The Algorithmic Ad Monster Cometh for Podcasts

Ashley Carman at The Verge, “Podcasters Are Letting Software Pick Their Ads — It’s Already Going Awry”:

The podcast industry is working up to something big; you can see it in the acquisitions. All the industry’s major players have, over the past two years, acquired companies focused on one feature: inserting ads into podcasts.

Of course, podcasting has always primarily depended on ad revenue, so this incoming era has more to do with getting podcast ads to act like the online advertising we see everywhere else. Wherever there’s a website, there can be a targeted ad, and now wherever there’s a podcast, there’s the potential of inserting a targeted ad, too. Whichever company can make that transition happen the fastest, across the most shows, and with the best data, could not only recoup all those millions of dollars in acquisition costs but make more on top of them.

Carman reports on a few cases of dynamic ads gone wrong — a podcast for kids that was served ads for “The Sex Lives of College Girls”, a science podcast that had explicitly opted out from ads for fossil fuel companies being served ads for Exxon and BP — but the whole idea is shit. Even when the “right” ads are dynamically inserted, the ads are inevitably going to be bad. We know how this story ends because we all use the web and can see with our own eyes the quality (and oppressive quantity) of “ad tech” advertising.

Marco Arment, on Twitter:

Old-fashioned podcast ads (baked-in host reads) have had better CPMs, stronger response rates, and higher audience trust than almost any other form of advertising for over a decade.

And large podcast companies threw that world away for … a worse outcome.

Big platforms and ad-tech companies ALWAYS sell us all on a dream.

You’ll make more money!

It’ll be easier!

It’ll be more accessible to small producers!

And it almost never pans out that way. The middlemen siphon off most of the money, and the platforms become monopolies.

Look no further than Carman’s own description of the trend: “getting podcast ads to act like the online advertising we see everywhere else”. I don’t know anyone who listens to podcasts — you know, the actual customers — who thinks that sounds like a good idea. There’s never been a form of advertising more despised than today’s online web advertising.

Ken Kocienda, retweeting Arment:

If I ever get around to making a regular podcast, I would never (ever!) give up the right to choose every single ad. The ads are part of the product.

“The ads are part of the product” succinctly sums up my thinking, and saves me from writing an extended rant. That’s the whole game, the entire reason not to even consider letting some biz-dev “ad tech” company insert ads dynamically into a podcast. The ads are part of the product. I’ve built the entire business model of Daring Fireball around that sentiment.

On a related note, it’s long been fascinating to me that “RSS” is widely considered a failure — a half-forgotten technology that lost its relevance when Google pulled the plug on Google Reader — yet the entire podcast universe is built on RSS. Spotify is gaining some degree of traction with their platform-locked shows like Joe Rogan’s, but the overwhelming number of popular podcasts — including subscriber-only paid shows — are delivered via open RSS feeds readable by any client software. All podcasts clients are, at their core, RSS clients — they’re just RSS clients for audio content, not the written word.

The primary reason for this bifurcation, I’m convinced, is simple: most web publishers never figured out how to monetize full-content RSS feeds, by which I mean RSS feeds with the complete articles, not just excerpts. Putting only article excerpts in an RSS feed makes no more sense than putting only audio excerpts into a podcast feed. People who subscribe to a podcast want to listen to the entire shows; people who subscribe to a website’s RSS feed want to read the entire articles. Don’t overthink it. But without a model for advertising in RSS,1 most websites — particularly big websites from established media companies — stopped publishing RSS feeds. Podcasts avoided that fate because the sponsorship model, typically with hosts reading the ads, took root across the entire field. It’s a good model for everyone — the hosts earn money, the sponsors get strong response rates, and listeners get ads that are actually relevant to them and not annoying. (According to Apple Podcasts’s analytics, only about 20 percent of listeners to my show skip the ads.)

Trying to move podcasts to web-like “industry standard advertising” is worse than violating the spirit of If it ain’t broke don’t fix it — this is breaking something that definitely works for something we know doesn’t. It’s grift on the part of the ad industry, pure and simple.

  1. Here’s where I’ve got to take a self-congratulatory footnote. Long ago I had a paid membership program for Daring Fireball, and one of the perks for paying members was a full-content RSS feed. The free-of-charge RSS feed only had article excerpts. The problem was that Google Reader didn’t work with personal RSS feeds, and Google Reader was — by far — the most popular RSS reader. Rather than dig in my heels, I pulled the plug on monetizing full-content RSS feeds through paid memberships, and instead made the full-content feed free for everyone, and tried monetizing it with a weekly sponsorship, where the sponsor got to post a paid entry to the feed. That worked. It’s now 14 years later, and it still works. (I told a longer version of this story in a talk at XOXO back in 2014.) ↩︎