Don't look now, but that “podcasting” medium that has been in a persistent state of becoming for the last six or seven years may actually be making its big move as the format evolves into something closer to “mobilecasting.” “It's been a real bump,” says Andy Bowers, executive producer of Slate.com's podcasts and video, of the 25% to 35% increase in downloads that he and others in that realm have seen this year -- especially since Apple introduced a dedicated podcast app in iOS.
Now iPhone, iPad and iPod users are genuinely untethered and can access these on-demand audio and video shows without painful PC syncs. The popular podcast aggregator Stitcher has also been part of a general realization that podcasts are great audio content that can be pushed effortlessly to a device library. “That seems to have floated everyone’s boat,” says Bowers.
And at Slate, which has a long-running portfolio of political, cultural and sports podcasts, it means that podcasting is also more of a real business now. The brand has over 1.5 million downloads a month. In fact, MediaPost’s own columnist Bob Garfield co-hosts one of the latest Slate shows about all things language-oriented: Lexicon Valley. And according to Slate Publisher Matt Turck, he is sold out of the inventory for his shows. “The CPMs for podcasts are the strongest we have -- better than pre-roll and even than some unique ad units.”
Slate packages the podcasts in a number of ways, including as parts of display and video buys on the site as well as with event sponsorships when Slate’s well-known “Gabfest” teams of political and cultural commentators go live. TIAA-CREF underwrote a series of such live shows around the country this year. Fedex sponsored a series of podcasts on negation tactics that Turck says rushed to the top of the Business podcast charts.
Interestingly, the sponsors who buy podcasts as a stand-alone vehicle tend to be direct-marketing efforts like Audible, GoToMeeting and Stamps.com. This is made all the more curious by the fact that podcasts don’t have clickthroughs. In an audio show, the best the direct marketer can hope for is to have the listener directed to a unique URL to attribute the lead to their Slate buy. Which listeners do, apparently. “They wouldn’t be coming back to us month in and month out if this wasn't working,” says Turck.
He attributes the direct marketing success to the engaging, conversational model of having hosts incorporate the brand into the podcast chatter. Each show is limited to one or two sponsors, who get an intro mention from Bowers and then usually some kind of promotion that one of the editor/speakers on the podcast helps craft. Bowers says the hosts get into the challenge of making these spots feel less spot-like. They do research and get to improvise ways of connecting the segregated interstitial with the program it interrupts.
The promise of podcasting as a compelling medium has always been limited by kludgy distribution. No matter how hard I tried to evangelize this medium among friends and family who I knew in my heart would love some of this content, the process of subscribing, downloading, syncing and erasing old content was simply too much content management for many. Making the distribution more wireless and better baked into the OS clearly helps move podcasting towards its essence -- time shifted radio.
But it is a bit more than that, really. It is closer to time-shifted radio with satellite or HD radio content targeting. Podcasting allows highly specialized audiences and publishers to find their niche. There is some guy in his den in the Midwest recording a podcast on archived comics I listen to every week. It doesn’t have to be polished, because it is so well targeted to my own freakish obsession with the American comics arts that I eat it up. I didn’t even know his two sponsors existed until I happened to find his podcast. Now I visit them regularly.
My guess is that podcasting never does achieve a massive scale, and that may be for the best. Podcasting was always about narrowcasting, but doing so with the emotionally engaging element of voice. Arguably, it is a more natural medium for smartphones than the Web. It doesn’t make you break stride and look at a screen, type or tap a thing. Podcasting may be the true native ad format for smartphones. It echoes the device’s most core functionality -- conversation.