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When it comes to advertising, podcasting isn't special

· By , from his I Hear Things newsletter · 2.5 minutes to read

Here’s a fuzzy memory.

In the late 90’s I was in Portland, Oregon, doing music testing for a Smooth Jazz station. KKJZ, I think (the call letters belong to a non-commercial station in SoCal now.) It also might have been a Smooth Jazz station in Kansas City. The Smooth Sounds made that whole period of my life blend together. Anyway, I recall listening to the station in my rental car on the way, being appropriately smoothed and relaxed, when I was suddenly jolted from catatonia by this:

YOU NEED A CAR!!!

MISTUBEEEESHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE

YOU NEED A CAR!!!

YOU NEED A DAMN CAR!!!

YOU WILL DIE FRIENDLESS!!! or something like that.

We’ve all heard them. Screaming car commercials. I shrugged it off, but the Smooth Jazz consultant I was working with was peeved. When we got to the station, he read them the riot act, and I will never forget this: We work very hard to make 48 minutes an hour the best it can be, but the other 12 minutes can ruin the whole thing. Why wouldn’t you give those 12 minutes the same care as the other 48?

I’ve never forgotten this lesson. In radio, as in podcasting, sales and content are separate. One side produces the program; the other sells it. They have very little to do with each other, and in podcasting are frequently not even part of the same company—the two functions are well and truly siloed.

But they aren’t siloed to the listener. It’s all one product as far as they are concerned. A friend of mine sent me a link to a podcast that brought me right back to that meeting in Portland or KC or somewhere in smoothlandia. In the middle of the content, there was an absolutely screaming insurance commercial that was easily 50% louder than the podcast. And I am hearing these more and more, inserted without care. I am here to tell you, my friends, that anything can be ruined with advertising, and podcasts are by no means exempt.

Programmatic advertising doesn’t concern me. Podcasting will get better at this as the years go on. Dynamically inserted ads don’t have to be terrible—not having them host read, even if they aren’t “live,” is just a failure of the imagination. But terrible ads do concern me. Here’s the thing—we’ve ground through well over a hundred brand lift studies in podcasting over the past couple of years, and I can tell you this: crappy ads don’t work. They just don’t. We can tell ourselves that podcasting is a special environment and it reaches receptive audiences and blah blah blah, but those receptive audiences are listening to podcasts and watching Netflix precisely to avoid these kinds of ads. The Share of Ear® for AM/FM radio has gone down by nearly 20% in five years—this is not an accident.

I know this is just a rant. The jokes will return, I promise. But believe me when I tell you this: podcasting is not special. The content can be. The medium is not. What is special, at least for now, is the audience.

I’ve talked to over a hundred thousand of them over the last few years in various projects, and I can assure you: loud, crappy pre-produced spots don’t work. Here’s what happens when you put a bad ad in a great podcast: you get a less-than-great podcast. And you still have a bad ad.

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The above is adapted with permission from Tom Webster’s newsletter, I Hear Things. Subscribe here, and get the whole thing, free, every week.

Tom Webster is Senior Vice President at Edison Research, and is co-author of a number of widely cited studies including The Infinite Dial, The Podcast Consumer and The Podcast Consumer Tracker. He lives in Boston MA, USA.

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