A ballerina dances to music while wearing headphones. A couple makes out inside a listening booth. A teenage male shoplifter tries to get away with CDs of rap, metal – and Whitney Houston.
Those scenes take place in a music store in Empire Records, the cult 1990s coming-of-age film that was celebrated last week in the annual tradition of Rex Manning Day. While the movie exaggerates the power of audio for comedic effect, it still demonstrates the effectiveness of the format. We remember things we heard years ago that left strong mental impressions.
Today, while podcasts are small in number and low in overall revenue generation compared to other media, they are still quickly growing in popularity. For this column, I interviewed podcasters, analysts and audio programming experts to learn the best marcom practices for marketers who want to use them.
Podcasting keeps making the headlines
Spotify recently acquired crime, mystery and sci-fi podcast company Parcast after earlier buying podcast networks Anchor and Gimlet Media.
“This opportunity starts with the next phase of growth in audio — podcasting. There are endless ways to tell stories that serve to entertain, to educate, to challenge, to inspire or to bring us together and break down cultural barriers,” Spotify chief executive Daniel Ek wrote in a company blog post announcing the news.
“The format is really evolving and while podcasting is still a relatively small business today, I see incredible growth potential for the space and for Spotify in particular.”
In addition, Vox Media is partnering with podcast company Stitcher to produce a new technology news podcast from Recode. San Francisco-based podcasting distribution startup Himalaya Media has raised $100m. The recent Winter Podcast Upfront in Beverly Hills featured presentations from ESPN, iHeart, NPR, WNYC Studios and Wondery.
Podcasting’s growing popularity
The growth in new business deals reflects an increasing consumer interest in the media format.
According to Edison Research and Triton Digital’s latest Infinite Dial report, the percentage of Americans who are monthly podcast listeners grew from 26% last year to 32% this year. 22% are weekly listeners, and those heavy users listen to an average of one episode per day.
“Big things are happening in the podcast space,” Bruce Supovitz, senior vice president of national audio services at Nielsen Audio, said. “Revenues in the US are expected to hit over half a billion this year. That’s a drop in the bucket when you compare it against the $16bn that AM/FM radio generates, but it’s a strong start for a medium that’s only a decade or so old. With over $500m on the line today, big companies are taking note.”
Podcast analytics company Podtrac found that business programs are the category with the greatest annual percentage growth – and currently fourth overall.
Chartable, another podcast analytics company, recently commissioned a survey and used the growth in new programs to declare that the media world is entering a ‘golden age of podcasts’.
“Just as Netflix is an on-demand platform, podcasting fits consumer desire to consume content as they see fit,” Suzanne Grimes, executive vice president of marketing for Cumulus Media and president of Westwood One in the US, said. “Six out of 10 monthly podcast listeners feel ‘you can choose what you listen to when you want to listen’. It’s also an intimate listening experience with very few ad interruptions relative to other media, and it’s free.”
“Podcasts have become more accessible than ever before,” Oliver Walters, head of UK sales at podcast platform audioBoom, said. “Investment from Spotify, Amazon, Pandora, Google, BBC and Apple have all been responsible for the growth of podcast listening. People can listen to podcasts where they want to and when they want to at the touch of a button.”
The demographics of podcast listeners
Westwood One’s 2019 Audioscape Report found that the average age of podcast consumers is 35 – compared to 46 for AM/FM radio listeners and 56 for ABC, CBS and NBC television viewers.
According to Ofcom, Rajar and the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) in the UK, podcasting is growing in popularity among all ages but particularly with younger audiences. 47% of the 15-34 demographic listen to them.
“Technological advances and the availability of podcasts on more and more platforms has resulted in consumption taking place across the whole day,” IPA research director Belinda Beeftink said. “TouchPoints diary data tells us listening is not concentrated in pockets around commutes but spread relatively evenly across the day, with almost 20% of listening taking place in the evening after 7pm.
“As the reach and frequency of use grows for podcasting along with its broadening demographic appeal, it is clearly earning a place in any multi-media plan.”
“Podcasts offer advertisers access to an audience that is perceived to be hard to find: Gen Z and millennials,” Marek Wrobel, head of media futures at Havas Media, added. “There are many different ways in which brands can get involved – from the most straightforward option of running ad spots to more integrated approaches including host reads, podcast sponsorships and producing their own branded podcasts.”
