Q It Up: Should promos be treated like commercials?

Q It Up Logo 4Q It Up: We’ve all read much about how to write and produce effective radio commercials for our advertisers. What about our station’s promos, which are essentially the station’s commercials? Should the principles we preach about effective radio advertising also be applied to the station promos? Rules like defining the USP, telling a story, identifying the customer benefit, keeping it simple, giving a call to action, frequency/repetition, etc. What’s your experience with this? Do your stations approach promos this way? Is it different for promos, or should we treat our promos more like expensive time buys, carefully crafting the campaign like a good advertising agency would?

It's not too late to respond to this month's Q It Up! Add your response and comments at the end of the article!

Bill Carroll, Production Director/On-Air Personality, WBQB/WFVA, Fredericksburg, VA: This is a GREAT question! We approach our Promo’s slightly differently. Although we offer our clients amazing commercials (of course, when we’re allowed to be as creative as possible), everyone knows that the clients pretty much get what they want in terms of the “sound” of the spot and what kind of message it portrays, so most of the time we as the creative creators are limited in what we can produce for them.

With our station’s Promo’s, it’s completely wide open in terms of creativity and of course really shows our personality to our listeners as well. We take that to all kinds of levels. Even though we’re keeping our signature “sound” with most things that we put on the air (imaging/commercial spots, promos), the creativity level and real personality of our station soars with our Promos. To try and make them close to our imaging elements, which are extremely fun, full of personality and puns, and are created to be very entertaining. Our Promos lead our imaging with that exact creativity and fun-factor.

The promotion itself determines how far we can go creative-wise with the elements and verbiage of the promo. Heck, I even took the “ever-so-normally-boring” prize disclaimer that we’re all required to play (which most programmers bury on the overnight) and gave it a pretty entertaining twist that’s fun and funny to listen to so something that would be boring and legal sounding, sounds crazy and entertaining and uses the exact same verbiage as the boring one and plays in all dayparts when required. Its things like that and our Promos to me that really give the station the personality you want to have portrayed, or you’re just going to end up having it sound like everything else as it goes in one ear and out the other to our ever-so-important listener. We want them to smile at our promos and think we’re the “fun” station to listen to. To just take away the stress of their day just for a single moment is so important to us. Our Program Director and I take that very seriously and work very hard at making it seem we’re all just fun and games every day.

Don Elliot, Levine/Schwab Broadcasting, Hollywood, CA: I am disheartened and actually a bit saddened that this question has to be asked… The answer is kind of like stating the obvious.

Number one, you have to be a storyteller.

If you want to use a formula for creativity -- which to me would be like painting by numbers instead of by brush strokes -- then at least do that much. You're at least putting something on that blank wall of yours. But given the choice of what to hang on mine, I'll take the brush stroke one, thank you very much.

Too many so-called "creative promos and imaging" are no more than plug-in fests these days. Creative tools and effects were meant to be just that, the tool, not the spotlight.

The fact that they exist in the digital world in various DAWs too often imparts the feel of having a new hammer that makes you run around seeing everything as a nail. Effects can get in the way of the message as badly as a news anchor's crooked necktie -- you will be so distracted, you can miss the point.

Should promos be like commercials? In many ways, yes! The difference with promos is that the consistency continues on as a thread 24 hours a day with your station… not a wild spot that runs occasionally. And the station logo, whether musical, spoken word, or print must reflect this consistency and tie it all together.

One place to win or lose by doing it right or wrong is how an image promo is scheduled… and it doesn't cost any more to do it right. It's really something for nothing here… If you were talking about your station, say, playing more music, then you would not follow the promo with a stop set of commercials. It would logically be run as an intro, so that the "promise" or pay off is delivered by an immediate segue to an appropriate tune. This is just basic. If instead you did the reverse, you would be identifying your station with commercials instead of music.

What can contribute to a gradual downfall or decline in promo production?

What usually happens is the most creative guy might get a token raise while they let others go. It's a waste of talent if they force him into a pressure cooker to take on the menial tasks performed by jobs vacated by cutbacks. Effectively, you've just made potato peelers out of your pilots. It happens everywhere in various radio station departments. People are getting stretched to perform functions outside of their areas.

The most amusing one to me is when somebody runs into a transmitter engineer's office to ask about air conditioning. I feel their pain. The general staff has little knowledge of one another's job descriptions.

Part of the problem is the lack of time. Overworked and underpaid people are forced to turn out or at least make an effort at doing creative work at microwave speed. It's an oxymoron. It just can't happen that way. Creative needs the time to use those brushstrokes for concepts, writing, producing etc., otherwise you get a paint-by-numbers product.

