After the breakaway success of Serial, an offshoot of This American Life estimated to have brought in upwards of one million listeners in its first season, marketers have been trying to figure out what their podcast strategy is, or if they need one. One employee at Midroll, a middleman company that connects podcasts and advertisers, told Marketplace that he’d like the medium to bring in the sorts of sponsors seen on primetime TV—purveyors of movies, cars, and clothes.
“I think it would make sense for larger companies, although selfishly, I would like for them to stay away, because I enjoy being a big fish in the pond,” says DiCristina. “I can't imagine,” he continues, “especially for larger brands, that there's going to be much advertising interest in shows other than the ones that are really big and impactful, like Serial and similar shows."
There may also be some institutional inertia working against the inclusion of big brands. Many of the top podcasts are the products of public radio, which is used to supporting itself through pledge drives and foundation grants. That said, This American Life’s Ira Glass recently proclaimed to potential advertisers that “public radio is ready for capitalism.”
Many media writers have mused over whether high-quality podcasts in the vein of Serial can scale up, but the subtext of a good deal of the writing about the question is that they will, and should. But that thinking—the idea that podcasting would be better off bigger—might be led by journalists’ disproportionate love for the form. (Squarespace’s Ryan Stansky has said as much.)
The truth is that for now, the supply of podcast advertising slots is far outstripping demand. In FiveThirtyEight’s sample, more than a third of the shows had no ads, and the median number of ads that the others had was two, out of a standard six. If premier podcasts can keep charging the same rates for ads, they might not need the massive marketing budgets of larger advertisers.
Still, there are signs that bigger companies will come around. “Now, we’re seeing lots more interest from established brand advertisers who see that podcasting is the ultimate narrative format—a great way to tell their story to an engaged audience,” says Matt Lieber, a co-founder of the podcast network Gimlet Media. His company is a good example: The second season of its most popular show, StartUp, is sponsored by Ford.
StartUp’s sponsorship is an indication that other big companies might see something to be gained from podcast advertising in general. But it could also just be an indication of how powerful a single audio personality is—Gimlet co-founder Alex Blumberg’s personal stamp on each of the company’s shows has been instrumental to their success. Both could be the case, and that’s why predicting the Future of Podcasting is as fraught as untangling a set of earbuds.
As that future plays out, even the medium’s smaller logistical details have yet to be perfected. Complicating things for larger, brand-oriented sponsors is that ads aren’t always listened to—users can easily skip ahead in recordings, over the advertisements. That’s what I do, and while no one in the industry appeared to be concerned about this, it might be quite common: Two of the marketing directors I spoke to confessed that, occasionally, they do the very same thing.