Don't Look Now, But Here Comes Podvertising

Suddenly, they're everywhere - podcasts. Audio files downloaded from the Web and transferred to iPods and other kinds of MP3 players are more popular than ever and are fueling new opportunities for advertisers. Podcasts from ABC News, ESPN, CNN, and Bravo are among the most popular, according to Apple's iTunes site. A diverse slate of marketers has already jumped on the bandwagon. For example, Toyota's Lexus brand last month bought a 26-week podcasting campaign through KCRW, a southern Calif.-based public radio station. The deal, which starts in October, has Lexus' southern California Lexus dealers sponsoring podcasts. Durex, the condom brand, has purchased product placements within podcasts. Nestle's Purina brand says it will sponsor podcasts; it plans to offer pet owners advice on animal training, choosing insurance, weight loss, and other topical issues in a series of weekly tips. The audio content will also be sent to other mobile devices like wireless phones. DaimlerChrysler is the sponsor of podcasts launched by the online magazine Slate, and Unilever's Axe brand and Sony are underwriting free downloadable content for the new PlayStation Portable (PSP) game/media player.

And these are just a few of the actual deals; many more marketers are mulling their options. Apple helped spur the latest wave of marketer mania in June when it introduced the newest version of software for the iPod, enabling users to download podcasts to the device. Apple says the software will allow iPod users to subscribe to more than 3,000 free podcasts and have each new episode automatically delivered via the Web to their PCs and iPods.

In the case of Sony and Axe, episodes of the Axe-branded entertainment series "Evan and Gareth," as well as "Pimp My Weapon," a satirical makeover series created from ultra-violent gameplay in the Sony PS2 game "God of War," is nestled within's "PSP Packs" of free multimedia content. With only 600,000 PSPs in the hands of early adopters, the Sony/Axe/Heavy partnership resulted in an astonishing 130,000 video downloads in the first week, and "Pimp my Weapon" became a cult hit. "We started getting fan mail," says Simon Assaad, CEO, Heavy Inc. "They were actively looking for the next episode, which is really a three-minute ad for the game." Of course, the PSP represents the edge of an entire class of user-controlled new media platforms that eschew the intrusiveness of traditional advertising. "The podcasts, blogs, and RSS feeds are all part of the same extended family," says Joseph Jaffe, principal, jaffe, LLC and author of Life After the 30-Second Spot. And the user is part of "[a] highly targeted or self-selected affinity group. ...Someone who's uniquely pulling and customizing content relevant to him. There is a sea change - no question," Jaffe notes.

And in many cases consumers dabble with these user-controlled forms because they don't want their media canned, padded, scheduled, and hijacked regularly by advertising messages. Simply following these eyeballs into personalized platforms with the same old 15- or 30-second spots, banners, or direct marketing text ads is a bit like stalking. "You can do that, but then someone feels you have penetrated their personal space in a way that can work against you," Assaad says. On-demand media may require highly integrated on-demand advertising - laser-targeted branded content and information that is so relevant and compelling to its audience that, like "Pimp My Weapon," consumers actually ask for it by name.

Beyond Reaggregation

Following eyeballs is the easy part, but learning how to speak to personalized media may be tougher. As audiences disperse from mass media and self-assemble their mediaverse to include everything from tiny blogs to RSS readers and idiosyncratic MP3 podcasts, the old advertising empire's first impulse is to blog/pod/feed-vertise, and to find ways to re-aggregate the exiles back into familiar, ersatz networks.

Blogads now has 17 targeted clusters of sites for media buyers and a Music Blog Network of 10 sites that can bundle 1.6 million unique visitors in a single buy. Google's test of serving AdSense listings into RSS feeds validates a growing list of companies like Pheedo, which already serves RSS ads for 8,000 publishers, and Feedster, which claims 6 million feeds in its database and is already gearing up for podcast advertising.

RSS advertising is young, but according to Bill Flitter, CEO, Pheedo, the return on investment is already there. "It is a good return for the client, and we are seeing that people keep on buying." Podcast ads are already being tested, and at least one startup, Castfire, will offer technology for inserting audio spots into networks of the downloadable audio shows.