Podcasts and radio are siblings
Radio is nowhere close to dying – and some of the reasons for the increasing interest in podcasts are similar to those for radio’s continued popularity.
“Podcasting is about compelling storytelling,” Zamir Ahmed, director of media relations for the US National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), said. “No other industry has more experience in using audio content to connect with audiences than local broadcast radio.”
“Many radio broadcasters have invested in podcasting as a complementary service to their over-the-air radio broadcasts,” Ahmed added. “Since its inception, broadcast radio has catered to the tastes and needs of our listeners. Podcasting allows listeners to connect with their local radio stations wherever they go and whenever they want and provides us another platform with which to serve our community.”
According to a recent study conducted by ad tracking firm Borrell Associates and commissioned by the Radio Advertising Bureau (RAB) in the US, 34% of local AM/FM outlets in the country regularly release a podcast. The UK, for example, has That Peter Crouch Podcast on BBC 5 Live as well as celebrities such as George Ezra hosting their own shows.
“The audio space is hot,” RAB president and chief executive Erica Farber said. “More and more advertisers want to talk and hear about what’s happening across radio, streaming and podcasting. There’s not a meeting we aren’t asked about trends in the space.
“If you look at Podtrac’s current top 20 podcasts, more than 50% of all podcasts were produced by radio broadcasters. People listen to their local radio stations and on-air personalities for news, entertainment and companionship. Podcasting is a natural extension for radio brands to expand their content and expertise.”
The resurgence of radio and the growth of podcasts are occurring in tandem. DTC brands, for example, are already shunning digital for TV and real-world brand activation events. New studies from Cumulus Media, Magellan Audio and LeadsRx have found that they are also seeing results from radio and podcasts as well.
However, audioBoom’s Walters did argue that marketers should remember that podcasting and radio are not identical and have “very little similarities other than they both have hosts and are consumed via a pair of ears”.
“Podcasts are a lean-in medium with listeners activity choosing to download or stream a specific episode. Podcast listening isn’t a shared experience, unlike radio. It's a very intimate, one-to-one experience, which is generally listened to on headphones and on the move.”
The benefits of podcasts to marketers
That “intimate, one-to-one experience” is why marketers are increasingly interested in podcasting – they provide a high share of voice, engaged audiences, uncluttered ad space and niche audiences.
According to podcast platform Acast, 76% of podcast listeners said that they have followed up on an ad or sponsored message from the show. A study by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and PriceWaterhouseCoopers found that revenues from programmatic audio ads in podcasts grew 85% from 2016 to 2017.
“The spoken word is one of the most powerful storytelling tools available to brands,” Russell Goldsmith, founder of Audere Communications in the UK, said. His company runs podcasting workshops and has partnered with brands such as Microsoft and Nuffield Health, agencies including FutureBrand, and the Cabinet Office and Ministry of Justice.
“Podcasts can therefore help drive the conversation around a topic, own the debate and be in control of the messages organisations want to deliver in any number of formats. From a B2B perspective, podcasts can bring industry reports to life through engaging panel debates and can add value to existing investment in events.”
Acast’s UK country manager, Joe Copeman, thinks podcasting can capture more attention because people are often distracted when watching television or or listening to the radio.
“The intimacy of the medium and unique personal relationship podcasters have with their audiences make it the perfect environment for brands to cut through,” he said. “Podcasts are an attention-commanding medium. Listeners are far less likely to be doing other things which require attention from their ears and brains whilst listening – meaning brand messages are far more likely to resonate.”
Of course, every marketing strategy needs to be customer-facing. Podcasting will not always be a good channel for every business or product.
According to those I interviewed, podcasts are best in industries in which people want to learn something new or when companies want to complement other media products. Podcasts are less likely to be useful in categories that are dominated by visual media such as fashion and travel.
But be careful. The quickest way to lose money is to constantly produce countless media without any strategic thought under the guise of so-called “content marketing.”
The best marcom tips for podcasts
“Why podcasts can work is because of their narrative style that can build deeper engagement with listeners,” Andrew Stephen, associate dean of research, L’Oréal professor of marketing and director of Oxford University’s Future of Marketing Initiative, said. “From an advertising perspective, it means that podcasts can deliver highly attentive and engaged audiences, which is uncommon in many other digital media channels nowadays.”
