Rudy Fernandez has written, casted and produced more than 5,000 radio commercials, has won National and International awards for his work and knows his way around a radio spot like no one else.
Every day there are more ways to consume more and more media, and it’s easy to forget radio. But there is one simple fact that keeps it relevant: every car rolling off the line has a radio in it. As a result, radio listenership has remained steady. About 92%-93% of the U.S. public listens to the radio every week.
We usually listen to audio (radio still being #1) while we’re doing something else. That means, when you’re creating a radio commercial, your spot is going to compete for the listeners’ attention while they drive their cars, do their laundry or (gasp) reach to change the station. You’d better make your ad worth listening to. You can’t just spit out a bunch of copy points and assume people will care about your message just because you do. You have to package your information in a story that connects with the people. Here is a guide on how to create a radio commercial that will get people’s attention and get them to listen to what you have to say.
The most important part of any piece of marketing creative is the brief. Yes, it looks boring and if you read it aloud you would lose your entire audience. But without a clear, concise brief, you will most probably just be writing a bunch of bullet points until the 15, 30 or 60 seconds are up.
A brief should have some background, competitive details and specific assignment information, but in order to get the right creative, your brief has to have a point of view that answers three essential questions:
- In one sentence, what are we saying?
- To whom are we saying it?
- Why should they care?
It’s not complicated, it’s just hard to boil down all the things you want to say into one sentence. Often experienced planners have trouble, which is why creatives often write the best briefs. We write our briefs in a way that tells the writer what we want people to walk away with. For example, here’s one from a campaign we did for The University of Alabama’s (UA) College of Continuing Studies:
What do they think now?
I need to earn a degree but can’t quit my job. I want to earn a real degree and not just an online degree.
What do we want them to think?
As a UA distance student, I have access to the same resources as on-campus students, and my degree is the same.
Once you know what you’re going to say, list the support points that back it up. List these in order of importance. The reason? Odds are you will not fit them all into your spot. In a 30 second spot you may get two or three max points across (but really go for 2) before it starts to sound like an auctioneer spewing out copy points that only matter to you and not your audience. From the same brief, these were all the support points. Obviously, we didn’t include all of them in the final 30-second spot.
- Earn a college degree around your schedule from wherever you are. Online degrees and many other distance options are available.
- Courses are prepared and taught by same renowned professors on-campus, so the degree is the same as if you were an on-campus student.
- Access to UA’s libraries and research online
- Tutoring and academic advisors available to help you navigate your courses and the University.
- No out of state tuition. If you’re worried about the cost of going back to school, this is very reasonable. There is financial aid and are scholarships available.
- Worldwide reputation for excellence. Wherever you go your degree is recognized
- Worldwide network of alumni to help you further your network
- Career Center that helps you find opportunities and teaches skills like writing a great resume.
- Thousands of people have earned their degrees from Alabama through these programs
This was a clear brief and we created a spot that led to thousands of leads. In fact, the radio campaigns we’ve done for UA increased leads every year we ran them for seven years in a row.
Here’s a spot we created from this brief:
The University of Alabama "Cheerleader" Radio
One last note about the brief which is important: KNOW THE BUDGET UPFRONT. Your budget will determine how you script the spot:
How many talent?
Will there be original music?
Can I use a talent out of town or do we need to keep it local?
You will need to know the budget before you begin to work on a script.
The basic structure
Notice this spot—and spots that work follow a basic structure:
- Call to Action
- Button (this one is a “nice to have” and this spot did not have one)
The amount of time spent on each depends on how much information the audience needs. You can determine this by figuring out how qualified the listener needs to be in order to respond. In our Continuing Education example, obviously going back to school is a big decision. A radio commercial will, at best, get people to the website to find out more. For those who are further in their search, they may go directly to the “degrees” part of the site. For those not as far along, they will go to a more informational gathering part of the site (more on measurement later). In considered products or services, the second part or the sell takes up more time. If you have a less considered purchase – say, beer or pizza, you don’t need to spend a lot of time talking about what beer is or why someone should eat pizza. We don’t have these types of clients, but they lend themselves to some entertaining radio when all you have to do is tell a brand story. For example, even after all this time, “The Most Interesting Man in the World”, is still one of my favorites.
