by John Pellegrini

Ever wonder why a promotion doesn't work? Ever wonder why you spend hours on a really great sounding promo or testimonial commercial and they get nearly no response at all from any listeners?

There's a certain type of management style that I've begun to refer to as "Management By Magazine." It goes something like this: You see something in a trade publication and it sounds nifty, so you rally the troops and implement it on air as quickly as possible before the competition gets a chance at it. Unfortunately, most of these campaigns go off without even considering if it's right for your station.

"This station says they did well with it; obviously it'll work for us" is the phrase that usually accompanies plan implementations of this nature. Unfortunately, these situations almost never work, and the nature of the magazine managers is to blame their employees for the failures.

"It worked for the other station; obviously my people are idiots" goes the usual statement from the GM involved. The problem is, when you actually examine the process of what happened in these situations, the reason why most plans implemented such as this fail, is that no thought was given to actually carrying out the plan or to do correct follow-up to ensure that it worked.

I'm going to use a common promotional plan that many stations use as an example of what I'm talking about. This is the promotional bit known as "The Client Testimonial." You've heard these on many stations, perhaps even your own station, but you'll rarely hear it on the really successful stations. They usually go something like this:

Announcer: Dr. Smith has been in Stinkyville for several years, but it wasn't until he advertised on Our Beautiful Radio Station that he began to get any patients.

Dr. Smith: I was starting to wonder if anyone ever got sick in this town. Thank Goodness for Our Beautiful Radio Station. They have the sickest listeners I've ever seen....

Of course the announcer is usually the most forced, overly smiley and insincere voice at the station, and Dr. Smith (or whoever the client is) usually sounds like he's got a mouth full of fur balls while talking. Or he's hyperventilating between every four words. Nine times out of ten, these testimonial spots are the worst sounding commercials on the air at that particular station. These commercials almost always fail to work, despite all reactions to the contrary.

Here's the truth of the matter: CLIENT TESTIMONIALS DO NOT PERSUADE OTHER CLIENTS TO ADVERTISE, PERIOD! Especially if they're used on air. On air endorsements or testimonials that praise the radio station merely sound self serving to the station, if not downright pompous, and do nothing for the clients except stroke their egos as well. But more often than not, they make the station sound desperate for advertisers.

You always see glowing reports about them in the trades, though. "We saw an increase in advertising after we started running them testimonials," said Our Beautiful Radio Station GM, Herb Tarlek. "I'm making so much money, I've got three sets of golf clubs." Of course, they always conveniently forget to mention that the station involved had almost no ad bucks on the books in the first place. Even with the spot running, though, under scrutiny you'd discover that it had nothing to do with the business increase. The fact of the matter is, advertising goes in monthly or quarterly cycles that have nothing to do with on air soliciting.

If the manager was actually paying attention to the yearly advertising schedules, he or she would see the pattern. The slowest months for advertising are January, followed by July, followed by February, followed by mid-September to early October. The reasons for this should be obvious. Not much is happening in retailing during these months. The big pushes are Christmas, beginning of summer, back to school in August and the start of spring.

The Magazine Manager never notices any of this. He or she merely sees the slow down in advertising, then gets some testimonial or soliciting spots on air and, a few weeks later, the commercials start picking up. Hey, it's a success! Or, more often than not, it's a failure. Not just on air solicitations or testimonial spots, but many times any promotion done this way will turn out to be a waste of time and effort. Why is that?

There are several reasons for this situation. When a promotional or commercial idea is lifted out of a trade publication, there must be some qualifying criteria before it is implemented. Perhaps the biggest question that should be addressed (and I can't believe how many times this is overlooked) would be to ask, "Is this idea right for our listeners?" Nine times out of ten promotional or commercial failures happen because no one bothered to ask this simple question. The main goal of any promotion is to bring listeners to a station. Just because a promotion will bring a station some money and attention doesn't mean the listeners will like it.

Radio station coupon books are a prime example of this. The coupon companies will tell you they can be successful. The radio stations that use them know that they can be profitable. But no one can prove whatsoever that they increase listenership or make the audience interested in such a way as to increase TSL. If we could collectively look through the trash of any given town during a radio station coupon book campaign, I would be willing to bet that nearly fifty to seventy percent of all the coupon books end up in the trash without so much as a glance by the citizen.

