Commentary

Tinkering In The Podcast Lab

Runners who downloaded the popular PodRunner podcast series of workout techno mixes this week also get a laser-targeted ad from Timex. Developed by PHD and deployed on the VoloMedia podcast ad network, this small spot is not especially creative or ear-catching so much as it is achingly on target and on message. The iControl Timex watch lets you control your iPod wirelessly from the watch face.

Now, everyone accepts that the Apple iPod control wheel interface is a brilliant control scheme, except when you are sweating, panting and trying to keep a pace going. The Timex iControl puts all the major volume and navigation controls on the watch. The Timex spot on PodRunner simply explains the feature set, because, given the context, that is all it really needs to do. Here is an ad coming to you while running and through your iPod telling you how it can make both experiences easier next time. Other than having you car break down right beside a billboard for the nearest service shop, it is hard to imagine messaging that is any more appropriate to time, place and situation than that.

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For media buyers, podcast advertising is getting beyond the test-and-forget stage. VoloMedia CEO Brian Steel tells me their technology is not only able to insert ads dynamically into iTunes libraries and RSS streams, but it can use a plug-in to track whether a podcast has been played, and refresh an ad unit even after the podcast has been downloaded. An upcoming upgrade will give consumers more control over the media, letting them subscribe to a wider variety of audio and video content they find online and share it with others.

No doubt the technical advances in the field will help make the podcast ad realm more attractive to buyers, but I think the real value of this platform for advertisers is as a lab for mobile in particular -- and more generally, for all on-demand media.

But I am a biased and unabashed cheerleader for this platform. At last fall's OMMA Expo in New York, I confused audiences during a panel I moderated by making repeated reference to listening to podcasts "on my stepper." Some thought this "stepper" was a new mobile device or a media platform that I was testing. Actually, "stepper" is just my own term for the "Stairmaster"-style climbing machine I use to ward off arteriosclerosis. As age 50 looms and desperation sinks in, I spend about an hour a day now on this thing, and podcasts have been my solitary companion. If brand recall is a proper measure of marketing success, then solid podcast sponsorship is about as effective an ad vehicle as I have ever seen. I know, for instance, that Chili's was one of the first sponsors of The Onion Daily News, that Drobo storage and Nokia underwrite GeekBrief, and that CNN, Egg Network Better.TV have sponsored 3 Minute Ad Age.

On a good day I have trouble recalling my cat's name (I think it is Charlie or Chuck or something like that) but somehow these sponsorships have been seared into my consciousness. Why? Regularity, brevity, contextual relevance and loyalty. Many of the podcasts I consume are daily bursts that I rifle through as I exercise, and the sponsors are smart enough to keep the pre- or post-roll ads blessedly brief. A short message, seen daily, is too unobtrusive to bother fast-forwarding through -- and it works. One of the most effective spots I have ever experienced was the three-second post-show blast at the end of the one-minute Onion Radio News. All Chili's did was name a sandwich using a chirpy upbeat voice, followed by the brand. I got this every day, and it went by faster than I could find and hit the Stop button. When I watch re-treaded TV programs that use the original on-air commercials, they feel endless, and I fumble with the fast-forward button to get past them.

And sponsorship has its privileges. Much of ad-serving technology online has been about capturing profligate users as they surf everywhere. The classic sponsorship model never really took hold here. People don't tend to settle in with comfortable old favorites online in quite the same way they did for the Texaco Star Theater or Hallmark Hall of Fame. On-demand media, including mobile, is a bit different. This is media we subscribe to, pull down to us, and tend to experience frequently, even daily. This is a content experience that begs for sponsorship, for brands to bolt themselves to specific content. When I have enough affection for a program to download or subscribe to it, then the potential halo effect for a regular sponsor is enhanced. On some level I appreciate that Drobo and Nokia support that geeky cutie pie Cali Lewis of GeekBriefTV -- and they get my attention. There is something too to be said for sponsor loyalty with on-demand media. We subscribe to media with which we identify on some level. If a brand sponsor also "subscribes" to content with a persistent presence and support, they are suggesting a like-mindedness with the audience. This is something more than the "halo" effect.

Podcasting is arguably a marginal platform. Many of us have tried the format, but the steady core audience for downloadable media remains pretty small relative to other platforms. Regardless, I suspect that its importance as a lab for understanding an on-demand world is much larger than its audience. The disciplines of brevity, frequency and creativity marketers can learn here will be more broadly applicable to an on-demand and fragmented mediaverse. The learnings here may work on TiVo, on VOD, on out-of-home video and especially on mobile phones.

On my "stepper" each day, I am pretty sure I am glimpsing a touch of the past in the future of on-demand and mobile media. Just as Blue Coal was allied with "The Shadow" radio program in the 40s, and Paul Harvey's reading of "Bon Ami" was a high point of his radio program, there is a chance in the next generation of media for brands once again to ally themselves substantially and significantly with content people care about.

Or maybe it is that I am 45 minutes into my daily aerobic self-torture and the oxygen is growing thin. I seem to be flashing back to media formats that preceded even me.

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