A crash course in writing radio ads

I haven’t written many radio adverts in my career. So when a client needed two written — fast, I needed to brush up my skills — fast.

Here’s what I learnt in one hour, from a bunch of clever people on the Internet who know what they’re doing.

Next time you need to wing a radio advert, these tips might help.

Side note: This shit is hard!

The number one rule for copywriting in general also applies to radio ad copy.

To influence your audience, you need a solid understanding of their challenges and desires and the journey they take when making a buying decision (or in marketing speak, the “sales funnel”).

Appealing to an expectant mother? Make it emotional. Speaking to CFOs? Open with hard-hitting stats that speak to their logic.

I don’t know about you, but I never watch the five-second YouTube ads. Rather, I stare at the bottom of the screen, watching the “You can skip this ad in 5 seconds” countdown, because I’m not hanging around one millisecond longer than I need to.

On radio, you only have three seconds to stop people from changing channels or wandering away from the radio set. Say something compelling right out of the gate and get to the point fast.

Listeners have become masters at subconsciously tuning out irrelevant messages and advertising.

Your opening line should provoke curiosity, imagination, or surprise. Go big in those first few seconds. Or, in YouTube talk, “be unskippable”.

Pioneering advertising copywriter Robert Collier famously proposed that the secret of advertising is to enter a conversation your audience is already having, either with another person or themselves.

It’s a classic marketing trick: Meet your audience where they are.

It’s been over a year since the outbreak of COVD and I still forget my mask in the car. I’ve been shooed away from the Pick n Pay entrance way too many times.

Once, I dreamt that we didn’t have to wear masks in public anymore — and actually believed it was a thing! (My husband snapped one on my face before I was shooed away again).

But do I learn? Nope. I still leave the house without one.

A radio ad featuring a character that feels this pain will immediately catch my attention. Even if the advert isn’t even about blimmen’ masks.

Ah, the classic copywriting formula.

Once you’ve hooked the listener and politely butted into the conversation, you’ll need to emphasise to evoke an emotional response.

Tell them something they can relate to, a pain point that will sound familiar, like the price of nappies.

Next, agitate the problem. Rub salt into the wound. Every parent can relate to changing a diaper only for the angel child to have an explosive shit two seconds later.

Bring them down gently and safely to the other side because you have the solution, the antidote that will take the pain away. I don’t really know what the solution is in this case but I’m sure someone will make millions one day.

There are no images in radio, but it’s still an audio-visual medium. That’s because using tricks like sound effects and catchy jingles conjures up images in people’s minds.

If you’re advertising software for construction, for example, sound clips of banging, drilling, and heavy machinery paint a picture in the reader’s mind far more effectively than words do. That’s because people remember more of what they hear than of what they read.

Words and sounds are a powerful combination to spark imagination.

Use vivid language and concrete nouns that can be physically experienced. It’s possible to appeal to all five senses of sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste, with sensory descriptions, like someone gagging in response to the nappy poo-nami.

You can get 75 words into a 30-second radio advert — max. That’s a little space to pack a lot of punch. Just because you have 75 words to play with doesn’t mean you have to use them all. Less is more. But know this — writing succinctly is a lot harder than writing an essay.

Decide on your ultimate goal for writing the radio advert? Do you want the listener to visit your website? Your store? Sign up for a free software trial?

In radio advertising, you want to get in, nail your key messages, and get out.

Know what you want to achieve and keep every word aligned to that goal. Use clear, simple language and short, concise sentences that communicate your central message most effectively.

Your Call to Action (CTA) should align with your main message. Importantly, it must be simple and easy to remember. Yes, radio gives you a captive audience, but they’re also a distracted audience: they’re navigating traffic, talking to other passengers, or mediating a sibling fight.

Include an incentive to make your CTA even more effective. For example, “Start your free trial at software.com.” Or “Sign up today, get 50% off. Only at software.com.”

Reading your radio advert out loud is an effective way to spot errors, clumsy phrasing, and fragments that don’t easily roll off the tongue and will leave your voice artist cursing.

Here are more things we don’t want to hear in a radio ad:

Also, avoid hard-to-pronounce words, like ‘rural’, ‘sixth’ and ‘Worcestershire’.

I should mention that, since there was no dialogue in the adverts my client needed, my research did not extend to character development, which is a whole other story. But not for today. There are other clever people on the internet to help with that.

Before you tune out, remember these golden rules of copywriting, which apply to all mediums:

  • Know your audience and tailor your message to meet them where they are.
  • Use plain, simple language that communicates your message in the clearest way possible.
  • Address your audience directly using words like “you” and “yours”.
  • Sell benefits and outcomes, not features.
  • Use active voice wherever possible.
  • Focus on one message and get to the point fast.
  • Tell stories.

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