Radio Digital Sales Surge 33%: Debriefing the RAB-Borrell Annual Benchmarking Report

Todd Kalman, senior vice president of sales at Marketron

Now in its 10th year, the RAB-Borrell Digital Benchmark report is a must-read for the radio industry. As broadcasters seek to increase revenue and diversify offerings, digital advertising is a critical part of this. In 2021, the world faced year two of the pandemic and its impact. The findings of this year’s report show there are reasons for optimism.

Let’s dive into the data and what it signals for the year ahead.

2021 saw net growth for digital and radio ad revenue.

Stations saw, on average, an increase of 33%, equating to local digital revenue of $1.5 billion. Digital sales now represent 15.7% of total ad revenue. That’s good news for radio and demonstrates how radio is embracing selling digital to complement linear. 2021 was also a growth year for radio sales, according to Borrell, by 24%.

While 2022 expectations for radio are lower than the previous year, digital could reach the $2 billion mark and account for 19.2% of ad revenue. Considering how well they work together, there’s no reason these can’t grow in tandem. Radio offers broad reach and aural engagement. Digital delivers more targeted ads that focus more on visuals. When used together, they can create a substantial lift for advertisers, and that’s the story broadcasters should keep telling.

That mindset was reflected by survey takers, with 63% of managers increasing budgets for digital by 20% or more in 2022.

What’s on the minds of local radio buyers?

Ad buyers also provided insights in the report. Many have pivoted since 2020 and have new mindsets. One of the most interesting findings was their desire for personal contact over DIY platforms. While many companies use DIY technology platforms, 82% of buyers said their preferred method of buying local involved working with a person, not just a platform.

The reality is that marketing is complex. There are so many channels and tactics included in marketing that can easily make it overwhelming. Radio salespeople have a clear advantage here. They know the market, the products and the people.

Those surveyed also said they are more willing to buy from those that offer unbiased expertise. Radio sales professionals should deliver customized recommendations based on advertiser goals. They are seeking out partners who provide valuable advice, covering a variety of advertising options.

It goes back to relationship-building and trust. Ad buyers said they view radio salespeople as the group with the greatest expertise. Continuing to foster the partnership and provide valuable ideas will continue to take precedence over self-service.

What are advertisers buying?

The question of buying changed this year. In past years, it was what advertisers were “using” versus the new question of “buying.” In revising the question, the results show that many advertisers use channels like social media and email but don’t buy anything. In reframing the question, businesses spent money on social media ads, event sponsorships and paid search. Facebook is still the clear winner for social media, with half of the respondents stating it’s extremely effective.

In looking at the ad types advertisers buy most from radio, targeted display was at the top, followed by basic display/banner, streaming audio and social media. For high performers, targeted banners and paid search were primary revenue drivers.

How are radio ad buyers purchasing digital?

With 88% of radio advertisers using digital, how do they purchase it? Results indicate 43% are buying from radio salespeople, which falls to number six among local competitors. To gain more digital ad dollars from local businesses, radio salespeople first need to make customers aware that they offer it. Then lead with integrated campaign options from one source.

Station managers build confidence in digital strategy and sellers.

In looking at station manager perspectives, 61% said their digital strategy was good to brilliant, a significant increase. Those with a poor or no strategy fell to 18%. This enthusiasm appears to have a direct link to the growth in sales. Strategies are fluid, and stations should continue to update them and pivot when necessary.

Managers also have more confidence in their sellers, with 57% rating it as good to excellent. That’s a 21% increase from four years ago. So, why are salespeople improving? Radio managers attributed this primarily to training existing salespeople at 52%. That’s a 12% increase over last year.

Training is the key to having a well-prepared and successful sales team. The more they know about digital, the more apt they are to earn advertiser trust and produce results from them. That dedication to training is also consistent, with 44% of teams participating in weekly sessions. 

Radio salespeople are cross-channel sellers.

The results about the better-informed salesperson again relay back to the desire for relationships and market expertise. Radio salespeople include digital components in every sales pitch 65% of the time, a number that has been steadily growing since 2018. On average, 42% of station customers buy digital, up from 30%. Stations are also securing more digital-only customers, with 47% of an average station’s customer base falling into this category.

The transformation of radio salespeople is clearly moving ahead. They are now local marketing experts that can provide linear and digital together. Stations with strategies and access to training are developing their sales teams to be trusted, respected partners.

The results conclude what was another eventful year. While challenges and unknowns remain, the opportunity is palpable. Radio plus digital is the new pillar for broadcast. With this mindset, 2022 should be full of prosperity for the industry and its advertisers.


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