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  • Writer's pictureLane Anderson

Do Radio Ads Work?

Updated: May 19, 2021

Radio stations across the country are struggling, with up to 200 set to close over the next three years.

Digital advertising has eaten up large chunks of the market over the last two decades, and many people are asking if radio even works anymore as they take their advertising dollars other places.

Before I share my insight on this question (spoiler: the answer is yes), I want to preface this topic with a reminder that you should always consider the source when you read opinions.

Consider Who is Making the Argument

I (and my marketing firm, London Road Media) do not own any advertising space.

We don’t own radio waves to sell, billboards to plaster, or a social platform to leverage. We do, however, write radio scripts, design billboards, manage the buying of both, and create and manage social ads. So I don’t stand to benefit from a company using one of these types of advertising more than another.

When you read about how great radio ads are, and it’s published by a radio station — or how effective your billboard is, and it’s argued by an outdoor advertising company — or how beneficial Google ads are, and it’s shared by Google — you might want to take that information with a grain of salt.

I once went to a “seminar” about the benefits of radio advertising. It was hosted by an organization funded by radio stations to promote the value of advertising on radio. Attendance was incentivized by the promise to give away a big radio advertising package to one lucky attendee. You can guess how objective and unbiased the presentation was.

Look for third-party opinions that aren’t affiliated with the thing they’re arguing for.

Do Radio Ads Work?

OK, back to the question.

The answer is: yes.

Radio ads work.

Mailing someone a flyer works.

Yelling from the rooftop with a megaphone works.

Flying a banner behind an airplane works.

Super Bowl ads work.

Everything works.

But are the results worth the cost? That’s a different question.

There’s no doubt radio ads work. Thousands of people hear the ad. Some will take action. You’ve gained customers you wouldn’t have otherwise earned. It worked. But was it worth the cost of the ads? And was it worth it compared to another option you could’ve invested in instead?

To answer that, we’d need a better approximation of how well it worked.

How Do You Know if They Worked?

Measuring the effectiveness of your marketing is tricky at the best of times, but radio is especially challenging. So how can it be measured?

What is the thing you’re hoping to accomplish with radio ads?

The answer is always: increased sales.

But how would you know if your campaign increased sales? Because when the cash register rings, we can’t accurately know, “Oh, that’s because of our radio ads.”

Or, understanding that there are many reasons someone becomes a customer, you can’t even know, “Oh, the reason they purchased was 15% because of the radio ads and 55% because of a friend who told them about us and 20% because of our website that they visited and 10% because they noticed our sign driving by.”

We can, however, get an idea of how much radio influences other things.

dashboard view of a tracking tool to measure the effectiveness of your marketing

With tracking tools, we can find out how many people dialed the phone number or visited the URL mentioned in the ad. Unfortunately, it’s always abysmally low.

People listen to the radio while they’re busy doing other things, like driving or working or cooking. When a phone number or website address is mentioned, it’s rare (like, almost nonexistent) that people stop what they’re doing and record that info or take action.

But what people might do is recall the ad later when they are waiting in a line or eating lunch alone or walking their dog. And they might remember the name of the business and search it on Google or Facebook or wherever, so they can learn more.

That’s the hope with a radio ad: plant a message compelling and memorable enough to be recalled at a more convenient time when the listener is available to take an action, probably from their phone.

The goal is ad recall.

How Do You Get Strong Ad Recall in Radio Ads?

Ad recall requires impressions — lots of them.

As this article says (published by a radio broadcasting company), you need to consistently hit listeners with your ad over a long period of time.

“When it comes to frequency, there is a scientific algorithm to determine what is best. It’s about 3.4 impressions per person per week. We round that down to three. This is best achieved using a 21/52 schedule, 21 ads a week, 52 weeks per year.”

This is something I’ve heard from radio representatives — this magical 3.4 impressions per person per week and the 21/52 strategy.

Where I live, that would come at a cost of between $20,000 and $40,000.

Edit: This is based on the full price of ads. As some have pointed out, there are bundles and packages and promotions that could lower this price.

That’s a cost most small businesses will choke-laugh at. And it would take a big dent out of a medium business’s marketing budget, too.

Radio advertising is out of reach for most small businesses. The minimum cost of entry is too high.

So radio stations will put together smaller campaigns to be affordable to anyone willing to write a cheque. They’ll run a small number of ads for a short period of time. But then you’re not hitting that impression threshold where the ad recall really starts to happen.

You gotta either go for it or not at all — no half-measures.

What Businesses are Radio Ads Good For?

If you have $30,000 to spend on radio and not cripple your ability to do other necessary marketing activities, radio can work great!

Just consider how many of those ad recalls are relevant to your business.

If all 10,000 listeners recalled your ad and they’re all relevant to your business, that may be great value!

If all 10,000 listeners recalled your ad but only 5% of them are relevant to your business (eg: you repair welders), then it’s less likely that this is great value.

To get maximum value from radio ads, it’s important that your business is relevant to a large portion of the audience. Because, unlike digital advertising, you can’t narrow down the audience to just those that are more likely to be interested.

This is why restaurants (especially fast food), gyms, mattress and furniture stores, wireless service providers, electronics stores, tire shops, etc. are heard on the radio often. Almost all listeners are potential customers.

But if you offer business incorporation services, or prosthetic limbs, forklift parts, etc., only a fraction of the audience is relevant.

So what kind of business could consider advertising on the radio?

A larger business that serves a mass audience.

Hopefully that added some clarity to how radio ads work, and what businesses they might be good for. We advise our clients on the best ways to reach a valuable audience effectively, and radio sometimes gets put in the mix. But don’t let a salesperson develop your marketing strategy (as pointed out in this article). Talk to a trusted advisor to help you make the best decisions.

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