If you haven’t heard of Article, you probably don’t listen to podcasts. The company advertises on 20 to 50 shows a month, head of marketing Duncan Blair told Built In, including the wildly popular design podcast 99% Invisible.
In fact, the show’s host, Roman Mars, keeps his various trophies in an Article sideboard.
“For every podcast we work with, we send them some furniture, so they all have personal experience with it,” Blair explained.
Article didn’t always have a podcast advertising playbook. In 2011, when the Vancouver company was first founded, podcasting was far from mainstream; Serial, which kickstarted the podcast boom, wouldn’t air for three years.
Initially, Article focused more on performance advertising — think display ads, social media ads, paid search.
“For a marketer, the best thing you can do is get in the ear of somebody that’s already engaged.”
In 2016, though, the company was “growing really rapidly and scaling our efforts across all sorts of digital channels,” Blair said — and the marketing team started to see diminishing returns on digital. It needed new channels, and the team started experimenting with podcast ads, drawn in by “the fervor with which people were into their podcasts.”
“It’s very much not a casual fandom,” Blair said.
James Le, senior marketing director at Best Fiends’ parent company Seriously, agreed: compared to other ad-supported media, there’s something uniquely captivating about podcasts.
“For a marketer, the best thing you can do is get in the ear of somebody that’s already engaged,” he said.
So podcasts are the best — but in some ways, they’re also the worst. We asked Le, Blair and Agnes Kozera, cofounder of podcast advertising platform Podcorn, for their insights on what works in podcast advertising, and what doesn’t.
Host-Read Podcast Ads Are Influencer Marketing With a Twist
VP of Marketing at Seriously
At Seriously, we’ve always believed in the power of endorsements, the power of influence and the power of community. We’ve worked with YouTube influencers in the past, and moving into podcast advertising just felt like a natural move for us — especially because advertising on YouTube has just become very loud. There’s just a ton of it. And compared to the YouTube community, podcast listeners tended to be a bit older, with a bit more disposable income.
With a lot of ads, it’s more like somebody’s talking at you, this person you don’t know. There’s no reason for you to download our game, unless you think it looks interesting. But if somebody gives you their experience of the game and says, “Hey, if you’re like me, and you also enjoy X, Y and Z, give this a try” — you’re more likely to do it. So I think the conversion rates for podcast ads are higher, but it’s also more expensive than other marketing channels. The price is similar to YouTube advertising.
Director of marketing at Article
I do think one of the unique pieces of podcasts as a medium is the host-read ad — that endorsement piece is really important — but I don’t think about podcast ads exactly like influencer marketing. Typically, the influencers we work with, their audiences live on visual platforms, whether that’s Instagram or Pinterest or a blog. So there’s a medium difference there. Influencers also build audiences on platforms owned by someone else, whereas podcasters own their audiences more strongly. There’s still a bit of that algorithmic mediation with podcasts, with discovery on listening apps, but I still think there’s a distinction.
Co-founder at Podcorn
There’s a difference between the radio ad slot approach and the influencer-driven branded content you can do on podcasts. Rather than just a cookie-cutter ad that plays across different shows, podcasters can run ads where the host asks questions that he or she thinks the audience might be interested in about the product. It’s just a different type of content. Advertisers can do deeper brand storytelling, whether that means taking listeners behind the scenes at your company, or telling your founder story, or a panel discussion with different experts in your industry. The ad content can also be unique and organic to each podcast — it’s not as scalable as a programmatic radio ad buy, but this type of native advertising converts a lot better.
Podcasting’s Performance Metrics Could Be Better, but Advertisers Can Triangulate Beyond Downloads
Le: You kind of buy on blind faith. You see download counts, but I don’t know how many of those people heard my ad, or fast forwarded through my ad. There’s no way to tell, especially for us, as a phone game — when people download our game because of a podcast ad, it looks like organic search.
We end up making buying decisions based on a bunch of different things. We listen to the show and use some gut intuition: Is this a good show? Are people engaged? Is there listener participation? We also look at the kind of content it is, and the audience demographics. We like true crime podcasts a lot, just because that audience is interested in solving things, and our game is a puzzle game.
Attribution-wise, we don’t go in completely blind, either. In our game, if you play through level 20 or 21, you’ll see a pop-up that says, “Where did you find this?” One option is podcasts. It’s not one-to-one tracking, but it gives us a sense of whether our podcast ads are converting overall.
Blair: I think this comes down to treating your marketing campaign mix holistically. A lot of digitally native brands tend to think about each channel independently and think about, you know, how do I get my Facebook campaign working, or how do I get my Google AdWords campaign working. But on Google and to some extent on Facebook, our activity is really driven around intent. People effectively putting their hands up, saying, “I’m looking for a sofa!” through some kind of signal we can pick up on.
Podcasts are completely separate. There’s no demand signal. So it’s about finding that target audience that you’re after and really introducing and sort of familiarizing that audience with the brand. That requires a holistic, full-funnel approach to your entire marketing mix, understanding that people we introduce to our furniture via podcast will be converted down the line via some other channel. That’s key to building out a proper marketing mix, instead of just running some Facebook ads and hoping they do all the lifting.
Kozera: I think the number of downloads a podcast gets is overstressed. Partnering with the biggest creator might give you a lot of impressions, but I think actual ROI is a focus that needs to have a lot more light on it — not just in terms of cash, but also in terms of driving people to a website, or events, or downloads. It’s different for different advertisers. But it’s really about matching the right podcasts to the right brands.
