One of the first things I did when I got my first iPod back in 2005 was start downloading podcasts. Podcasting was a big buzzword then, and everyone was feeling out the possibilities around podcasts and how they would change the free content model. The big flaw with Radio was that it could not be paused, and in a Tivo/DVR/Youtube culture of “entertainment on my time, my schedule,” radio was already fading fast, with the exception of niche markets like Satellite radio.
I loved all of the free content I got from the available podcasts, and stopped listening to radio. No more listening to NPR pledge drives every 6 months, no more awkward commercial breaks in the middle of conversations, and a whole bunch of new content that terrestrial radio could never offer on such a niche level. It seemed natural that this was one of the new ways content would be distributed and consumed — on demand, free, and mostly commercial-free. What DVR’s are to visual content, podcasting was and is to audio content.
In the intervening years since then, much of the English-language programming for terrestrial radio has collapsed or gone elsewhere. Popular talk show hosts have retired, gone to satellite radio, or taken their show to the world of Podcasting, where the audience is smaller, but where you also have less regulation (no FCC policing you for content), a broad distribution infrastructure from partners like Apple (through ITunes’ podcasting support), and a format that users have embraced.
As the podcasting world has matured, we are starting to see big shifts in how podcasts are used , and how sponsors choose to become involved. Right now, I find myself listening to a lot of comedy podcasts by stand-up comedians like Joe Rogan and Jay Mohr, both of whom directly attribute higher attendance at their live shows to the popularity of their podcasts (both regularly are in the top 10 on ITunes for most downloaded). At the same time, both hosts are very honest about their struggles to find sponsors and about their approaches to integrating those sponsors into their shows. This is where it gets interesting, and gives those of us in the industry an early glimpse of how advertising and content interrelate.
For instance, Joe Rogan does all of his sponsorships at the very top of the show, before he even starts the show theme music. It is done in a very casual, informal, conversational tone, and can be very irreverent. While his guests are welcome to comment during this part of the show, and/or become part of the ad, Rogan is very careful to always note that this is the commerical part of the program, and to add in disclaimers to that effect. What is interesting is that as he and guests sometimes lose the thread of the commercial and go into side topics, these segments go way longer that he usually intended, sometimes as long as 15 minutes, a long stretch by any means for a commercial segment. Yet for many of the listeners, myself included, these long rambling segments are often just as good as the show, almost seamless in terms of how they mesh with the content we are listening to.
Meanwhile, Jay Mohr’s podcast, a fine show as well, uses live reads in the middle of content, often stopping a guest mid-conversation to insert a 1-to-3 minute segment from a sponsor. I don’t know about other listeners, but I find this absolutely maddening, as it is one of the main reasons I left terrestrial talk radio as soon as I had a way to carry mass amounts of audio content with me (e.g. the iPod and iPhone). As a consumer of free content, nothing is more annoying to me than a break in the conversation, especially one that cuts off a guest while they are just getting to the good stuff. So with Jay, I really do get irked when he does this, because it is an awkward way to shoehorn in a sponsor during an otherwise honest, heart-felt conversation.
What I liked about Howard Stern’s show back when he was on free radio was that his show had the flexibility to defer commercial breaks and lump them into big breaks so that he wouldn’t lose momentum in a conversation. Joe Rogan’s show does this as well, but even more so, and as a result, you can often forget that the commercial segment is just that, and not some deeply personal conversation you are listening to. The retired Tom Leykis, on the other hand (and also a good host — all of these people I am mentioning are/were at the top of their game) almost religiously stuck to the commercial break schedule, and it used to drive me nuts how he would lose a good conversational thread or call just to get to a break. The irony here is that Stern, and Rogan, have commercial breaks that are, on aggregate, as long as any that Jay Mohr has (or Leykis had), but are packaged in a way that is more palatable, and respectful, to users and how they consume the content. Case in point — I have never fast-forwarded past Joe Rogan’s commercial segments because I didn’t want to miss any part of the show, while on Mohr’s show, I have often skipped them, because they are fairly boilerplate, usually the same copy week-to-week, and so obnoxiously out-of-place that it actually lowers my opinion of him when he does them. Sad but true.
This is a key point — in the new advertising model for new media, the commercial breaks of television and radio are something that will go the way of the dinosaurs. Google/Youtube clearly is aware of this — while they do pre-rolls, they give the user the option of skipping after 5 seconds of watching, and they would never dare interrupt your video clip mid-stream to blast another ad at you, because they understand that an annoyed consumer these days is not fertile soil for a marketing message. It is much better to get them while they are in a good mood, get the message in at the beginning, and to respect the sanctity of the content. There are a lot of ways to get to this level — you can cookie and frequency cap users on a per-session basis, you can offer the option to skip the commercial after the first few seconds, but you give the user some sense that their time is respected, and that advertising inventory is respected and cultivated there, not just blasted out wholesale.
Not all sites adhere to this rule — many do run pre- and post-rolls with content, but without the option to skip. Without naming names (after all, I work in the online world and need to stay in the good graces of future employers), there are sites I used to go to religiously that I have abandoned because I literally do not have the time or patience to waste 30 seconds of time each time I want to watch a video clip. It’s a short term gain/long-term user loss to advertise this way, and is much like the much-maligned popup/popunder ad — eventually, it just was too annoying for its own good, and backfired on the message it was supposed to carry. People blocked them or stopped going to those sites, much as I have stopped going to destinations that don’t offer flexibility with commercial placements that are anything more than a simple banner (think annoying ads with sound on by default, or expanding ads that are too easily triggered and have no close button).
These days consumers have way too many places to turn for content to put up with sites or programs that can’t keep up with how and why they listen to that content. I know that Jay had a long history of co-hosting or being a long-term guest on radio shows, and I think he is still in “radio-days” mode of how he works the show. Radio and Television are both pretty fixed in terms of how long programs can go, how long commercial breaks are, and how many breaks there are per show. In fact, until he finally got out of some of those habits, Mohr used to do time checks on his initial episodes, something almost asinine to do on a podcast. But that’s how ingrained some of these old models are, and how folks think about marketing when faced with the challenge of how to monetize new content — they fall back on what worked. Unfortunately, it isn’t working as well anymore, and it can really cheapen content when done wrong.
The postscript to this, and perhaps a future blog posting, is that this is still pretty virgin territory for advertisers, and it is vastly underutilized. Programs like Rogan’s and Mohr’s (or Stern’s, or Carolla’s, etc.) are great in that they hit a very dedicated niche audience and brand that audience repeatedly — that’s why they do the show in the first place! It builds demand, loyalty, and popularity in a very short time, something advertisers highly covet. Yet most of the ads I hear are for non-mainstream companies. I think Mohr’s Pepsi ads this Summer were some of the first Fortune 500 company ads I have heard on a podcast, so kudos to him. I think very soon, looking back, marketers are going to realize what a steal a media buy is on a popular podcast. More to come on this topic later, I am sure.