Dialing Up Creative Strategies for Radio Ads

Melding storytelling with solid data

September 12, 2019
By Tammy Greenberg


Andrey Dyachenko, EyeEm/Getty Images

he first step to winning a person's heart and mind is being relevant, engaging, and eager to capture her attention. It's the same drill for advertising. Above all, advertising creative is the most important factor for influencing behavior and driving sales. Several studies bear this out. Take a recent study conducted by Nielsen Catalina Solutions, which tested nearly 500 ad campaigns across all media platforms and found that nearly 50 percent of brand sales lift from advertising came directly from the creative.

In today's increasingly fragmented media world, appealing to a person's ears is more important than ever, what with multitasking becoming the new norm. As Chris Beresford-Hill, chief creative officer at TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, puts it: "Multitasking does not work with your eyes, but it does work with your ears."

Indeed, when people commute, spend the day at work, drive a car, shop, eat, or simply rest, audio breaks through and audio resonates. Radio, with its massive scale and significant time broadcasting to most every target demographic, wins share of ear. It's the go-to medium for consumers to get in a better mood, hear their favorite content, and stay informed. These are all things that marketers strive to accomplish via advertising for their brands, and it's why they are turning to radio to engage their consumers and grow their audiences.

Research shows that engaging commercials are eight times more effective than nonengaging commercials. And yet, despite numerous studies proving that radio produces significant results for advertisers across categories, the majority of radio-advertising creative is less engaging than it could be. Therefore, results suffer.

When it comes to crafting the message, telling the story, and getting consumers to engage, audio is arguably the toughest, yet most rewarding medium. That's because people can't lean on a visual "crutch." It's up to marketers to paint the picture, leverage "theater of the mind," and tell the brand's story effectively.

Proven guidelines for crafting radio creative that works are just that, guidelines. Akin to brand identity, every radio commercial (or campaign) has its own unique idea, personality, tone, and voice. Each spot tells its own story.

Keep It Simple, Make It Original

Audio is one of the most intimate forms of communication. It's inclusive, and when brands build the story the right way, loyalty usually follows.

The Radio Mercury Awards, produced by the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), help to illustrate how brands and organizations develop effective and creative radio commercials.

Each year, the competition is judged by a panel of top-level agency creative leaders who develop work for clients across virtually all advertising categories. Since its inception in 1992, the RAB has tapped America's most celebrated creative directors to identify best practices for the "art" of advertising. The top tips from the creative community include:

  • Don't run ads. Tell stories. A story includes character, plot, and theme; the same holds true for a radio ad. In the ad, the main character is the brand and must always "stay in character."
  • Embrace conflict. Think about what the consumer currently believes and what the brand wants them to believe; that's the conflict that should be creatively leveraged to get the brand message across.
  • Use the strengths of the medium to the brand's advantage. Words, music, sound effects, and even silence. Use sound strategically. Don't overdo it and let the sound effects deliver the big idea.
  • Engage. To ensure consumers don't flip the dial, brands first need to engage them and then tell them about the brand, products, and/or services.
  • Focus. Pick one single, shining thought per spot. Think of a 30-second spot as a billboard. To wit, write the core point of the brief and stick to one message, per script. The script is not a bible; it's a map.
  • Read the copy out loud. Always read the ad copy out loud, for timing and relevance. From a timing perspective, silently reading the script or murmuring it under one's breath could result in an actual read that exceeds one-and-a-half minutes because people naturally murmur twice as fast as when they read it out loud. From a relevance perspective, the copy will sound different when read to another person or out loud versus the way it sounds in the writer's head.
  • Be the consumer. Marketers need to divorce themselves from their day job and evaluate an ad as a casual listener might when he hears the spot for the first time.
  • Be original. Avoid clichés at all costs and be specific about the language used for the ad copy. Avoid "stale" language and focus on language that is more interesting to hear; for example "mashed potatoes" is better than "dinner."
  • Have a conversation, don't shout. Use the intimacy of the medium as a way to have a conversation with consumers. Don't yell, shout, or sound too scripted.
  • Don't underestimate production values. Leave room in the "script" to get creative and experiment in the production. When it eventually airs, a radio ad is almost never how it appeared on paper. That's because much of the creative magic happens during the radio production process through incorporating stellar sound effects, proper casting, strong writing, and, sometimes, compelling music.

