By: Steven Perlberg

November 5, 2014


On Feb. 9, 1999, the body of Hae Min Lee — a high school student in Baltimore County who had disappeared about a month earlier — was found in a shallow grave in a nearby park.

Almost 15 years later, one million people have taken up the cause of figuring out “whodunnit.”

That is thanks to “Serial, ” a popular new podcast hosted by “This American Life” producer Sarah Koenig. The show centers around the state’s arguably dubious case against Ms. Lee’s ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, the man arrested, tried and convicted for her murder. Ms. Koenig’s story, reported in weekly episodes, has reached the top of the podcast charts.

When the iPod burst onto the scene in the early 2000s, podcasts — radio shows you can download on your devices — were heralded as a big future ad medium. But with the rise of newer channels like web video, there’s little question that podcasts have slipped marketers’ minds. ZenithOptimedia, for example, put out a forecast predicting 0% growth for the medium after years of positive momentum.

But Podtrac, a podcast advertising company, says “Serial” has an audience of one million unique listens per episode (there have been six), with about 60% of listening coming from mobile devices. And “Serial” isn’t alone in what New York Magazine has dubbed the “great podcast renaissance.” According to Edison Research, 15% of Americans have listened to a podcast in the past month, up from 9% in 2008.

Marketers certainly don’t look to podcasts for the kind of big reach that say, TV, can offer. But analysts say listeners are attentive while they’re listening to their favorite podcast shows. There is just something about hearing a brand name through a dulcet, NPR-like voice.

“It’s an incredibly intimate medium, ” said Emily Condon, production manager of “Serial.” “You have someone literally in your head talking to you, if you’re listening through headphones anyway, which a lot of people are.”

“With podcasts, what you may not be getting in raw numbers — scale — you’re going to make up for at least partially in how engaged the audience is, ” said eMarketer analyst Paul Verna. “It’s not like banner ads where you’re just putting them out there and hoping that 0.03% of your audience is going to click on it.”

Mr. Verna says he doesn’t think a few success stories like “Serial” will push marketers into podcasts in a big way, but that advertisers ignoring them might find it valuable to take a look at the most popular shows.

The most popular shows aren’t exactly cheap. MailChimp,  the email marketing company that sponsors “Serial, ” says it pays between $25 to $40 CPM (the cost of reaching a thousand listeners). On average, pre-roll ads on YouTube cost an average $17 CPM, according to data firm SQAD.

Yale Cohen, senior vice president of activation standards at ZenithOptimedia, said that the podcast medium looks different from the early 2000s. When they were first introduced, podcasts provided people with a way to listen to their favorite shows when they were offline. Now, thanks to smartphones and ubiquitous WiFi, Americans are much more connected to the Internet. That effectively makes podcasts less like downloadable music and more like Internet radio — an increasingly attractive platform for advertisers.

Indeed, 46% of “Serial’s” website views come from mobile devices, while 45% come from desktop and 9% from tablets, according to Ms. Condon. A full 71% of iTunes downloads were to mobile devices, compared to 20% desktop and 9% tablet.

“I think you’re now able to grow what used to be a type of content that was only available through download, and now you’re able to stream it at anytime without having to download it to a device, ” Mr. Cohen said. “The definition of the word podcast has sort of changed.”

As a result, Mr. Cohen said his company’s 0% growth prediction was more for the “old” world of podcasts, but as they become more akin to Internet radio, that forecast could change.

“The concern several years ago was that people were downloading and not listening, ” said Mark McCrery, CEO of Podtrac. “That question goes away to the extent that the content is consumed on connected mobile devices.”

Of course, not every podcast will be a hit, though MailChimp marketing director Mark DiCristina says he had a feeling it would be a smart buy, largely because of the show’s partnership with the successful “This American Life” program, with which MailChimp has also advertised.

“The appeal to me is the stickiness, ” said Mr. DiCristina. “The credibility of the host and the show rubs off on the brand a bit.”

David Raphael, the president of Public Media Marketing, which sells advertising for a variety of top podcasts including “Serial, ” says that podcast advertisers used to be mostly interested in “acquisition marketing” — grabbing sign-ups or monthly subscribers. Now, he says, there are more advertisers interested in using podcasts to “brand build” and have their company associated with high-minded content.

While the major shows might be the ones attracting significant brand dollars, podcasts can also thrive without advertising, according to Adam Curry, an early podcaster and host of the “No Agenda” show. Mr. Curry, known by some as the “podfather” thanks to his role in the movement’s early days, does not use advertisers on his show.

“You don’t need a million people listening to create something and it be sustainable and grow over time, ” Mr. Curry said. “I personally like that because I don’t have to have any meetings and show anybody how many downloads I’ve had.”

Read more at: CMO Today