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Is this the sound of great writing?

August 15 2018

I’ll confess from the outset that I am addicted to podcasts. Every run, train journey, or big shop thunders along to a backing track of smooth chat. I plead guilty to bursting out laughing in the Quiet Carriage and giggling uncontrollably at a Lidl checkout. But the famous copywriter in me can’t help noticing something else unusual - podcast advertising doesn’t irritate me. In fact, it ruddy bloody works.

I believe that some of the best copywriting at the moment is to be heard and not seen.  

This is a journey into sound…

Over 5 million of us currently listen to podcasts in the UK. Thanks to the ubiquitous smartphone, they’re part of our commute and are finding their way into water cooler conversation alongside Love Island and Strictly Bake Off. Most famously, Serial spawned a whole new genre in docudrama, WTF with Marc Maron (100m+ downloads) has made the celebrity interview interesting again, and sports podcasts like Guardian Football Weekly, The Eggchasers, and The Totally Football Show have shown that the apogee of analysis is no longer ‘Not for me, Clive’ and that fandom can be cerebral and witty.

These are the big hitters, the iTunes Top 50, but whatever your niche, there’s a podcast for it. Like Reply All for technology, The Digital Marketing Podcast for marketing, or simply a podcast devoted to Denzel Washington.

Not surprisingly, the teams who put the hours into recording, editing and distributing these podcasts are looking to monetise through advertising (or ‘supporters’ in podcast vernacular) at some point.

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This should be the moment at which that once charming, spontaneous kitchen table chat becomes dull and corporate, with as much edge and personality as a conference PowerPoint. Except that hasn’t happened. Consider the following…

  • 75% of podcast listeners don’t find the ads intrusive
  • 34% admit that hearing a podcast ad has actually improved their perception of a product
  • 65% of people who listen to a podcast go on to trial a product.

[True Native Media survey]

And since podcasting is a digital, mobile medium, that often means that they’ll take action right there and then. Thumb-stopping content indeed.

How advertising didn’t kill the podcast

One the reasons for the extent of advertising cut-through and recall in podcasting is the quality of the writing. There’s simply no room for hyperbole, inauthentic voice, flabby copy, weak messaging or vague calls to action. Instead, it’s direct, concise, and pure. So it’s rather chastening to discover that not that many podcast teams exploit the services of a professional copywriter. Why? Partly because of budget, but more often because producers and hosts are the custodians of the show’s tone of voice and can develop it better than anyone. However, as shows grow and the prestige of brands increases, the balance of power is likely to shift into recreating the brand’s signature messaging first, and respecting the show’s editorial tone second.

So how are podcast content producers and their supporter brands managing to come up with ads that engage? Typically, a few strategies are in play…

  1. Take the piss

Until the ‘Skip Ad’ feature is introduced, we’re accustomed to our favourite podcast starting off with a quick roll call of advertisers and affiliates. In the case of WTF with Marc Maron, it’s done at speed, without much feeling. Imagine Bill Hicks selling laundry detergent. That’s part of the strategy, however. “You end up feeling quite warm towards the product or service advertised because they are being so loose with the perception of their brand,” says BBD Creative Consultant Ben Friend.

  1. Grow together

Apart from bringing long-form storytelling sexy back, and breaking a world podcast record with 175 million+ downloads, Serial also subtly transformed the fortunes of Mailchimp. Each series began with a quirky, engaging pre-recorded ad that became as intrinsic a part of the podcast as host Sarah Koenig’s mellifluous narration. Whereas bigger brands are often wary of the numbers, there is a tendency for start-ups to grow with podcasts - as Squarespace did with Stuff You Should Know and Cornerstone did with Guardian Football Weekly and then The Totally Football Show.

