Podcast Advertising Best Practices: A Q&A with Jim Ballas, CTO, PodcastOne

With the proliferation of digital audio, podcasts, and streaming radio, the way we listen to content is ever-changing. Although consumers still listen to traditional AM/FM radio, content such as podcasts, streaming music, and digital radio are growing rapidly – even more so in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In conjunction with growing podcast engagement, comes a growth in podcast ad spend, which is set to exceed 20% of digital radio ad spending this year, according to eMarketer. Now is the perfect time to consider adding podcast advertising to your media plans in order to reach these highly engaged audiences. But how can you get started, and what are some things you need to know in order to get the most out of these placements? We caught up with Jim Ballas, CTO of PodcastOne for more insight into this growing channel. 

Jim has been at PodcastOne for just over 7 years, joining just a few months after the company was first founded. He began running the Sales Operations team in 2013, and in the years since, has taken on more technical work, especially in regards to digitizing sales and sales operation functions. He has been in his current role of CTO since the beginning of 2018, and prides himself on finding and developing technology solutions to best serve the podcast industry with an eye on monetization. In this interview, we’ll take a deep dive into podcast advertising best practices and help you understand how to utilize it in order to grow your audience.

aX: Why should advertisers care about podcasts?

Jim: Podcast advertising is truly a medium like no other for connecting highly interested audience segments to a brand. Podcasts are very much a lean-in activity where a host can build a deeply engaged community. This community has been shown to interact more with sponsors and support those sponsors that support their favorite podcasters.

aX: How does podcast advertising differ from other programmatic audio channels? 

Jim: Podcasting offers unique opportunities not available in other audio channels. One of the largest differentiators is the host acting as a voice for the product themselves. Even through programmatic channels, we have the unique ability to have the podcast hosts engage with the product and record the advertisement which can then be purchased and served programmatically. With the close connection between host and audience, this messaging resonates with listeners unlike any other channel. 

Another unique differentiator in podcasting is the large share of voice when purchasing podcast ads. Throughout one hour long episode, you will generally see a significantly smaller ad load than you would on an hour in any other medium. This makes the advertising much more likely to be heard than skipped, and cuts down on listener fatigue with advertising.

aX: How are advertisers (and consumers) engaging with podcasts, and how has that changed over the past few months?

Jim: We’re in a very interesting time with much of the US working from home. A large downstream effect from consumers has been increased consumption and discovery of podcasts. To follow suit, advertisers that may have not purchased the medium before are increasingly looking at podcast buying as an important component to their media plans. Due to the technological advancements in podcast production, doing content remotely has been easily possible and has allowed new content to not only continue production, but increase, giving more opportunities for listeners and advertisers.

As podcasting has matured, advertisers have been looking to apply more digitally focused metrics to their ad spends, and podcasting has kept up. Podcast ad attribution gives advertisers the opportunity to see when users have listened to an ad on the podcast and then later visited their website, engaged with and/or completed the sales funnel, installed apps, and even growing in foot-traffic attribution for brick and mortar locations. This is showing the positive results of podcasting through direct results for advertisers across the board and showing significant financial growth as a result.

aX: Tell us about the targeting limitations that exist in podcasting, where content seems to be the heavier focus?

Jim: A large reliance on podcasting is the content focus through genres or most often, through shows themselves. Since one of the benefits as mentioned earlier is the host driving the message, it does often make sense to lean into that when targeting podcasts, which is traditionally how the medium has been sold. 

On top of that more strategic focus, one of the technological challenges with targeting in podcasting is that there isn’t a single source of listenership. Podcasts are distributed through RSS feeds and can be listened to on many platforms including Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music (which was just launched), a variety of podcatchers and of course host and network distribution sites, to name a few. A lot of these sources may have their own data on their users and of course with privacy concerns and the applicable laws, that data is not generally shared, which offers some targeting limitations when it comes to first party data.

