How podcasts with small audiences are attracting advertisers

Daniel J Lewis, host of The Audacity to Podcast

Back in 2015, the data journalism site FiveThirtyEight and APM’s Marketplace teamed up to answer a very specific question: who’s advertising on podcasts? Ever since the 2014 “Serial phenomenon,” we’ve been treated to headlines about the explosive growth of both podcast listenership and advertising. According to one report, podcast advertising grew 85 percent year-over-year between 2016 and 2017. If you listen to podcasts, then you can probably recite some host-read ads for companies like Squarespace and Blue Apron from memory. Serial’s pre-roll ad for Mailchimp became its own meme.

The journalists from FiveThirtyEight and Marketplace collected data on the top 100 podcasts and covered episodes released over a two-day period (keep in mind the collection took place nearly two years ago, so it’s somewhat outdated). What they found may surprise you, specifically the stat that 38 out of the top 100 podcasts didn’t have a single ad. What’s more, almost none of the podcasts carried brand advertising for Fortune 500 companies; 87 percent of the ads were for internet-based companies, and most were direct-response oriented. These were the most popular podcasts in existence, and yet they were struggling to attract blue chip sponsors.

The challenge in generating advertising only gets harder the further you go down in the charts. Your best bet is to join an advertising network, but the largest of the networks — Midroll, Radiotopia, Wondery, etc.. — are extremely selective. I attended a podcast conference last year where a Midroll executive said the company isn’t considering podcasts with fewer than 50,000 episode downloads, and he said it would soon raise that threshold to 100,000.

This leaves thousands of podcasters who have respectable audiences but no readily apparent monetization options. Many have turned to platforms like Patreon to solicit funds directly from their listeners, but some have forged ahead and are securing advertisers despite significant headwinds.

Here to help them in this endeavor is Jessica Kupferman. A former branding and marketing consultant, Kupferman launched her own podcast advertising agency in 2016 and currently represents about 130 podcasts that span the topic spectrum from golf to early American history. Though the podcasts she reps vary widely in audience levels, she said she sometimes takes on shows with as few as a thousand episode downloads. Whether she’ll consider someone with that small of an audience depends, in part, on how long it’s been around. “A lot of people come to me two months in, and they’re ready to start advertising, but I feel a little nervous because some of the first shows I took that were even remotely new, they went away and they didn’t tell me. I was sitting there hustling for a show that didn’t exist anymore.”

I asked Kupferman why she’s willing to take on these smaller podcasts while the larger networks won’t even consider them. “I’m under the impression that most of those people at larger podcasting networks come from radio,” she said. “And so when you come from radio, the radio personalities you deal with, they aren’t influencers, they don’t manage their social media, they don’t have a lot of passion about the products they’re talking about.”

Kupferman approaches selling podcast ads the same way she’d handle influencer marketing. Often she spends a significant amount of time educating potential sponsors about the intimacy of the medium and the relationship podcasters have with their fans. “The fact that the average person listens to six podcasts,” she said. “The fact that they mostly download it the second it’s available, and also the fact the way you’re listening to a podcast, you’re not just turning on your car and shaboom, it’s there. You have to set it up, find the show, and download it. The whole to-do for listening to it, that proves the loyalty of the audience. So I think that people, especially advertisers, should really look at shows for who they’re trying to talk to, who their customer is, and buy it that way.”

Most of the larger podcast networks sell advertising on a CPM basis, affixing a dollar amount to every thousand impressions, but Kupferman will often try to sell at a flat amount, arguing that the podcaster’s influence extends beyond mere download numbers. This means assessing the holistic following of a podcast host across platforms and factoring that in. “I have one show that gets like 1,500 downloads a week, but [the host has] 80,000 Pinterest followers,” she said. “I can’t value her at $30 CPM and give her only $45 an ad because those 80,000 Pinterest followers are much more valuable. I have to haggle much more than a Midroll.”

Kupferman spends a lot less time pursuing the Mailchimps and Squarespaces of the world and instead focuses on going niche. Brands are much more likely to take a chance on a smaller podcast if a large percentage of its listeners fit its targeted demographic. “If you really want to talk to moms who are hippies, people who only feed their kids vegan food, it shouldn’t matter how big those shows are; buy spots on five shows with vegan hosts rather than on Dan Savage’s podcast.”

Liz Covart hosts a podcast that has a respectably-sized audience — between 10,000 and 12,000 episode downloads and around 160,000 total downloads a month — but still falls below the threshold that attracts mainstream sponsors. A historian with a PhD in early American history, Covart launched a weekly show called Ben Franklin’s World in October 2015. “Most of the episodes involve me interviewing someone about early American history,” she told me. “Most of the interviews center on books, and I actually read the books, so there’s a lot of prep work that goes into the show.”

That work paid off; within a few months it got showcased on the “new and noteworthy” list in the Apple Podcast app and Covart saw an explosion in downloads. Her audience has steadily expanded ever since.