Kantar is a partner of the Oxford program and is joint-producing its Future Proof podcast series. While podcast listeners can be receptive to ads, Jane Ostler, the agency’s global head of media for its insights division, thinks marketers should still act with caution.
“Consumers are generally less receptive to ads in podcasts compared to traditional media channels, meaning that advertisers need to create a bespoke strategy to effectively use this channel,” she said. “Appropriate sponsorship, presenter-read ads and even embedded content - using podcasts like an influencer platform – can all add authenticity. In this way, podcast marketing can be more popular than other paid online advertising formats.”
“The alternative is that brands decide to produce their own podcast content or sponsor the production, which could be to enhance short-term campaign activity, or as a longer-term audience strategy. However, these podcasts will need their own promotional strategy and potentially be promoted using paid-for media.”
Others also endorsed host-read ads rather than traditional radio’s use of pre-recorded material.
“Listeners trust their podcast hosts highly, prefer host-read ads and look for creative, informative, humorous and integrated podcast experiences,” a study released last week by Futuri Media and the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications stated. “They want to listen to hosts who are authentic, feel like a friend, and share the users’ passions and beliefs.”
“It’s essential for marketers to understand creative and the podcasting environment,” Westwood One’s Grimes said. “We recommend having podcast talent try a product and talk to the founders of the brand so that they can speak to it honestly. Live ad reads are incredibly impactful, but they have to be done correctly. The brand solution should be the hero of the storyline.”
“When we listen to a host read that has been delivered from the host rather than the advertiser and one that comes from a personal experience from the podcaster, it tends to grab the listeners’ attention,” audioBoom’s Walters added. “They can relate to it more and therefore are more likely to show an intent to purchase.”
“Smart brands will use this kind of approach to really build brand affinity through podcasts,” Acast’s Copeman said. “Some of the most popular and effective live reads we hear are when the podcaster is given real freedom to put their own stamp on a message.”
Another common best practice is to publish podcast transcripts to help Google to crawl and index the material so the company will appear in organic search results for the topic.
Podcast marketing tactics and measurement
Some marketers do direct response over podcasts by including vanity URLs or promotional codes.
“The biggest challenge presented by podcasts for advertisers is making them actionable and measuring their impact on sales,” Havas Media’s Wrobel said. “Usually brands choose to offer listeners a discount code to use at checkout, but this user journey can feel rather clunky. With more and more ad spend moving to podcasts, publishers and networks are under pressure to offer better and more streamlined solutions to measure podcasts’ impact on brands’ bottom lines.”
However, others see a move towards long-term advertising and PR campaigns. For example, brands can run studies to understand podcasting’s effect on brand metrics such as awareness, consideration and purchase intent.
“We’re seeing advertising shift from direct-to-consumer and direct response spots to general brand awareness ads from national brands,” Nielsen’s Supovitz said.
Regardless of the marcom tactic, measurement is an issue. Podcasting platforms might provide basic data in terms of the number of downloads and the locations of listeners, but marketers often know little else.
“Measurement is still not perfect, particularly in understanding exactly who is listening to your particular podcasts,” Audere Communications’ Goldsmith said. “For example, listeners can subscribe to a brand’s podcast series on iTunes or any of the number of podcast apps for mobile, and as the podcast owner, you will have no idea who those listeners are.”
“Research can be carried out and anecdotal evidence can be gathered from comments on social media, for example, but this limited data may be a barrier for some brand owners to invest in podcasting.”
The work involved in creating a regular podcast led one prominent marketer – Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman – to stop producing his.
"I found that to do it well took more time and energy than I was willing to devote to it,” he said. “My only impression of podcasting is that I suspect it is very much like social media – a hundred podcasts with a million subscribers and a million podcasts with a hundred subscribers."
‘Music is the glue of the world. It’s what holds it all together’
At the end of Empire Records, an employee comes up with a creative idea to save the financially struggling store: raise money through a live party and concert. He also hijacks a local broadcast to publicise the event to the city – and the store survives.
Even today – almost 30 years after the film’s debut – a bit of creativity and audio programming can lead to big results. Just remember that if you ever find yourself betting $9,000 in company money on craps in an Atlantic City casino.
The Promotion Fix is an exclusive biweekly column for The Drum contributed by global keynote marketing speaker Samuel Scott, a former newspaper editor and director of marketing in the high-tech industry. Follow him on Twitter. Scott is based out of Tel Aviv, Israel.