While dynamically-inserted spot ads have been grabbing a lot of attention in recent years, host-read adverts are still many podcasters’ bread and butter, and making them as effective as possible is in everyone’s interest - from the advertisers who get more bang-for-their buck, down to the listeners who don’t hear the siren song of the skip button.
While internet adverts have become obnoxious enough to make ad blockers go mainstream, podcast hosts reading a sponsored message in their own voice has so far largely been given the benefit of the doubt by listeners. What initially grew out of convenience has actually proved quietly effective; Edison Research’s 2021 Super Listeners Study revealed that listeners have a better opinion and pay more attention to adverts that are host-read.
But host-read adverts cover a whole gamut, so last year Sounds Profitable put out a study called “After These Messages” which dug deeper into the different types. “We looked at a host-read adlib, a scripted host read and a scripted announcer read of the same ad with the same content,” says Sounds Profitable partner Tom Webster. “The host-read ad does better in almost every case.”
There are plenty of possible reasons for this. For one thing, hearing the host talking about a product in his or her own voice reminds the listener that there’s a direct link between the sponsorship and the free podcast they’re enjoying.
For another, podcasts tend to create a parasocial relationship where listeners can’t help but hear the hosts as their friends, according to Megan Moe, a professor of communication at Lee University who has studied the relationship between podcast listeners and adverts.
“They consider podcast advertising that’s delivered by the host to be more of a recommendation as opposed to a paid advertisement,” she explains. “People understand that it’s paid, but they still feel like it’s a recommendation from a friend and they want to respond in a different way. It gives them this level of credibility that is very rare to find in advertising.”
Perhaps most importantly, host-read ads are considerably less jarring than radio or TV ads repurposed and stuck crudely in the middle of a podcast — and that makes people less likely to reach for the skip button.
“That’s very important, because there is this aspect of storytelling in podcasts that listeners get caught up in,” says Moe. “They might be washing the clothes or taking a walk, but mentally they're in another space. And they don't like to leave that space for advertising.”
This is something that Frances Harlow, co-founder of Arcana Audio, emphasised during her time as branded content producer at Gimlet — the studio behind the likes of Science Vs, Reply All, StartUp and Heavyweight. Those familiar with one or more of these podcasts will know that the ads maintained the feel of the show and personalities involved, while being respectful of the advertisers involved: a potent combination.
“That was always what we did at Gimlet,” she recalls. “It was always: ‘we know what it’s like to listen to podcasts. We know how it feels when you have a really jarring interruption and it completely takes you out of the story that you’re listening to’.”
“A host-read ad is not really like a commercial. A commercial is like ‘Bleugh! Buy some cream cheese!’ A host-read ad is more organic, it’s natural, it’s off the cuff. It does not need to include an endorsement — you know, in the early days, host-read ads were all endorsements, and nobody believed the endorsements anyway.”
The idea that an advert might not contain an active endorsement might alarm those holding the purse strings, but the softly-softly approach may ultimately be more effective.
“On the whole, host reads are pretty damn awful,” says Ben Kerr, managing director of SE Creative Studio, which specialises in branded podcasts. While conceding that some — such as Adam Buxton (“the creative hero”) do it well, those overdoing the sell are being counterproductive.
“Take The News Agents — a brilliant show,” he says. “Sopel, Maitlis and Goodall are some of the best, most inquisitive critical thinkers out there. No one believes they like BT, because no one does. No one talks about a utility brand like that.”
Crafting the perfect host-read ad
So what does the recipe for for a good host-read ad contain?
“The truth is that what makes for a good host-read ad is to do as little reading as possible,” says Harlow. “You don’t want them reading a script, and you don’t want the client to have written the script. That’s what made Reply All’s ads stand out.”
“Don't have the client write it for you; get some talking points from them, and then write it like you would write a normal podcast script - which is to say, read it out loud. All of the rules of writing a podcast script — that apply to journalism — also applied to ads. Read it out loud as you're typing it so it actually sounds like a human — and use contractions. Don't say ‘cannot’, say ‘can't’; don't say ‘do not’, say don't’.”
Caitlin Van Horn, marketing director as Simplecast, agrees with all of this. “Common traps, such as an overly scripted ad, can appear inauthentic and robotic, so finding a balance between delivering a clear message and respecting the host’s style and voice is key.”
Add Sophie Hind, managing director of Voiceworks, as yet another assenting voice here. “We’ll give the podcasters some guidance and bullet points, but then we very much want them all to deliver it in their own style,” she says.
