Podcasters buy millions of listeners, raising questions about marketing tactics

Podcasters are always looking for new, shiny places to promote their shows, ranging from billboards to parades to airplane banners. However, some networks have found a less glamorous but highly effective way to win over millions of receptive listeners: loading mobile games with a certain type of advertising.

Whenever a player taps one of these fleeting in-game ads—and earns some virtual loot for doing so—a podcast episode begins downloading to their device. The podcast company, in turn, can claim the gamer as a new listener to its program and add another coveted download to its total tally.

The practice allows networks to quickly accumulate downloads by tapping into a wellspring of hyperactive video game users. But it also calls into question who is a legitimate podcast listener and what length of time should be required to be considered a download.

“Not all impressions are the same,” he said Larry Chiagouris, professor of marketing at Pace University. “I do not say [this tactic is] it’s not unethical or illegal, but it does raise questions. If someone is trying to play a game and that’s the purpose of that interaction, they might just be eager to play the game and not care as much about the information that’s being shared.”

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Podcasts typically rely on downloads as their primary ad sales metric. When a person taps a play button on the app on their mobile device, an entire episode starts downloading so they can listen to it even when they don’t have a good internet connection – say on a plane or on the subway. An episode’s ads are inserted at this point in the download, meaning that even if a user only listens to 10 minutes of a 30-minute show, the mid-video ad at the 15-minute mark is often ready to be heard — not to mention . counted by the sales team.

To date, the podcast industry has said little to nothing about adopting this video game strategy. In August, DeepSee, an ad fraud detection company, published research work revealing how practice harnesses gamers’ attention.

“Nobody asked questions about it or what the user experience was,” said Rocky Moss, co-founder and CEO of DeepSee.

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One game mentioned in DeepSee’s article is Subway Surfers, a popular mobile app from Danish company Sybo that has been downloaded about 3 billion times since its debut in 2012. Over a two-week period in August, Bloomberg found multiple publishers using the game to accumulating podcast downloads, including the New York Post, the independent podcast Scott Savlov, and IHeartMedia Inc.

Representatives for the Post and IHeart declined to comment.

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Savlov says he spends “nominal” money on in-game ads and originally used it to drum up interest in his show when it first launched. These days, he says, he looks more to the algorithms of social platforms to promote his celebrity interviews.

“Don’t rely on [in-game ads] exclusively because at some point you’re going to want as much organic and authentic growth as possible,” he said.

Podcast networks actively mining downloads in the mobile gaming space do so through an intermediary company called Jun Group, which was founded in 2005 and sold to Advantage Solutions Inc., a marketing and sales company, in 2018. Corey Weiner , Jun Group’s CEO said the company specializes in informing consumers about products, websites and podcasts by placing its ads on more than 1,000 mobile apps that reach a total of 100 million unique users.

“There’s a very big reason why all the biggest brands in the world invest so much money in brand recognition, because without that you have no chance of breaking through the clutter,” he said. “Every publisher, every content creator has invested in marketing to promote themselves since the dawn of time, and this is just another way to do it.”

He said the company hasn’t specifically tracked how long gamers stay on a podcast after clicking on an ad.

“I think the standards bodies, the people who are involved in deciding what constitutes podcast playback, could decide to raise the bar for what constitutes podcast playback,” Weiner said. “Even if you raise the bar, [the ad] will still go over the bar. So I’m actually suggesting that we raise the bar because we can exceed it.”

According to someone who spoke with Jun Group, the price the company charges podcast networks for these ads can vary depending on whether they target specific demographics or are guaranteed to attract unique listeners. The starting rate for a 20-second ad is $27 per 1,000 website page views. To monetize such downloads, podcast networks can turn around and sell the resulting audience to brand advertisers, possibly at a good premium over what they pay Jun Group.

Jun Group’s primary podcast client is IHeart, the creator of shows from Will Ferrell, Charlamagne tha God and Shonda Rhimes. The radio company, which bills itself as the world’s top podcast publisher, has forked out more than $10 million and gained roughly 6 million unique listeners a month through those ads since 2018, according to a person familiar with the effort. The company mainly runs its in-game campaigns at the beginning and end of months. The impact can be seen in publicly available charts created by Tablea podcast marketing company owned by Spotify Technology SA.

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In the last week of August, IHeart podcasts accounted for more than half of the top 10 shows — even though one of the podcasts listed hadn’t posted new episodes in months and another hadn’t posted new programs in more than a year. Several of the specific shows Bloomberg found on Subway Surfers also appeared further down the charts, including “Life in Spanglish,” “Run That Prank” and “All the Smoke.”

(Disclosure: IHeart is a Bloomberg Media partner, and DeepSee found promotions for one Bloomberg podcast running on Subway Surfers).

iHeart also supports top position on Podtrac, a monthly podcast leaderboard that measures networks’ unique audience and downloads. For the month of August, it reached an estimated 35.5 million unique listeners, 11 million more than its closest competitor, Amazon.com Inc.’s Wondery. The company first come first serve topped that list in August 2020 with 24.6 million unique listeners compared to National Public Radio’s 24 million.

The incentives for investing in marketing channels like Jun Group’s are clear. The audio industry is marked by an investment frenzy. To make money back as quickly as possible, companies will rely in part on increasing the reach of their podcasts to bring in more advertising revenue. The industry is expected to exceed $4 billion in revenue in 2024, up from about $700 million in 2019.

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