Why do I say that? Because the majority of the people I know outside the industry, as well as in the industry, do exactly that with those coupon books. Coupon clippers are a minority in the population. Don't bother to correct me with statistics. Numbers can be manipulated to any answer you want. But there are things that you can do to increase the awareness and convince audiences to want to look at your coupon books.

This is where the qualifying criteria comes in. All promotions and commercials should begin with someone asking, "Is it right for our listeners and, if not, can we make it right for them?" Other questions that should be utilized: Is the value of the prize worth whatever the effort the listener must put forth to win? Are there too many qualifiers to becoming a contestant? How many hoops does the listener have to jump through in order to qualify for the prize? Does this sound exciting enough for us to be associated with? And possibly the most important question: How do we qualify and track the success of this promotion? What kind of follow-up is necessary for us to judge it a success?

Simple questions, yes, but so often I hear things on stations that I could tell were done without any thought given to those questions. Just because you've got a prize doesn't mean anyone wants to win it, especially if they have to put any effort in to win it. You've heard the expression, "They want their gold handed to them on a silver platter." That's pretty much how you can sum up the attitude of most listeners in regard to trying to get them to do anything for a contest.

No matter what the promotion, whether it's a commercial, a contest or a solicitation of new business, the result is to get the listener to do something they don't normally do or think of, as well as ensuring that the ones who already do are still happy about it. Your prime objective is to move people out of their "comfort zones" (the area in which they are secure) into an area that they may not have been to before.

Simply putting a carrot on the end of a stick ain't gonna do it. And the more qualifications or effort the listener must endure to achieve the prize, such as registering at multiple client locations or filling out surveys or questionnaires, the less likely anyone is going to want to do it unless there's a big payoff for the effort. You aren't going to get people to drive all the way across town to register at three different locations in the hopes of winning a compact disc, or even a boom box. They will, however, drive across town to register for a trip to the Super Bowl, or a new car or a prize of that nature. You have to make the payoff worth the effort. In fact, if you really want to be successful, make the payoff worth far more than the effort. Deliver more than expected.

Of course, there are always a couple of contest pigs who will do anything to get something free, but the majority of your listeners won't. It's your decision as to which people you think are important enough to spend any time on. Contrary to popular belief, you don't have to be nice to contest pigs. They are usually very greedy people who have little or no influence on people they associate with and are seldom taken seriously by anyone. Plus, even though we hear to the contrary, contest pigs almost never are the ones filling out the Arbitron Diaries. I have no proof of this, but let's face it, would someone who's a greedy pig, who's always trying to get something for free, who's looking to win as much as possible for as little effort as possible--would someone as lazy as that really take the time to fill out a diary for three months or a full year or whatever they require for the laughingly small payoff Arbitron offers? Get real! Contest pigs do not fill out diaries.

The summary is simple. Just because something looks like a great idea in a trade publication doesn't mean it's going to work for you. Just because a promotion was a success for one station does not mean any station can do it and achieve the same results. What worked in one city or market may never work anywhere else, and often doesn't. There are hundreds of factors that need to be taken into consideration for optimum results, including audience type, regional character tastes, station sound, station personnel, management philosophies... the list goes on.

Two things that any radio station must know and understand fully in order to create continual successful promotion and commercial ideas are: What is the audience's personality and (perhaps even more important) what is the station's personality?

Believe it or not, in a successful radio station the station's personality often dictates the personality of the audience. Instead of being trend followers, successful stations are the trend setters. The listeners try to be like the personality of the station, perhaps not physically or directly, but subconsciously. You'll hear them repeating station slogans and phrases, or something their favorite air personality says, like it's a part of their everyday language. Successful promotions and commercials work the same way, and sometimes they wind up a part of the culture.

Tip O'Neill used to say, "All politics is local." By that he meant that if you want to get the vote across the state or country, make sure you've got it in your own back yard and neighborhood first. Because if the people who know you best won't give you the vote, you haven't got a chance anywhere else. Treat your commercials and promotions the same way. Make sure that it's good for your listeners and make sure that message is loud and clear. Then you've got a better chance at winning overall.

If you want to win, no matter what market you're in, get your head out of the trade publications and out on the street. Never assume what the listener likes. Never depend on the whims or success of a station in another market as your guide to how you can be successful. Ask your listeners in person instead. The moment you start thinking of your listeners as an unwavering commodity is the moment you've lost all of them.