What It Is: Commercials of various lengths that run on radio stations

Appropriate For: All businesses

Typical Cost: Morning drive (5 a.m. to 10 a.m.) and afternoon drive (3 p.m. to 7 p.m.) times are the most expensive times to buy on almost any station, with evenings and weekends being the least expensive. You should receive an automatic 5-percent discount on any six-month schedule and 10 percent on any annual contract.

How It Works: Choosing the right radio station(s) from the many that are available to you isn't as difficult as it may seem at first. Radio divides it's audiences into age ranges (18 - 34, 18 - 49, 25 - 54, 45+ and so on) and gender (female, male and adults--choose adults if your customers are evenly split between male and female). Each radio station delivers a very specific audience, so once you know the age and gender of your target customers, you can zoom in on stations that serve those people.

When you're approached by any of the many radio sales representatives who'll find you--and trust me, they'll find you--ask for each station's primary demographic. If it matches your target customer, request a media sales kit. Whatever you do, don't reveal your demographic needs before you get that information. These sales reps are working under great pressure to meet budgets and they can be very persuasive. They'll find a way, no matter how convoluted, to make your demographic match theirs if you tell them first!

Frequency is very important when considering an advertising schedule on radio. Listeners tune in and out, change stations, and are often engaged in some other activity while the radio is on, so your message needs to appear often if they're going to hear it. Listeners of country and talk formats tend to stay with the same station for longer periods of time than other listeners who flip through channels constantly, so you need to run fewer commercials to reach those "settled" listeners than you need to run for the flippers.

But don't run a schedule with fewer than 18 commercials--and preferably 24 or more--in one week. And don't advertise for one or two weeks and then stop. People need time to get used to hearing your business name, particularly if you're new, and then they need to hear what your business is all about.

Decide what you want your schedule to do for your business. Is it a maintenance schedule used as a reminder to people who already know a lot about you? If so, you'll run a small number of commercials over a long period of time. Are you running a weekend sale? Then you want a large number of spots to run in a very short period of time. Are you brand new and building awareness of your business name of what you do there? Then you need to run a heftier schedule consistently. Building name recognition and getting people used to hearing about you, let alone getting them to come in, takes a concerted effort on your part.

If you can't afford more than one station, choose that single station carefully and buy as much time as you can afford to nail that audience. Then, when you can afford more, add another station--don't just switch stations and abandon the first audience. The idea is to keep current customers while you're rounding up new ones.

The first quarter of the year is probably the best time to negotiate a favorable contact rate or take advantage of special programs designed to bring much-needed business into radio stations (after business owners have just finished blowing their budgets on the holidays). But remember, no matter how good any deal sounds, it's a waste of money if it's not offered by a station that reaches your audience.

When it comes to the length of your commercials, you might think about using a 60-second commercial and then adding in some 15-second spots to boost your frequency. This helps you get the most bang for your buck when it comes to your budget. Note: If you need to, you should be able to change your commercials frequently at no charge.

Your radio message needs to be clear because listeners want to know one thing: "What's in it for me?" Ask your sales rep to help you write and time the message, but when it's done, pretend you're the listener and see if each line answers that question. If it doesn't, get rid of it. For example:

The listener asks:
"What's in it for me?"
"What's in it for me?"
"What's in it for me?"
Commercial answer line:
"XYZ Wallpaper Depot is family-owned."
"We've been in business since 1912."
"You can save 30 percent on all in-stock wallpaper."

People don't care if your business is family-owned or if it's been around since before their grandmother was born--that's important to you. They want to know the information in line three.

Radio is a good place to ask about trade advertising, where you pay for your commercial schedule partly with cash and partly with products or services from your business. All stations need prizes for on-air giveaways, as well as office products and furniture, station vehicles and service for those vehicles, cleaning services, and much more to keep their own operations going, and they're more than willing to trade those out for advertising. This can be a huge help to an entrepreneur concerned about the cost of advertising.

My final word of advice is this: While it's fun to hear your own commercials on the radio, avoid buying a station because it's your favorite unless, of course, you're typical of your perfect customer. Along those same lines, don't buy a station because you like the sales rep--believe it or not, this happens a lot. Sooner or later, the sale rep will move on to another station or even into another area of media altogether. Keep your relationships with all your sales reps on a business basis only, and you'll avoid difficult situations down the road.

Kathy Kobliski is the founder of Silent Partner Advertisingin Syracuse, New York. She is also the author of Advertising Without an Agency Made Easy.