So there you have it. I'm just holding up a mirror. I'm not pretending that I'm fixing anything, just highlighting the problem. I don't want to make this a "misery loves company" blast either, but I do think when people with common interests and talents put their heads together, you can get uncommon results.

But back to square one, (which contains number one)… You have to be a storyteller!

And that's the main similarity in why a successful promo sounds like a successful commercial.

Chris Diestler: In some ways, we treat station promos the same way we treat commercials, but since promos are one of the few ways to "brand" the station between songs, I usually amp up the creativity a little. Obviously, the structure is often similar: open with a hook (a question or a short play) and proceed to unspool the many benefits your client (in this case, the radio station) can bring to bear for the listener. Most radio stations have a particular flavor they aim at their target demo -- whether it be calmness, irreverence, affluence, classicism, sarcasm, familiarity, etc. -- and promos are a great opportunity to let that "voice" be represented for :30-:60 seconds. Many stations outsource their promos to their imaging company, relying on the tone of the voice talent to brand them with a consistent sound. I have a tendency to produce a lot of imaging and promos in-house so as to control the nailing of the proper flavor, but all the scripts I outsource are written by me anyway, so arguably "I" am the "attitude" of the station in either case. I recommend spending a little more time to polish your promos until they shine. After all, they are a commercial for your favorite client: the radio station itself.

Dave Savage: When I was in Jacksonville, a preacher used to come in once a month and record commercials. I complimented him on how well his commercials were written and asked if he had any advertising experience. He told me he structures commercials the same way he does his sermons, each ad is basically a 60 second sermon. It dawned on me that anything you write is a commercial, the only thing that changes is the product. Whether the product is a car dealer, a bank, a radio station or Jesus, it’s all the same. The only question: Is it a call to action or a branding campaign? In my experience, most station sweepers are branding and promos are call to action messages that still maintain the station brand.

Joan Kibare, Extinct Productions, Nairobi, Kenya: The stations I work for do not have a specific way on how to write and produce a promo but I have a way. These are my simple must haves:

It's all about time. We don't have much of that in a promo. Thus, you can't put everything in it.

Creativity is key. Without creativity, it's pretty much useless because the listener will just shut down before you even state what you needed to state.

Catchy and mind-blowing, once you have that then the listener’s subconscious marks the promo, and that gets the listener excited even by a look on anything connected to the show/radio promo. And the station/show will just be a go to place for the listener.

Keep it short. The shorter the better -- mainly due to the attention span of the listener, which is extremely short. I mean, the listener doesn't tune in to listen to promos and client advertisements.

Ty Ford, www.tyford.com: Mark Walton’s “Generating Buy-in” is a great read for creative directors and production directors. It talks about what people respond to, emotions and stories about the future that customers buy into.

We all know the difference between local price and product car spots and the regional or national image spots that sell the sizzle and not the steak.

I think any radio station needs to use both the long and short swords for maximum impact. It’s a question of balance.

If I never hear another spot that weighs heavily on reverb, delay and other audio effects, I’ll die a happy man.

Where’s the content? Is radio creatively bankrupt? Have we decimated ourselves with our own hype?

Take a really hard look in the mirror.

Mike Broesky, Radio Online Creative Manager, Golden West: Imo... yes.

Radio station promos not only promote what the radio station is doing or giving away, it's also an ad for what a good ad can be. A promo should raise your heartrate and blow your hair back. It should make the listener want to be a part of whatever coolness they just heard.

 Contest promos should leave unanswered questions. Create interest through curiosity. Radio is theatre of the mind. Details can live online. Promos are our audio banners, our anthems. They're connecting points for the people who choose to be our audience.

 Should promos be treated like an expensive client? No, they should be treated like a priceless client. A client with an unlimited budget on a lifetime contract.

 Here’s a sample of a fun, simple, clear promo for an AC station. Below... simple splitters to reinforce the Rock106 brand. These elements should make the audience feel rewarded for being part of this tribe.

(IMAGE VOICE) Here come those same three chords again. Rock 106.

(IMAGE VOICE) We speak fluent Ozzy Osbourne and Tom Petty. Rock 106.

Rock on.

Chadd Pierce, Krash Creative: Branding is Branding is Branding. It's gotta be done with research, audience, and goals, and it must be crafted skillfully and consistently across platforms. Promos are ads, yes. They have an audience, a message, a purpose. The similarity is that promos and ads both need an encapsulated message and call to action. The difference is the content and presentation of promos can complement (and be complemented by) the platform on which they are broadcast, while ads only get their :30 in the middle of a cluttered break to tell the whole story. That's why we can really make these "station ads" shine! Because of the strong over-arching brand support of the rest of the day taking care of the main message, promos get to have way more fun than ads.

