Interview: Sarah van Mosel, New York Public Radio

New York Public Radio

Sarah van Mosel is the VP of Sponsorship at New York Public Radio. In this interview, van Mosel elucidates the ways podcasting technology and advertising are inherently intertwined, how existing technology is preventing podcasts from “closing the loop” on their audiences, and why podcasting needs to embrace its digital nature.

When we blog online, we have our fingers on a plethora of data points: number of visitors, returning visitors, unique visitors, click-through rate, and geographical location. Podcasts, good old-fashioned mp3s, hardly provide any information at all. However, podcasting is a digital medium and, according to Sarah van Mosel, it’s only a matter of time until podcasting embraces its full digital potential.

“There’s a couple of camps out there,” van Mosel explained to me from her office in downtown New York City. “I’m in the camp of ‘this is a digital platform.’ My aspiration is to have everything point-to-point measured. Others say, ‘let’s do it like radio and take a survey, let’s have a sample and extrapolate from that. It’s good enough for radio, why not for this?’ My answer is — because this is digital, and this is why people do digital.”

One of the most exciting ways podcasting technology has improved (and is improving) is on the ad side. Most content creators/distributors record their advertising spots and “stitch” them into their podcasts in the editing stage. When the show is delivered to the listener, it arrives with the ad as an inextricable part of the podcast itself. It can’t be easily removed or adapted. It’s “baked in” and that’s that. For many comedy podcasts, in which the ad is often integrated into the flow of conversation anyway, this system is certainly adequate.

Other distributors — like hosting platform Libsyn — do something different: programmatic ads. In laymen’s terms, this means that the podcasts have certain “tags” for ads. When a “tag” is reached, say in minute five of the podcast you’re listening to, Libsyn’s ad-serving platform will be “pinged” and respond by sending an ad to be played. These ads are dynamic and change over time — even if you listen to a podcast from last year, the ad will still be a recent creation.

For the ad world, and podcasters, this is an important distinction. It means that advertisers are not just selling their ads to a set number of episodes as they’re produced, but rather to an entire back catalogue. This is exactly why New York Public Radio utilizes programmatic ad-tech, attained via the company adswizz, to sell underwriting spots to its sponsors. A show like RadioLab, van Mosel informed me, has about 40% of its monthly listening happening in the back catalogue; with programmatic ads, impressions (and revenue) multiply significantly.

Moreover, ad servers utilize tracking pixels that allow advertisers to see when an ad has been delivered to a podcast listener. Of course, these tracking pixels still have a long way to go in providing listener data, but they’re good enough to comfort advertisers operating in the analytical dark. In van Mosel’s words, they offer a kind of “life line, to say ‘legitimacy is happening here.’”

However, tracking pixels are only the first step in true digital ad legitimacy. In van Mosel’s opinion, “The biggest challenge for podcasts is the lack of uniformity on the metrics side.” That’s why she founded the podcast working group at IAB, the interactive advertising bureau, to answer the big questions the podcasting world has yet to come to consensus on: how do we define a podcast? What counts as a download? What is a podcast ad? What are the industry standards?

Sarah van Mosel, VP of Sponsorship, New York Public Radio.

So far, advertisers have been willing to overlook the lack of standard measurements and tracking capabilities because of the level of engagement that podcast ads engender among listeners. Although direct response ads are commonplace, van Mosel sees podcasting ads as best suited to companies interested in branding, in aligning themselves with a show and tapping into loyal audiences. But who, exactly, are these audiences? That’s the rub.

“We’re platform agnostic, we’ll send our content everywhere. We want as many people to be touched by our content as possible, because our ads travel through wherever it goes. It works for us: more adoption, more exposure, more opportunity. What we’re giving up is knowing who they [listeners] are and what they’re doing, because they have to go through a gatekeeper — it could be the Podcast app, Stitcher, Overcast. […] That’s the challenge we face as a producer/distributor of content. We can’t close the loop on whether someone’s pushed play or not pushed play.”

van Mosel’s concern points to one of the larger issues in podcasting in general. When audience connection is one of podcasting’s greatest assets, how can creators best capitalize on this relationship? How can they maintain control instead of ceding it to networks or technological gatekeepers? And when gatekeepers/networks often allow for audiences to be reached in the first place, is “control” even in the realm of possibility?