The Pod People

xactly how far into the future could Andy Warhol see when he famously predicted, in the 1960s, that everyone would find their 15 minutes of fame?

Could he have seen four decades ahead, when two mothers from Virginia would put together an audio blog called Mommycast, in which they kvetched about domestic topics like child rearing? Could he have guessed that such a show would catch the attention of Hollywood executives, who then would turn their little amateur chatfest into a mini media empire?

Mommycast is a 20-minute Internet “radio show,” or podcast, which listeners can get over their computers or download onto their MP3 players and iPods (hence, “podcast”). It’s the newest form of media, and everyone—from the BBC and NPR to the Pentagon, IBM and Cisco—is getting into the game. Listeners can find podcasts on their favorite Web sites or by visiting a podcast directory—and there are podcasts to satisfy just about any interest.

Feeling hungry? Just visit Apple’s iTunes and listen to what Men in Aprons have to say. Need a Harry Potter fix? Surf over to and tune into the MuggleCast. Looking for God? Check out The Catholic Insider. The choices seem virtually endless.

Advertisers like the fact that listeners must elect to receive the content; it means they are engaged in the topic of the podcast. Plus, there are the added benefits of on-demand and portability. Audio programming comes largely from amateurs and is unregulated by the FCC. Think of it as the combination of blogs (freedom of expression), MP3s (digital and portable files) and TiVo (time shifting).

While Internet radio has been around a decade, the first podcasts were created only about a year ago, when former MTV VJ Adam Curry helped develop technology that paved the way for people to create these shows. Since then, the “Podfather,” as he has come to be known, has created several of his own podcasts. In March, he created a company called PodShow, which creates, aggregates and promotes podcasts.

The array of marketers popping up on podcasts is surprising. One would expect tech companies like Sun Microsystems or Verizon to sponsor an Internet-based show. Or maybe even condom maker Durex, looking for the coveted 18-to-34-year-old male demo. But Whirlpool? Dixie paper products? What’s the draw?

“Dixie is an 85-year-old-plus brand, but we still want to be contemporary,” says Erik Sjogren, senior brand manager of Dixie, which just signed on as exclusive sponsor of Mommycast. “I can get contemporary moms other ways—across TV spots, on Nickelodeon, color ads in publications—but this is exciting because we want to be innovative and cutting edge, and we think podcasting has a lot of momentum. We think it will thrive and expand.”

Gretchen Vogelzang, one of the hosts, along with Paige Heninger, of Mommycast, compares podcast ads to sponsorships of public radio programs. “I don’t think ads on audio podcasts will go the way of traditional commercials because people are trying to get away from those,” she says. She was pleased to find that Dixie did not want to tinker with the format of her popular show.

“Mommycast has 600,000 downloads per month, plus people share them, so there’s a viral component to it,” says Karen Weidenaar, vp of the agency Porter Novelli, which brokered the Dixie-Mommycast deal. “The average listeners also interact with the site for 10 to 20 minutes.”

Mommycast hit the big time this past summer, when Vogelzang and Heninger devoted part of their show to a discussion of the documentary March of the Penguins. Their favorable review attracted the attention of marketing executives at Warner Independent Pictures. Warner promptly booked the film’s narrator, Morgan Freeman, on Mommycast, gaining the audiocast street cred with marketers.

While terms of the Dixie-Mommycast deal are yet to be firmed up, a source valued the agreement at “north of six figures.” In the one-year deal, Dixie gets a 20- to 30-second mention during each week’s show. In turn, Dixie likely will promote Mommycast on packaging or its Web site. The sponsorship comes as Dixie plans to relaunch some products.

Other marketers have started their own podcasts. Whirlpool created American Family, a twice-weekly show exploring parenting, marriage, career and other topics. The idea was the brainchild of Whirlpool marketing executive Audrey Reed-Granger, who happens to have a broadcast background and now hosts the show. Purina turned a radio call-in show hosted by veterinarians into Animal Advice, an interactive podcast for pet owners. Sun Microsystems is underwriting a BusinessWeek podcast, while Verizon is advertising on an ESPN podcast.

Curry and PodShow CEO Ron Bloom want to match podcasts with listeners and the advertisers interested in those listeners. Many other companies are sprouting up to do the same. Fruitcast, Podcast Pickle and Castfire all hope to snag a share of the expected podcast ad windfall. San Francisco-based Castfire recently linked with Killington Resorts, which is paying $50,000 to advertise across four podcasts during ski season. Among the programs Killington is supporting: a three-hour block of indie music called Boarder Soundtrack.