“The best ones, I think, often have a lot of humour involved from the personality of the hosts. You need to have that personality in there, otherwise there’s no point in buying a host read. You're better off producing an ad that you can really tailor to what you want.”
Matt Forde, a comedian and occasional deliverer of host-read ads as part of the British Scandalpodcast, agrees that this is the way to go. “What I struggle with is when clients want a specific wording,” he says. “If the wording is too rigid, it’s not the sort of language I would use and I can only conclude that anyone listening would think it was slightly counterproductive. It would sound like I’d been held hostage!”
He’s not down on adverts at all, however. “There’s this element of the creative industries that is quite cynical about advertising,” he says. “I’ve always found a really good advert like a good pop song.”
And like a good pop song, brevity is vital. Kerr advocates 30 seconds, Hind says 60 and Moe says somewhere between the two. “I would never go over 1:20, and that was really pushing it,” says Harlow. “Beyond that, people get bored, no matter how good the ad is.”
That may sound obvious, but some advertisers don’t understand that less is usually more. “One of the worst ads I’ve ever tested was a host-read ad for a service they use that went for like four minutes,” says Webster.
“It may have matched the tone of the show, it may have been a host that people liked. But it was a four-minute ad for a financial services company. You know, you can do too much of a good thing.”
So brevity, personality and minimal scripting make an ad enjoyable — or at least acceptable. But what about converting audiences from passive listeners to active buyers?
“The more a host uses words like ‘you’, ‘I,’ ‘we’ and ‘us’, the more listeners feel like they are in a conversation with the host,” says Moe.
She also suggests podcasters could gently lean on the relationship they have with their audience. “People like to be part of a podcast team,” she says, “and they’re helping the podcasters succeed when they respond to advertising messages. So instead of saying, you know, ‘please support the show by buying products’, you’d be better off by saying ‘you’re a part of our team every time [you buy]’.”
What about authenticity? Does it matter if a host is actually enthusiastic? Kerr thinks so. “Don’t break the relationship with the audience and pretend it’s a real part of your life,” he says. “Or every time they hear it, they’ll think a little less of you.”
By contrast, a product that is genuinely liked will be easier to promote. “We get really close to the presenters on all our podcasts,” says Hind. “It’s really useful if you understand their personal interests. We’ve got a famous male sports presenter who’s mad about his dogs, so we’ve been pitching Pets at Home and dog-related products. Because we know that he’ll do a really passionate, interesting and probably funny read about them.”
For Forde, promoting Beer52 was easy for that reason: “I like beer, so it’s not a stretch for me to do,” he says. But the one that really sticks in the memory is for Stitchfix — a concierge clothes delivery company that should have been well outside of his comfort zone, but actually won him over once he interacted with the product while preparing the ads.
“I was like ‘fine, I hate shopping for clothes, so I’ll just chuck this stuff on’,” he laughs. “I started wearing Stichfix stuff and people were like ‘my God, you look really good. I really like that jacket — who got that for you?” His British Scandal colleagues have not let him forget this, he says.
There’s one final thing to bear in mind for advertisers: you can’t win ‘em all. It’s an understudied area, and more of an interesting footnote to Moe’s research than a definitive conclusion, but certain audiences appear more receptive to adverts — host-read or otherwise — than others.
“Comedy and true crime listeners were the ones that were most likely to feel the relationship with the host and want to purchase products to follow through because of that relationship,” she says. “History was the other way — it was negative. History podcast listeners were less likely to want to listen to ads or follow through with any consumer action.”
While there wasn’t enough data to reliably assess other genres, it’s an important reminder that one size doesn’t fit all. “We talk about podcast listeners as if they’re one thing, but they’re really not.”
Perhaps that’s a reminder to everyone involved to get to know the audience: what they’ll like, what they’ll endure and what they absolutely won’t. It will ultimately make forming relationships with advertisers both easier and more profitable.
“There was one I turned down — I wouldn’t say what for — but it basically wasn’t even an ad, but a piece of propaganda for a company saying ‘we’ve got really good terms for our employees’,” says Forde. “And I thought… I’m not going to pod-wash your company! When you get an advert on a TV show, Holly and Phil don’t say ‘by the way guys, eat at McDonald's’ — there’s a separation. On podcasts, you’re leveraging the credibility of your hosts to some extent, because they’re the ones who have to read it out.”
In other words, podcast advertisers can leverage an enormous amount of listener goodwill if they work with a host — but treating them as a vessel for scripted corporate talking points will instantly lose that. Letting hosts do what they do best may feel uncomfortable for marketers used to having absolute creative control, but the results can speak for themselves.