Listen Up! The Digital Audio Channel Is Still A Missed Opportunity

The age-old (for digital) question of display advertising is: “What is the last banner campaign you can remember?”

At yesterday’s OMMA Premium Display event in LA a number of people, including myself, still cite the “I am a Mac” series that extended brilliantly from TV to digital with synchronized and animated skyscraper/leaderboard units. But how many years ago was that?

On the other hand, I can tell you the sponsors of audio podcasts I listened to years ago. I know the three or four dominant local advertisers on my Pandora stations.

At a panel on the opportunities and untapped potential of the digital audio panel Slate podcast, Executive Producer Andy Bowers recounted how some loyal listeners actually asked for some of the ads to be put back into a premium product that gave Slate subscribers the podcasts ad-free. The company had devised a program with audio book publisher Audible where the hosts of a podcast created a “bucket list” of classic literature they felt people needed to hear before they died.

“For podcasting, the ads that work the best and audiences love are very old-fashioned, going back to the fifties. Hosts improvise and talk about products and how they relate to them.”

The reason that people actually want these kinds of ads is because the ad is directly tied to people the listeners have relationships with. The added value for the user is not just an interesting audio reading list but insight into the hosts they already take into their lives.

One of the themes that came out at yesterday’s panel was how the audio channel is even more intimate than other media carried primarily by mobile devices because, as Andy put it, it is “in your head.” People are listening while engaging in all manner of other very personal activities, from exercise to Jacuzzi soaking. We relate to this medium in a more personal way, and that relationship is conferred onto the sponsor.

What is still missing in most digital audio channels, however, is developing ad and sponsorship formats that explore the possibilities here. “We need an audio renaissance of creativity,” said Lizzie Widhelm, VP of product, Pandora.

Several on the panel pointed to the creative innovation of redistributing what are sometimes very small live events. Widhelm recounts how Pandora often stages these small events around a given artist and her following that can then be turned around into an on-demand product that has much greater reach than a live stream.

I think one of the unique qualities of digital audio is its ritualized use case. On-demand and digital radio often occupy regular parts of people’s days and gives the advertiser a unique experience within which to work. To this day the most memorable digital audio ad I ever heard was a 5-second spot that occurred on the Onion’s Daily Radio News. The faux-news comedy bit was itself only 1 minute long, but it occurred every day and had a quip and brand mention of the Chili’s restaurant chain. To this day I remember the advertiser. The regularity of the show’s consumption allowed the advertiser to make an impact with brevity and frequency that never annoyed.

Understanding how new formats can emerge from the unique media consumption patterns mobility allow is going to be one of the chief opportunities of the next ten years. Mobility ties media in with the relentless rhythms of our lives. Media is no longer something we go to to consume. It is a portable environment we simply turn on at will and in new and different patterns throughout the day. There really are occasions here where marketers can be less intrusive and more impactful. 

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