Instead of trying to “out-serious Sirius” and other music services, being creative through authentic personalities and original promotions can make a difference for radio.
One of the most ‘unconventional conceivers’ of radio promotions is probably Paige Nienaber. At Next Radio 2016, he shared some interesting concepts from the US and Canada. From living in pink to giving away babies, these promotions with an edge originate from a creative brain with sarcastic humour — also regarding the state of radio in his homeland. “We’ve so successfully dumbed down contesting that we can’t get more than 7 percent of the people to play.”
“Very few people want to wear 1980s-style drug dealer pagers”
Look beyond tune-out factors
“PPM is like tea leaves. You can look at it, and if you’re a Selector geek, you can certainly see evidence that supports your way of programming. If you’re like me, and like to toss midgets out of helicopters, there’s definitely evidence that that works, too.” He says that the Portable People Meter taught American radio a few things: “The first thing is that, even incentivised, very few people want to wear 1980s-style drug dealer pagers on their belt”, he jokes. “PPM hasn’t taught us what brings people in; it’s taught us what drives people away.” A bit rebellious towards PDs who are now selecting on-air talents that perform well in PPM, Nienaber states that he’s not PPM-friendly. “I’ve continued to break myself of this habit.” He wears an electric dog collar around his neck, asking a lady in the audience who “seems to be the least sadistic person in the room” to push the button as soon as he’s elaborating on a single topic for more than 60 seconds.
Update classic radio promotions
He then shares some recent radio promotion ideas. The Fugitive is a well-know concept where listeners are hunting an individual out on the streets, based on audio clues. Its modern variant, Live I, can add a new dimension to this classic promotion, using an iPhone to stream the station website through a service like Ustream, allowing listeners to find the fugitive through live, real-time video clues. Elizabethany, who’s hosting a night show on Top 40 HOT 99.5 in Washington, DC (and can also be heard in other markets), did a feature called Periscope for a Pair. Listeners had to find her location, based on visual clues seen on her live video streaming channel.
Make visual concepts audible
Paige Nienaber will sometimes turn ideas from TV shows into radio promotions. Inspired by stunts from people like David Letterman dropping stuff off of a 5-story tower, he came up with the idea to fill up pumpkins with a huge amount of numbered golf balls, and drop them from a crane. “I like this, because there’s a visual pay-off, but you still have to listen to the radio.” Pumpkin Drop runs on Rock station Q104 in Halifax, NS, and can be seen on their Periscope channel. The prize reflects the station’s rock ’n roll attitude; the listener who’s golf ball was furthest from the target won a trip to the Playboy Mansion on New Year’s Eve. Another promotion involving golf balls is Closest To The Pinhead, putting a radio personality on a golf course (or in a golf cart), and having listeners hit balls at him. The person who gets the closest to the presenter, without hitting him, grabs the prize.
“I always liked to have listeners market for me”
Change your branding temporarily
Losing a Digit is a promotion that you have to be careful with. You can basically do it just once. “Anytime you mess with the way you present the name of the radio station, it will get people’s attention.” Power 96 in Miami, FL once became Power 9 for one day. The ‘lost digit’ in all of their station imaging, online presence, and outdoor promotion was tied to an on-air contest where listeners could “find the person who stole it, recover it, and win 10.000 bucks”. Another reason for a one-time name alteration can be a good cause. KDWB in Minneapolis / St. Paul, MN turned to K-JABS for one day, raising funds for hockey player Jack Jablonski, who’s paralysing accident had become a major story. HOT 99.5 in Washington, DC flipped to ‘Rachel 99.5’ for a day, trying to help a student with leukaemia find a suitable bone marrow donor by eventually swabbing almost 100,000 people. “It’s the stuff that Sirius can’t do. We find ourselves in situations where we try to out-serious Sirius. You can’t. This is the stuff that wins!”
Leverage your steady talents
A radio station in San Fransisco, CA that had several different morning shows in a row came to realise who’s the true franchise of the brand. It was midday talent Renee. So they organised a Girls Night Out, a bachelor party for 2.000 of her favourite listeners — and 50 male strippers. “It was one of those things where the next day, we had to get together and look at each other, and went: holy crap.” A station in Rochester, NY hosted a party for women in a weekend during the local hunting season, when their husbands and boyfriends where out shooting deer. Just when starts talking about a Canadian station that flew 50 female listeners to Las Vegas for another party, Nienaber is crossing the dreaded one-minute mark… “Ahh, sh*t!”, he screams in response to the ‘electrocution’ penalty.
Use your loyal audience
He has a confession to make. Before becoming a promotions consultant, he was a “lazy” promotions director. “I always liked to have listeners market for me.” The idea behind his Live With promotion is to give cut-outs of the morning show team to listeners, and then let them take those carton faces wherever they go. Participants earn points by pulling stunts like taking pictures of themselves with it in the lobby of a competing station. Other listeners can win daily prizes by catching the banner carriers. Another attention-grabbing radio promotion was done by 90.3 AMP Radio in Calgary, AB. They enticed people to Live in the Pink (the station’s brand colour) for a chance to win $10,000 in cash, and a Pink concert trip. (Participant Kelly Hofer took the contest to an artistic level. Check out amazing photos of his stunts on his website.)
