Modern marketers need to listen to podcasts

Sam CourtPodcasting has had a revival in recent times. Here Sam Court looks at what the implications are for advertising.

Ask around at any agency: If you show someone a TVC, they’ll mostly tell you why it’s complete rubbish and what a waste of media investment the campaign was.

It could be a beer ad, banging on about their “rich heritage” even though no punter cares. Or itmight be a supermarket singing at you about how cheap their milk is.

Whatever the category, it’s mostly somewhere between inane nonsense and annoying noise.

The same can be said for most radio advertising: Full of speed talking disclaimers, grating jingles and completely disruptive noise. Just shut-up!

But if you take a listen to most of the top-rating podcasts, you’ll likely be pleasantly surprised at just how good the advertising is.

A growing medium

Australian listener numbers for podcasts are hard to find, but according to Edison Research, approximately 46 million Americans (or 16 per cent of the population over the age of 13) listen to a podcast every month – almost double the figure from 2008.

Given how closely Australia follows American media & technology trends, it’s safe to assume the audience growth here is similar, but lagging. And a quick analysis of the iTunes Top 10 Podcast Chartreveals the following facts:

  • 6 of the top 10 are American
  • The top show isn’t really a podcast, it’s just Hamish & Andy’s drive-time radio show republished in a digital format
  • The other 3 are from the ABC, and 1 of these is actually just Triple J’s ‘Like a Version’ Friday segment, also republished

(So yeah, we’re definitely lagging.)

Serial changed the game

Like one of the hipsters mentioned in Tim Burrowes’ recent Mumbrella article “Australia’s podcasting boom has finally arrived”, my interest in podcasts was rejuvenated last year with the airing of Serial.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 10.42.26 amMy wife and I were completely addicted, and it was the first time either of us had ever binged on a series that wasn’t made for TV. As we listened, not only were we not “multi-screening”, we were “no screening”! I simply had my phone plugged into the stereo, as we sat there engrossed in the story, not quite knowing where to look.

StartUp advertising for the win 

To fill the gap between Serial episodes, I began rediscovering the expanded world of podcasts.

Like Serial, several interesting podcasts have spun off from American public radio, so it seemed serendipitous that long-term producer at This American Life, Alex Blumberg, had concurrently embarked on his own podcasting venture, appropriately titled ‘StartUp’.

StartUp is a brilliant listen for anyone thinking about starting their own thing. Alex is intriguingly transparent, sharing personal insights from his experiences as a founder – like his bumbling pitch to a venture capitalist, or the private conversations that he and his co-founder had with their respective wives about how they’d split the company’s ownership value.

The show’s been an amazing success, and the guys have gone on to found Gimlet Media, which already produces three shows, bringing in around $2m in advertising revenue for 2015.

Beyond the narrative qualities of the shows on Gimlet, perhaps what’s most surprising is just how good the advertising is.

Rather than being a disruption, the ads seem like short segments that are just as interesting, and just as relevant, as the show itself.

Truly native advertising

In episode 26 of the Gimlet show ReplyAll (a show about the internet), the hosts PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman introduce the new Outlook app in their own personable way. They don’t over-sell it; they just suggest it’s worth your consideration. And it is.

We use Outlook at work, and I was previously using the Gmail app to access my work account. So therelease of Outlook for my phone, and the subtle prompt by the hosts, was enough for me to give it a shot. And I’m still using it today.

But if I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have questioned the hosts’ authenticity, because they didn’t force it on me. I appreciated the segment for its content values and for pointing me at something that’s worth my consideration.

For comparison, here’s another example, demonstrating a Squarespace ad on WTF with Marc Maron.

Podcast advertising strategies

The basic format for the ads has the host doing their own reading of the script, making it less of an interruption than display or video ads.

As the Washington Post reports, podcast listeners have long- time relationships with their favourite shows, making them all the more attractive to sponsors.

As far as the ad content goes, there are essentially two strategies being employed:

  • Brand building – “people tend to have warmer feelings about advertisers on podcasts than other media, and they tend to remember us a lot more than on other media,” says Mark DiCristina, director of marketing at Mailchimp.
  • Promotional code incentives – a classic tactic, but an effective one. For example, if you visit squarespace.com/american after This American Life tells you to, you get 10 per cent off and Squarespace can see where its new users are coming from.

Midroll are one of the leaders in connecting brands with podcasts. Their list of accessible shows is impressive, and includes many of the top rated podcasts.

As proof of the value of podcasts, some of the shows listed with midroll are commanding CPMs of almost $US100, with the most common being around $US25. Compare that to the average YouTube CPM in 2014, reportedly at $US14.72, whilst web display ads are estimated around $US11 CPM for a targeted ad, or $US5 CPM for a mass-market ad.

One restriction with the podcast format is that aside from tracking via promotional codes, which is an old method that wasn’t devised with podcasts in mind, there’s currently no uniquely powerful, podcast-specific way to measure an ad’s impact.

However the guys from Gimlet have been fairly transparent with their goal to revolutionise the podcasting medium.

Clearly this is a space for brands to be watching closely.

A new normal

A year after first hearing Serial, podcasts are firmly part of my daily routine. I use the Australian made PocketCasts app on my 40 minute walk to and from work each day.

Screen Shot 2015-09-11 at 10.45.27 amIn addition to many others, I now follow This American Life and look forward to every episode – the addiction continues.

And every day I hear a bunch of advertising, none of which I find disruptive or annoying.

In fact, using the coupon I mentioned earlier, I recently signed up to Squarespace, and created a site to promote the car sharing service I’m part of.

It’s seems obvious to me that it’s about time marketing & advertising professionals take notice of the storytelling craft being invested in podcast advertising, and begin to leverage the learnings across the industry, regardless of the medium.

I mean, come on, it’s 2015 people. Do we really need to see another TVC singing, “down down, our prices are down”? But rather, as the philosopher Mike Skinner so eloquently put it, “Let’s push things forward”.

Sam Court is UX director at The White Agency.

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