  1. Go native

Another convention is for the podcast hosts themselves to take care of the advertising - from the writing to the delivery. Listen to Football Weekly or Stuff You Should Know, and you’ll hear the hosts preview, interrupt and close out their round the table discussions with plugs, spots and discussions of supporting advertisers. By not allowing an outside voice to penetrate the soundscape, the podcast doesn’t have to break the podcasting equivalent of the fourth wall. Just as the best performing Facebook ads feature faces in action, fitting seamlessly into the surrounding newsfeed, so the most effective podcast ads blend seamlessly into the stream.

Some of the best copywriting I’ve heard in the last year is on The Totally Football Show, which consistently manages to segue between footie banter and credible product promotion without jarring.

“The copywriting is usually a collaborative affair,” says Iain Macintosh. “Producer Ben [Green] does most of them, and I’ll weigh in occasionally with the more abstract ones. Every ad has to go back to the advertiser for final sign off, so working with them and to the brief is always key.”

Nevertheless, listen to the ads on the show and there is a distinct absence of marketing speak, phoney messaging or crap banter. The ads sound authentic with a clear presentation of problem and solution. Even the invitation to ‘get the thoughts of Paddy Power’ at the end of each show doesn’t necessarily trigger the stop button. It’s not just shouting a brand, but sharing some tips.

“Podcasting is a medium that encourages a bit of creative freedom and informality,” says Macintosh. “It’s a really interesting time for the industry.”

You can see an example of the immediacy and personality coming through in this recent ad…

Listeners, here’s a question for you. Have you read The Economist, like actually read it? Because it’s not just about economics, it’s about everything. Politics, science, business, literature and even a bit of football from time to time. For 170 years The Economist has delivered trustworthy intelligence to generations of smart, thoughtful people just like you, and because you listen to the Totally Football Show you can have a copy for free. The Economist helps readers prepare for what’s going on in the world around them and in today’s dynamic world, facts matter more than ever. But you don’t have to be an international financier to enjoy it. I bought my subscription in January, and I couldn’t do without it now.

  1. Flip the process

Some brands have gone the whole hog and created their own podcast, the audio equivalent of the inflight magazine. eBay (Open for Business) and GE (The Message), for example, both launched listenable shows that added value, solved a problem and - let’s not forget - entertained, without becoming clunky and didactic.

What does it all mean?

Brands (and the occasional agency) are striving for the Holy Grail of relentless relevance. Podcasts deliver it episode by episode - from The Absolute Peach to My Dad Wrote a Porno. And until AdBlock comes to Soundcloud or iTunes, advertising is an essential part of the mix. Here’s what we can learn…

It’s about storytelling FFS!

Podcasts are about spinning a yarn, telling a tale, and (more often than producers would admit) putting people to sleep. And no one ever nodded off to a MoneySupermarket jingle or the Go Compare song. So tell a story in the advertising, too. Good copy sounds great when read aloud - especially when it leads the listener from problem to solution in style.

It should add value

Our planner Karl wouldn’t be half the men he is if it weren’t for the daily inspiration of Tim Ferriss. Not a man to suffer fools, Karl admits that he has no time for ‘repetitive or annoying’ ads, but responds to the credible way the Ferriss podcast drops in off-the-cuff recommendations during the show. The secret? They’re all related to the self-improvement sector, they add value, and they have very high recall. That’s why the majority of podcast ads aren’t concerned with branding but focus on direct marketing - give me your time and I’ll solve this problem for you. 

Never lose your voice

A podcast lives or dies by its ability to lure listeners into its world and keep them there. Key to that environment is a consistent voice and set of values. “I’m more likely to accept a recommendation from a podcast,” says BBD Developer Tim Redman, “and I’ll listen out for special offers and promotion codes.” The same idea is taken up by Videographer Jamie White Reed: “They’re not ads. They’re testimonials,” he says in between cuts. In short, we trust a niche podcast not just to fact check the content but also to quality control the advertising. 

We’re listening to…

The Digital Marketing Podcast

Football Weekly

TWiT

WTF with Marc Maron

The Bugle

The Do Lectures

Dirty John

Where Should We Begin

Totally Football Show

If you’d like to share your thoughts or top podcast tips, get in touch at psst@brightblueday.com