Covart began thinking about monetization early into her podcast’s run. Her first foray into sponsorships came when she partnered with the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture at the College of William & Mary to launch a kind of sister podcast called Doing History, which focused on interviewing historians about how they worked. But even as her relationship with William & Mary flourished and led to a more permanent position as its digital projects editor, she continued to contemplate what advertisers would be a good fit for Ben Franklin’s World. “What can I get on the show that will provide value? I can tell my listeners until I’m blue in the face that it’s an ad, but they’re still going to take it as an endorsement. So what comfort level do I have talking about someone’s product or service?”

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Whatever sponsors she went with, Covart wanted to be able to tie them to the theme of early American history. She ultimately settled on Cornell University Press as her first branded partner. “Academic publishers can’t afford book shelf space at a Barnes and Noble,” she said. “My show was growing to where I had more people pitching me to be on it than I had space to feature people. And so the academic press angle, featuring Cornell University Press, was great because we talked about books that weren’t ever going to be on the shelves.”

Covart met Kupferman in online forums where podcasters congregate, and when Kupferman let Covart know she was launching a podcast advertising agency, Covart was ready to come on board immediately. “The next sponsor approached me and Jessica was able to negotiate,” she recalled. “That’s been the biggest bonus for me of her service is not only does my podcast now get exposure with major advertisers, but she does all the negotiation and the paperwork. I don’t have to generate reports about how many people are going to the sponsor’s site, or how many people came to my site, and all those metrics that sponsors want to know about. She just takes care of it.”

Covart gets final say as to which sponsors she takes on, and she’s occasionally vetoed brands Kupferman brought her. One was for a take home test kit for sexually transmitted diseases. “Politically, that’s something I could very much get behind, but looking at my audience and how much of it spans the political spectrum, knowing how many homeschool parents listen to it, I honestly couldn’t imagine reading a spot for that without blushing too much,” she said.  

Increasingly, smaller podcasters are turning to affiliate advertising to make money, and some brands are making this easier by allowing hosts to generate their own discount codes. Daniel J. Lewis hosts a show about podcasting called The Audacity to Podcast, and a significant portion of the show’s revenue comes from affiliate sales. “My Amazon affiliate income is paying my mortgage,” he told me.

The key to successful affiliate marketing is to only recommend products you’re passionate about and that would actually help your listeners. “I don’t do affiliates just to do affiliates,” Lewis said. “If I recommend a product or service, well first of all it has to be something I truly believe in.” For instance, on his own show, which has 3,000 to 4,000 downloads per episode, he’s recommended everything from microphones to audio mixers to even website hosting platforms. All of these products and services he uses himself.

A good place to start, Lewis said, is Amazon, which has a well-established affiliate program anyone can sign up for. “The best way to do it is to send people to your website, to your show notes,” he said. “If I’m mentioning 20 different things in the course of an episode, I’m not giving out 20 different links. I’ll say ‘go to the show notes at theaudacitytopodcast.com to get all these links I just mentioned if you want to check out any of these tools.’ So that way they don’t have to memorize all these separate URLs.”

A podcaster will see even better results if they can use easy-to-remember discount codes and URLs. Sometimes companies will let you auto-generate these codes or, if you have a direct relationship with them, they’ll create one for you. Lewis will also use a WordPress plugin called Pretty Link to shorten affiliate links into easy-to-memorize URLs that he can promote on his show. I asked him what percentage of his audience will actually purchase a product he recommends. “I would estimate maybe 5 percent of my audience, which doesn’t seem like much,” he answered. “I can’t always track what happens from an individual episode. I don’t set up that granular of tracking. But I can see on Amazon I sold this number of microphones this month.”

I asked Kupferman how much she’s focusing on affiliate advertising for her clients. She said that while it is an area she’s looking to grow, she’s worried that it’s harder for a podcaster to really push a product when they’re not being paid upfront. “If something doesn’t feel like a job, it won’t get done,” she said. “And so I have a feeling that even people who sign up for this affiliate program, if they don’t treat it as someone paying them to do this ad, then they’re not going to make a lot of money. It’s sort of like hiring a salesperson on just commission. What’s their incentive to start selling? They’re not getting paid for their time. So I’m really going to have to figure out how to keep on them and keep encouraging them.”

Regardless of whether a podcaster decides to join a network, push some affiliate links, or pitch sponsors on their own, the one advantage they have over most other mediums is their devotion to their niche. “The smaller podcasts that are more niched down are driven and powered by passion,” said Lewis. “The host cares so much about that topic that they would continue to podcast about it for hours every week, even with only a couple dozen or a few hundred people listening. The audience as well feels the deeper connection with those podcasts because it’s more niche, it’s more relevant.” That’s a connection that no website banner ad or pre-roll commercial on YouTube, no matter how micro-targeted, will ever be able to match.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com