To Avoid the Fate of Music Streaming, Podcasts Need to Validate Their Audiences

The future of audio is full of exciting potential

By 2009, the digitization and personalization of the music space had brought tremendous benefits to listeners. Almost everyone you knew was listening—and if they weren’t, their kids were. It wasn’t long before music streaming began to displace physical album sales and iTunes downloads (R.I.P. CD collections everywhere). As this emerging trend became commonplace, opportunities for scalable advertising solutions followed suit, and marketers began paying attention.

With so much attention on the evolving music space, you might believe everything fell into place then. However, music platforms still had much to prove before ad dollars moved at the rapid pace of listenership. While listening was happening, the real challenge was proving and measuring it. Because streaming services didn’t have third-party measurement in place to share with marketers, agencies weren’t yet comfortable allocating substantial budgets to this emerging medium.

Podcasting is having some of the same challenges music streaming did in its early days.

After a few years, streaming services began to partner with third-party measurement groups to prove reach in a transparent, accurate and meaningful way. This was the catalyst to driving mass advertiser investment in the streaming space.

Fast forward 10 years where the podcasting industry is running into a very similar problem. I don’t think anyone can debate the trending popularity and explosion in listening hours within content offerings. At the IAB Podcasting upfront, hundreds of incredible new shows were unveiled for 2019, and time spent listening to digital audio content was shown to be going through the roof. Podcasts are now as important to influencers, celebrities and TV personalities’ personal brands as their social media platforms. Content developers are finding interesting ways to tell stories that were previously left to TV producers. It’s no surprise to see time spent with audio increases as all this amazing content is released. Audio is truly having a moment.

But when is the advertising investment going to match the audience size? Podcasting is having some of the same challenges music streaming did in its early days.

The first issue stifling investment is the familiar tale of nascent audience measurement. Today’s marketers demand accountability and third-party verification on everything they do, and in the case of podcasting, there’s no systematic way for marketers to measure how much listening is happening on specific shows. The assumption that a podcast download equates to an ad heard is one many advertisers are not willing to make. This information is not broadly shared with advertisers, nor is it granted to publishers and content creators. To resolve this issue, either Apple or Android will have to increase transparency and reporting available to content developers. Or a third party will need to create a large enough audience of listeners and then be willing to share those listening stats with advertisers. The top audio investment leads will all tell you that until this problem gets solved, podcasting investment will never reach its full potential.

In addition to validating podcast listening audiences, two things need to be considered: the requirement of scale to satisfy campaign reach and investment effectiveness. Larger brands will not be satisfied by a podcast-by-podcast approach to buying, and I expect to see more consolidation of content in the future as the space is formalized.

Once the audience scale and measurement boxes have been checked, there enters a massive opportunity for audience alignment for advertisers. We also might see that an evolution of the ads themselves could be in order. Today’s podcast standard of host-read ads are a great solution given today’s relatively limited podcast environment, but as scale and audience and advertiser interest grows, I foresee the ad and creative format evolving. What remains to be seen is how this happens. There are trust and authenticity inherent within podcasts that extend to the voiceover personality. What within that is truly the secret sauce that drives performance? I’m excited to find out.

I for one am thrilled about this moment audio is having. And, really, it’s more of a movement than a moment. We are all going to take a journey over the next few months (and years), and I look forward to seeing how marketer strategies evolve to tap into new audience and content opportunities. Brands and platforms alike have a lot of work to do; it’s going to be fun watching it all come together.

Oh, and to answer the question of podcasting investment maturity: Ad dollars will get there, I’m confident about that. Spoken word creative is everywhere, and if history is a lesson for us, any time there are audiences to tap into, marketing challenges or aggressive platforms, then solutions are found and dollars scale.