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You should be paying attention to podcast advertising

06.03.2017 - by Arlie Adlington


In this blog post I’m going to talk about the rise of on demand audio and the potential it offers advertisers. I’m going to focus mostly on podcasting – it’s a relatively new format (compared to say, TV or radio) that can form a valuable part of a wider marketing approach. Plus, there is a lot to learn from how podcasts do advertising that we can apply to other areas of marketing.

Podcast image

Firstly, let’s acknowledge that – just as the consumption of TV and video has changed drastically over the last few years (to the benefit of marketers) – the way we consume audio is also changing.

Radio has gone digital and increasingly on demand.

DAB and internet radio are replacing traditional FM broadcasts. In January, Norway became the first country in the world to begin turning off its FM radio network, going digital-only in phases over 2017.

The BBC iPlayer Radio app allows people to download and listen to radio programmes after they are broadcast, and they also offer a large number of podcasts for additional on demand listening options.

Subscription services like Amazon’s Audible are growing, fast.

The UK’s audiobook market has grown 170% over the last five years to £91 million, while the US market doubled between 2011 and 2015 to $1.77bn (reported by Good e-Reader). Last year, the Wall Street Journal reported that audiobooks are the fastest growing format in publishing.

Podcasts are having a golden age.

Podcasts have been around since the early 2000s, but in the last few years they’ve started to finally fulfil the long-promised potential of the format.

A mixture of public media organisations, private companies and networks including NPR, Radiotopia, Buzzfeed, Gimlet Media and Slate’s Panoply have created a slew of highly produced shows with hundreds of episodes. Listenership per episode for the larger shows is in the hundreds of thousands, and the big publishers are achieving total audience numbers in the millions each month.

US podcast audience stats for January 2017

Podtrac stats Jan 2017 2Total mobile and desktop podcast audience.
Unique monthly audience: total of unique audience members who stream or download publisher’s podcast content across all shows they produce.
Unique streams and downloads: total unique streams and downloads of podcast content for the month across all shows produced by publisher.
Active shows: count of shows produced by publisher and measured by Podtrac which contribute to the totals in the ranking.
Podcast publisher: an entity or individual which owns, creates and publishes podcasts.
Note: ranking data only includes publishers that participate in Podtrac measurement for the full month for which the ranking is being released.


And these are just the big show makers. There are thousands of independent creators, as well as a great many more networks beyond those discussed above.

All this to say, there’s a rapidly growing contingent of people – on trains, buses, walking the dog, doing the washing up – who are spending hours listening to on demand audio. They’re highly engaged, loyal, and unlike most media platforms, actually pretty open to advertising.

As the Director of Marketing at MailChimp said in The Atlantic in 2015, “People tend to have warmer feelings about advertisers on podcasts than other media, and they tend to remember us.”

Building relationships with consumers. But for real.

Marketers talk a lot about the importance of building relationships with consumers, having a dialogue, and giving them content that they want to engage with. But while we’re great at driving traffic, impressions and visibility, making those real connections with customers is much harder to achieve.

So how is podcasting helping brands build these much sought-after consumer relationships? What can digital marketers learn from how podcast advertising operates? And how could we tie in audio formats with digital marketing to create new experiences that engage consumers in a genuine way?

Here are some examples of how advertisers are already working with the podcast medium.


The easiest way to reach new audiences through podcasts is to become a sponsor, running short ads during episodes. This is the closest to traditional radio advertising that’s available in the world of podcasting, but it’s not the same. Podcasters typically offer (and in many cases prefer) to create their ads themselves. This means listeners don’t just hear an ad, they hear the hosts themselves promoting the products. What’s fairly unique to an audio medium is that it’s easy for hosts to deliver ads while clearly distinguishing them from the rest of the content; something that doesn’t translate as easily to online articles, for example, where users often miss the ‘sponsored content’ labels.

Because successful podcasts rely on loyal fan bases, they are choosy about the ads they run. They won’t promote products that don’t feel appropriate for their audience. They often take care to create ads that fit the tone of the show, and even feel like part of the show. But they’re also very clear about the difference between their editorial content and their ads.

This is a good thing for brands – you get the benefit of carefully crafted ads that are labelled transparently, and which also have an implicit seal of approval from the hosts. Plus, they’re designed to be as un-annoying as possible, by the people who know the audience best – the show’s own producers.

Branded content

Branded content is one of the newer options for companies looking to reach the highly engaged listeners of top podcasts. I’ve got two examples for you, that both take a different approach.

DTR from Tinder

DTR (which stands for ‘define the relationship’) is a podcast series, produced by Gimlet Creative – the branded content arm of Gimlet Media – for Tinder. It’s described as “A series from Tinder and Gimlet Creative, about defining relationships in the digital age.”

As you can see, no attempt is made to hide that this is sponsored content, or even to distract from that fact. But the show has been given the same creative treatment as any other highly produced podcast. The success metrics for DTR will be around engagement and brand building, rather than app downloads. But the product is being promoted in a pretty direct way, nonetheless.

The Message and LifeAfter from Panoply and GE

Slate’s network Panoply has now worked on two projects with GE – The Message and LifeAfter. These original audio dramas are clearly labelled as GE productions, but don’t include any direct promotion of GE products or business units. Instead, the content is designed to be thematically appropriate to GE’s business, while being purely creative in all other ways.

Both podcasts have been highly successful, with The Message reaching #1 on the iTunes podcast chart, and LifeAfter reaching #15.

For The Message, GE also took care to drive online engagement beyond the podcast. They created two companion websites for the fictional character and the organisation at the centre of the story. This marks an early exploration of the potential for combining ambitious creative audio with a wider digital engagement strategy.

nicky tomalin website

With podcast companies and networks actively looking for new and innovative ways to drive revenue from the medium, these examples are just the beginning of what on demand audio may offer brands in the future.

In the meantime, there’s a lot podcasters can teach us about how we relate to consumers. Their approach to advertising is a strong one – it’s transparent, creative and its success relies on a genuine two-way relationship between show makers and listeners. In the world of marketing, where people’s patience has been tested by disruptive and disingenuous advertising, it’s no mean feat that publishers have found a way to get audiences engaged with advertising and branded content.

One last thing…

If you’re thinking about podcasts as a possible route for advertising, I’ve got a couple of episode recommendations for you.

Words About Words From Our Sponsors – StartUp

In this episode of StartUp, the team at Gimlet Media talk about how they set up the brand content arm of the business, and how they developed their advertising guidelines. This episode will give you a very honest sense of how podcast producers feel about advertising, and what is important to them when thinking about how to run ads.

We Know What You Did – Reply All

For something a little more fun, check out this episode of Reply All where they meet the man who accidentally invented pop-up ads. He is sorry, in case you were wondering.

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