The Power of Podcasts

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Podcasts have evolved into a compelling storytelling medium, but how commercially attractive are they?  

This article has been adapted by Richie Kenzie, and first appeared in the UK. 

Podcasting, a bit like Netflix and Game of Thrones, has grown from something that an enthusiastic friend kept telling you about into a global phenomenon. 

As of June 2019, there were more than 750,000 podcasts in existence, with over 550,000 hosted on iTunes alone. And since 2014, thanks to hit shows like Serial and The Teacher’s Pet locally, podcasting has been propelled to the front rank of communication channels. 

But podcasts weren’t always such high-profile affairs and for the best part of a decade, the format was largely obscure. The first examples started as RSS feeds released by hobbyists in 2003, while in 2004 the term ‘podcasting’ was coined by Guardian journalist Ben Hammersley.   

According to Corey Layton, commercial product and audio partnerships director at the Australian Radio Network, you need to leap back five years when the confluence of two events really brought podcasting to the fore.   

“The moment Apple baked the podcast app into the iPhone, and thus brought it to the masses, coincided closely with the launch of Serial in 2014. The combination of easier access to podcasts with a much-talked-about viral hit generated a surge of interest in the format,” Layton explains.   

“Prior to 2014, it was usually two guys in their bedrooms talking about Dungeons and Dragons or conspiracy theories. Before Serial arrived, production values and talent were much lower across the board,” he adds.  

Fast forward to today, and the universe of podcasting is vast – spanning almost every imaginable genre from news, entertainment and sports to knitting, toilet etiquette and gnomes.  

Correlating with the developments Layton cites, the number of global podcast listeners grew by more than 200% from 2013 to 2017, reaching a total of 78 million by the end of 2017.  

Today, some of the most popular podcasts rake in comparable audiences to major TV productions. In Australia, for instance, the most popular ad-supported program of 2018, Married at First Sight, drew 2.4 million viewers for its finale. When the team behind Serial launched its latest podcast S-Town in 2017, it cracked ten million downloads in just four days and 40 million within months. 

So, it is clear to see that the ease of accessing audio on demand has been a key factor in the growth of podcasting as a format.  

But as is the case for any winning creative endeavour, according to Eardrum founder Ralph Van Dijk: “The essence of a successful podcast is a compelling, relatable story told in an authentic way. And if the subject is particularly relevant to you or taps into the zeitgeist, it’s going to be even more engaging.” 

There’s something unique about the power of speech too, Van Dijk says.   

“We always strive to make the listener the co-author, that way you get their fullest attention. With descriptive words and sound effects, the listener forms their own pictures and so the level of engagement is much higher compared to passively watching something. 

“When I listened to S-Town, I had such a vivid image of the characters and locations I never wanted to see what John B. McLemore actually looked like. It’s pure escapism, you plug in your headphones and your eyes and hands are free to do other things. For the first time, everyone in the house is volunteering to walk the dog or do the dishes.” 

With the growth of podcasting, it’s little surprise that advertisers have spotted the trend and moved to capitalise; the advertising revenue of podcasts as a format has grown tenfold in just four years, according to PwC’s Global Entertainment and Media Outlook 2018-2022 report. 

Elsewhere, new data released in June by the IAB in the USA was particularly encouraging for the medium. A PwC survey that measured 22 major companies across the US podcast advertising industry revealed a 53% year-on-year revenue increase from the financial year 2017 to 2018.   

While there are many factors driving this growth, perhaps the biggest appeal of podcasting for brands and advertisers is the directness of the format. Audiocraft founder and director Kate Montague explains: “With podcasting, because of its many niches, you can look for very specific audiences to target. And you can cut deep.” 

But subtle approaches are working too, Montague adds. Sometimes simply aligning a brand behind a high-quality product is an excellent strategy in itself. 

“For instance, back in 2015 in the US General Electric co-produced a series called The Message. Conceived by some of Brooklyn’s best creative minds, it was a weird audio drama set in a dystopian future.  

‘’But it became very popular and suddenly everyone was asking who created it. It was a very light touch in a branding sense, and it required a lot of bravery from GE, but it generated huge press.    

“I’d love to see more adventurous ideas like this take off in the local market. It’s a real opportunity to highlight the strength of the medium.”  

This softer approach to advertising, Montague says, is especially important to consider when dealing with podcasts. 

“Generally speaking, you need to be more restrained and artful to resonate. You can’t be too commercial, it’s different to the radio.    

“And it has required a steady process of education in the market – media buyers have become used to a radio approach, but podcasts are a very different animal. We’re getting there now though; the message seems to have sunk in more this year.” 

Of course, developing a reliable advertising market in any medium relies on the ability to accurately measure the success of a campaign, and while reliable metrics for podcast advertising may have lagged behind more established mediums like TV and radio in the past, they have rapidly caught up.   

In December 2017, the Interactive Advertising Bureau (a US-based sister organisation to the IAB) launched its Podcast Measurement Technical Guidelines, establishing a shared set of standardised metrics for the podcasting industry which measures a podcast’s number of downloads, listeners and ad deliveries. This was followed by a certification system for podcast publishers to show that they are adhering to these guidelines. 

NPR, one of the industry’s largest podcast producers, has also been working on this issue, creating the Remote Audio Data (RAD) system to provide publishers and advertisers with a more in-depth overview of listener activity by identifying exactly how far into a podcast they get. 

Audience measurement is certainly important, Van Dijk says, but he cautions against becoming obsessed by it. 

“I think the ultimate measurement is, ‘is the ad working and are you getting a response’. If you see the promotional codes being used on your website, for instance, then things are working,” he says. 

“‘You shouldn’t always expect instant results though. It’s not uncommon for the effects to kick in several months after a podcast has launched.” 

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