a problem with good customer service out there, but people are expecting your employees to be friendly and know about the product or service that you are paying them to sell for you. I'd love for someone to come into my studio someday with a script saying "Our clerks won't drool on you." That would get my attention!

Another is to tell people that you're conveniently located at ABC Street. Nobody's produced a commercial yet that touts how difficult it is to find them.

Most people put these phrases in and it's a waste of time in your copy that could be used more effectively. Remember, focus on how people listen to radio.

Other traps are listing the hours of operation. Something like, 9-6 Monday through Saturday is fine. Anything more complicated than that is a waste of time. If you have different hours for different days, let the person who answers the phone, or your answering machine handle that. Directions are another trap: conveniently located on the left after the second light on 123 Main Street, exit 37B off route 17 south. Is anyone going to write these down while driving a car? If they're complicated focus on your phone number so they can call, or have directions on your web site and push your web address in the copy.

You may be asking yourself why I would tell you all of this, why do I care? A radio station's Production Department acts as a bridge between the radio station's Sales and Programming Departments. The Sales Department's mission is to generate revenue for the station. The Programming Department's job is to create a product that people want to listen to. Programming wants as many people as possible listening to the station for as long as possible. Sales wants this too since that's what generates the ratings the station gets and is used to support what it charges for commercials.

A producer wants the commercials to be informative and entertaining. At the very least they don't want an ad to prompt a listener to go to another station. They should also want the ad to work for the client. I know I do. Everyone wants happy customers.

Listen to the radio. Listen for commercials that get your attention and listen to what turns you off. Think about why it turns you off. If one of your competitors is on the radio, and they are successful, listen to what they do and learn from them. Put yourself in the listener's shoes and craft a script that focuses on 1 or 2 products and delivers the message to them in a clear fashion. Support your radio advertising campaign with a steady schedule for a good period of time. When those listeners move into your target market, your phone will ring and you'll know you "did radio right."

© Copyright 2003, John Melley

The author assumes full responsibility for the contents of this article and retains all of its property rights. MarcommWise publishes it here with the permission of the author. MarcomWise assumes no responsibility for the article's contents.


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