Also, keep in mind that while these are distinct sections, in the best radio commercials you don’t even notice it. The goal is to create something that gets your attention and keeps you in the story until the end.
- Set up – You have three to four seconds before your listener decides to listen or pay attention to something else. Hit them with something that will connect. Make them laugh or feel emotional or connect with something relevant in their lives right away. Is there a problem you know they have? Is there a story with an intriguing intro? A song or scenario that will make them want to hear more? Get them into the world you are creating by capturing their attention. This does not mean annoying them. Don’t use a siren sound affect or scream, that will just make them hate you.
- Sell – This is the part you think you know but you may not. The sell isn’t just listing bullet points. No one is writing this down, and people don’t remember bullet points. You have to weave it into a story. Our human brains are wired for a story structure, and your selling points must flow out of your main message. The listener should remember that: because (main message), XYZ Company is (Bullet point) so I can (benefit). Take time to understand how one benefit can lead into another and how they all tie into that one thing you want people to believe about your brand by the end of the spot.
- Call to action (CTA) – This is usually reserved for the end of the spot. And I’ve tried it in various places, but this is where people are trained to listen for it. This spot is selling something, and this is your close. Wrap up the reason they should take an action then give them the action they should take. Make it something they can easily do or remember. The most common, of course, is directing listeners to a website with a simple URL. To this point the goal of your spot should be not just to get their attention but to keep them listening to the end.
Speaking of a CTA…in radio there are three basic measurements to measure effectiveness (there are several others that are more robust, but these are your, “must haves”).
Lift is simply the number of web visits on days the spot(s) air.
Day Part Segmentation looks at the number of web visits during the specific times spots air in a market.
Time Decay Analysis refers to the amount of time after a spot airs where we might see an increase in web visits. For radio, the time decay is longer than television because often listeners are driving. We recommend a time decay analysis of about 45 minutes to measure a spot’s direct impact. We also recommend looking at organic search numbers during a buy. Often potential customers may hear a radio spot and not remember the URL. They then search terms they heard or enter through your company’s main site.
- Button: We don’t always have time to end a spot with a memorable hit that plays off the idea that tied it all together, but when we do, boy is it sweet. This gives the listener one last smile and makes your spot more memorable.
Here’s one for a spot we created several years back about the dangers of bees while driving alone. Check out the Button at the end:
The Clean Air Campaign "Bees" Radio
Some important things to remember:
Write for the ear
So often young writers have come to me with scripts that are beautifully written but when you read them out loud, they are cumbersome and difficult to follow. Whenever you’re writing a radio commercial, read it aloud. It’s the only way to find the clunky parts. When you’re writing for the page, not the ear, you can put two, sometimes three thoughts in a sentence. You can’t do that for the ear. One thought per sentence and then let the next thought flow from that.
Another common mistake people make is to read the spot to themselves and whoops, the spot is too long. You can read to yourself a whole lot faster than you can read it aloud. What I’m trying to say here is READ IT ALOUD. That is how it will be presented, that it how you need to craft it.
Use unlimited visuals
The most wonderful thing about audio? You can create any scene you wish without having to pay for extra production. Your visuals take place in your audience’s minds. So, you can be on another planet, under the water, you can ride a flying elephant if you wish. In this spot for water conservation we built an entire Noah’s ark without having to rent one single animal.
Metro Water District "Ark" Radio
Types of radio spots
There are unlimited ways to package your story. But if you’re stuck and need some sort of framework, try one of these. They’re common but they work.
This is pretty much what it sounds like. But it doesn’t have to be boring. Here’s one that is about breast cancer that is serious but has power.
Emory Healthcare "Team" Radio
But in the same campaign we created one that was lighter:
Emory Healthcare "Octopus" Radio
Here are two we’ve done in years past. They can tell your story in a humorous way. Here we made tax incentives funny and listenable:
The Clean Air Campaign "Sexy" Radio
Sometimes they can interesting and puzzling like this spot we did for Georgia Tech.
