Unleash the Power of Radio Advertising


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It's amazing to think that the first commercial radio station didn't go on the air until 1920 -- KDKA in Pittsburgh for trivia buffs. From that modest beginning, radio has grown to be a ubiquitous presence in our lives.

It wakes you up in the morning and gives you the news. You get in the car, and you probably turn on the radio. It goes to the beach, the ballpark, and the office. It gives everything from "heavy metal" to talk shows to Bach.

For all the talk about television and its power, many people spend far more time listening to radio than watching TV. Unlike TV, radio lets you do other things while tuning in. Radio sets are cheap, light, and portable. You can even listen while jogging.

A study done several years ago by R.H. Bruskin Associates shows the huge reach of radio. The study revealed that radio reaches a whopping 65% of all Americans older than 12 years old between 6 a.m. and noon on an average weekday, compared to 36% for newspapers and 29% for television. From noon to 6 p.m., radio is less dominant and reaches 50% of the populace, still outstripping television by 6%. After 6 p.m., television dominates, reaching 74%.

Radio is king during the day; television rules the evenings. That makes radio a natural for independent agents because radio ads generally get the best results when run during office hours-in the daytime.

Despite the formidable power and reach of radio, it carries disadvantages. For instance, unlike a newspaper ad, a radio commercial doesn't enable someone to tear out a coupon or phone number. So how can radio be used best?

Three folks with much practical experience in the medium are Kirk and Carl Hammaker of Pembroke Insurance Agency in Virginia Beach, VA, and Robin Horst of James A. Jacobs, Inc.

Jacobs is a Cincinnati-based advertising agency with a unique radio advertising program used by about 75 independent insurance agencies nationally. Participating agents receive exclusive rights to use the commercials in their market area. Because the program is well-established, Jacobs has built a large library of commercials that are customized with the agency's name.


Radio is everywhere and so are radio commercials. How to prevent your agency's commercials from being just so much "background noise"?

Do something different. Take advantage of radio's unique ability to fire the imagination! Give your prospect a laugh!

"Radio advertising can break through the clutter and give strong name-awareness," says Horst. How? The agency must use humor instead of a stale approach, she believes. Be "outrageous" in your commercials and still deliver a serious selling message.

"Insurance is a dry subject," she noted. "It may be interesting to the agent; it's not very interesting to prospects. We take a whimsical approach to it, and that makes these commercials very "intrusive".

Our advertising helps producers open doors and helps them break the ice. Agents get a lot of feedback from their prospects." Another advantage of radio is that it's "targetable." The agency can choose the station and time to reach a business audience, a Personal Lines audience, whatever.

"In any given market, there are 25 or 30 stations," Horst points out. At least one of them reaches the agency's audience, no matter how narrow it is.

And you can combine type of station with time of day. For instance, to reach a business audience, you'd probably want to advertise on a station that's heavy on financial news. To further hone in on that audience, concentrate on drive-time.

Would your agency consider advertising on a heavy-metal rock station? The kind where the music is perhaps just a tad more appealing than the sound of trash being dumped into the garbage truck? Perhaps you feel such surroundings aren't dignified enough. But suppose that Non-Standard Auto insurance is a big market for the agency. In that case, you'd better advertise on a station that reaches young people-and a heavy-metal station might be a natural. In fact, at least one of Jacobs' clients takes just such an approach.

What percentage of the ad budget should be allocated to radio versus television and print? There are no set answers. One of Jacobs' clients, a $100-million Cincinnati agency, puts almost all of its ad dollars into radio. This aggressive, sales-oriented agency believes the radio ads "warm up" prospects to producers who make cold calls.

"That's one way to go-to put everything into one medium and do it almost year-round," Horst says. This agency drops its advertising only in December, when retail commercials dominate.

Most agencies allocate a portion of their ad money to radio. "The key is for an agent to look at marketing objectives," Horst counsels. "Are the objectives broad-based, in the sense that the agent needs to build general name-awareness in the community? Or are they trying to be very specific about products?"

If the matter is simply building name-awareness, advertising only on radio can make sense. Most agents want to do more than that, so they use radio for name recognition, and direct mail or other media for selling the product. Many of the most successful agents combine broad-based media with highly targeted media.

Whether radio advertising is 30% or 70% of the ad budget, you must spend enough to make an impact. "If an agency is going to do radio, they need to put enough money into it so that they have a continuing presence," Horst says.

Presence means getting on the air four or five times a day. For instance, to reach a business audience, the agency might want to sponsor the morning and evening news, run two commercials at the end of the day, then run another commercial some other time.

To have presence, the agency doesn't have to be on all the time. A well-known technique is called "flighting": advertising four or five days a week, five times a day, for three weeks, then dropping the ads for a week or two. This is a short enough absence so that people think they're still hearing the ads. Then the ads are run again.

The agency may stop advertising in July and August if targeting business buyers. December is usually a lost cause because shoppers have visions of sweaters and jewelry in their heads, not insurance.


Give the campaign at least six months to produce results. Horst maintains that if people are talking about the commercials, you're getting something valuable-name-recognition.

The specific results of radio advertising are devilishly hard to track. For instance, people will often hear a commercial and look the advertiser in the Yellow Pages. When asked where they heard of the company, they'll respond, "the Yellow Pages."

The cost of radio advertising varies enormously. A 60-second spot can cost anywhere from a bargain-basement $5 on a tiny station to $500 or more in the big city.

