Ad-Supported Podcasting: Good Start, But There’s More

Advertisers seeking to connect with increasingly hard-to-reach consumers have a promising new medium. Podcasting is spawning an ad platform that borrows a traditional approach: place ads, tastefully, throughout the program to get your message in front of consumers. Podcast sponsorships are another obvious extension of this traditional practice. Fish where the fish are, or, in this case, talk where the ears are.

Volvo has a solid start in this area with its Autoblog sponsorship. By embedding its message in auto enthusiast content, Volvo naturally benefits.

But wait, there’s more.

This is, after all, 2005. Consumer control is the rage, and nowhere is this having a larger effect than with media and the manner in which they’re consumed. The question arises, then: if a podcast sponsorship and similar embedded advertising is good, what’s better?

Sponsoring a blog can be a great way to get a message close to the right person. But close, as they say, only counts in horseshoes. Contemporary advertising isn’t horseshoes. Consumers have turned to podcasts at least in part because they want more control over their media, the messages they listen to, and the content itself. But they’ve also chosen podcasts to get away from interruption-laden content, the workhorse of traditional media.

In search of better, consumers reasonably ask, “Why would I choose to listen to a podcast if the clutter factor is essentially the same as radio?” Put otherwise, “Wouldn’t I rather hear directly from the brand, provided the brand manages the ‘trust factor’ issue, when learning about new products?

Before you say “No way!” consider what RSS (define) really does for consumers. With equal ease, they can subscribe to reviewer content, actual user content, and brand content. It’s all just information, and it’s all potentially useful. If a brand teaches them something about the category, that’s useful. If a brand shamelessly self-promotes or attempts to deceive, that’s useful, too, though with a negative result. Hearing from a brand directly is viable.

So I thought I’d test it.

I asked a dozen or so people (it beats “n=1,” but admittedly falls short of a robust study): “Would you be interested in hearing a podcast created directly by a brand?” and “Do you think that would be a good way to learn about the brand and the category?” Results varied from “Sure!” to “Yes, provided the content is truly useful” to those stares reminiscent of a dog watching a card trick. “Why would I ever want to hear a brand self-promote?” said one respondent.

The insight is the notion of “truly useful” content: the idea a manufacturer would help me understand how to get the best value for my specific needs within a particular category by educating me about the category, not just its brand. Reenter Volvo. It’s just released a super advergame. Players learn to drive safely, then test their skills in a simulated world filled with typical driving hazards. It directly involves Volvo, it’s fun, it’s on-brand, and it’s truly useful for all drivers, regardless of what they actually drive. Kudos to Volvo. A promising indicator for my theory, too.

Based on my informal survey, people are interested in hearing directly from the brands.

What’s next? Podcasting, like blogging, is often informal. Part of its attraction is its relatively unproduced nature. We’re talking about a generation of consumers who have largely replaced reading with scanning and are likely to do the same with audio. I predict the next iPod will be equipped with a 15-second fast-forward function, specifically to make “audio scanning” possible. If Apple doesn’t do it, some enterprising startup will, aiming at people using their PCs rather than MP3 players to listen to podcasts.

Is the podcast rambling a bit? Skip forward. Already get it? Skip forward. Message from our sponsor? Skip forward. It really is like TiVo all over again. Like all forms of interruptive advertising, ad-laden and sponsor-driven podcasts have a bounty on their heads. It’s the unstoppable march from good to better to best.

What should marketers do?

Recognize a podcast sponsorship works for the moment. Use it. It’s a valid form of advertising. But it won’t work forever. On the Internet, it’ll burn out fast. Dig into podcasting and similar RSS-based communications platforms. Make them part of your marketing tool kit. Learn how to make them work directly. With what you know about your category, you can make consumers, craving information and often starved for online oxygen, smarter about what you offer.

An amazing thing happens when smarter consumers buy more wisely: they become evangelists for the products they’ve chosen. This gives your marketing efforts a nice boost through social media channels while positioning your brand as the “reference standard” within your category.

That will get you listened to.

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