Georgia Tech "Answers" Radio
When people have ideas for a spot, they usually create a conversation between two people. Dialogs can be wonderful or horrible. The horrible ones forget the #1 rule of dialog:
A dialog must have conflict.
By conflict I mean two things opposing each other. It doesn’t have to be a knock down drag out fight, but you have to present unresolved friction, or no one will stay tuned. Too often we’ve sat in meetings and inevitably someone has an idea where two people have a discussion. The idea always involves one friend asking the other friend questions and the other friend listing a bunch of points about the product or service. Please don’t do this.
FRIEND: Hi Joni, I didn’t know you shopped at XZY Store!
JONI: Of course, I do! They have the lowest prices. The service here is unbeatable. Look, I just got a new (product) for only….
You get the idea. No one wants to hear two people agreeing on something for 30-60 seconds. It would be more interesting if Joni forgot to buy her friend a birthday present and then ran into her at the store, or if Joni got into an argument with her friend or if Joni knocked over a display… anything that contains some conflict will create a conversation people will want to hear. The bigger the conflict, the more interesting. Shoot, if Joni was sleeping with her friend’s husband, I’d definitely listen to that conversation.
Check out the first few seconds of this spot we did for Northside Hospital. It was a spot about surviving prostate cancer. You see how we set up the dialog upfront with intrigue and conflict without two people arguing.
Northside Hospital "The Walk"
Way on the other end of the spectrum, check out the first few seconds of this spot we did for Samsung where we went to the extreme to create conflict. In this case, we created a scenario where we can then show off the phone while you’re wondering if the man choking would survive (he does).
Samsung "Set Up" Radio
Or in this dialog we took an everyday situation (like making dinner) and added conflict to make the spot more engaging.
Made Dinner radio
Engaging in the behavior
This is fun if you can create a scenario where your talent is using the product or service. Here’s one we did for taking MARTA to the airport.
MARTA "International Airport"
This is when you set up an argument against the thing you are selling that is easy to refute. Here’s a spot for ATL Transit where someone is explaining the benefits of traffic congestion.
ATL Transit "Cusser"
Interviews and Case Studies
These give you an opportunity to talk to someone who has success with your product or service. We’ve done our share for hospital clients, and I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of those. They are powerful and emotional. They connect because the story is about the person, not so much about the brand. Remember that, because the moment you start to sound too “selly” you lose the humanness of it and you will lose your listener.
Oh, how I love satire. Making fun of institutions, particularly ones with which I am involved. We’ve made fun of advertising in so many spots, here’s one from a while back where we actually make fun of the case study structure listed above:
GDOT "Workzone Safety" Radio
Take an everyday situation and exaggerate some of its points, like this spot for the State Road & Tollway Authority.
State Road & Tollway Authority "Eagle" Radio
Confession: The most overused version of this type of spot is the Game Show scenario. (I confess I’ve used it myself.) Because in a game show, people are asked questions and the answers can always be related to the product or service you’re selling. I vowed never again to do a game show commercial. If you do it once, I understand. We all have an embarrassing hairstyle or ridiculous outfit we once wore.
Radio’s special place
Most copywriters don’t become expert at radio and there’s s simple reason. In an agency structure, senior people get assigned the cool flashier ideas that they center around video, or a big event or the latest social channel. Radio is usually handed down to the lower level writer. Once you move up the ladder, you pass the radio assignment down to the next person in the creative basement.
Many years ago, I was that writer.
But rather than want to move on, I found radio gave me a freedom to tell a story like nothing else. Radio puts the writer in control of every aspect from the script to the production. I never left the radio basement. As a result, I became an expert and people reach out often to get my thoughts on radio. I want to end this part of my “How to” by offering you the same. If you have a question about a radio spot you’re writing, email us. Writing can be a very lonely act, and sometimes you just need someone to bounce an idea off of. So reach out, chances are I’ve experienced whatever you’re experiencing and probably even messed it up at some point. So I can tell you where the land mines are. Also email us if you found this useful. I’d love to hear feedback.
Next up: How to produce a radio spot