I started my career in radio, and something that continues to frustrate me is how so many writers and producers of radio content will write and produce with this idea that the audience is hanging on their every word. The hard truth is they’re not, and they haven’t been for well over fifty years. Remember when people would sit around the radio and give it their full attention? Neither do I. That changed about the same time that TV was invented.

If you’re going to make an impact with audio-only media, you first need to make the distinction between active and passive media. Active media draws your full attention. For many decades, TV was the dominant active medium, but now even it’s taking a backseat to the mighty smartphone, which has quickly become the most absorbing conveyance of media ever. In fact, according to Nielsen Neuroscience, 61% of the time that TV commercials are on, they’re not actually being watched. Even a lot of non-commercial content like the shows themselves are blending into the background of our lives. We partly have smartphones to thank for that.

Fortunately for those of us in the audio domain, these same commercials are heard 100% of the time. Our ears give us 360 degrees of aural perception. You can’t turn away from sound, and we don’t have earlids. This is the essence of audio-only advertising.

Whether it’s a streaming ad or radio ad, you can’t regard your advertising as TV without pictures. It is its own distinct medium with its own set of rules and principles. Those rules and principles are based around the passive side of media consumption. Passive media is on while we’re doing other things. We’re driving. We’re cooking. We’re working. Is this a disadvantage? Not at all. It’s only a disadvantage if you’re treating it as visual media without visuals.

We tend to think of brand visually and forget about the other four senses. It makes sense though. Sight tends to be our primary sense with the auditory running secondary. Not only do we rely on sight the most, but sights are very apparent, and often in-your-face. Sound works differently. It’s a bit more elusive, subjective, and harder for the average person to grasp and articulate. As a result, sound tends to affect people more subconsciously. It reaches people, but often in ways that they don’t realize.

I often liken this practice of reaching people on this passive, subconscious level to trying to get into a busy club. There’s a crowd at the door. The door is guarded by a couple of large bouncers. There’s a line around the block. Reaching people on this passive, subconscious level is like sneaking in the back door. They didn’t necessarily notice you come in, but you’re there, and your presence is undeniable.

Many purveyors of audio content will use the term ‘theatre of the mind’. While audio content is extremely visual, I don’t care for this term in advertising because it suggests that your ad needs to be a big production. This is more applicable to longer-form audio content like audio books, radio dramas, or podcasts. There’s a big difference between theatre of the mind and imagery. Theatre of the mind is explicit, whereas imagery is more implicit. With theatre of the mind, the visuals are created often with labored descriptions. It’s very hard to paint a complicated picture in thirty seconds or less, especially to someone who may not be paying direct attention. Imagery is more implied through careful word choices, sound design, and the performance of the voice talent. With imagery, you want to keep it simple, focused, and most of all, relevant.

That brings us to comparative visuals. These are great when written, but a passive listener is always going to retain the stronger visual, which may not be the one you want. I remember hearing an ad many years ago where they started by describing Godzilla and how massive he was, and then explaining that their sale was even bigger. If that ad is on in the background, what do you think that passive listener will retain? Will they remember the sale details, or will they be picturing the destruction of Tokyo?

That’s another thing; drop the small details. No one is sitting next to their smart speaker or radio taking notes. When you bombard the listener with details, you lose both the opportunity to build an audio brand, and the opportunity to build a relationship. You need to talk to a passive listener the same way you would talk to a friend. I’m continually shocked by the number of ads that bombard the audience with websites, clichés, phone numbers, and multiple price points. All they do is make your ad easier to ignore. Search engines have been around for a long time. People have become pretty resourceful at finding information. Cut the noise and use those extra seconds to motivate them to make that search, and to make a genuine connection.

This is another one of the strengths of audio-only media. It’s probably the most intimate relationship between the purveyor and consumer of content. Listeners really feel like they have a relationship with the host. Not only does the listener of radio and podcasts, and even audio books and streaming audio content typically listen alone, but the content is rarely coming from more than one or two people. Even their environment is intimate. TV and film sets may have dozens of people present to make things happen. With audio content, all that’s between you is a mic and a pair of headphones.

That’s a brief take on active versus passive media. We’ll conclude in the next blog with logical versus emotional persuasion.

Photo by Leo Wieling on Unsplash