How to use radio advertising successfully to establish your business

How do you get the best results when advertising over the airways?

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Radio is highly regulated and monitored in the UK, providing specific information on audiences nationally, regionally and locally.

Which radio station?

Unlike other advertising mediums, radio has an official measurement system called RAJAR that provides quarterly data on the specifics of a station’s audience across the UK. This is how stations can tell you how many listeners they have each week, who they are (age, gender, earnings etc…) and when they’re listening.

Larger stations cost more, in the same way that larger print publications do. Shop around. Match station audience figures against your target audience. If you know your target buyer is young, don’t just invest in an AM station targeting an older market, even if it is cheaper on the surface.

Think about whether your target audience can or will travel. You wouldn’t travel 60 miles for a free pint of milk, but probably would for a free car. Make sure you’re advertising to people who can actually access your product or service, given the right incentive.

How does radio advertising work? It’s all about repetition. Unlike print advertising where repetition has a diminishing effect, radio advertising has the opposite effect with response rates building over time.

There are two distinct components to your campaign.

  • The creative – your ad. The message you broadcast to listeners about your product or service. 
  • The airtime – when and how often your ad is played. This is the duration of your ad (e.g. 30 seconds spots) multiplied by the number of times it is played.

To get results, both parts have to do their job.

The Creative – what works?

Studies show creativity can make up to 500% difference in radio advertising. Be clear about what you want your advertising to achieve. If it’s brand awareness you’re after, work with credible creative experts who know what they’re doing and be prepared for it to take time. If you want to shift product, make sure your offer is a strong one.

Radio is a conversational medium. Presenters don’t shout – neither should advertising.

Present one clear message. An ad with three offers, a website, an address and a phone number is confusing. One well-delivered offer with a sensible call to action will produce results.

Radio is limited only by the imagination. At no cost to them, listeners can be transported anywhere! Just make sure it’s relevant to your product or service.

A phone number takes on average three to four seconds to say. That’s seconds where you could be selling your product or service (eight seconds if you have to say it twice). And there’s not a number in the world that’s enjoyable to the listener.

Realise people listen to the radio while doing other activities, so don’t expect listeners to write down your details. Trust that when they’re motivated, they’ll look you up (Thomson’s, Yellow Pages, Internet, Telephone Directories, calling the radio station).

Music matters. Research shows getting the music wrong is worse than having no music at all! Remember that commercial music is copyrighted (e.g. your favourite Madonna track) and can be expensive to license, but there are many effective alternatives.

Specialist and celebrity voices can work brilliantly but they cost more. Ask yourself if they genuinely benefit your brand.

Judge the script on how it sounds. Your listeners won’t be reading it. For comprehensive research see the Radio Advertising Bureau.

The Airtime – what works?

Commercial stations programme your spots according to their statistics on who is listening and when. Industry advice says you want to be sure that your target audience has the opportunity to hear your ad, a minimum of three times each week you’re on air.

Plan to advertise for a minimum of four weeks, ideally longer. Remember that radio works on repetition over time. The fight for weekend retail business means that airtime is often more expensive towards the end of the week, but usually there are more listeners at the beginning of the week. Be smart about where you book your airtime. Overnight spots are usually cheaper, but unless you’re targeting insomniacs or shift workers, you may be better paying more for spots when people are awake and listening.

Do not avoid drive times because you think people won’t be able to write down your number. You know that writing down your number is not the purpose of your advertising. The purpose of your advertising is to create the need to find your number.

Select the station or mix of stations that best match your target audience and your budget. It might be better to have more listeners in your target market than more listeners in general.

What does it cost?

The first thing you’re going to want to know is whether you can afford radio advertising. A short rule of thumb is, If you can afford print advertising you should be talking to your local radio stations as well.

The cost of both elements of your radio advertising – creative and airtime, is largely dictated by the number of listeners. Bigger stations cost more.

Creative costs

A simple advertisement for a small station will usually cost £200-£300. London stations and Digital Stations can cost up to ten times that. The price includes:

  • Script writing
  • Audio Production
  • Actors to voice the ads
  • Music (if used)
  • Sound effects (if used)

… all licensed for broadcast on the identified station for 12 months from the first time it’s played. Aim to spend at least 10% of your budget on the creative – for example…

  • A £2,500 campaign on a small station over four weeks will probably run with one piece of creative which might cost you £250.
  • A £25,000 campaign over a year will likely need a few different advertisements. At this level of investment, a jingle or audio identifier would be useful so listeners start to recognise your ads as soon as they hear them.
  • A £250,000 campaign over a year might be worth licensing a famous song for £25,000 so your brand really stands out.

Just because it’s longer, doesn’t mean an advertisement will cost more to make. A single voice 20 second ad will cost the same to make as the same voice on a 30 second or 40 second advertisement. The airtime will cost more however.

Good writers and producers make a huge difference to your campaign. Don’t be tempted to use an unproven writer or producer to get cheaper creative. Stations can and do refuse to broadcast audio that breaches the complex radio advertising rules or that is of too poor quality. Besides, this is the message you’re paying so much in airtime costs to be heard – make it the best it can be!

As with print once a script is approved for production, changes will incur extra costs. However you can usually relicence your ad for additional stations or a longer time for a proportion of the original fee.

Airtime costs

Each station has a limited number of minutes a day to sell for advertising. Unlike print advertising where you can add extra advertising pages, on radio when the available minutes are sold there are no more.

If you book late, you might get a good price on “leftover” airtime as the station will want to sell it. But this practice can put your whole investment at risk if good (to you) airtime isn’t available. You might get lucky. Often you don’t. It’s generally best to plan in advance.

Airtime varies immensely depending on the station’s listener demographics. On a local station or a smallish AM station, you could possibly get a solid campaign for a few hundred pounds a week. Expect to be spending £1500 a week on a larger local or a regional station.

Radio is possibly one of the most cost-effective methods of advertising when you compare cost per thousand.

Because of RAJAR, every station can design an effective campaign for your target audience. Stations will typically put together a range of differently priced options for you to compare.

If you’re a first time advertiser, be prepared to pay in advance. However, most stations will let you prepay on a month by month basis until you have an account with them.

Don’t be afraid to ask for discounts on airtime as a first time customer.

Getting started

If you’re going to use a creative agency – find out their experience in radio. Print, TV and Web are very different forms of advertising. You want to speak to people who are experienced in getting results from radio.

Some radio stations have their own creative departments. Because they specialise in radio, they are the best people to talk to about your creative, and making it work for you.

Involve the creative team early. There are no charges for writing ads – just for the production when you’re ready to proceed. You can afford to spend time getting a script that will work for you, whether it’s 10, 20, or 50 seconds, and then plan the campaign around making that as effective as possible.

Talk to the station or stations that best match your target audience, not just the one you listen you yourself.

This article was written by Cara Tipping Smith, a radio copywriter who has worked for the UK’s two largest commercial radio groups. More details on her work can be found at

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