But is re-aggregation enough in the long run? "You can't just take the same thing we have done before on the Web and shove it in here," Flitter says of ads in RSS feeds. User-controlled media are too easy to turn off with a "fast forward" or "unsubscribe." "There is a message in the medium. There needs to be new thinking," he adds. In fact, at venues like, Pheedo, and BlogAds, you can find evidence of new languages emerging for speaking to an increasingly powerful media consumer and disciplines that may apply far beyond these platforms. Follow the Form

At BlogAds, Henry Copeland, CEO, says the best ads are created by marketers that have learned to appropriate, rather than interrupt, the blog spirit. A recent Knopf ad for author Haruki Murakami relies entirely on testimonial quotes from other bloggers that link to their personal sites, "shrewdly sacrificing direct clicks for bigger blogosphere buzz," says Copeland in his own blog post about the blog ad. "In effect, the ad is a mini-blog post," he concludes.

The message in the blogosphere is that it isn't just another publishing platform, but a community and a conversation. "You have to be in the conversation rather than laying ads on blogs," says Jeff Rossi, supervisor, MEC Interaction, part of Mediaedge:cia. For clients like TomTom, marketer of portable global positioning systems (GPS) devices, Rossi has a stable of people active in the blogging community who join discussions involving GPS. The bloggers fully disclose their relationship with TomTom, but they also educate the blogging community about the technology.

The message in the blog medium? If consumers are actively participating in making media about products, then companies have to provide consumer-generated media with the core assets they seek - to be part of the conversation. Ultimately, the payoff from learning the new pro-sumer language can be huge. "User-empowered media is the perfect vehicle for [users] to become our sales force," Rossi says. "You have the ability now not only to build a brand, but have your consumers build your brand for you."

Sure, you can buy banners on relevant blogs, but "we advise our clients to treat [a blogger] like any other reporter," says Doyle Albee, account director, Metzger Associates. Albee suggests that marketers find the blogs that are the most informed and influential in a particular category and build relationships with them, feeding them press releases, product shots, expert commentary, and interviews.

For consumers who want to make and assemble their own media, the best thing an advertiser can do is to facilitate the process by offering them the tools and assets with which to do it. The ad format should follow the media's form. If RSS is about stripping media down to its essential utility, then feed that need. RSS is the Web without layouts, ads, and spam. Rather than inserting text ads into RSS feeds, perhaps advertisers need to create their own feeds with useful information. For example, imagine a Kraft feed of recipes. And why not have a collection of entertainment feeds "brought to you by Paramount Studios," muses branding consultant Rob Frankel. "Brands sponsoring feeds; that's the quickest and smartest way in," he says.

The Participatory Consumer

User-controlled media isn't just a set of new technologies, but an emerging consumer mind-set that media and advertisers must inevitably embrace if they want entry into these personalized worlds. "You have to understand the kinds of principles people are engaged in, how people are incorporating these new media into their daily lives," says Joe Pilotta, vice president, BIGresearch and professor of communications at Ohio State University. "Media structure a new social relationship that is between producer and consumer. That in-between place is where I would say all the new trends are happening. ...It is more like a play structure," Pilotta adds.

The early evidence suggests that people use personal media devices, and probably personalized media like blogs and RSS feeds for that matter, to establish a different relationship to media and a different social identity. For instance, according to Bridge Ratings research, most new owners of MP3 devices initially abandon radio in favor of their personalized music player experience. But within six months, most MP3 owners are listening to as much radio as they did before in order to identify new tracks and artists for downloading.

"They are using radio differently than before. a partner to find sources of new music," says Dave Van Dyke, president, Bridge Ratings. These consumers are not making media so much as reassembling, customizing, editing, and in the case of blogs, annotating media. If user-controlled media platforms are transforming media consumers into media partners, advertisers need to respond in kind and further empower, rather than simply interrupt, participatory consumption. "The forms of blogging or iPodding may morph into other things, but the principles are going to be that advertisers and strategists will have to allow people to have more participation and control," says Pilotta.

