Casting a Wider Net

by Lisa Picarille
January 1, 2006

Podcasting is emerging as an interesting and potentially lucrative opportunity for online marketers who want to reach a wider audience.

The figures for podcasting vary, but by all counts the podcasting market is poised to explode and online marketers want in. A report from The Diffusion Group, a technology research consulting firm, showed that the use of podcasts is expected to grow from an estimated 4.5 million users in 2005 to 56.8 million by 2010.

Also called audioblogging or blogcasting, podcasting is a term formed from the combination of the words iPod and broadcasting. Podcasting started cropping up with some frequency in early 2004 and, despite its etymology, an Apple Computer iPod is not required – any MP3 player or computer will play the audio files that are created and downloaded from the Web.


These audio files, which can be about a diverse range of subjects (from cooking to computers and religion to comedy), are posted online and, by subscribing to RSS feeds, can be automatically detected and downloaded to a user’s computer.

Until recently, podcasting, like blogging, was the domain of those with a desire to create whatever sort of content they chose without regard to advertisers’ preferences, editorial guidelines, format or demographic targets. They were even exempt from government regulators such as the Federal Communications Commission.

Then in 2005 several events occurred in the span of just a few short months that shone the spotlight on podcasting and pushed the grassroots movement into the mainstream consciousness.

In April some impressive data emerged that showed podcasting was a large and still-growing market. The Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that more than 22 million American adults owned iPods or MP3 players. Nearly 30 percent of them had downloaded podcasts from the Web to listen to audio files at their leisure. Then in May 2005 BusinessWeek put podcasting in front of the average business Joe by running a cover story and special report focused on podcasting.

By October, Apple had announced the integration of podcasting into its popular iTunes music service software. This made it easier for users to search for and subscribe to podcasts. The move struck a chord with users who signed up for more than a million free podcast subscriptions in just two days after the announcement.

Also in October, Apple launched its much-anticipated video iPod. Users were overjoyed to find out they would be able to download episodes of their favorite TV shows including Lost and Desperate Housewives.

Marketers began jumping on board just as quickly. Only a little over a month after the video iPod was unveiled, fast-food giant Burger King sponsored a set of comedic shorts that could be downloaded and played on the new device. The Burger King sponsorship entailed a branded page for video files specially encoded for video iPods.

Also just shortly after the device debuted, a group of users of Adobe Systems’ software launched what may have been the first podcast infomercial, a half-hour tour of the company’s popular photo-editing software, Photoshop.

All of this was bolstered by surveys, data, research and reports predicting huge gains for podcasting.

A November report by radio and media market researcher Bridge Ratings estimates that 4.8 million people have at some time during 2005 downloaded a podcast from either a radio station or other source. iTunes was referenced as the most often accessed portal for podcast downloads. This 4.8 million estimate is up from 820,000 podcast users in 2004.

By 2010, conservative estimates say that 45 million users will have listened to at least one podcast. Aggressive estimates place this closer to 75 million by 2010.

The study shows that approximately 20 percent of current users who have ever downloaded and listened to a podcast do so on a weekly basis. This group downloads an average of six podcasts per week and spends approximately four hours a month listening to those podcasts. More interestingly, on average less than 20 percent listen to their podcast downloads on an MP3 player or other portable digital device.

A lot has changed since a year ago when Allen Weiner, research director with market research firm Gartner, referred to podcasting as largely a hobbyist phenomenon, attracting “anybody who’s ever had a microphone or worked at a college radio station.”

Now this burgeoning podcasting market, which had already quietly developed a huge and fiercely devoted following, was the object of interest for venture capitalists, traditional media players, advertisers and online marketers – all working overtime to figure out how to make podcasting profitable.

And that is a polarizing topic for the podcasting community.

At the Portable Media Expo & Podcasting Conference in Toronto in early November, keynote speaker Leo Laporte said, “If somebody gives you money, you owe them something. I listen to my listeners, but I don’t want to listen to advertisers.”

Laporte, an author and high-tech guru, appears in advertising-supported radio and TV shows but shuns commercial advertising and promotions for his popular “This Week in Tech” podcast.

But for most the basic questions are no longer, Is podcasting an advertising vehicle or a marketing vehicle, or is it an art form or a commercial form? The discussion has moved beyond that to acknowledge that it’s all of those things and more. Now the real question is exactly how and who will make money from podcasting.

