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Tow Center and WNYC join forces for discussion on why podcasting matters

Last week, the Tow Center and WNYC co-hosted ‘Why Podcasting Matters’, an in-depth panel discussion with leading professionals in the podcasting industry.

Following a presentation of key points from Tow fellow Vanessa Quirk’s Guide to Podcasting, the panel conversation centred on important questions for the developing digital medium, including: is podcasting in a bubble? What is the role of branded content? To what extent is podcasting addressing diversity?

The panel was moderated by WNYC’s vice president of on-demand audio, Paula Szuchman, and was made up of representatives of companies at the cutting edge of the podcasting industry: Andy Bowers, chief content officer at Panoply, a spin-off company from Slate that partners with media outlets/individuals to develop podcasts; Kerri Hoffman, the chief operating officer at PRX, the public-radio marketplace and parent to the podcast network Radiotopia; Matt Lieber, the co-founder and president of Gimlet Media, the podcast network that has made a name for itself with its in-house production of innovative ads; and Sarah van Mosel, the chief commercial officer at Acast, a new Swedish company that, like Panoply, offers sophisticated technological solutions for podcast producers and consumers.

A podcast bubble?

The conversation began with Szuchman making a request of the panelists: “convince me that we’re not in a podcast bubble right now.” Bowers jumped in first: “I’ll venture that we are, but […] not the one you think. We are in a podcast hype bubble.” Bowers emphasized that, despite the increased media attention surrounding podcasting, podcast listening continues to grow slowly and steadily as technology improves.

van Mosel noted that the evolution of podcasting advertising, particularly the entrance of brand advertisers* into the space, is indicative that the medium is only at the beginning stages of growth:

When a medium is young, traditionally you will see the direct response advertisers* rush in because they are looking for new eyeballs, new ears […] but as it evolves, and it becomes understood, you see the brand advertisers* start to move in, and want to move their way into people’s mind space, because they see there’s a very engaged audience here — and that’s a perfect landscape for a brand message.

The year of dynamic ads

One of the major takeaways from the panel discussion is that dynamic ads,* which can be removed from a podcast episode as soon as the target amount of impressions is reached, are soon to be the predominant way of buying/delivering ads in podcasts. Even Gimlet, which is known for its high-touch, bespoke ads, has begun to utilize dynamic ad insertion; although Lieber warned that the company’s transition to dynamic ads* has been a cautious one: “We’ve been really careful to make sure the listener experience isn’t degraded by that. We still produce all of the ads; we’re really mindful about where we put the ad break […so] it doesn’t sound jarring. I think the worst version of dynamic ad insertion begins to sound like radio advertising.”

Andy Bowers pointed out, interestingly, the implications of dynamic ads* for international advertisers and audiences; since dynamic ads can geo-target specific countries, and Panoply has advertisers interested in marketing overseas, the company is becoming interested in developing different types of content that could appeal to non-American audiences.

Looking ahead, Sarah van Mosel predicted that the widespread acceptance of dynamic ad technology could actually have negative consequences — and force podcasters to begin thinking outside traditional CPM* models:

Knowing that this is the year that […] dynamic ad insertion becomes the de facto way of doing business, that means there is going to be a flood of inventory in the space and that means rates are going to plummet. So the smart cookies are figuring out what those premium products are going to be that are an alternative to the commodification of impressions. […] That’s where you can have those conversations with the brand advertisers where you’re breaking out of the ad unit and creating something new.

Branded Content

One of the more interesting parts of the conversation centered around one such “new” alternative to podcast advertising: branded content.*

Bowers gave insight into why Panoply’s most well-known foray into branded content, its collaboration with G.E. to produce “The Message,” proved so successful:

What they [G.E.] wanted to do was interesting content; what they got out of it was the association with this popular program. I thought they were smart to want to innovate in that way, and I’m interested in all the other companies that are now coming to us with really innovative ideas — much more creative than I would have expected.

Lieber suggested, however, that G.E. is much more “magnanimous” than most companies interested in content creation and noted that the question of how to create branded content is one facing digital media overall:

I think the question is: how much flex are brands really gonna have when it comes to — hey, do you we want to do something interesting or do we want to […] get across our brand goals? And this is not specific to podcasting. You look at any digital media company today, part of the mix is having this as a service, if you’re in the ad business, a service to your advertisers. You’re helping them understand the medium and tell their story.

Growing / Diversifying

Another major theme of the evening was the need for podcasts to diversify/grow their audience base, content, and talent pools. Bowers explained how Panoply’s strategy of reaching out to individuals with their own established audiences, such as authors Gretchen Rubin and Susan Cain, has helped them to introduce podcasts to many who had never listened before (an important element to growing podcast audiences overall). However, one questioner, podcast producer named Naomi Gingold, worried that the focus on “celebrity” voices could crowd out individuals interested in entering, and perhaps even disrupting, podcasting.

Regarding diversifying and experimenting with content, Kerri Hoffman noted that PRX will soon host a pilot fund to attract brand new voices to podcasting. Lieber told the audience that Gimlet is experimenting with a “mix week” in which all Gimlet producers stop normal production, work with different teams, and pilot new shows.

On a slightly different (although related) vein, Nick Quah, writer of the newsletter Hot Pod, asked to what extent podcast companies are recruiting minority voices. While van Mosel stated that Acast is “actively courting a more diverse group of podcasters,” all the panelists agreed that more is certainly left to be done. In Lieber’s words: “You should not judge us based on what we say; you should judge us based on what we do. So check back in 6 months, a year, 5 years, 10 years.”

N.B. You can find the definitions of all technical terms (marked with asterisks) in the Guide to Podcasting glossary.