Seek Out Expert Hosts, or Follow Your Target Audience
Kozera: I think there are two types of advertisers. Some clients have very complex, niche products, and they partner with very niche podcasters. Lumen, for instance, makes a handheld device that measures metabolism in real time, and they worked with us to partner with podcasters who were experts within their industries — biohacking experts, or health and fitness experts — because Lumen’s product required a lot of education. So the content that they created was really informative and interactive, and they saw a 300 percent return on investment.
Then there are brands that care more about an audience play, and a scale play. For them, it’s more about figuring out what their target audience listens to and reaching as many creators as they can who appeal to that target demographic.
Podcasting Isn’t Visual, but It Can Sell Visual Products
Blair: At the outset, we weren’t really sure what was going to happen as we transitioned into an entirely non-visual advertising format. If you look at a lot of the success that we’ve had in digital advertising, it’s been on visual platforms, with influencers demonstrating how easy we make it to get the style that they have. But it’s quite literal. You look at the person’s beautiful home, and you say, “This is great.”
With audio, whether it’s a history podcast or a comedy podcast, you’re already in this space where you’re imagining the narrative that the hosts are describing. So as the host relates the story of our fantastic products and how they worked with us on their space, I think — this is a bit speculative — it’s easier to imagine the same transformation happening in your space, or applying to you.
Overall, Buying Podcast Ads Takes a Lot of Legwork...
Le: Podcasting, as an industry, isn’t centralized at all. So we needed somebody to help us with buying — somebody that had the relationships that help consolidate everything. We work with an agency that has relationships with podcast networks, and then we work with Podcorn. They’re kind of a network themselves, but they give the shows much more freedom to decide which offers they want to take. It’s more of a marketplace solution than a network solution.
There’s literally no way to manage every single show in-house. We do maybe 100 shows a month. If I took care of all that in-house, I’d be reaching out to the network, negotiating the deal, making sure it’s implemented, making sure it delivers. If it doesn’t deliver, I need to figure out what the remedy is going to look like. That’s a job in and of itself.
Blair: Podcast ads, relative to digital ads, are difficult to buy. You need a well-thought-out, full-funnel strategy to do it. And that extra barrier to entry can be a bit frustrating from time to time; you have to jump through some hoops to make it work. But I’m not too concerned about making it easy for other advertisers. I find things that are a little more difficult to do are far more worthwhile.
...but YouTube-Style Centralization Would Create Its Own Problems — and Might Make Host-Read Ads Obsolete
Le: If the podcasting industry centralizes, then one company controls the market. From a usability perspective, it’s much easier — I could just go to one person, the metrics are standardized. But when it’s decentralized, people can compete better. You have more of a free market.
But it might make the ad space more expensive, and it’d probably take a lot of the creativity out of the ads. Let’s say Spotify took over the podcast space, and every single podcast went through them. They’ll say, “Well, how do we efficiently monetize all of these podcasts?” They’ll probably lean on dynamic ad insertion technology.
In the podcast world, you either have baked-in, host-read ads, or dynamically inserted ads read by someone else. Dynamic insertion feels more like a commercial spot; it feels removed from the content. But it’s much easier on the publisher side to have dynamic insertions because it’s more turnkey, more scalable.
Blair: That connection with the host, that’s an incredibly important part of the formula that we have today for success with podcast advertising. What concerns me about centralizing the industry is that it might push podcasts more into the digital space, and make it more viable for people to buy fractions of shows — moving away from that host read and more into buying 1,000 or 100,000 impressions. If podcast ads are bought and sold the same way as display advertising or search, that’s less interesting to me. It takes away a lot of what makes podcast ads unique.
Kozera: So far, the way podcasting has begun to centralize is detrimental more to independent podcasters. Companies like Spotify and podcast networks aren’t taking a very open ecosystem approach — they’re glamorizing and running ads against only original and exclusive and top-tier content. It’s very impression-based, which has sort of dimmed the value of smaller creators. It can really work out for a brand to team up with nine smaller, perfect-fit creators. But podcast advertisers right now are encouraged to put all their eggs in one basket and work with the biggest creators, so advertising dollars are flowing to a very narrow segment of podcasters.
Better Attribution Could Make Podcast Advertising ‘Blow Up.’
Le: What I would want is direct attribution, where we can link you listening to a specific podcast ad to you downloading the game. In the connected TV world, they do this well. Podcasts haven’t gone as advanced with this yet, but they could — because when you download the show, you share your IP address. Once they know your IP address, they’re able to device graph and know all the other devices that connect to the IP address, and see if any of those devices download the game. This is exactly what Roku does with connected TV.
On our end, if we can say, “This person downloaded the game because of this podcast,” then we’re able to measure how valuable they are, and track how much money they spend in the game. You can start thinking about like the average customer value or the return on investment from a specific show, and you can build out models that tell you that if somebody comes in from podcasts, they’re more or less likely to spend more money than somebody on television — because you have that comparison.
Once podcasting has clearer data, all of a sudden, it can get advertisers that have to answer to investors and say, “This is how much we made from marketing.” If they don’t know how much of it came from a podcast, it’s hard for them to advertise on it. But when there’s more data, I think podcast advertising will blow up much more.
Interviewees’ responses have been condensed and edited.