How to Sponsor a Podcast, and Not Suck

Podcasts are exploding in audience popularity and advertising revenue. But the channel still suffers from advertisers who want to treat it like radio and don’t know how to earn engagement on the platform. Here’s what the experts gathered at Podcast Movement this week see advertisers doing wrong and right when sponsoring podcasts.

I’ve been at Podcast Movement in Philadelphia (Target Marketing’s home town) this week, and it’s amazing to see how many podcasters are going at this medium with all their creativity and ingenuity. Because of them, podcasting is an exploding media channel.

Not only is the audience growing, and audience engagement growing, advertising in the channel is growing, too. According to IAB, podcast revenue grew 117% from 2016 to 2017, and continue to rise. Bryan Moffet, COO of National Public Media, the subsidiary of NPR that handles podcasting and similar media, said NPR’s podcast revenue has doubled every year for the past five years.

And it’s evolving. The entire channel has come a very long way since “Mail K’imp” rode the Serial express to national notoriety.

The opportunity is ripe, the audience is there. The only piece that still needs to fall into place is the advertisers … who still mostly suck at sponsoring podcasts.

Sponsoring a Podcast Is Not Like Radio

Podcasting can look a lot like radio. After all, they’re both audio channels. But the similarities really end there. Radio is local and broadcast, everyone hears it. Podcasts are national (or even international) in reach, but their audiences are targeted and opt-in. In fact, according to the IAB report, most podcast advertising is direct response, not brand-building like broadcast.

Most importantly, where radio is mass media, podcasting is very personal and intimate for the listeners.

“Podcasting is the best way to scale intimacy,” said Pat Flynn, the talent behind the massive Smart Passive Income podcast, during the opening keynote. And he’s right. We’ve talked about mobile as this super intimate channel in the past, and people hold that in their hands. They actually put podcasts physically into their ears. Audiences bond with the personalities behind the podcast and feel like they know them personally. It may be the most intimate mass media channel.

This is even true of business podcasts like those being created by The Harvard Business Review. In a session about how they’ve grown their podcasts, HBR podcasters Sarah Green Carmichael (executive editor, former host of HBR Ideacast and current host of Women at Work), Allison Beard (senior editor and host of Dear HBR) and Nicole Torres (associate editor and co-host of Women at Work) talked about how their relationship with the podcast audience differs from the magazine experience. According to them, readers seldom write to the magazines today, but listeners write into the podcasts all the time. In fact, Beard’s Dear HBR podcast was created specifically to answer their questions.

This is great for building audience engagement. But when you interrupt that intimate listener experience with commercial-style advertising and brash jingles, it often doesn’t work.

What Works in Podcast Ads?

Te consensus among speakers at Podcast Movement is that to effectively sponsor a podcast, you need ad ad approach that integrates with the show.

Although the Mailchimp ad in Serial may not be the best way to do it today, it’s a good example of what happens when you’re doing it right. That ad became a part of the show. Fans looked forward to hearing it, they wanted to know who these people were saying the name, and it became a phenomena in its own right.The ad got the audience engaged. That’s what podcast ads must do.

One of the best ways to do that is to involve the host directly in the sponsorship. “You can create great content between a host and a brand if you bring them together and create something really digital,” said Keli Hurley, VP of digital partnerships at Westwood One.

This usually involves the host reading a short spot from the sponsor, or perhaps endorsing the Product. They may even do an interview to support the sponsorship that can b used over multiple episodes.

Moffet said NPM does  2 to 3 minute audio interviews with sponsors and cuts short clips of them into postroll and midroll ads during the podcast episodes. He gave the example of Audi, where instead of just reading a sponsor message, they would have the car designer talk about the design. That designer’s passion and authenticity comes through in those spots and improves sponsorship performance. 

If the host cannot participate in that way, Moffet suggests that podcasts should have a regular with a great announcer voice read the ads. NPM’s ad readers become a well-known personalities in their own right. If he delivery is good, audiences will come to like them. Sort of like the mailchimp effect. 

If you want to do something more staged, like a classic commercial, you still need to adapt it to the medium. Tyler Moody, VP and GM of the Turner Podcast Network, saw one ad that truly told a story. It played out over three commercials throughout the production, and those commercials had the same actors; had a beginning, middle and end.

“Brands want to tell stories, they want to connect with audiences. And that is what brings them to podcasting,” said Moffet. And podcast sponsorships, done right, are a great way to build that engagement.

How to Future-Proof Your Marketing

I went to quite a few conferences this year and listened to a lot of speakers talk about the future. But one of the most interesting sessions I caught was how HubSpot was actually working to “future-proof” its marketing.

I went to quite a few conferences this year and listened to a lot of speakers talk about the future. But one of the most interesting sessions I caught was how HubSpot is actually working to “future-proof” its marketing.

So what does “future-proofing” your marketing even mean?

In the session “Adventures in Emerging Channels: What we learned from a year with Medium, Podcasting, and Live Streaming” at Inbound 2017, Meghan Keaney Anderson, HubSpot’s VP of marketing, explained that HubSpot dedicated resources to looking a what changes in the environment could derail its very successful marketing engine. (These notes and slides come from that presentation.)

HubSpot started with a hypothetical article headline “What happened to HubSpot: The decline of a marketing giant.” They looked at what would likely be the key reasons for that fall, and when they came up with those “highlights,” they began working on plans to proof against them.

What if Search and Email Went Away?

Turns out there are some pretty obvious vulnerabilities in HubSpot’s marketing stemming from the company’s highly optimized, and non-diverse, lead nurturing cycle.

According to Anderson, HubSpot gets 90 percent of its web traffic from search. They convince a large portion of those visitors to sign up for some kind of email communication, and then they “send them things” via email.

That search-to-email relationship is primarily how Hubspot nurtures leads into customers, and that whole cycle has become key to HubSpot’s success. So what happens if search were to change dramatically? Or people were to move away from email as a communications channel?

The thing is, neither of those futures was very far-fetched. Google and other companies are sending all kinds of signals that they see search moving away from text and toward voice and image interfaces. In that future, search will still be important, but who knows how much traffic you could count on from it?

Similarly, email has been showing signs of weakness for some time. Anderson said HubSpot has been seeing email rates decline, and usage messaging apps rising. In that future, people would still probably receive email, but they wouldn’t pay as much attention to the channel. So how would HubSpot communicate with them and nurture those relationships without that channel?

These scenarios are not remote possibilities. It’s actually fairly likely one or both of those scenarios will be the reality within a few years.

The Horizons of Innovation

HubSpot has a philosophy — and the resources — to dedicate personnel to these problems. And they do that by focusing on the “Three Horizons of Innovation.”

HubSpot's 3 Horizons of Innovation

The idea is to pinpoint and prepare for the inflection points where the current state of your industry is going to be replaced by the next state, and when that will be replaced by yet another state:

  • 1st horizon: What’s happening now/next. Gets the biggest team.
  • 2nd horizon: What’s coming after that: Gets a smaller team.
  • 3rd horizon: What’s coming after the second horizon sunsets: Gets to smallest team.
  • The second horizon should be rising as the first is falling. Be ready for those inversion points.