Podcasts: monetising a misunderstood media beyond direct response advertising

Trevor LongIn this guest post Trevor Long says investing in podcasting shouldn’t intimidate brands – just think ‘radio’ with download metrics when allocating ad spend.

I’ve been producing podcasts for six-and-a-half years, and having published over 580 episodes I like to think I’ve got a bit of knowledge and experience when it comes to creating, publishing and monetising the medium.

Strangely, despite a huge growth in the conversation in media and marketing circles about podcasts there is still a fundamental lack of understanding out there.

This column was prompted by a tweet from comedian and digital content writer Dan Ilic. “Podcasting’s  Advertising problem…. no one knows true metrics.”Dan Illic podcast tweet

The Wall Street Journal article Dan linked to was excellent. But it left more questions than answers.

For example: “It’s tough for brands beyond direct-response advertisers to determine whether the investment pays off”.

NPR podcast studio shot

What’s most humorous to me about any brand having a hesitation about podcast advertising is the very fact that advertising on podcasts (in the US primarily) is absolutely dominated by direct-response advertisers.

Do you really think that Squarespace, Audible, Stamps.com and the many other familiar brands who’ve been buying into podcasts for years now would still be doing so if it didn’t work?

I come from an almost entirely radio background; 30 second spots in radio are a currency and live-reads in talk radio are a premium because of the engagement the audience has with the announcer, and the integration of the live-read within the program.

That’s the approach I’ve taken to advertising and sponsorships within my podcasts for years now. My advertisers are sponsors – they are getting the kind of brand acknowledgement an advertiser might get on talk radio. Perhaps a name and short credit out of the ‘weather’ or the ‘sports report’. Plus live-reads.

In podcasts that’s a credit at the start and an integrated live-read within the show.

I know it works because I have a close engagement with my audience by the very virtue of the fact that my main show requires listener input. It’s a talk-back podcast. I get emails every day from people looking for tech questions to be answered. They will mention, in passing, the brands they’ve heard on my show and they’ll email me to tell me when they’ve purchased something from a sponsor.

If it didn’t work the brands wouldn’t keep sponsoring the shows.

A funny thing happened late last year. A US advertising agency reached out to me and booked live-reads and sponsor credits for a large global tech company. Great campaign, well targeted and perfectly suited.

What worried me was the questions that came from the agency after the first week or two of the campaign:

  • “Are downloads the amount of times users listen to podcast or download it on their devices?”
  • “Would a download be counted every time the user presses play on the podcast?”

I didn’t know if I should laugh or be insulted. Here’s a company spending many thousands of dollars on a medium they don’t even understand! But then I realised just how young the medium is to advertisers – and how much education we have to put in to make it work.Libsyn support media

A podcast is a very unique bit of digital media. It’s downloaded by the user directly from a server. What they do with it after that is up to them. The user may download the file from the server automatically and never listen to it. They may listen to it multiple times. It’s impossible to know that as a publisher.

Podcast app builders could and would know more – but they also only have a window into the users of their app – and the beautiful thing about a podcast is it’s available to anyone and on any device, using any method to download it.

Fortunately, most podcast apps cease automatic downloads of podcast files if the user has not listened to an episode for a while – this means that download numbers are a valid way of measuring audiences. But that is our only method.

I’m a nerd, so I’ve been self-hosting my podcasts for all this time. That means the mp3 files people download sit on my own server. Looking directly at the server logs I know exactly to the number how many people have downloaded the file.mp3 icon

I can also tell how many people partially downloaded the file. This could be someone who chose to “stream” the show and not download it or someone who used a web audio interface to listen.  Download 59 minutes of a 60 minutes podcast and you count as a partial download.

That’s it, that’s the stats. And forever more that’s as good as it will get.

We have some of the most established audience metric systems in mainstream media, audience panels, measurement boxes – yet there is really no 100% certainty around the actual number of viewers or listeners, just a strong statistical assumption.

Podcasting is in fact one of the most transparent forms of media possible.  The issue is really the publishers themselves having access to the data and knowing how to report it, and for publishers to use a common language for their reporting.

And of course, there’s the trust that’s required. When my sponsors ask me for a download report they don’t get rounded numbers, they get raw numbers; they deserve that.whooshkaa

I’ve recently moved my podcasts to the Whooskaa platform. I’ve known Rob Loewenthal (founder of Whooshkaa) for many years. What Whooska offers me is a fast publishing platform and reliable and easy-to-read statistics.

If more podcasters used a single publishing platform like Whooshkaa the statistical output could be common. However, there will always be people using their own servers, or Libsyn to host their podcast.

Perhaps the future is that people wanting to truly monetise their podcast must utilise a platform that offers a common reporting output? Then at the very least advertisers could know what to expect and how to read the reports.

Oh, and when it comes to monetising podcasts, the Whooskaa platform is starting to offer advertising insertion – pre-roll, mid-roll and post-roll. These ads would be served within the audio file at the point the audio file is requested. Meaning the ads aren’t real-time at the point of playback, instead they are at the point of download.

Given technology can geolocate users and determine what platform they are on the key to success here will be advertiser-targeting based on this data. That’s a pretty exciting future.

So, podcasting is here to stay; it’s a powerful 1:1 platform for audiences and podcasters to engage and it has a very clear place within it for advertising and brand awareness.

But be careful not to expect too much from podcast measurement – there’s only so much that can be done, and perhaps brands need to put a bit of faith in the old idea of engaged audiences equal valuable audiences. It’s worked for decades in mainstream media. No reason why it can’t work now in podcasting.

Trevor Long is a technology commentator and podcaster – EFTM.com.au


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