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Interview with Caitlin Thompson, Acast

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Caitlin Thompson is the Director of Content for Acast, a Swedish company that offers end-to-end podcasting services — providing everything from a hosting platform and content managing system, to an embeddable player that integrates rich media and links, to dynamic ad-insertion technology, to a sharing and discovery app for consumers. In this interview, Thompson talks about the importance of embeddable players for media outlets, the need to reach new, diverse podcasting audiences, and the potential of branded content.

When I sat down with Caitlin Thompson, the podcasting veteran now lending her editorial expertise to Acast, I asked her one of the questions I myself have been mulling over a lot lately (particularly since my conversation with Sarah van Mosel of WNYC): “Some people compare podcasts to movies and say — well, if movies don’t have detailed metrics, podcasts don’t need to be so quantified either.”

Thompson considered the position and responded quickly. “If Netflix hadn’t proven that you can break down taste into algorithms, those people would be right.”

Just as Netflix has transformed the consumption of movies, so too does Acast hope to transform the ways we consume, share, and discover podcasts. The company, which is already established in Sweden and the UK, is entering the US market, hoping that its technology is perfectly positioned to fill two gaping holes in podcasting today: metrics and dynamic ads.

On the metrics side, Acast’s strength is its deep understanding of streaming technology — no surprise, considering most of the people who built the platform (a bevvy of “extremely attractive Swedes” apparently) came from Spotify. Acast’s technology can not only give detailed information about listener location, time of listen, length of listen etc., but it can also track listening across devices and thus integrate all metrics to provide a more accurate picture of total listening.

On the ad side, Acast dynamically injects advertising at the point of play, ensuring that a podcast’s back catalogue is tapped for its advertising potential (see this blog post to understand why that’s a game-changer for podcast advertising). In Thompson’s words: “We both solve the advertiser issue in terms of the mechanical stuff and we solve the metrics issue. Those are two things that everyone else is trying to grapple with separately, in a very complicated way, and we do them together, simply.”

Another boon for Acast — one of particular interest to news outlets — is its player, which can be embedded into a news outlets’ website or social media page. This means you don’t have “to send people off to a different ecosystem” to listen or subscribe to your content. What’s more, Acast’s player is unique in that it’s “rich” with links, images, videos, etc.

As Thompson explained in an email: “For media companies or brands looking to keep an audience on site, circulating through their other content or linking to a specific product, this is a huge differentiator and we think it’s the future of the way people will consume audio. Imagine listening to Serial and seeing a map of the parking lot phone booth right there in front of you.”

Acast isn’t the only company making a play towards end-to-end tech. Panoply recently acquired audiometric, an Australian platform that is also a Content Managing System that provides dynamic ad-insertion technology. Acast may have reason to worry about the burgeoning competition — particularly since they hope to raise money almost exclusively from advertising revenue (revenue it then shares with the podcast creators), and Panoply has the benefit of supplementing its ad revenue with fees from its partnering publishers. However, as Thompson puts it, right now she has a more pressing concern: “our mandate, as is everybody’s mandate in the whole podcasting world, is just to grow the audience.”

Caitlin Thompson, Director of Content at Acast.

Caitlin Thompson, Director of Content at Acast.

Part of that growth, Thompson hopes, will come from the inclusion of people who traditionally haven’t been part of the public radio audience. “I’m somebody who wants to democratize this world, and I want to really really see a profusion of different types of voices and formats.” Thompson points to the Loud Speakers Network, whose shows are largely hosted by and directed towards audiences of color, as “one of the most wonderful things that could possibly happen to podcasting. […] these are people who have never listened to podcasts before in a lot of cases, based on surveys.”

“Podcasting can and should be way bigger than a few shows made in the quiet confines of an ivory tower type place.”

The increased diversity of audiences will also allow podcasts to approach a wider range of advertisers. Thompson longs for the day that podcasts have such detailed data about their listeners that they can approach advertisers based on that demographic information.

“Spotify has incredibly detailed data about me. They know when I listen, how long I listen, they’ve probably figured out I have a kid, because between the hours of 6:30 and 7:15 I’m playing nursery rhymes […] I would kill for their data basically, I would make ten shows specifically aimed at their different user profiles.”

Whether these shows are merely sponsored by advertisers or are in fact branded contentAcast for example hosts a podcast run by fashion retailer Asos (My Big Idea) — remains to be seen. However, Thompson isn’t afraid of embracing future editorial/advertorial partnerships. The only thing preventing widespread advertiser buy-in, according to Thompson, is advertiser education; advertisers need to know what the numbers mean and why podcasting ads are so much more valuable than display ads. As Thompson points out, in a media world overrun by ads people barely pay attention to, podcast listeners not only typically remember (even enjoy) podcast ads, they are loyal — an increasingly rare characteristic for digital consumers.

As Thompson explains: “[With] podcasts, you know there’s a regularity in listens. If you’re The Huffington Post or Buzzfeed or Vox or Fusion or whatever, you can do a great job with reaching an audience with one particular piece of content, but it’s really hard to guarantee that they’re going to come back — which is why you have monthly visitors vs. unique visitors. You want to have a healthy proportion of that: you want to be attracting new people, but you also want to be retaining others so your advertisers see that they know what they’re reaching.”