New Thinking

Podcast advertising sticks to no script

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Blue Apron may be the presenting sponsor of the Crooked Media podcast Pod Save America, but it’s also the butt of the jokes. Although the fresh-ingredient meal service provides the show with polished ad copy, hosts Jon Favreau and Jon Lovett rarely stick to the script. Here’s what was on the menu this spring, according to the podcast:

“Salmon burritos, Louisiana-inspired pot roast, kale caesar with olives and cantaloupe.”

“On Friday, one of the meals is just a tub of cottage cheese.”

“It’s a meatball sub, and then they give you a bag of Lay’s potato chips, and you crumble up the chips and sprinkle it on top of the sandwich.”

“Delicious pork carnitas, but it arrives farm-fresh, as in a living pig.”

“Banana cream pie fired out of a realistic Medieval trebuchet.”

When companies place promotional copy in the hands of podcasters, they run the risk of having their advertisements undermined by hosts who seek to distance themselves from promotional responsibilities, or who take vast creative liberty with their copy. It’s tough to tell if the Pod Save America crew really believe Blue Apron is, as its tagline promises, “a better way to cook.” Despite the ribbing—and a declining market share—the company has positioned itself as the nation’s leading meal-kit service. But can a podcast host’s freestyle delivery actually harm a sponsor?

The short answer: probably not. And the longer answer: it may even help.

“I think what’s most important to remember is that the people that are listening to that show have opted-in to listen,” says Korri Kolesa, Head of Sales at Midroll Media, which manages sponsorships for over 300 podcasts. “They kind of know what they’re getting into. So to have those hosts deliver ads in a voice and style that’s authentic to them? It resonates. It works.” Midroll leverages the personalities of the hosts in its podcast catalogue—which includes high-profile titles like WTF with Marc Maron, Women of the Hour with Lena Dunham, and Dan Savage’s Savage Love—with ad copy crafted for the hosts themselves, and sometimes by the hosts themselves. (Favreau, a former Obama speechwriter, once remarked to the New York Times that the celebrity endorsement can be a peculiar beast, citing a scrapped sketch for the White House Correspondents dinner in which Obama was to read promotional copy for Stamps.com.)

Kolesa says that the intimate relationship between a podcast host and his or her listeners is one that serves a show’s advertisers well—and that’s especially true when hosts are allowed to personalize their ad copy. “You’re obviously getting, first and foremost, an implied endorsement,” Kolesa says. “In most instances, it’s [a host] saying that they personally are… approving of or recommending whatever product or service or opportunity it is they’re talking about. That carries a lot of weight—that’s kind of above and beyond just a normal ad read.”

With more people downloading podcasts, those personal endorsements can mean big opportunities for new and established brands. A report released by the Interactive Advertising Bureau in June forecasted that 2017 would bring in $220 million in podcast revenue, improving on 2016 figures by some 85%. Between Q1 2015 and Q4 2016, ad revenues grew by 228%.

There’s also a built-in boon for potential advertisers: the “lean-forward” nature of consuming the medium. Each and every podcast listener “has actively selected, subscribed, and downloaded the program,” writes Anna Bager, the IAB’s Senior Vice President and General Manager, Mobile and Video, in an email to thinkLeaders. “Listeners listen closely to their favorite podcasts, and the ads are part of that experience,” she adds. The IAB’s most recent Podcast Playbook, an introduction and guide to the medium for marketers, cites a study in which 68% of podcast listeners claimed to have “taken action” as a result of an ad, such as making an online purchase, talking to a friend about an ad, or visiting a sponsor’s website. The organization also recently hosted its third annual Podcast Upfronts to a sold-out audience. “Interest in podcasts among advertisers is strong,” Bager writes.

The “lean-forward” quality inherent to podcast listening offers other benefits to advertisers. As a recent story in New York Magazine notes wryly, consuming podcasts requires energy and attention—so listeners are likely to expend energy and attention on ads, too. And as Kolesa notes, whereas one might hear 12-15 minutes of advertising out of every hour on the radio, podcast listeners are more likely to come across only three to four minutes of ads. “It’s a really limited ad load, so the attention for the very few ads you have is higher, the engagement’s higher,” Kolesa says. On top of that, she adds, podcasting can provide a new brand the breathing room to tell its story to listeners, depending on the placement of the ad within an episode (pre-roll ads, at the beginning of a podcast, may be longer than mid-roll ones, for instance). “We have found it’s a good place for early-stage businesses as well to be able to really convey their message and explain to someone what their new product or service is,” she notes.

Not everyone peddling their product or service on a podcast feels ready to cede control of their message, Kolesa says: “We’ve had plenty of advertisers that aren’t comfortable with the freeform nature—they really want it, to the letter, scripted—and some hosts will do that.” Apart from Midroll, Bager notes that many publishers will continue to work with both types of ad content to provide options for their advertisers. Increasingly, technology allows for the dynamic insertion of ads within a podcast, meaning that even an episode from a show’s archives will feature, say, a valid discount code for a new mattress or a pair or prescription eyeglasses. But as Bager explains, dynamic ads can just as easily be read by a host as they can come pre-recorded from a brand.

The IAB has not yet performed research on the particular effectiveness of host-read ads. Kolesa, however, holds fast to the notion that this style of advertising has a particular magic touch for podcast sponsors. And if a sponsor is willing to limit their talking points to a bulleted list and let a host do the rest of the work, then all the better. “I will say that those brands that see the most success allow the show’s host to really stick with their voice,” Kolesa says.

And what about those Pod Save America guys, fooling around with Blue Apron scripts week after week? When the hosts began to read the copy as-written this summer, fans of the show took to Reddit to decry the end of the “freestyle Blue Apron ads,” proving that if nothing else, brand recall was high. “If it’s a funny show, if that fits the tone of the host, it just works,” Kolesa says. “And I think it proves out that it works better.”

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