Written by Jessica Brown
Podcast ads are turning advertising on its head – have they finally cracked how adverts should be?
If you’re a regular podcast listener, you’ll probably be just as familiar with the selling points of Squarespace, Mailchimp and Blue Apron as you are your favourite shows.
Podcasts have grown exponentially over the past few years, and companies are increasingly capitalising on their engaged audience.
Podcast sponsorships take a few different formats. Sometimes, hosts rattle through a script they were obviously handed by a company that didn’t give them any room to personalise it. Other hosts add in semi-scripted gushes about how they tried a product out and, no really, they genuinely loved it.
But a new type of sponsorship is making its way into people’s ears. Podcast hosts are taking advertising into their own hands and making ads that break off from the script, that even make fun of the regular script and the businesses paying their bills – subverting the advertising we know and tolerate.
These ads don’t talk down or patronise or pretend. They give listeners a well-earned break from the tyranny of boring, cringeworthy and patronising advertising we’re subject to day in, day out from every angle, social media platform and device.
For Adam Buxton, host of The Adam Buxton podcast, sponsorship ads are entertainment in themselves. In one episode of his podcast, Buxton’s dog, Rosie, asks him if listeners can try a Squarespace trial.
“Can you try it to see if you like it?”
“Sure, you can do a free trial,” says Buxton, perfectly honing the faux earnestness of traditional ads.
“I did a free trial – it was one of the best days of my life.”
In another skit, Buxton puts on the voice of Sheila, who works at The Economist, as she rings Buxton to tell him the main points to get across in his ad. “We’ll leave it up to you to communicate that as you see fit,” she ends her voicemail.
Buxton then says in his ad, “I always thought [The Economist Magazine] looked so dull, but I had not actually seen inside it. Then while bored on holiday, I found a copy and perused…”.
The Sheila leaves another voicemail for Buxton, saying, “Look forward to hearing the ad, hope it’s not too stupid or offensive, thanks!”.
Unbeknownst to Buxton, ‘Sheila’ worked in a senior position at The Economist. Thankfully, she saw the funny side.
When Buxton’s ads aren’t skits, they’re songs. One Reddit user wrote of his song ads, “I’d probably buy the album if he released them in a compilation”.
Another great example of podcasters upending traditional advertising is the Off Menu podcast with comedians James Acaster and Ed Gamble. In series two, Gamble reads out a very on-brand script by PopChips, pretending he’s just talking off the top of his head, while Acaster marvels at his ad-libbing abilities.
This way of advertising subverts all the rules of traditional advertising – mainly because it breaks the third wall. Both consumers and businesses know they’re ads often aren’t taken at face value, that their adverts come across as patronising, cheesy, completely unrelatable. But this is the first time everyone involved is acknowledging that in one big, collective wink.
This type of sponsorship is win-win for listeners, advertisers and the podcasters that rely on revenue to fund their time and investments. Listeners still get informed of the details and reeled in with a call to action, but the company advertising also comes across better.
A company that not only lets a podcast host make fun of it, make light of their service or product, but also pays them to do it, comes across much more likeable than one who hijacks an otherwise enjoyable podcast, changing the tone and forcing listeners to skip ahead.
Joe Copeman, UK Managing Director of podcast platform Acast, says sponsor reads have become the “bread and butter” of podcast advertising.
“They have to sound authentic, in-keeping with the tone of the host’s podcast. This is where they can really have some fun,” he says.
These ads typically come about by podcast hosts receiving a short brief from a business, so they can work on it themselves before the client approves it.
Some companies are concerned at first, he says, because handing over the ad to a podcast host for them to work their magic can make them feel like they’re not in control.
The key to this working, Copeman says, is ensuring podcast hosts on only agree to work with brands that are in keeping with their podcast and its audience.
“We never want them to do podcast reads that aren’t sincere – it’s all about the trust between the audience and a podcast, and the moment you start eroding that trust, it doesn’t work,” he says.
One reason these ads work so well is because podcasts are such an involved medium, compared to the more passive way we watch TV or listen to the radio. The usual stereotypes, trite assumptions, clichés and lack of self-awareness that adverts heavily rely on – including radio – were never going to work on podcasts.
“Podcasts are listened to in headphones 80 percent of the time,” Copeman says, “They’re an immersive moment where it’s just you and the podcaster. You don’t need shouty messages like you get on the radio.”
As podcasts continue to grow, it’s crucial to establish how best to monetise them so they can continue. The answer does seem to lie in funny sponsor ads that engage the reader, let the host have fun and that leave advertisers happy. Even Sheila gets it.
Jessica Brown is a freelance journalist and podcast fiend. You can read some of her work here.