On the flip side, ad executives have also shared some common mistakes. These mistakes include: thinking that what is important to the brand is just as important to the listener; greenlighting a message that lacks surprise, in which consumers may tune out; overloading a radio spot with so much information, there's no chance for it to turn the corner and be creative; and failing to wrap key messages in an entertaining package. The Radio Mercury Awards Creative Insights includes other creative insights

Best Practices for Radio Ads That Pop

During the past several years, numerous research firms, including Nielsen, IPSOS, ABX, Veritonic, NumericOwl, Sequent Partners, and MARU/Vision Critical, have conducted studies on behalf of the radio industry to help prove the efficacy of the radio medium for various brands. Nearly every study revealed creative insights, such as what works (or doesn't) and what drives higher likability scores, engagement, intent, and traffic. These studies reaffirm that the quality of radio creative is vital to the overall effectiveness of any brand's audio campaign.

The studies also provide invaluable insights regarding the best practices for creating radio ads that can boost the top and bottom lines. These insights include:

Tell Stories

  • Powerful storytelling helps listeners self-generate images that are relevant and meaningful to them, compared to images that are visually delivered to them.
  • Storytelling captures listeners' attention.
  • Storytelling that is inherently memorable captures people's attention.

Tone and consistency matter

  • Veritonic showed that serious ads generate 75 percent more purchase intent than humorous ads. This is not at all to say that funny ads don't work. It means that jokes/funny ads are very hard to pull off and wear out quickly. To avoid a weakening impact, funny ads should be changed or rotated frequently. According to Nielsen, "Consumer engagement drops off after the first five seconds." Against that backdrop, consistency is key for listeners to immediately connect the commercial to the brand identity and to draw an association with the company's or product's attributes — even if just for a few precious seconds.
    • Consistency encompasses voice of narrator, music bed, or audio logo.
    • Consistency also provides for the tone of the ads and storyline.

Localize and personalize.

  • According to an IPSOS brand-effect study for an insurance brand, people who heard a localized ad were 21 percent more likely to consider buying the brand than those who heard a national ad. References to the local market where the spot is airing makes the ad immediately more relevant and provides an opportunity for national brands to distinguish themselves from competitors.
  • The Radio Drives Search study, commissioned by the RAB and conducted by Sequent Partners, revealed that ads with a personalized message achieved a higher percent of incremental search activity from the spot.

Timing counts.

  • Frequency of ads is crucial.
  • Don't overload the ad copy; less is more.
  • Make sure the voiceover for the ad is steady and deliberate.
  • Be careful with reveal ads (or ads that wait until the last minute to reveal the name of the brand). It may be a creative spot, but if it is not an established brand or campaign, companies risk losing brand association.

Disclaimers boost engagement.

  • A recent automotive creative test conducted by Veritonic on behalf of Westwood One revealed that disclaimers - legal copy - actually work.
  • Disclaimers are important to people who are in the market for a specific product or service and want to know what they can expect.
  • The closer a listener is to making a purchase the more important the disclaimer becomes. It's also okay to speed it up a little to allow more time for branding.

Sonic branding and music sharpen the message.

  • This sounds fairly basic but is often overlooked. If there is a familiar music bed, tone, or jingle, use it. In today's voice-activated world, if a brand does not have a sonic identity, it is wise to create one.
  • Sounds also matter. When people hear something sizzle, it usually makes them hungry. When they hear the sound of screeching brakes, they wince. The sound(s) associated with a specific product can elicit strong feelings. Background music and effects set the mood, but be careful to avoid sound effects that are naturally irritating, such as nails on a chalkboard, people screaming, or dogs growling; if people try to avoid these sounds in everyday life, keep them out of the radio creative as well.
  • Finally, silence can be powerful and, when used surgically, compel an audience to listen more carefully.

The Blended Effect: Merging Creative and Data

Whether it is from the creative (art) or the research (science) perspective, certain themes remain consistent when it comes to radio creative that works to drive business goals and can cut through the clutter. Radio is an incredibly powerful medium that is the purest form of storytelling. There is no other medium that invites listeners to use their mind's eye to visualize and participate in the brand's journey.

The opportunity for brands and their creative partners is to truly capitalize on radio's clout via their audiences. Despite the proliferation of new media channels, radio remains a robust marketing vehicle. It enables brands to tell powerful stories, without force-fitting too much detail, in a very short amount of time.

Tammy Greenberg is the SVP of business development at the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB), a partner in the ANA Thought Leadership Program. You can email her at