What use is radio advertising?

A couple of days ago, I received a phone call from a local commercial radio station.  Their representative was asking whether any of my clients would be interested in advertising via their station.

I explained that my consultancy role was to help firms to develop strategic marketing plans and as such my role was about strategy development across the whole marketing mix.  It would be up to my clients to decide, on the basis of the strategy what promotional mix they wanted to use.  In short, I was not an advertising agency!

However, that call got me thinking and so I did a bit of research into the best use of radio advertising as part of a communications mix.

When considering which communications channels are most appropriate for your firm or product, you must first examine the properties of different communication channels:

  1.  Cost – some communications channels are more expensive than others.  Television advertising is significantly more expensive than print advertising.  Radio advertising is lower in cost than television but may be significantly more expensive than channels such as the internet.
  2. Richness of communication – television, and digital media can provide rich communication and offer movement within a message along with other factors such as sound, imagery and text.  Radio and print advertising offer a single sensual element i.e. sound or text only. If you are trying to promote a new product, it may require demonstration and that is not possible in  static medium.
  3. Interactivity – the internet and social media offer huge opportunities for interaction between an advertiser and its intended customer base: print advertising does not.   Radio can provide some element of interactivity e.g. a sports brand or retailer may sponsor the local football phone-in and be able to interact with callers by offering them incentives.
  4. Audience profile – Marketers make great efforts to segment a company’s market and to identify target customer groups.  It doesn’t make much sense to advertise on a medium itself not targeted at your target market.  For example, if you sell stair-lifts and mobility scooters aimed at the elderly, a radio station which predominantly plays hip hop or dance music may not be an appropriate channel

So what are the strengths and weaknesses of radio advertising?


  1.  Radio allows for specialist programming which allows advertisers to target specific audiences.  A sports brand can advertise during the sports news;  a travel agent can sponsor the weather and a local teenage boutique can sponsor the pop charts.
  2. Production costs are lower than television or cinema advertising.
  3. It can be flexible.  You can change your message quickly to include special offers and specific promotions.
  4. It is best used to complement other advertising media.  Consumers can be reminded of visual stimuli of other advertising such as television.  Radio can also operate the ‘theatre of the mind’ where consumers can generate their own mental images of events.  It can be a strong support mechanism for other media messages.
  5. It allows a certain level of passive acceptance and parts of messages can be retained.


  1.  There has been a proliferation of local radio stations in recent years as both the internet and digital radio have opened up broadcast space.  This means radio stations are increasingly specialist in their content.  To achieve sufficient marker coverage, you may have to deal with several different suppliers.
  2. Despite the rise in the number of stations, the actual amount of radio advertising, in terms of advertising revenues, has fallen sharply.  It is clear that other media such as the internet has taken priority and may be offering a better return on investment than radio.
  3. Radio cannot provide visual stimuli and that can weaken the impact of advertising and its ability to hold and enthuse the intended audience.
  4. Radio suffers from audience inattentiveness.  People have the radio on as background noise.  Parts of messages can be missed and complex data, such as credit terms, can be difficult to understand (particularly given the average length of a radio advertisement).
  5. Commercial radio stations have low average audience figures.  To get sufficient market coverage, you may have to high advertising frequency to get your message across.

Radio is also a push promotion channel.  Marketers talk of three forms of marketing communication; push, pull and profile.  Push communication is aimed at end-user consumers.  Consumers see the advertising and expect retailers to stock the goods.  Pull communication is aimed at getting retailers and wholesalers to stock goods and to achieve prominent store position i.e. eye-level shelf position. Profile communication is aimed at a wide range of stakeholders; such as suppliers and shareholders; and may not mention a particular product or service e.g. Honda’s ‘power of dreams’ advertising.

Push advertising is about getting people to buy; pull advertising is about getting retailers to stock and profile advertising is about building a corporate identity.

So radio advertising is aimed at developing consumer demand.  It has only a minor role in persuading retailers of your brand’s potential or of persuading other stakeholder’s of your bona fides.

So radio advertising is best used:

  1.  As a secondary communication channel to reinforce other communication such as TV, internet or print.
  2. To bring in consumers as part of a specific offer or promotion where there is a single simple message.
  3. Where that message is capable of regular repetition without becoming staid or annoying.
  4. Where the message is to be targeted at a particular customer group which is compatible with the station’s audience profile.
  5. Where you have sufficient resources to spread the message across stations or to allow significant repeated broadcast.

The choice of a promotional channel, such as radio, should be part of a consistent and over-arching communications strategy.  It should not be seen as an isolated tactic separate from your other marketing activities.