“You want long lines of people”
Create clickable & sharable promotions
Lick It For Tickets is a promotion that can run for quite some time, and seems to be doing well on the Internet. “Every day, you give out a theme: tools, vegetables, automobiles, toilet seats… Take a photo of yourself, licking something. Hashtag, post, and share.” Another edgy promotion for web traffic and brand exposure is The Exotic Erotic Ball, a Halloween event of WiLD 94.1 in Tampa Bay, FL, positioned as The Bay’s Party Station. As every liquor store is throwing a Halloween party, you need to have a hook to stand out. A combination of “huge cash prizes” and “naughty prizes” resulted in a lot of online attention. Paige Nienaber recalls: “In the three days after, they got 1.8 million web views, which seems to support my premise that semi-nudity works on the Internet…”
Make conventional things unusual
Instead of giving away a concert trip to see a super artist like Justin Bieber to a listener, radio stations may impact a larger audience by giving that prize to the gas station owner who keeps the lowest price during a certain amount of time, in a promotion called Gas Wars. Owners would keep going down with their gas price, giving them a chance to win (and to get some free word of mouth advertising through the station). “In Minneapolis, we got it down to negative 10 cents a gallon. You got 10 gallons of gas, and a buck.”
Brand your listener’s selfies
“As a promotion director, I loved concerts because how often do you get 18,000 people […] to market yourself to?” While many stations are still showing up with a prize wheel, Nienaber thinks that listeners wants something different in this age of social media. “They want a place to get their photo taken.” The art is to be creative and topical. When Dierks Bentley had a hit with Drunk on a Plane, Country station 92.3 WIL (now New Country 92.3) in St. Louis, MO built a photo set with airplane seats and models posing as flight attendants. Power 96 in Miami, FL brought a self-made juror seat as seen on The Voice to a Maroon 5 concert. People were standing in line to get their picture taken while sitting in it, and that from using a chair found in a garbage can, and $30 of materials. “When you’re at events, you want long lines of people.” Anticipating long waiting lines in front of toilets at Seafair, a Seattle station installed its own, luxurious porta potty, allowing them to give away “V-I-Pee passes” to listeners.
“We’ve successfully dumbed down contesting”
Follow up your promotion
A promotion that created a lot of local publicity came from The New Hot 89.9 in Ottawa, ON, where listeners could Win a Baby. That alone is an attention-grabbing promotion, but the station decided to take it one step further. Instead of just offering five couples with fertility challenges a chance to win a $17,000 IVF treatment, they added surprise elements. The promotion page on the station website, for example, showed a white baby. But once people clicked on it, they got to see the image of a black baby, with a ‘disclaimer’ mentioning: ‘actual baby may vary’. The real benefit for the radio station came long after they’ve announced the winning couple. “For the next year, they were able to do post-promotion”, he explains, remembering the stunt as “great” and “feel-good” radio.
Make everything sound big(ger)
The Last Contest is one of the radio promotion ideas from USA Top 40 radio history, named after the then-popular movie The Last Picture Show. The motto is: big, bigger, biggest. “We take five thousand; ten thousand; twenty thousand dollars, and make it sound like a hundred million dollars”, as Paige Nienaber describes it. The secret is to come up with a lot of different stuff to buy from that (modest) promotion budget, creating multiple price packages, then pre-selling each as an amazing prize. “Instead of saying: win a cherry-red corvette, it was a 60-second, sexy description of this car, and what effect it would have on your life.” It proved to be a successful contest for a station in San Diego, CA. When they launched it after a period of prize teasing, they used up about “40 percent” of the local phone network’s capacity.
Involve your on-air personalities
He makes clear that because “we’ve so successfully dumbed down contesting that we can’t get more than 7 percent of the people to play” there’s a necessity to do something original. So when Adult Hits station 95.7 The Spot in Houston, TX had a car to give away, they assigned 95 grids on the ground to 95 listeners, and had morning host Sarah Pepper skydive into the landing spot — a nice way to connect the station brand to its main personality and target audience. If she landed on a certain listener’s field, that listener would win. “She asked: what would happen if the parachute didn’t open? I said: the person who had the largest chunk of her landing in their grid [would win]. Plus, we’d name a studio after her.”
“I got the hotel to give me her bed”
Hand out celeb stuff
Nienaber is sometimes going far to secure original prizes. Another confession: he likes to grab stuff. “Years ago, I stole a pizza box from a production room at a New Kids On The Block concert, got on the air the next day and said: we’re giving away little Joey’s pizza box — it might have been, who knows? — and phones exploded. Somewhere, in The Carolinas, 25 years later, there’s a middle-aged woman with a greasy pizza box in her closet.” He managed to find original collector’s items from famous people over the years, one of the most remarkable ones being for a radio promotion called Sleep With Mariah Carey. “I got the hotel to give me her bed after she checked out. We replaced it with a traded-out bed. You know that somewhere in the Bay Area there’s somebody who has her bed, and still brags about it.”
Header images: Kelly Hofer, The New Hot 89.9, YouTube / Next Radio