Add Advertising and Stir

Adam Curry, a former MTV VJ from the early 1980s, is widely credited with helping get podcasting off the ground. Curry was among the first to create a podcast by working closely with Dave Winer, a programmer, who is also often acknowledged as the first blogger, credited as the father of RSS and a former resident fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

In November of 2005 Curry’s company PodShow, which promotes podcasts and finds sponsors for them, acquired Podcast Alley, a grassroots podcasting directory that played a big role in sparking the podcast craze. Many define success as a spot in Podcast Alley’s Top 10 list. Those with top rankings are often downloaded hundreds of thousands of times.

The acquisition comes less than a month after news that PodShow, which also helps mainstream companies produce and distribute podcasts, received $9.85 million in funding from Silicon Valley venture capital firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Sequoia Capital. Curry’s plan is to launch a podcast network with anywhere from 30 to 50 shows that will split ad revenues.

While Curry’s been in the podcast mix since the start – he often refers to himself as “the Podfather” – there’s no lack of jockeying for position among big tech players and some newcomers, many of whom are attempting to lay the foundation for selling shows and advertisements. Technology companies including America Online, Apple Computer and Yahoo are jumping into the mix with aggregation services that collect thousands of podcasts in a single location.

Apple’s iTunes offers 15,000 podcasts, and as of press time listeners had signed up for 7 million subscriptions. Listeners confirmed more than 10,000 podcasts can be found at PodcastAlley.com.

And there’s power in numbers. Once podcasts are aggregated it is likely to be easier to sell ads across a group of shows. A lot of different approaches are being tried, including placing advertisements in actual podcasts, offering subscriptions to individual shows and in some cases, getting podcasters to actually do shows devoted to specific products or talk them up, much like the early days of radio.

Curry plans to offer advertisers a variety of sponsorship possibilities, including spots where a podcaster tests a product and then devotes an entire podcast to that product or service.

Last November, the women behind Mommycast (part of Curry’s network), a weekly show hosted by two mothers from their homes in Virginia, secured a major sponsorship deal with paper products maker Dixie, a division of Georgia Pacific. In a 12-month, six-figure deal, and repositioning that will be happening this spring.

Another high-profile sponsorship deal was also inked just before Thanksgiving. Martina Butler, a 15-year-old podcaster, snagged sponsorship from Nature’s Cure, a top brand of acne treatment. Butler’s show, Emo Girl Talk, features the life and times of a teen girl who talks about her favorite music and interviews celebrities. Officials from Nature’s Cure said in a press release, “There are a number of teens now listening to podcasts. Sponsorship is an excellent way to increase our brand awareness in an environment that is meaningful and credible to them.”

Many say these deals prove the podcasting medium is starting to gain traction among advertisers, and not just those reaching out to early-adopter males.

Sponsorships typically involve a 15- or 30-second audio ad at the beginning of the podcast. In the past, the popular podcasts usually set flat rates ranging from a few thousand dollars a month to as much as $45,000.

For example: In early 2004, Volvo agreed to pay $60,000 for a six-month sponsorship of the monthly podcast of Weblogs Inc.’s Autoblog, as well as advertising on the site itself. Over that period, the show was downloaded 150,000 times.

Some industry watchers note that because the number of listeners is changing fast, a flat-rate sponsorship isn’t always such a good deal for advertisers.

KCRW, a public radio station in Santa Monica, Calif., cut a deal with Southern California Lexus dealers for a sponsorship this summer, when the station was getting 20,000 downloads a week. Since then the number spiked to 100,000. When the Lexus deal ends, KCRW plans to charge $25 per thousand listeners, according to Jacki K. Weber, KCRW’s development director.

That new rate is considered pretty high given that one morning radio show in New York City (America’s No. 1 market) often charges between $12 and $15.

Venture capitalist Mark Kvamme of Sequoia Capital says podcasting may end up diverting anywhere from $1 billion to $2 billion away from the $30 billion radio advertising market over the next three to five years.

To fend off that possibility, some in the radio business are getting into podcasting in a big way. National Public Radio, which offers 33 podcasts, pumped out 5 million downloads in less than three months. NPR grabbed Honda Motor Co.’s Acura division as sponsor and is wooing others.

Still, some like Laporte are seeking ways to support their podcasts without directly taking ads and instead are asking listeners for donations. Laporte’s “This Week In Tech” podcast has more than 200,000 listeners and asks for donations of $2 per month. It often takes in nearly $10,000 a month, he says.

Tools and Metrics

Once ads get placed, sponsors want to make sure they are getting exactly what they paid for.

The difficulty in tracking podcasts, however, goes beyond the number of downloads and instead is about the portability of the files. Because the player software is often on a mobile device, such as an iPod or other MP3 player that is not connected to the Internet, the marketer loses track of the downloaded file when it leaves the computer.