“Advertisers get to communicate with the person who is likely to be their target,” says Castfire’s Brian Walsh. “And instead of baking ads into programs, you can put fresh ads in evergreen content.”

Marketers are intrigued by podcasts because they offer up slices of the population enthusiastic about particular topics. “My sense is you can reach passionate people,” says Rishad Tobaccowala, chief innovation officer of Publicis Groupe Media in Chicago. “Of course, podcasts are still relatively small in terms of reach.”

According to a study by research firm Ipsos Insight, about 28 percent of Web users know what a podcast is, but only about 2 percent of that group has actually listened to one. Of course, that figure is poised to grow. More and more people are buying iPods and downloading original programming into the devices. Now, iTunes lists more than 15,000 free podcasts. And more content is being developed. The number of listeners is still hard to nail down, but PodShow says that about 15 million people are regular subscribers to podcasts.

With so many programs popping up, marketers are trying to figure out whether to direct their Internet ad budgets to the unknown territory of Podcastlandia. Virgin, Volvo, General Motors, Absolut, Vox vodka and Heineken are some that have taken the plunge.

Porter Novelli has established a division called Persuasive Technology to investigate new ad opportunities for clients. A few agencies, including Beyond Interactive, Avenue A/Razorfish, Arc Worldwide, and McKinney & Silver, also have encouraged clients to test the podcast waters. But so far, podcasts remain the domain of edgy marketers like movie studios or those sometimes excluded from traditional advertising.

But the question for advertisers remains: Is it time to buy?

“The good news is that podcasting is hot—there’s a lot of buzz about it, and it’s also cheap to experiment with,” says David Schatsky, senior vp for Jupiter Research. “The bad news is that it’s overhyped.” He argues that the audience remains small; according to a recent Jupiter consumer survey, just 7 percent of online consumers said they had listened to or downloaded podcasts monthly or more often. “And these folks tend to be young, male and rather geeky,” he says. “Marketers with a young, male demographic or those that want the cachet of being hip should feel free to experiment. But there is no money here now and too little to forecast going forward.” Still, he adds, Jupiter is “watching the space.”

While twentysomething males are the hardcore constituency of podcasts, Mommycast’s ability to lure big bucks signals that the audience is expanding. Yet concerns remain. Content abounds, but not enough quality filters exist. As of yet, there are no models for ad deals or metrics.

“Podcasting is an early adopter phenomenon today, with tremendous word-of-mouth potential, so marketers could use podcasts to introduce a campaign, teasing the cognoscenti with podcasted ads while preserving the full campaign for more mainstream media,” says Forrester vp Ted Schadler.

But it may not be too long before mainstream campaigns appear on podcasts. Matthew Cross, a brand consultant at Interbrand in San Francisco, says video podcasts are a milestone for advertisers. “The writing is on the wall,” he says. “Advertisers will pay their way into video podcasts. There is no sacred ground anymore.”

Durex is pleased with results of podcast sponsorship. The condom company introduced a line of lubricants called Play on The Dawn & Drew Show!, a podcast from two former punk rockers who married and moved to Wisconsin and now “tell the world their dirty secrets,” according to their Web site. “D&D worked for the Play launch,” says Pam Piligian, senior vp of Durex agency Fitzgerald & Co. in Atlanta. “They were the perfect spokespeople for our product. It was a leap of faith for us, but we definitely got our money’s worth.” Traffic to the site quadrupled during the eight-week sponsorship/product placement, which cost “less than five digits,” Piligian reports.

Most say it’s worth the investment. “It’s great, because you can hit a niche and get personalized,” says Sean Black, senior vp and managing group director of Beyond Interactive, which handles Hasbro’s iDog. Hasbro advertises across a swath of podcasts being produced by PodShow. Beyond also created a Paris Hilton podcast to promote the movie House of Wax. While there isn’t yet full accountability, Black says he’s a fan of the technology. “And once videocasting hits,” he says, “it’ll be a whole new world.”

As they go forward, advertisers need to think carefully about how they approach consumers. A 60-second spot won’t fly during an audio podcast.

“I’d rather see ads at the point of distribution, when you go to download podcasts, for example,” says Jonathan Steuer, vp at Iconoculture. “Reaching people with an ad experience they don’t resent is tricky. It’ll take experimentation in this new age of user control.”

Tobaccowala agrees. “Podcasts are another form of on-demand, which the world is moving to. So there are a lot of opportunities and a lot of challenges for advertisers too,” he says. “It’s like 1994 was for the Internet, all over again.”

Diane Anderson is a senior reporter for Brandweek.