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How long should your radio ad be?


Success or failure? There’s just seconds in it. Get your radio ad length right.

If I had a ha’penny* for every time I’ve been asked this question, I’d probably have an extra tenner to my name…

*(if you don’t know what a ha’penny is…ask a Gen-Xer…!)

My problem with the question “how long should a radio ad be?” is that it makes as much sense as the question “how big should a shoe be?”.

And of course the answer to both questions is…wait for it…wait for it…

It depends…on what you need to fit inside it.

And just like an ill-fitting shoe, get it wrong and it doesn’t work. If it’s too tight it’s uncomfortable, and if it’s too big your foot will be flapping around in too much space - which isn’t good either.

Yes, in the UK, airtime is bought in 10-second units but whether you need a 10” commercial or a 60” one will depend on not only what you want to say but also how you want to say it.

So a better question would be “how long should my commercial be?” Actually, an even better question would be “how long should this one of my commercials be?”.

Because it’s likely that you’ll want to say different things at different times to different people, depending on their context and where they are in their customer journey with your brand.

Therefore your radio ad should be as long as it needs to be to do the specific job at hand.

Yes, it’s true that for the same money you’ll get many more 10” spots than you would if you went for 30” spots… but how much impact can you create in a 10-second ad? How much of your brand story can you tell in 20 seconds?

Conversely, if you’re just looking to remind customers that a particular offer is ending you probably don’t need 60”...unless you’re feeling lavishly creative!

“Media isn’t about the number of impressions you make, it’s about the POWER of the impression you make.”

Dave Trott (well, I think it was Dave who said this)

We’ve put together some simple tips to help you decide on what length of radio ad is best for you and your brand. In this post I’ll share some thoughts on:

  • Discerning not just what you want to say but how you want to say it
  • The importance of timing; how not to shoot yourself in the foot by jumping the gun and booking media too soon
  • The best ad length for your objectives/business so your ad campaign delivers what you’re looking for

Work out what you want to say and how you want to say it…

Before you even start to consider spot length and booking media, you need to work out what you want to say and how you want to say it. This, of course, happens during the briefing (and discovery) stage.

Agreeing what you want to say is usually pretty easy to articulate (e.g. reasons to believe, points of difference and offers etc). However, what can be trickier to define is how you want to say what you want to say. This will be informed by your tone of voice and brand character. These two things are connected but should be defined separately.

What we find useful is to view your brand character as a person. The more texture you can add when defining this person the better as it will help your writers better understand how you want to come across. For example, ‘a confident, chatty stranger you’d meet in a coffee shop’ is different to ‘that chatty bloke you know from your greasy spoon’. Whereas your tone of voice is the language that person might use, and should include examples of the kind of phrases they would and/or wouldn’t say.

Once the brand character and tone of voice have been clearly defined, then and only then, can the creative development begin. Yes, that sounds bleeding obvious, doesn’t it? But it doesn’t always happen.

And guess what? Here’s something else that’s bleeding obvious, you won’t know if you like your radio script until you’ve heard it. Only once you’ve heard the script can a discussion take place around how it measures up against the brief, brand character and tone of voice. It’s only once you’ve heard it can a conversation around whether or not it’s the right length take place.

Booking media before you’re close to approving the script can result in wasted resources, missed opportunities, and an ineffective ad campaign. By locking into a certain spot length too early, you are limiting the potential impact of your commercial. It’s tantamount to signing up to a 5-a-side football tournament with just two players.

By waiting until the script is in a good shape, brands can work with their media agency to create a plan that maximises the impact of their message and reaches the desired target audience in a more impactful way.

The long and short of it; choose the perfect length radio ad

Once you’ve worked out what you want to say, you can begin to work out what spot length (or combination of various lengths) will work best for your campaign.

Shorter ads, such as 10 and 20-second spots, are generally better suited for call to action commercials or when a brand wants to drive urgency by reminding listeners when a sale or offer might be ending. These shorter spots lengths can be really effective at delivering your message at high frequency, and will probably capture the attention of those listeners who have already bought into your brand and/or your offer. In other words, these shorter spot lengths are great when you want to engage listeners’ rational brains.

Whereas longer ads, such as 40 or 50-second spots, are better when it comes to storytelling or brand-building. These longer ads give the advertisers the space and time to create a strong emotional connection with listeners.  Remember, just like when you watch a movie, a radio commercial is only too long if it feels like it’s dragging. An engaging radio commercial can never be too long!

The radio ad length sweet spot

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution. The right length of your radio ad depends on a variety of factors; the messaging, your tone of voice, the overall mission of your ad campaign (and the specific role of each commercial within your campaign).

And remember, there’s nothing wrong with having a campaign that has different spot lengths running alongside each other! It might mean a bit more work for your media agency, but hey ho, at least it gives them another opportunity to show you how amazing they are negotiating additional value with the various media owners on your behalf!

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