Podcast Advertising Has Come A Long Way, But Is It Delivering What Marketers Need?

The IAB’s Podcast Upfronts in May touted advancements in dynamic ad insertion, measurement and attribution and brand safety and suitability, as well as the rise of podcast networks.

The three-day event felt like a victory lap celebrating the continued growth of the podcast ad market.

But ad agencies say the technology powering podcast-based marketing is not sufficiently developed to deliver what advertisers need to effectively target impressions and measure campaign effectiveness. And they believe the industry should do more to address brand safety concerns around podcast content, which is typically looser and more informal than content found in more traditional media channels like TV and radio.

Ad networks and consolidation spur technical advancement

Mergers between major podcast publishers and tech platforms, like Spotify’s acquisition of Megaphone, iHeartMedia’s acquisition of Triton Digital and Amazon’s acquisitions of Wondery and Art19, pushed the companies further along in building out the ad networks and tech stacks needed for true measurement and attribution, said Maria Tullin, Horizon Media’s VP and managing director of advanced and digital audio, and Andrea Kwiatek, Goodway Group’s director of strategic partnerships.

The downside: These solutions are siloed by company. And from a marketer’s perspective, it’s still preferable to work with third-party measurement partners rather than measurement platforms owned by publishers, Tullin said.

As podcast ad networks have taken off, it’s become easier to divide listeners into audience segments, Tullin said. Targeting audiences with impression-based buying as part of a larger multichannel ad spend is more viable than ever, she added.

Buying podcast inventory through DSPs and relying on their in-house audience graphs can be useful, but that approach “needs to continue evolving,” Kwiatek said.

Podcasting’s main weakness is measurement: “trying to identify the best way to tie [ads] to performance so we can optimize and ensure we’re reaching the right listener,” Kwiatek said.

Using tracking pixels to tie ad impressions at the point of download to site visits is becoming more popular in the podcasting space, said Chris Yarusso, Publicis Media SVP and national audio practice lead, but this approach could be compromised by the sunsetting of third-party cookies.

Despite its measurement challenges, podcasting first appealed to attribution-based direct-to-consumer marketing.

All three interviewees agreed that the old faithful promo code is still the market’s most useful piece of attribution tech.

Podcasting is transforming into a viable reach medium as well, Yarusso said. But it’s still hard to measure brand lift. Though brand-lift surveys are a helpful signal, since they’re panel-based, they should be taken with a grain of salt, he said.

Brand safety and suitability

Podcast ad networks introduce more brand safety and suitability challenges compared to the traditional mode of fostering close relationships with individual podcasts, Yarusso said.

Brand safety solutions for other formats like display are more developed “because we’ve been doing it for so long,” but the podcasting market still “has a way to go” toward developing its own solutions, Kwiatek said. The best brand safety approach is still to curate direct relationships with publishers.

The lack of FCC regulation in the podcasting market makes brand safety a constantly moving target, Tullin said. “People can say anything at any time.”

AI that automatically transcribes podcasts then parses the transcripts for keywords could be the future of brand safety and suitability in podcasting, according to the IAB’s Podcast Upfronts presentation.

Companies like Magellan and Podscribe offer AI-powered transcription tech.

“As some of the larger players in the space roll out brand safety guardrails, it’s important to make sure we’re really questioning them about how exactly [they work] and what criteria they’re based on,” Tullin said.

The criteria for brand safety should take into account how automated solutions can miss nuances in context and style that matter to podcast creators and listeners. For example, transcription solutions may raise a red flag at any instance of profanity. But in a famously casual medium like podcasting, that approach can be flawed. “Not all profanity is created equal, so it’s important to understand the context,” Tullin said.

Some brands are so concerned with brand safety and whether a podcast’s content fits their message that they will prefer to stick to curated relationships with creators rather than rely on transcription-tech-powered automated solutions, Yarusso said.

Determining brand suitability relies on publishers accurately categorizing their content. Some publishers could do a better job of filling out the categorization criteria within automated platforms, Tullin said.

Larger publishers like Spotify and iHeartMedia are more proficient at accurately categorizing podcast content for marketers, but smaller publishers are still lacking when it comes to categorization, Kwiatek said.

“Until [publishers] get that granularity managed, the brands are left not knowing whether a show is the right fit, and they’re going to have to either keep a less personalized ad playing or only buy the top premium podcasting inventory where they know what they’re getting,” Kwiatek said.

Automation and programmatic

The shortcomings of the podcast market’s nascent brand safety controls and gaps in measurement and targeting are exacerbated in the open-web programmatic marketplace. That’s why programmatic still represents less than 2% of the podcast ad market, according to the IAB.

“Programmatic inventory is becoming more available, and it might be useful from a cost standpoint, but if you’re concerned about brand safety, it’s definitely not the way to go,” Kwiatek said. The programmatic podcasting environment is similar to programmatic for CTV. Both have gaps in measurement and show-level information, she said.

For programmatic to really take off in the podcasting space, it must move from a download-based medium to a streaming-based medium, where ads can be delivered in real time.

But non-programmatic, automated solutions like dynamic ad insertion can allow for more flexibility and scale in campaign messaging – along with more precision based on when the message reaches listeners.

“A lot of the pushback we had in the past was from brands who have specific promotional windows or timely messaging. They don’t want their spots to be baked in,” Tullin said. “Being able to dynamically insert a host read within a certain flight is really beneficial.”

If the podcast ad market wants to continue its current growth trajectory, giving advertisers even more flexibility and scalability and addressing their concerns around targeting and brand safety is the way forward.

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