For that reason, some podcast advertisers are turning to techniques used for traditional media like radio, such as custom 800 numbers or offer codes. And since podcasting uses RSS feeds for distribution – the same syndication and distribution mechanism used by blogs – RSS-centric technology companies such as FeedBurner are leading the way to help podcasters build the format into a moneymaking business.

There are also tools that make it attractive to launch ad campaigns across various mediums including blogs, podcasts and RSS feeds. Blog and RSS advertising network Pheedo is developing a program for advertisers looking to launch integrated multichannel campaigns across blogs, RSS feeds and podcasts.

If your advertising message is in only one of these channels, there’s a chance it will be missed by part of the customer base, according to Bill Flitter, Pheedo’s founder and chief marketing officer.

Advertising buys will be a package deal, with guaranteed impression counts for the RSS and blog inventory, while the podcast portion will be measured by the number of average downloads from previous shows.

While Pheedo has been testing integrated campaigns for a few advertisers since June, the company is still developing technology for podcast ad serving and is building its podcast network. Pheedo’s podcast ad network currently offers ads on about 30 podcasts and has run campaigns for six advertisers. The RSS and blog components are already in place. To date, technology, video game and automotive advertisers and publishers have the most success with blog and RSS advertising, according to Flitter.

While many applaud the moves to provide some basic metrics, they admit that strategic marketers are always focused on the return on investment and need to know who’s viewing the page and who’s downloading the file in order to accurately measure the impact on their own end, according to John Furrier, founder of PodTech.net and host of the Infotech podcast series.

Shelly Palmer, president and CEO of Palmer Advanced Media, a marketing consultancy in New York, says, “If you think about podcasts as marketing vehicles, you would be taking advantage of all the tools available to Internet marketers: tracking software, affiliate marketing schemas, SEM (search engine marketing), and SEO (search engine optimization) methodologies, etc. This makes huge sense since, for the moment, podcasts require a personal-computer-based client and an Internet connection.”

Palmer adds that brand awareness, lift and purchase intent are three of the most common metrics that brand managers use when calculating return on investment for advertising and marketing dollars. “What’s nice about podcasting is that the Internet enables census-based metrics. Properly used, podcasting can tell you a great deal about how effective it is for your business.”

Furrier claims that better ROI calculations won’t be possible until the different systems involved are integrated.

Many are working hard to make that possible. At the Portable Media Expo & Podcasting Conference in November, much of the focus was on tools or ways for podcasters to count audiences, deliver ads and charge listeners.

Furrier’s startup, Podtrac, announced a demographics-and-advertising program that attaches a prefix to the name of MP3- formatted podcasts that will obtain an exact count of downloads per show, thus far a vexing challenge for podcasters because some podcast directories cache shows on their own servers. The company also plans to help podcasters create sales kits and then work to connect them with advertisers, with Podtrac taking as much as a 30 percent cut of the revenue.

Audible.com, which sells audio books and news programs online, has launched a new service called Wordcast that lets podcast creators chart listener usage behavior somewhat like the Nielsen ratings do for TV – a huge step for getting advertisers to make precise choices.

By providing a way to track not just how many times the show is downloaded, but also whether it is played and for how long, Audible hopes to give podcasters some audience information.

The company will charge 3 cents per downloaded podcast to report whether a downloader listened, and for how long. Audible will also offer tools that will stop the podcast from being emailed to others. It will charge 5 cents per download to track listening and attach the access restrictions. For half a cent per download, Audible will insert an ad relevant to the podcast. Audible also would take a 20 percent cut of any subscription fees it collects.

With the tools, “you can build a bona fide rate card” for advertising, says Foy Sperring, Audible’s senior vice president for strategic alliances.

BitPass, a 3-year-old Menlo Park, Calif., company, showed off a similar process that enables podcasters to sell their content, while Taldia unveiled its podcast-production service. The Altadena, Calif., company has a deal with the Associated Press and other news outlets in which Taldia’s army of voice talent, which is spread across the nation, records audio summaries of printed news reports. For $5 a month, subscribers can select what news topics they want to hear about, how many minutes of content they want and at what time of day they want it delivered to their computers.

Microsoft has also announced plans to integrate support for RSS throughout the Windows Vista operating system to make creating, viewing and subscribing to content of all types, including podcasts, easier. Microsoft is also working with companies like Doppler, a podcast aggregator, to ensure it can take advantage of the open architecture in Windows Media Player for its podcast applications.

Lukewarm

Still, not everyone is convinced podcasting is the next big, big thing. Many are tempering their enthusiasm with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks and an avid proponent of blogging, wrote in one of his posts at BlogMaverick.com that he expects podcasting to level off soon.

