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Neither Fish Nor Fowl

Neither Fish Nor Fowl

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Written By

Tom Webster

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June 27, 2023

Tiny bit of housekeeping this week (don’t you wish you’d have put that Do Not Disturb sign outside your door?): This week’s newsletter is slightly abbreviated as we will be presenting our latest quarterly research study, The Podcast Opportunity, later today. Also, no newsletter next week as we celebrate Independence Day/Week. The Download will arrive on schedule, however. Now, on with the show!

I’ve always loved the phrase “neither fish nor fowl.” It comes from a longer phrase, “neither fish, nor flesh, nor good red herring,” which refers to the foods eaten by the clergy, common people, and the poor, respectively. Today, though, we use the abbreviated phrase to refer to things that don’t neatly fit into a single category. Also, I love herring, but as a Downeast Maine boy, it was the food of my people.

It’s a phrase I come to as I review our latest research project, The Podcast Opportunity, which we will be presenting later today in a live, free webinar. This study, a look at how brand and agency buyers perceive podcast advertising, was highly requested by our partners at Sounds Profitable, and thanks to both Digiday and Signal Hill Insights, we have been able to gather the opinions of over 300 buyers to find out how they really feel about podcasting as an advertising vehicle.

Podcasting is absolutely at an inflection point in terms of how ads are bought and sold. For over a decade, podcast ads were bought largely a show at a time, with baked-in, host-read ads for direct response marketers. Today, the technology exists to buy podcasts programmatically at scale across the entire long tail of podcasts, but we aren’t there quite yet. The central conflict here is that podcasting is perceived as a bit of a “tweener”: is it an analog medium with superior metrics? Or is it a digital medium with measurement tools that are seen as lacking compared to online video or display?

It’s tempting to look at the current state of podcasting and conclude that podcasting is neither fish nor fowl, not easily fitting into either category. But that’s merely a snapshot of what has been a continual evolution. Ultimately, for the future of this medium, it needs to be a digital medium, transacted with ease, and measured to the satisfaction of buyers.

I think we are getting there, but we aren’t there yet. One of the themes in The Podcast Opportunity is certainly going to be that as fast as podcasting has grown, the state of advertising technology to support that growth hasn’t quite caught up. There is still no “one source of truth” about podcasting metrics, and the variance in how the IAB 2.0 download “guidelines” are applied sometimes works at cross-purposes to the intent of such a specification.

It is also true, however, that as an industry we need to do a better job singing the song of podcasting with agencies and brand marketers. The fact that podcasting is evolving daily means that many buyers have perceptions of podcasting that are firmly rooted in 2018, not 2023, and are simply unaware of the targeting, measurement, and brand safety tools podcasting enjoys that many other advertising vehicles do not. Indeed, I have spent a good part of June presenting that story to buyers at the behest of our various partners, which is a thing I will do until my voice gives out. Podcasting has a great story, and we need to remember that with the turnover and tenure of agency employees in particular, we can never be done with the telling.

But we also need to honor the voices of the buyers who have been there since the beginning, the ones who have experimented and stuck with the medium despite their frustrations at the disjointed nature of some of the adtech solutions they have had to navigate. And this means that the adtech companies serving this space also have to innovate and more importantly communicate not just with the publishers but also with buyers to more fully integrate their solutions from creative to campaign execution, and incorporate podcast metrics with other campaign metrics in today’s complex multi-channel campaigns – all while continuing to serve the buyers who got us here by making the baked-in, host-read ads easier to transact, not harder.

Ultimately, we need programmatic buying, we need a firmer measurement standard, and we need more transparency with data between brands, buyers, and publishers to quantify the true impact of podcasting. The point of programmatic sales isn’t to replace how many podcast ads are bought and sold – it’s to enable those transactions where they are currently not possible or scalable. It’s to provide options for a more robust revenue model. 

So, while it is tempting for some on the outside to perceive podcasting as neither fish nor fowl, I prefer to see it as fish – the fish that pulled itself out of the water and began to walk on dry land. As long as we continue to innovate and collaborate on standards, those fins will turn to wings.

I hope to see you at The Podcast Opportunity: Buyer Perceptions of Podcast Advertising, Wednesday June 28 at 3 PM Eastern. No fish will be served. 

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About the author

Tom Webster is a Partner at Sounds Profitable, dedicated to setting the course for the future of the audio business. He is a 25-year veteran audio researcher and trusted advisor to the biggest companies in podcasting, and has dedicated his career to the advancement of podcasting for networks and individuals alike. He has been the co-author and driver behind some of audio’s most influential studies, from the Infinite Dial® series to Share of Ear® and the Podcast Consumer Tracker. Webster has led hundreds of audience research projects on six continents, for some of the most listened-to podcasts and syndicated radio shows in the world. He’s done a card trick for Paula Abdul, shared a martini with Tom Jones, and sold vinyl to Christopher Walken.

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