To Lure Bigger Budgets, iHeartMedia Improves Brand Safety Tech

Developed by Sounder, the tool scores podcasts at the episode level

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Audio company iHeartMedia debuted on Monday a new tool, developed in partnership with brand safety vendor Sounder, that scores the brand safety of every podcast in its catalog on an episodic level, according to chief data officer and president of revenue strategies Brian Kaminsky.

The unnamed tool uses machine-learning technology to assess the brand safety of individual podcast episodes by combing through their transcripts, then evaluating them against the Global Alliance for Responsible Media (GARM) standards and the list of sensitive topic categories created by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB).

The tool aims to alleviate many of the brand safety concerns that have prevented institutional media buyers from investing more significantly in the podcasting ecosystem, said iHeartMedia chief marketing officer Gayle Troberman.

“In a world of cancel culture, brand safety has become a highly valued asset,” Troberman said. “So the fact we are leading with machine-based, episodic learning is something our clients have been asking for.”

A higher degree of trust in the brand safety credentials of iHeartMedia inventory could transform into gains in advertising revenue by charging higher CPMs or attracting larger budgets, said David Segura, the chief executive of the podcast platform Glassbox Media.

But it also has its limitations, which stem largely from the immaturity of the programmatic infrastructure in audio. Likewise, the new tool joins a host of similar (but not identical) brand safety innovations introduced by other audio companies, such as Acast, Comscore, Barometer and AdsWizz. 

Coaxing bigger budgets

Despite the cultural footprint and growing adoption of podcasting as a medium, its advertising business remains relatively small, generating $2 billion as a market in 2022, according to the IAB.

Technological challenges are partly to blame, as the programmatic pipelines of the ecosystem are still under construction. 

But brand safety considerations have also hampered the medium, as the improvisational, audio-based nature of podcasting presents a unique set of challenges for brands looking to assess the suitability of its inventory.

Most podcasting advertising has been dominated by performance marketing, but reliable brand safety assurances could pave the way for more blue-chip brand advertisers and their larger budgets.

In addition to assuaging brand safety concerns, the new technology will also increase the volume of brand-safe content iHeartMedia can offer.

Buyers prefer to transact by catalog rather than by series or show, according to Segura. So by applying this tool to its massive backlog of content, the audio company creates a vast pool of brand-safe content almost instantly, allowing marketers to transact at scale.

Programmatic limitations still pose a bottleneck

While the new tool should offer media buyers more confidence in the brand suitability of iHeartMedia inventory, key pain points for potential advertisers still remain unresolved.

For example, buyers will be unable to use the tool in a self-serve manner to filter and transact on the content, as the protocol for transmitting such information programmatically has yet to be established, according to Bryan Barletta, the founder of the podcast publisher Sounds Profitable.

Instead, media buyers will need to work with iHeartMedia, which sells the vast majority of its inventory directly, to access its brand-safe content. 

The surfeit of proprietary solutions from other audio companies means the audio ecosystem has yet to adopt a single, uniform currency for brand safety, which forces buyers to toggle between various systems.

Removing brand safety as a point of friction for advertisers will benefit the industry, but the audio advertising space still lacks many of the features available in other channels.

“For the people that aren’t spending in podcasting today, I don’t know if this is going to convince them to do so today, but it might convince them next year,” Barletta said. “It legitimizes our entire space, but there needs to be a standard.”

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