Do Podcast Ads All Have to Sound So Much Alike?

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There are currently 1.5 million podcasts and counting. That’s a whole lot of podcasts. And they come in all shapes and sizes.

So why is it that there are 1.5 million podcasts, but only two basic types of podcast ads: the host-read ad and the announcer-read ad?

With so many podcasters striving to put their own distinctive mark on their show, you’d think some of that creativity would brush off on the ads that support their efforts. So far it hasn’t.

Is this the way it has to be for podcasts? Or is it just the way it’s always been?

The reason podcast ads sound the way they do has a lot to do with how direct response ads work. As podcasting was finding its feet, there wasn’t much in the way of data to help the advertiser determine whether their campaign was working, or who was listening. This made advertising KPIs difficult to track, so it makes sense that the first wave of podcast advertisers were direct-to-consumer brands using direct-response codes. These codes tracked the effectiveness of their ads at driving traffic to their website or generating sales. And lo and behold, podcast advertising worked. Direct-to-consumer advertisers kept coming back for more and podcasting had the revenue it needed to fuel its growth. Awesome.

Ideally, this kind of ad is read by the show host. Listeners like host-read ads. It taps into the tight bond that connects listeners to their favourite podcast host. Most podcast listeners say they especially like it when hosts inject some playful creativity into the ads (61% in our most recent Canadian Podcast Listener study).

There are of course times when the host-read ad isn’t the right fit. If a journalist reads ads on their podcast, it undercuts their objectivity. Or maybe it doesn’t suit the brand of the host: can you imagine Oprah or Michelle Obama reading a “Me Undies” ad? Me either.  

When the host can’t read the ads, that task, along with all the copy points and instructions, typically fall to the show producer or a staff announcer. Announcer-read ads can still be effective—podcast ads happen to be a great way to reach an engaged audience. They just don’t have quite the impact of host-read ads. We recently had the chance to see how that plays out in a definitive brand lift study we conducted in partnership with Midroll Media and Stitcher.

As effective as the direct response host-read or announcer-read ad can be at driving web traffic, they can also be very limiting. They require a predefined structure—a range of features and benefits while repeating an easy-to-remember vanity URL to get the listener to go to the website and/or buy the product.

Watching more and more brands come into podcasts, I couldn’t help wondering whether this one-size-fits-all approach works for all advertisers.

So I reached out to someone whose background as a creative force, a marketing expert, and now a podcast host and entrepreneur gives him a unique and informed perspective. Terry O’Reilly ran a very successful ad agency in Toronto specializing in creative for audio called Pirate Radio. He hosts a national radio show on CBC Radio called Under the Influence, telling stories about some of the most successful marketing campaigns of all time. (Under the Influence also happens to be a perennial Top 10 podcast in The Canadian Podcast Listener.) And most recently, Terry co-founded The Apostrophe Podcast Company, building a network of podcasts out of their Airstream trailer/studio.

Terry is disappointed at the lack of variety and imagination in podcast ads: “I’ve always subscribed to the belief that great marketing is built around a single idea. The creative briefs I’m getting can run three pages. There’s a long list of copy points, a prescribed number of times the brand name must be given, and a minimum of three times that the URL has to be read. That sucks up 70 to 80 seconds of a 90-second ad, leaving no room for creativity.”

Scalability is another issue.  Even when the advertiser is able to get the host to read the ad, the agency or advertiser has to put a lot of pieces together to run an effective campaign across multiple podcasts.  Sending the copy out to several publishers and the inevitable back-and-forth of approvals between stakeholders all makes for much heavier lifting than simply inserting a single ad across all the podcasts you want in your campaign. In a time when advertising budgets are squeezed to every last drop and program, this puts up a barrier for brands and their agencies to even bother advertising on podcasts.

This feels like the right time to break the mold. Direct response codes are no longer needed to establish the ROI of an ad campaign. As more big brands come into podcasting, survey-based brand lift surveys and attribution tracking provide a better measure of the top-to-bottom effectiveness of the campaign. Instead of building ads that spit out vanity URLs to drive web traffic, agencies and advertisers are free to flex their creative muscles and craft ads that boost brand awareness, build brand affinity and shape brand perceptions.

This doesn’t mean a retreat to the kind of ads you hear on radio. Podcasts deliver a fundamentally different listening experience than radio. Podcast listening is lean in vs. lean back. You don’t have to reach the back of the room  to get the listener’s attention.  No need to yell. They’re right there with you.

Rather, brands can tap into the authenticity and storytelling magic that help to make podcasts so popular. Whether it’s an ad or a branded podcast, there’s no reason that brands can’t paint the same kind of pictures and apply the same inventive use of audio you hear on so many of the best podcasts. The goal is to build ads that are are as inviting and engaging as the podcast itself. Without having to fit your brand message into a 30 and 60 second straightjacket like you do on radio or TV, you can go wherever your imagination takes you. 

Ads that are more portable than host-read ads also clear the path to a programmatic advertising model that make sense for podcasting, efficiently connecting your message to the right audience and the right podcasts.  

Podcasters, brands and their agencies who break free from the direct response approach to ad creative have a chance to re-write the rules of podcast advertising. There is still very much a place for host-read ads, but well-crafted audio that tells brand stories could take podcasting to an even bigger place. Or, taking that one step further, Terry O’Reilly feels “it’s the only way the industry will really grow.”

What do you think? Does expanding beyond the traditional host-read / announcer-read ad structure feel like an opportunity, or does it threaten all that makes podcasting what it is today? Know any examples of podcasting ad creative that successfully breaks the mold? Any possibilities come to mind? Drop me a line here, or connect at signalhillinsights.com and we’ll continue the conversation.