Podcasting needs to be realistic about its place in the media hierarchy

It’s a bitter pill, but not everyone loves podcasts as much as us

I love podcasting. I love the medium, I love the content, and I love the community. It’s full of passionate, talented people who can’t help but evangelise the audio format, singing its praises from the rooftops. It’s one of the most dedicated and hardworking communities I’ve ever had the privilege of being part of - but this devotion can sometimes be its Achilles heel at the same time.

Podcasting is in a transitionary phase. After quietly growing in popularity for many years, it’s more mainstream now than it ever has been, and the rash of high-profile podcast success stories means that more and more people are aware of it. For those of us who eat, sleep and breathe podcasts, it's easy to believe that everyone is as deeply immersed in the medium as we are. Sadly, however, that's not the case, and this cognitive dissonance can trip podcast fanatics up when interacting with people outside the industry.

It’s easy to forget, for example, that more than 80% of adults in the UK don't actually listen to podcasts regularly, according to Ofcom’s latest Media Nations report, while the reverse is true for broadcast TV. In simple terms, the TV audience is orders of magnitude bigger than the podcast audience, and the same is true for print and radio. Little wonder, then, that podcasting is still viewed by most media agencies as a peripheral format which is - at best - a ‘nice-to-have’, rather than a central pillar of a media plan.

One might argue that this is old-fashioned thinking in a world where print circulation is declining and podcast listenership is on the rise, but while the advertising industry likes to pride itself on its willingness to push boundaries, at the same time, the allure and prestige of an august format like TV or print can be powerful.

The fact is, these media ecosystems are far more mature and established than podcasting, with decades of heritage and a whole industry of companies providing measurement, reporting, auditing and other services for advertising within them - all of which reinforces the beliefs of brands and agencies that they’re more reliable and worthwhile than podcasting. When podcasts are a key part of a campaign, it’s often because a senior marketing executive within a client brand is an avid podcast fan, and has specifically pushed for their inclusion.

Then there’s the question of reach. While there are plenty of benefits to podcasts as an advertising channel, the scale of the potential audience simply doesn’t match up to formats like TV. Smart marketers will see the value in a targeted, highly-engaged audience, but at the end of the day, the customer is always right, and so if a brand is stuck on the idea that ‘big number = good’, there’s not much that an agency can do to dissuade them from pumping their budget into a mass-reach TV or radio campaign.

It’s also hard to overlook the fact that a TV advert is, for want of a better word, shinier than a podcast campaign. Even with all the production values in the world, the advantages of the audio format - authenticity, engagement, relevancy - aren’t as immediately impressive as a big, splashy piece of TV creative, and that often makes it a harder sell for agencies trying to demonstrate value and impact to a client. 

All of this means podcasts are less likely to be included on an agency’s media plan in the first place, and even when they are, they’re among the first things to be cut when belts tighten and budgets start to shrink - much as they have been for the past year.

To most people in podcasting, this seems like wilful madness; there’s a substantial body of research from organisations such as Sounds Profitable demonstrating the effectiveness of podcast campaigns for driving key marketing metrics like recall, consideration and conversion, but for most of the ad industry, podcasts are a largely new and untested medium. They don’t have the same experience with using it, a track-record of proven results, or established playbooks for how to optimise campaigns in the space.

The advertising industry is massively under-indexing on podcast spending - according to the IAB’s latest Digital Adspend Report, the total spend was just £76.3 million for 2022, compared to more than £13 billion on search - but the reason they’re doing so is that they just don’t see it as an essential part of the media landscape, and the truth is, there’s good reason not to. While we spend most of our lives surrounded by podcasts at every turn, statistically speaking, it’s more likely to be a complete unknown for the vast majority of ad execs.

In my experience, advertisers that take the leap into the podcast space rarely find themselves regretting it, but podcasters need to be realistic about how much of a priority it is for most of them. The onus, therefore, is on us as an industry to do more to educate brands and agencies on the benefits that podcast advertising can bring, and why the medium’s (comparative) lack of reach is made up for by the passion and engagement of its audience.

In order to do that, though, we need to stop assuming that everyone we talk to is going to have the same level of knowledge about the industry. The ad industry might be waking up to podcasts given the recent explosion in the number of B2B shows - including The Campaign Podcast from PodPod's sister brand - but if we start from the assumption that every potential new partner is only vaguely aware of podcasts’ existence, we can work on building up the knowledge of the advertising sector as a whole, opening more eyes (and ears) to the wonderful possibilities of podcasting.