2020 was indeed a year to remember, but probably for the wrong reasons. And yet, there were many positives to emerge from a society struck by a pandemic.
As people were stuck at home, many sought distractions from the monotony. This was good news for the once-humble podcast — a format that had already been enjoying significant growth, but which went into overdrive last year.
“The past couple of years have seen the world’s biggest brands invest heavily into podcasting, and podcasts occupy a unique position in the media landscape,” said Jack Preston, director of Acast Creative in the UK and US. “Podcasts are giving brands the unique opportunity to speak to audiences in a space like no other. It’s an intimate environment with more than 90% of listening taking place in our headphones.”
Preston was speaking during Campaign’s Radio and Audio Advertising Summit, an online event that featured discussions and presentations on topics such as why audio should be part of brands’ media mix, what a data alliance sounds like, and how radio is a flexible creative channel.
In a session called ‘Why podcasts should be at the heart of your branded content strategy right now’, Preston explained that Acast is the world’s biggest podcast marketplace, housing the most listened-to shows and a portfolio of talented creators. It works with more than 20,000 podcasts, and racks up 60 million monthly listens in the UK alone.
Acast works exclusively with an array of publishers and platforms including The Guardian, BBC, Mashable, The FT, TED, The Economist, Huffpost and Vice; while its client list covers all verticals and includes brand names such as Porsche, Microsoft, Heinz, Sainsbury’s, BMW, Barclays, Durex, BT, Vodafone, and John Lewis & Partners.
Branded content on podcasts
As Preston explained, the Acast Marketplace comprises three main pillars: “Whenever a brand runs a campaign in podcasting, it will rely on one of — or a combination of — three things.”
Firstly, there are ads that are dynamically inserted into a podcast when the listener taps ‘play’; secondly, sponsorship, “whereby the host of a podcast creates a read on behalf of your brand that sits inside their episodes”; and finally branded content.
It was the last pillar that Preston focused on during his session.
There are two ways that a brand can approach branded content in podcasts, “although there are thousands of things you can do”, Preston said.
There are original branded shows, such as Now TV’s Plot Twist, Vodafone’s Business Unusual and Ford’s Dare To Create. “From a brand’s perspective this requires them to become their own publisher. You create your own content, you launch your own feed, and you amass your own listener and subscriber base.”
Then there are collaborations, where brands team up with an established series. “They’ve done a lot of the hard work, they’ve built that listener base, which is one of the hardest things to do. They have a host who will have a really great rapport and relationship with the listeners. This could result in a five-minute segment, it could be a bonus episode of the podcast, a mini-series, or it could be a live event. There are so many things you could do.”
Media and marketing professionals often talk about the notion of a ‘captive audience’ when waxing lyrical about their engagement with consumers. However, it’s a term with negative connotations, conjuring images of people subjected against their will to something that is pointedly a sales message; a distraction from the content they are really there to engage with.
But with podcasts there is an expectation that advertisers should (or must) engage consumers more subtly by weaving their brand credentials inextricably into genuinely compelling content.
Thankfully the “creative opportunities are endless and levels of engagement are unbeatable compared with any other media buy”, Preston said.
The average listening time for an episode of an Acast-launched branded podcast is 28 minutes, with many of those listeners going on to subscribe and listen to multiple episodes. One recently published Acast podcast gained 6.4 million minutes in listening time. As far as engagement goes, “that, I honestly believe, is unbeatable.”
According to BBC research on ad avoiders, podcasts boast far greater engagement than TV advertising. Its study found that consumers were 22% more likely to remember a brand mention in a podcast compared with a TV ad.
Meanwhile, according to Kantar, podcast listeners are more receptive to brand messaging than most media – second only to influencer-endorsed branded content, beating TV, online display and social media story ads. And Acast Creative combines both podcasting and influencer-endorsement in every branded content campaign launched.
Decade of change
The past 10 years have seen the podcast not just grow, but evolve into a far more sophisticated beast. A decade ago, the format was predominantly an adjunct of radio, with the charts then showing that eight out of the top 10 UK podcasts were online radio replays.