With that said, as this has been a known limitation, podcasting has developed technology around this idea. When downloading or listening to a podcast, the platform sends an HTTP request, which will include IP Address and user agent. There are many companies that have developed technology (and are continuing to) that utilize these pieces of data to identify households and users across multiple devices, creating data maps for use within the podcast medium. This allows podcast companies to target based on age, demographic, location and many psychographic categories as well.

aX: How do podcast advertisers measure the success of their campaigns?

Jim: For some advertisers, direct response is measured very similarly to other mediums in that there will be a promo code, vanity URL or specific phone number to call. As podcasting is becoming more technologically advanced, digital attribution is becoming more popular. An advertiser will tag their ad and put a pixel on their website, which will enable them to track various elements. Depending on how deep the integration is, it can measure everything from site visits to how a listener interacts with the content and if they purchase or exit the sales funnel. On top of these methods of tracking, we also see many advertisers doing brand lift, foot traffic or attribution studies through many different research groups that can be conducted via survey or digital data.

aX: Does podcast advertising work for brand campaigns? Are there any types of campaigns it’s not such a good idea for? 

Jim: It does! We have done many brand-lift and favorability studies over the years with a variety of clients conducting brand campaigns, and the common thread has been that listeners are more likely to remember and have positive feelings towards a brand that they hear as a sponsor on a podcast. 

Insofar as a type of campaigns that podcasts are not good for, my recommendation would be less on a type of advertiser, and more on a type of response. Based on what we’ve seen long-term, advertising that has a call to action on a phone number seems to fall flat. With so much listening coming from mobile devices, most users aren’t going to stop listening to call or text a number, so if direct response is the chosen CTA, a website or promo code is a better bet.

aX: What are best practices for effective podcast ad campaigns?

Jim: There are a few things I think really drive home efficacy for podcast ads:

  1. Try to engage with the host directly. Even with programmatic audio, it’s not a difficult path to having a host voice a spot for insertion programmatically. This allows for a message to be delivered by the host to their audience and helps the message resonate
  2. If possible, don’t use the same ad that you’d use for radio. While podcasting is audio and there is of course some overlap in audience, the podcast listener tends to be younger, highly educated and digitally savvy. Targeting a message directly to this type of audience will be more effective for responses.

aX: Should podcast inventory be thought of as supplemental to larger programmatic audio initiatives, or should it be considered as a totally separate channel with distinct KPIs/benchmarks? 

Jim: I think it’s a separate channel with distinct KPIs and benchmarks. Podcasting is a very intentional listen and lean-in medium. From research and results, what follows is a high rate of attention paid to the ads. On a per ad basis, you can drive better results and generally will see that a podcast listener is worth more on a cost per acquisition basis than other audio initiatives.

aX: How do you view the evolution of podcasts from a download medium to a streaming one?

Jim: There are a few things that can be done or are being observed that increases podcasting even more into a streaming medium versus a download medium. For starters, with many mobile phone companies reintroducing and reprioritizing unlimited data plans, we’ve already seen an increase in mobile streaming versus downloading. As we’re also seeing people working from home at an increased pace, people are streaming via WIFI in larger quantities as well.

As far as future advancements are concerned, there are podcasts that are beginning to offer live events, either through video or audio, that can be accessed live only and released through usual channels at a later date. This is creating appointment viewing or listening, and can help drive to a stream audience as well.

aX: What do you foresee as the next advancements in podcast capabilities in the future?

Jim: I believe an increased focus on targetability will be the next advancement. We already have some robust targeting capabilities, but I think shortly on the horizon will be an increase in contextual targeting. Our ad serving partner has developed this technology to allow advertisers greater control on the type of programming they can release in, or target away from, depending on the campaign goals. Using advanced speech to text capabilities, we are able to transcribe and categorize episodes to target advertisers into programming that makes sense or away from topics they may not want to hear. This will give advertisers greater control over where their message is delivered and should lead to even better results.