Gord Williams: Some stations do research, focus groups and have a typical listener and refer to him or her by name during planning sessions. So it’s more vivid. But that’s planning. So I found out a few years ago now.

For the 30 or 60 seconds, maybe less with sounders, this must live, it must be rather than sound like no matter how Freud like that may be. A peter piper effect, you hope.

In order to battle the social inertia (darned I am borrowing from Asimov now) you have to advance the listener in time and space. At least for that moment, so they will buy into the NEXT instead of the past. If that’s what you’re selling. If Sam Listener wants the old, then social inertia works for you. (The more things change the more people want them not to).

I am not sure if it’s a call to action, it’s more like it’s a vibe to action. If your listener wants old, then perhaps you bring some Wolfman, Alan Freed or whatever. If its next generation stuff, 2020 and beyond, then make that stuff up and be very convincing. I am finding the pyro work being done in promos and cookie cutter stuff that sounds like everyone else’s uber excited stuff probably misses the mark.

For oldies I haven’t yet heard a station going there and producing the 60s, 70s or 80s like they are in the era. What we did in that format was be safe and sell it rather than be it. Who none other than radio to truly be it? Alan Freed coined the phrase rock and roll, FM had a certain feel to it, there is simply more fun to be the era rather than talk about it like baseball or hockey stats.

To me the USP is the feeling a certain format gives. Talk radio is about intelligence and being in the know. FM used to be album rock and sacrilege to play a jingle. It’s hard to be inspiring and to be inspired all the time.

Motivational speaker Les Brown told it this way. He was running for local office and he had a set amount of money and time. Radio was the way because he came from it, and the opponent’s ground game simply was better. He went in and they told him, “well for that amount of money it better be a good one, that amount doesn’t go far around here…” So he got inspired and got his grandma to voice “vote for Les… he’s a good boy” with spiritual music in the background.

He had less frequency and higher entertainment and focus. Promos should be like that. Highly entertaining, exemplary of the product, and less of a dry liner card that’s being read for time or to fill out the format sheets. It should be a star.

In terms of frequency and rules, the star always gets what they want (within reason) don’t they?

Jay Rose CAS: For what it's worth, I: I've done a lot of TV network promos. The golden rule, among big broadcasters, is "Your most important client is... you!" Campaigns are strategized rather than just thrown together, and schedules are planned to reach target audiences as carefully as any media buyer would. Logic is: "If we can attract a bigger audience with well thought-out promo campaigns, then we'll sell more commercial avails for more money."

FWIW II: A few years ago when I had a downtown Boston studio, I approached the promo manager of a nearby AM O&O. They had an all news format, and I sold her on the idea of on-air spots that would position them as essential for any local advertiser, no matter what music stations they were on. We wrote and produced, they aired, and her sales department was ecstatic about how well the spots worked. (By the way, they also won me two ANDYs from the New York Ad Club that year.)

Jean Hetherington: Promos offer the station’s Creative Guru a chance to make magic happen! What an incredible opportunity to make the sale with a product you know intimately and believe in. At least, you should believe in it!

This is your chance to do an in-depth CNA with sales and programming folks and find that USP that makes it stand out from all the other promo garble that’s out there. You KNOW your customers. You KNOW what motivates them. Now you can show the world how you can MOVE THEM with your magic touch. The spotlight is on you EVERY time you are called upon to do your creative wizardry for a client. Promos are your chance to show how insightful and clever you are with a client that you have a personal investment in…your station. There’s NO business like SHOW business, baby! You’re on!

Jayson Shermack, Afternoon Drive/Producer, Blackgold Broadcasting Inc., Stony Plain, AB: I think station promos should have another level of production value to them, whether that be and emphasis on SFX or more production value on the voice itself. I definitely think that there should be a call to action. Why should I be signing up for this newsletter? Why should I enter into this contest? Finally I think promos are all about branding your station. You are basically advertising your station. Station promos should have your website and any social media you are using for that certain thing you are promoting. 

Thanks to all who responded. Your input is valuable and appreciated. If you have a question you’d like to see posed to the RAP Q It Up panel, email it to editor@rapmag.com. If you would like to join the Q It Up panel, send your request to editor@rapmag.com.

Comments (3)

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LOVE these answers!

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Hey, Bill Carroll... you are so right and in a perfect example in another industry of how well this works is Southwest Airlines having fun with the seatbelt demo with the FA's having fun with it by injecting humor. Instead of people falling asleep during it, they usually get thunderous applause. Mission accomplished.

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Mike Broesky - YES ... keep the curiosity up. Sam Zell used to say… (in his infamous dirty Russian logger joke he would tell at meetings), "Don't show them the whole thing… Just enough to win the chicken."

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