March 2, 2021

Digital Domain: High-Tech Product, Low-Tech Pitch

ZERO percent financing on a new car. A mattress sale blowout. Storewide discounts at the local hardware. These are the types of pitches that people expect to hear on the radio. Not commercials for the Barracuda Load Balancer, which sounds vaguely automotive but is actually software related to managing Web site traffic.

Information technology products, like e-mail archivers and Web site security software, are increasingly being promoted on the radio — not just in major cities but also in smallish ones like Redding, Calif., or Bend, Ore. The economics of radio advertising sometimes make it useful in reaching small but important groups of prospective customers.

So many of radio’s traditional sponsors have moved their ad dollars online that prices for radio commercials have fallen. This has caught the notice of companies like Barracuda Networks, an I.T. business based in Campbell, Calif.

“We discovered radio was unnaturally inexpensive,” says Michael Perone, Barracuda’s executive vice president and chief marketing officer.

Barracuda has customers that include large corporations. Marketing to their I.T. departments is done out of sight of the rest of us — at I.T. trade shows, in trade journal ads and in calls from Barracuda’s field sales force.

The company also sells to medium-sized businesses, defined as those with 300 to 2,000 employees. It can be too expensive to send sales representatives to make the multiple visits necessary to close a relatively modest sale to these customers. But it turns out that radio offers an economical alternative way of reaching the three or four people who might work in the I.T. department of a 300-employee company.

One of Barracuda’s commercials, for its Message Archiver, refers to “e-discovery laws and government regulations,” but a 30-second spot has no room for details. The commercial’s narrator says the product is for “certain businesses,” without making clear which ones must worry about e-mail preservation.

Presumably, if you haven’t heard anything about such matters, you are professionally absolved from worrying about them.

Marc Wolfe, Barracuda’s senior director of marketing, says its radio ads don’t aim at people with a particular title but instead are intended to “ignite a conversation with as many influencers in a single organization as possible.”

Barracuda decided to broadcast its spots not only in the largest markets (Tier 1, in radio parlance) and the midsize ones (Tier 2), but also small ones like Redding and Bend (Tier 3) — for a total of thousands of stations in North America. In the smallest markets, some radio stations may be struggling to attract even local advertisers. And the task becomes particularly difficult if a lack of commercials is already giving their programming the appearance of a nonprofit public service. Such stations “need commercials to sound like a radio station,” says Mr. Perone, who says the radio ad networks that distribute Barracuda’s spots can provide the Tier 3 markets at very little additional cost.

All that is required to get “nearly 100 percent” of the attention of a prospective customer is making “ a little noise in a quiet place” like a small radio market, Mr. Wolfe says. He has learned that it’s hard to predict, however, who might be reached. He points to this example: “Someone who lives in a Tier 1 city and is traveling through a Tier 3 city hears the spot and says ‘My God, you guys are everywhere.’ ”

Citrix is another software vendor that is using radio to sell products to business customers. Its videoconferencing software, GoToMeeting, and other products are featured in commercials on more than 2,000 stations, it says.

Michael Guarnieri, radio media manager at Citrix, says he and his colleagues began to advertise on the radio in 2003, when they worked for Expertcity, before it was acquired by Citrix the next year. The original idea was to advertise only on programs that were about information technology, he says, but “we discovered there was a finite number of tech radio shows and the audiences were small.” So, he adds, “we started going into consumer radio.”

“We identified radio hosts who were influencers who gave us an endorsement and provided third-party validation,” Mr. Guarnieri says. He supplied an example: a commercial whose script is spoken by Kim Komando, host of a syndicated talk radio show about technology.

“I’ve been a fan and a customer of for years,” Ms. Komando enthuses on the commercial. “And now has added high-definition group videoconferencing. I’ve seen it, I’ve used it, it’s amazing.”

As with many testimonials delivered by radio show hosts, the listener may understand that it has not been volunteered gratis. But with a product that’s meant for personal use, it’s relatively easy to picture the host using the product regularly — and how we might do so, too. With I.T. products, a much more specialized category, the images aren’t as direct. (A spokeswoman for GoToMeeting says its endorsers must have personal knowledge of the products.)

In the ad, Ms. Komando expounds on the virtues of GoToMeeting’s high-definition video, saying that facial expressions “often speak louder than words.” But she says this on the radio. The form of her spoken testimonial undermines the scripted content. Yet GoToMeeting still benefits from the ad because radio as a medium is particularly well-suited for endorsements. On radio, spoken words can create a brief sense of personal connection with each listener, in a way newer media can’t really match.

Radio is a congenial home for many advertisers in the hardware business, whether the hardware is lawn mowers or e-mail archivers. All that remains to be added are regular holiday sales for the I.T. products. Maybe the Labor Day weekend will bring a Sale-A-Bration — for load balancers.

Randall Stross is an author based in Silicon Valley and a professor of business at San Jose State University. E-mail:

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