Today’s top 10 features standalone podcasts, with exclusive shows spanning topics from true crime, sports and politics, to current affairs, education and celebrity interviews.
Preston’s professional relationship with podcasts harks back 10 years, when he was working for Virgin’s content team. At the time, the company was coming to the financial year end and there was some leftover budget.
“I pitched the idea to my boss of making a branded podcast,” Preston recalled. Although the boss wasn’t keen, he was less eager to lose that excess budget.
Having convinced the business of his idea, Preston produced the Voom Podcast from Virgin Media Business to find the UK’s next entrepreneur. It struck a chord with listeners and went on to get to the top of the charts — leading to the commissioning of a second season. By that point Virgin grasped the potential of the podcast and brought in a bigger team to produce the follow-up.
“It was fairly indicative of how the branded podcast got off the ground,” he said. And things have since changed even further.
2020… and beyond
Ten years’ on, advertisers looking to invest in branded content podcasts are different in three ways: “More often than not they have a really significant budget,” said Preston. “They want a really rigorous approach to creative and content, as they would anywhere else; and they want a long-term strategy.”
Last year, Acast’s global listening data showed that its podcasts accrued nearly 2.5 billion listens, up 25% year on year; and unique listens grew by 30%, demonstrating that new listeners are getting a taste for the podcast habit.
Advertisers are both driving and responding to the podcast’s popularity. There was a 63% increase in podcast buying in 2020 compared with 2019; while Preston’s team worked with 30 brands to launch original podcast series, more than double the volume in 2019; and Acast’s financial growth has been fuelled by creative campaigns and brands, which have accounted for 24% of 2020 revenue, compared with 14% in 2019.
Push your limits
It wasn’t just growth that helped 2020 stand out from previous years, Preston noted. “What excited me was brands wanting to do some innovative things despite the physical limitations imposed upon us.”
Among the four creative trends was a boost in brands investing in new formats of branded podcast. “PlayNext by BMW is a brilliant example. Hosted by Edith Bowman, this was a genuine media-first – the first time that a podcast had featured songs from artists played in their entirety.”
2020 also saw more podcasts playing the leading role in overarching marketing campaigns, demonstrated by Belstaff’s Road Less Travelled, hosted by Reggie Yates. “What I love about this is it really took centre stage in the whole marketing campaign. The podcast artwork, the talent involved front and centre in OOH and digital imagery. They’re not just podcasts anymore.”
Cross-platform campaigns also included John Lewis’s At Home with Lily & Anna, which Acast worked on alongside Refinery29. “Increasingly our podcast stars are being used on other channels and we’re collaborating with other media owners and publishers,” Preston said.
Finally, more brands than ever are getting on board by sponsoring live-streams, a trend Preston “wouldn’t have predicted at the start of last year”. For instance, O2’s sponsorship of a live stream of RHLSTP with Richard Herring featuring James Acaster.
“With everybody locked down, appointment-to-view content felt a bit more relevant. There were big trends and they’re going to continue into 2021 for sure.”
As Dani Murphy, content and strategy director at Havas, who Preston introduced towards the end of his presentation at the Summit, and who shared some top tips, put it: “Thank god for podcasting, it’s been a saving grace in 2020. They’ve entertained us, they’ve kept us up to date and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say they’ve been our friends.”
Dani Murphy, Havas content and strategy director, shares three tips for brands to have in mind when using podcasts to tell their stories.
1. It differs from TV and digital. In the same way you can’t just whack a TVC clip into a banner ad and expect results, you can’t really put a brand manifesto into a podcast series.
2. You need to think about your brand identity first and foremost. ‘What do we sound like? If we were a person, who would we be and who would our friends be? What topics do we align with? What do we stand for — are we a useful brand or an entertaining brand, or a bit of both?’
3. The last things to factor in are subtlety and being conversational. Just because you have 30 to 40 minutes doesn’t mean you can monologue about product benefits. It’s unlikely to be your tagline sadly, so it’s a watchable, interesting hook. Use a journalistic approach of finding an angle. Journalists use a headline to draw people into the detail. Subtlety is key.