Here’s the picture he paints: “The number of podcasts available individually or through aggregators will explode beyond where they are today.” Then, “that will create a massive dilution in the audience size of the early-entry podcasters. Everyone’s audience will fall as the marginal listeners find something they like better. Yes, there will be some podcasts that get more listenership than others, but most of them will be repurposed content that already has demand.”

Finally, “Individual podcasters who don’t have some other means of generating demand other than being on aggregators will fall off first and the fastest. They will just go away, the only trace remaining will be tiny Web pages on the Wayback Machine. So in about three years, the podcast phenomena will have run its course and will just be a normal part of the digital media landscape.”

Ted Schadler, vice president at Forrester Research, says, “Podcasting feels like the Internet first did: a whole new way of experiencing the world. But at the end of the day, radio is radio and consumers will only listen to things they find valuable.”

Schadler says there are many people with various agendas. “To the rising tide of podcast hosts, podcasting is better than blogging for becoming famous. To venture capitalists like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Charles River Ventures and Sequoia Capital, podcasting is a bet on the next big thing. To commercial operators like Clear Channel, it’s yet another channel for selling advertisements,” he says. “Each of these groups expects podcasting adoption to mirror Internet adoption with giddily exponential growth. Alas, there is another precedent that all must consider: Push. Push exploded on the scene with Pointcast, landed faddishly on millions of desktops, and then just as quickly died away. (Of course, push has been rehabilitated as RSS, but push’s big problem – content overload – remains.)

Schadler’s bottom line: “Podcast listening will follow a natural progression: enthusiastic experimentation, disenchanted abandonment, and value-driven adoption.”

By the start of 2006, Schadler says, “Enthusiastic experimenters will find that most podcasts aren’t worth listening to and even the useful ones pile up unopened in the podcast corner of the hard drive. After all, who has an extra hour a week to listen to a radio show? Disenchanted, consumers will abandon most podcasts.”

However, it’s not all so grim, according to Schadler. “Somewhere in the midst of the experimentation and abandonment phases, podcasting will become valuable to consumers that want control over radio or access to niche content. Thus, value-driven adoption will characterize the mature phase of podcasting.”

And based on a historical analysis of Internet radio adoption and a forecast of broadband and MP3 player adoption, Forrester expects 12 million households to be regular podcast listeners by the end of the decade. That’s a far cry from Bridge Ratings’ estimates of 75 million users by 2010.

That kind of conflicting data is likely why some advertisers are also not jumping into the deep end with both feet.

A survey by the American Advertising Federation rated blogs, podcasts and Web-enabled cellular phones as newcomers in the market that are worth watching, but have yet to prove they’re worth major investments.

On a scale of 1 to 5, respondents rated the three new Internet-based channels in the middle of the scale, which is considerably lower than where they placed traditional media and other forms of online advertising.

An AAF representative says that because these media are so new, people are more cautious and are taking a wait-and-see approach. The “cornerstone” of advertising remains the 30-second spot on television, but consumer adoption of new technology is forcing ad execs and marketers to look beyond newspapers, magazines, TV and radio, and question their return on investment.

Pod Porn

One market segment that is always lightning fast to react to new media and new technologies is adult content.

Andrew Leyden, founder of Podcast Directory.com, is quoted in a Newsweek published report saying, “No matter what the technology is, sex finds a way to get involved.”

This shouldn’t be surprising since 85 percent of those who use the search engine’s podcast directory are men according to Yahoo senior product manager Joe Hayashi.

At PodcastDirectory.com, six of the top 20 shows are adult-oriented. On Apple’s iTunes store, “Open Source Sex” is No. 11 and climbing. “Porn” is the second-most-searched-for term at Podcast.net; “BBC” is tops.

Industry watchers also say the plentiful storage capacity, portability and privacy afforded by MP3 devices make it enticing to listen to such titillating adult content. The video iPod is only expected to increase the amount of X-rated content available for download since anyone with a microphone, a video camera, a computer and some privacy can create such adult content, according to Violet Blue, the host of the Open Source Sex podcast. “You don’t need big breasts or big advertisers.”

The flip side of the emergence of sex-related content is religious programming. There are already many religious-themed podcasts – often referred to as godcasting – including Dharma.net, GospelAudio.com, Catholic Insider, Pray-station Portable and Pagan Power Hour.

“Casting” is also being co-opted by all sorts of other industries, market segments and groups. There have also been suggestions of food marketers looking into gastrocasting, music marketing called rockcasting and pharmaceuticals delivering medical education to physicians via medcasting.

In the end, it looks like everyone, including God, is looking for podcasting to pay off in a big way.

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