Podcast listeners were few and far between five years ago, but now they seem to be everywhere.
Whether chuckling on a treadmill or learning about quantum physics on the bus, a growing demographic of people are embracing the medium. If you are reading this on public transport, in an office or some other crowded place, there is probably someone listening to one in your immediate vicinity.
The last few years has seen an explosion in both the number of people and the number of podcasts available. In the US especially, where the podcasting market is much more firmly entrenched, it seems like every comedian or entertainment personality now has their own.
The appeal of podcasts for listeners comes down to a couple of factors. Firstly, since there is no TV or radio network in charge of producing the show, the host and their guests are free to say whatever they like about whatever they want, and for however long they want.
At one extreme of this is the massively popular Joe Rogan Experience, which gets tens of millions of downloads a month. The format of the show is a long (usually three hours), unfiltered and unedited conversation between the host Joe Rogan and his guest, with the topic going literally anywhere the conversation does. The results can range from the sublime to the tedious to the skin-crawlingly awkward, frequently within the same interview.
the sheer number of podcasts means that every conceivable niche interest or hobby is likely to be catered for
Secondly, the sheer number of podcasts means that every conceivable niche interest or hobby is likely to be catered for. Subjects and interests that would be crowded out on TV or radio have the space and freedom to flourish once they find their band of loyal supporters.
Thirdly, the format of a podcast means that convenience is key for the listener. Whether you listen at work, on your commute, cooking your dinner or grinding out a workout in the gym, a podcast can be consumed anywhere at any time.
All of this has added up to a huge increase in the number of people choosing to listen, which in turn has created a fertile ground for brands to market their products and services. But does marketing map onto podcasting, and how do the results compare to other mediums?
We caught up with Ruth Fitzsimons from leading podcast platform AudioBoom to talk about how UK brands are using podcasts to promote themselves.
How does podcast advertising work?
In many ways, podcast advertising resembles radio advertising, but with important differences.
There are three main forms of adverts when it comes to podcasting, the first being live reads. This is where the host talks about a product for a minimum of 60 seconds, often having been sent a sample to try.
The key here is authentic tone of voice.
“The thing that’s really nice about that is that you’re getting these influencers, which is really what podcasters are, to talk about something in their own voice, in a fun way often because they are making it a part of the content,” says Ruth.
“They’re having a conversation and they’re doing it in a tone of voice that feels like it’s part of the podcast.”
the key here is authentic tone of voice
The first thing worth noting is that the listener is free to skip these reads, but Ruth says most don’t because “they feel like it’s part of the content and they are interested in where the conversation is going. but we don’t hide that this is an ad. The podcasters clearly point out that these brands are the sponsors of the show.”
Promo codes are used to track using a live read. This allows the brand to see how effective the campaign has been, because when someone goes to sign up for a service they can enter the promo code and the brand can see how well they’ve done.
The other two forms of ad are spot advertising and branded campaigns. The former is almost exactly like radio advertising except being digital allows for a higher level of analytics. Branded campaigns are more targeted, long term relationships, an example being GE’s production of a sci-fi podcast called The Message.
So, what explains listener willingness to sit through adverts that they could easily skip?
“That’s partially because you build an audience for yourself, and you have a relationship with them,” says Ruth. “You are not just trying to flog them something, you actually have a relationship with them. You know who they are and what their interests are and you can introduce them to things in a different way.
“I think there will be a lot more people coming into that space over the next year. It’s yet another to speak to your audience in a very authentic way.”
Too much freedom?
No editors or network executives means that the podcaster can go about promoting the product in any way they like. This freedom can lead to live reads going off the rails, as with this attempt to promote confectionary delivery company Shari’s Berries by American comedian Bill Burr.
It can also lead to sublime moments of innovative brand messaging. Ruth recalls one particular moment of brilliance:
“When we produced Russell Brand’s first podcast with him. He did something for Visit Las Vegas.com. He started that ad with ‘I hate Las Vegas’ and then went into this brilliant story about all the reasons he hated the place, which of course was hilarious.
it can lead to sublime moments of innovative brand messaging
“Five minutes later he was still talking about it. The punchline was ‘I hate Las Vegas but if you want to go, visit this restaurant.’ That is absolutely brilliant for everyone. Listening, I am cracking up thinking that this is so outrageous and thinking ‘where is this story going?’
“The brand was like – that’s our tone of voice. We wanted our brand to be ‘your secret weekend away’ and you got in the message.”
Another example of how diverse the results can be involves the release of the Disney animated adventure Moana. The No Such Thing as a Fish podcast was paired with Disney to promote the release, and they decided to incorporate the ad into the format of their show, which is based around little known and fun facts. They decided to focus on the traditional tattoos of the characters.
“I didn’t know that with Polynesian art, one part of your tattoo would symbolise the island that you came from and that certain tattooists were like monks and had to celibate,” recalls Ruth.