The "exposure model" of filling every available space with messaging will have to change to one of asking permission to be allowed into these private media spaces. The message in user-controlled media is, "'I want a private space. I don't want to be exposed to your noise,'" Pilotta says, continuing, "The new media are telling advertisers that 'I want my advertising the same way I want everything else  when I want it, in my time frame, in my conditions, and in the style I want it.'"

We're All Content Providers Now

Intrusiveness may not be an option in personalized media. In podcasting, for instance, "the real trick is going to be how to place advertising so as not to offend people," Van Dyke says. Some of his podcasting clients are trying 30-second radio spots, but they're not going over well so far. But most experts OMMA consulted felt that sort of subterfuge risks exposure and listener resentment. While there is no doubt that consumers already do and probably will tolerate some familiar ad messaging in personalized platforms like blogs, podcasts, and RSS, experts exploring these media argue that advertisers looking to make an impact will have to be much more ambitious. "We have left the shores of advertising and arrived at the promised land of content," Jaffe asserts.

"Where we see it going is that advertisers also become publishers," says Pheedo's Flitter about the most promising and effective uses for RSS placements. "You have to provide an environment and creative that matches the content from publishers. Give me more content. It's tell versus sell."

For example, Citrix, a provider of online meeting and remote PC access software, recently crafted targeted long-form RSS ads in a feed used by marketers. Rather than a typical text link, this was a 500-word narrative about how the Citrix product saved an account executive from losing his client. Likewise, a long RSS item for a new Subaru model profiled the type of person who would buy this car. "It was more like me talking to you about a car," Flitter says. If RSS is about stripping information down to the relevant stories that people need or want, then the best creative gives the subscriber just that - stories, not pitches. "The term message will go by the boards," Pilotta says, adding, "The things that will have to be insinuated are not messages. For this kind of media it is more a matter of styles."

In user-controlled media like digital video recorders and podcasts, "it's too easy to TiVo past those ad spots," Metzger's Albee says. For a ski resort, he is experimenting with branded information for personal media that skiers can download and listen to on their lift rides up the mountain. Podcasts will feature a history of the ski runs, but also promote local music groups for the evening's clubbing. "We've very much moving toward the realm of being content providers rather than jingle writers," Albee maintains. Much like a fondly recalled Super Bowl ad, podcasting has already produced a legendary example of effective integration. "The Chris Pirillo Show" is a live and podcast show on personal technology. Pirillo used his sponsor's product, Citrix's GoToMeeting online meeting software, to let listeners log onto the host PC to watch his tour of favorite Web sites. "It's pretty amazing how readers responded to this type of advertising," Flitter says. As a result, Citrix is planning a bigger podcast initiative, and Pirillo's listeners are asking when they will see the product used again.

The Perfect Storm

If it all sounds expensive and challenging - creating substantial content, locating and crafting creative for niche audiences - it probably will be. Advertising budgets will shrink and marketing budgets will swell, predicts Jaffe, because more attention needs to be paid to "super-efficient" placement of the right message in front of the right consumer. The more demanding participatory media consumer forces us to do all of our jobs better. "They won't sit through getting a tampon ad in their NPR podcast," Jaffe says. Targeting is a prerequisite now, not a luxury. "Let's spend a little more time finding the person who needs to buy the basketball shoes," says Albee.

The upside, Flitter says, is that the same technologies that fragment and empower audiences also deliver back to media makers highly actionable metrics: Who is subscribing and unsubscribing to which channel and in response to what ad or event? "It will be out of necessity that they start looking at their analytics," Flitter adds.

And one advantage to self-selected, laser-focused media is more efficiency, Albee notes, adding: "If someone takes the time to podcast or take an RSS feed, there is a reasonably better chance they are being reached."

But the real upside of participatory consumption and user-controlled media is that they provide a healthy challenge for the media and ad industries. Now these industries must fully engage with trends that have been haltingly executed in the past decade, including micro-targeting and integrated media. "There will be severe disruptions of the [publishing and media] institutions," Pilotta predicts.

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