The agency can repeat its message more often by using 30-second spots instead. At most stations, these spots cost 60% to 75% of a 60-second commercial. If the message can be delivered in 70 to 80 words, a 30-second spot can work. With a 60-second spot, you'll have about 150 to 160 words to play with and more room for sound effects and music. If the message is simple, 30 seconds would suffice, but a more complex story requires 60 seconds.

Even in a small town, the agency would probably need to spend at least $5,000 or $6,000 to make an impact. Most of Jacobs' clients-typically agencies with $1 million to $5 million in premium volume-spend about $15,000 to $20,000 annually on radio.

Like most bad things, the recession has a silver lining. Radio stations, like other media, are hungry for ad dollars. Even in good times, the rate card isn't cut in stone. Today, the rate card is almost a work of fiction. Tell the station that you will advertise regularly, and ask for a discount based on that. Tell them that you want an annual contract along with the lower rate, but to spread the advertising to fit your needs. Air the ads only at the best times, getting more for the money.

For instance, in a small town, there's probably just one station. It will have a local following who get their news, sports, and weather in the morning, Horst notes. The rest of the day they tune into the big-city station 50 miles away. That's why early-morning advertising can make much sense for an agency.

What if there are two or three stations in town that seem equally appealing? If the budget is ample, spread the advertising. If it isn't, you'd be better off putting all the dollars into one station. Better to make a strong impact on one station than to make a weak impact on three.


There are many ways to get a radio commercial produced. Most stations will write the copy for free because they want the ad dollars. An announcer will read the commercial. Or, if you or someone in the agency has a good voice, you may tape the commercial yourself.

Most larger stations have a sound library to add music or sound effects. If the agency is advertising frequently, the station might produce the spot.

Just buying the air time and getting "the creative" free from the station is naturally the cheapest way to go. And it can work well. But there is a problem: If the station writes and produces it, the commercial will probably sound much like other commercials and blend in with the spots for Al's Tanning Salon and Bob's Ford.

Another alternative is to use an ad agency. The agency can give you a turnkey approach, handling everything from the creative concept to production to buying the air time.

If you do use an ad agency, insist on top-notch creative work. Give the agency room to be creative. Make sure they understand insurance marketing or at least can learn about it quickly. The disadvantage of an ad agency is higher cost. Yet first-rate creativity can save money in air time, Horst contends. A memorable spot run less often can get the same impact as a boring commercial run more frequently.

Co-op ads from carriers provide another choice. Just be careful that the ad doesn't sell the company more than the agency.


Jacobs offers another route. It has built a library of radio commercials through the years. An agency may pay an annual licensing fee and get exclusive rights to the commercials in the market area. Horst feels the commercials are so "intrusive" and unique that they must be restricted to one agency in a market area.

Jacobs' standard commercials are customized with the agency's name. The licensing fee is reduced by 50% if the same set of commercials are used the second year. The size of the fee varies with the size of the market. Using Jacobs' program costs more than having the radio station produce commercials, but less than starting from scratch with an agency.

As an added bonus, Jacobs provides simple newspaper/ magazine ads, Yellow Pages copy, and direct mail pieces. The print materials are camera-ready; a printer just has to insert the agency's name and logo.

Jacobs' commercials (all 60-second spots) feature humor and sound effects. For example, in a series of 12 commercials called "Insurance Salesmen Excuses," businessmen offer incredible excuses and dodges to avoid seeing a producer. The series is targeted at Commercial Lines.

Another popular series is called "Who's your insurance agent?" It was originally developed for Hoosierland General Agency in Indiana. A small leap of imagination links "Hoosier" to "Who's your?" This series appeals to Personal insurance buyers. It features bizarre disasters like an impossibly wild party, a crazed Great Dane, and a zany car crash. All end with the line, "Who's your insurance agent?"

None of the commercials sell a particular product. Some agents produce their own "add-ons," running the Jacobs commercial, then following with a brief message. For instance, in the summer, the ad might be about Boat insurance; in late winter, the agent might want to talk about individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

No matter whether the agency uses a service like Jacobs, hires an ad agency, or lets the station write commercials, avoid the dull and mundane. To capture the radio listener, do something different with the copy or sound effects. No one will hear the message if it puts them to sleep.



  • Radio can be inexpensive-a big budget is not needed to make an impact.
  • You can target different audiences by type of station, time of day, and type of program.
  • The production costs for commercials usually range from zero to a modest charge.
  • Producing spots is easy and fun.
  • Radio can reach people any place, any time, in their cars, at home, outdoors, and at work.
  • Radio can captivate the imagination more than any other medium.
  • Radio is great for promoting events like openings, sales, and special events.

  • Radio doesn't have the staying power of print. Listeners can't tear a radio commercial and post it on their refrigerator or bulletin board.
  • It's hard to convey a phone number by radio. Listeners usually have to be motivated to look the agency up in the phone book.
  • Radio listeners are capricious and often switch stations. This is especially true for the kinds of stations that have many competitors, such as rock and middle-of-the-road formats.
  • Radio may not have the dramatic impact of television, which conveys a message in pictures and sound.
  • In large markets, the cost of air time is higher.
Radio listeners on average are younger than most newspaper readers. This can be an advantage or disadvantage, depending on whom you're trying to reach.
The goal of the CompleteMarkets editor is to bring valuable content to the CompleteMarkets members. Providing content to insurance professionals to enhance their sales process, increase revenue streams, understand their clients and provide value to their agency. 
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