“So, you’re like ‘what? Tell me more!’ And, of course, they’re still getting in the message that they saw they film and they liked it, but they’re doing it in their own way. That’s why podcasters like it, because they can feel like they have ownership over it. It doesn’t feel like it is shoehorned in.”
But how can a brand be sure that what they’re getting is going to suit their persona? With this much freedom, there does clearly need to be some kind of process in place. In AudioBoom’s case the live reads are recorded in advance of the podcast publication and sent to the brands for their approval.
“We record it in advance and send it to them, and they know in advance what the tone of the podcast. In that sense, it works really well and in terms of the podcast, podcasters are really up front with their audience, they’re clear that they are sponsors and they often say ‘we’d like to thank our sponsors’.
“I don’t think there is an uncomfortable blurring of the lines because it is made clear to the audience what that relationship is. For our part, we make it clear to the brand what they are buying into.”
This places a real importance on matching brands to the right podcasts, and this is where AudioBoom comes in. The company takes a brand’s objectives, whether that be app downloads or increasing subscriptions, and comes up with a plan of action.
For Ruth it all comes down to two questions; “How can we make sure that you are speaking to the right audience? So, how can use that podcasters audience to activate you campaign ideal?”
a survey of 2,500 UK podcast fans carried out by the company found that 33% listened to over 7 podcasts a week
“I would never put a very conservative brand with a very shocking podcast because no one is going to be comfortable in that scenario,” she continues. “The podcaster is not going to want to do it, the brands are going to feel really uncomfortable. The key thing is that the brand gets to hear the live read before it goes out, so the brands do have control.”
And the data seems to showing that the approach is working. A survey of 2,500 UK podcast fans carried out by the company found that 33% listened to over 7 podcasts a week. Crucially, 40% reported being willing to buy or try a product they had heard on a podcast.
For Ruth, this isn’t surprising. “If you’re listening for 30 minutes, we are so bombarded by ads that if you listen for half an hour and only hear one ad, you are more likely to connect with it. Especially if it is delivered in the tone of voice of the podcast more generally.”
The company uses Google analytics on their backend to calculate listens. “That’s partially why the promo codes have become so interesting, sometimes companies, for their own commercial reasons, don’t share back with us how the promo codes are doing, but it is obviously working if they are booking again and again.
“But I think it is really interesting when you have people coming with repeat bookings with us. Subscription services do not continue to invest in a medium unless it works for them, because they often don’t have the resources to do that.”
Made for small fish?
All of this makes it sound like a medium in which smaller brands can start getting results with targeted campaigns. Ruth says that the brands that have jumped into podcasting are mostly startups and digital media subscription services, but this is the case for most early mediums.
“They want good ROI and they want to see those conversions and you see those with podcasting. The podcast conversion rates are very high comparatively speaking. We often say to people ‘just test us against your SEO budget and see how it does’.”
the government is starting to get involved in podcasting
But as the sector continues to gain momentum, bigger names are dipping their toe in the water.
“So, we’ve done campaigns with HMRC – which you would not expect! That’s really interesting – the government is starting to get involved in podcasting. Another example would be a The Cycling Podcast, they work with Rapha the cycling clothing company and actually were sponsored by Maserati at the giro at the Giro d’Italia, one of cycling’s Grand Tours.”
For Ruth, it’s a case of the bigger brands releasing that if they don’t take opportunity to speak to an audience that is likely to be more receptive to their messaging then broader campaigns, some other brand probably will.
“Especially when they have an audience that are listening to something for 30 mins a day, why would you not want to not get involved and not play with it? It’s been really interesting, it’s definitely changed from this time last year and I think it is a really clear change. When we go into advertising agencies or marketing companies or different brands, they are far more inquisitive and really asking in earnest how it’s all going. And what is really great is that we have these analytics to back that up. And they can test the market and see how it works for them.”
Where is it going?
In 2016, AudioBoom’s listening base increased by 105%, which underlines the incredible growth that the podcast space is seeing. But have we reached ‘peak podcast’ or is there more room for growth?
the next 12 months will see more brands getting involved and more money being reinvested into the creation of better content
Ruth believes that as podcasts become increasingly easy to find, audience numbers will continue to grow: “Obviously, Apple podcasts is right there on the front Apple phones and it’s a really accessible and easily available podcast app. But you also have a wide variety of podcast platforms like Stitcher, Pocket Casts, Podcast Addicts. And, now there are music players such as Spotify and Deezer starting to get involved in the market as well. So, it is easy to access.”
Ruth predicts that the next 12 months will see more brands getting involved and more money being reinvested into the creation of better content. It seems like the medium is not going to be running out of steam any time soon:
“I think that the thing about podcasts that are amazing is that people go out to dinner parties or go out with their friends and ask them ‘have you heard this podcast?’ That doesn’t happen with a lot of mediums.
“You have a medium now that has people actively recommending it to friends and family, and it makes perfect sense for brands to get involved because of that authenticity and that joy that surrounds it. It’s a very, very exciting time for podcasting.”