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Interview: Matt Lieber, Gimlet Media

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Matt Lieber is the President of Gimlet Media, a podcast network he co-founded with Alex Blumberg (of This American Life, Planet Money fame) that has gathered significant buzz and investors. In this interview we speak about native advertising, the strengths and weaknesses of a podcast network, and the technology that will most impact podcasting’s future.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been sitting down with some of the biggest players in the podcasting industry and asking them all the same fundamental questions: what are the barriers to podcasting’s growth? Where is podcasting going? Who’s doing the most innovative work right now? The answers have varied — but the responses to that last question have almost invariably included one name: Gimlet Media.

The network behind StartUp and ReplyAll is intriguing to podcasters not just for its quality content but for its decision to dive headlong into the world of native advertising. Unlike pre-recorded ads (I’ll be writing more on the potential of these types of ads soon), native ads are developed by hosts in a way that feels “organic” — an interview with a representative from the sponsor, say, or a user testimonial. So far, the decision has paid off.  

“Media companies are looking to mobile and saying, yes, it’s a good opportunity, but we don’t know how to make money there. We’re making money there.” Matt Lieber, Gimlet’s President, told me. The reason, according to Lieber, lies in the quality of the podcast ads they produce.

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Matt Lieber, President and confounder of Gimlet Media

“I’m biased, but I think we have the best mobile ad unit in existence. 75% of our listening is mobile. It’s not scrunched into a screen. It’s not pop-up. […] the ad unit in podcasting is fundamentally a better ad unit than display ads. It’s baked into the show, it’s read by the host, and when you do a good job listeners want to hear them. I could open up the twitter feed now and read you the people who say ‘I love your ads.’”

The quality of the ads has attracted attention from advertisers and allowed Gimlet to initiate direct relationships with brands, including Ford and Microsoft, rather than go through an outside ad service. So far, advertisers have been happy to take part in the Gimlet experiment. However, Lieber is conscious that in future advertisers will require better metrics — when people listen, for how long, how they respond to ads, etc — if they are to allocate significant chunks of their advertising budgets to podcasting.  Another factor to consider is of course dashboard technology; once audio seamlessly enters cars, where most of radio listening currently occurs, mainstream advertisers are likely to follow. In both of these scenarios, however, Lieber sees the need for a reliable third party that can audit data and set an industry standard, much like the Nielsen ratings do for TV.

However, Lieber and the Gimlet team don’t want to be entirely reliant on advertising for their revenue. The company is open to exploring other potential sources of revenue, including live events, and earlier this summer announced a new membership model that will allow Gimlet listeners to contribute directly to the shows they love.

What’s also interesting about Gimlet, beyond its business model, is its ambition to stand for something aesthetically as a network. As Lieber explained: “Nobody says I’m gonna go and watch an HBO show, they say I’m gonna watch “Girls” or “The Sopranos.” The relationship is with the show, but the umbrella network says something about the quality of the show. It says: if I hear of a new show, I’m gonna give it a watch.” As Lieber and Blumberg have said before, they want Gimlet to be the HBO of podcasting – if you listen to and like “Mystery Show” chances are you’ll give the upcoming “Awesome Boring” a listen too.

While there’s no question a network can help a small podcast grow an audience and offer much-needed advertising, funding, engineering help, marketing, I do wonder to what extent a network serves an established content creator. One of the chief advantages of the network model is the inherent discoverability that comes from branding and cross-promotion, but once a show is “discovered” and gains significant audiences, what does a network have to offer? It’s a question that keeps Lieber up at night. He hopes that by “super-serving” the creators with editorial support and a sense of community they will be incentivized to remain within the network for the long-term.

So far, the strategy of focusing on quality has worked — both in attracting advertisers and talent. The hope is, as Lieber puts it, that “If you’re doing high quality, scale will come.”

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