By David Kiley
See Our Podcast Picks
Today, most podcasts are virtually ad-free. And that's probably the way regular listeners want it. After all, many are downloading podcasts to their MP3 players because of the ad saturation on commercial radio. But advertisers can't resist a promising new way of reaching consumers who are sharply curtailing their consumption of traditional media like Adkins dieters faced with menus of potatoes and pasta.
Most major advertisers -- General Motors (GM), Ford (F), Procter & Gamble (PG), Unilever, Warner Brothers (TWX), and Heineken among them -- are either already advertising in podcasts or at least dithering over the right creative approach before jumping in. "Podcasting is one of the developments, along with online digital music services like iTunes and Rhapsody, that allow a consumer to be their own programmer. That will obsolete terrestrial radio for many advertisers," says Rishad Tobaccowala, chief innovation officer at Publicis Groupe Media (PUB).
"ENORMOUS BANG." By getting in early on a new technology like podcasting, an advertiser can be seen as cool and fueling a nascent medium among early adopters -- typically the most influential people in their social circles. For Euro RSCG 4D that meant getting client Volvo to fork over $60,000 to sponsor www.autoblog.com for six months and underwrite the launch of the autoblog podcast.
The podcast is a compilation of what the blog host thinks are the best items, such as interviews with car company executives, aftermarket tuners, and the like. "For very little money we get enormous bang," says Anna Papadopoulos, media director at Euro RSCG 4D. Four months into the deal, the podcast has been downloaded 20,000 times. Ford Motor's Swedish unit is using the same strategy by sponsoring the www.engadget.comodcast, an extension of the blog that covers all aspects of gaming, home entertainment, and home computing.
Thought you could escape infomercials in cyberspace? Sorry. Some companies have discovered that podcasts allow them to make infomercials available anywhere, anytime. General Motors distributes one on its own corporate blog (www.fastlane.com). In the style of talk radio, the 12-minute show is described as "FastLane Radio." One podcast was an exchange between host Deb Ochs, a GM public relations employee and Clay Dean, GM's director of design for small and midsize vehicles, about the development of the new Pontiac Solstice.
SHUNNING TV? Why do companies like podcast infomercials? Rather than reeling in a general audience, this kind of podcast gives something extra to the customer who's already interested in the product and craves more information. GM marketing chief Mark LaNeve says he's very keen on such nontraditional media, especially for brands that have an "enthusiast" audience, such as Hummer, the Chevy Corvette, Cadillac's new V-Series of performance cars, and Chevrolet's SS performance cars. "The key will be improving the production and entertainment levels of these so they're really compelling and get passed around," says LaNeve.
In future, he says, brands like Pontiac may have a very small TV ad budget. Instead, GM could advertise Pontiac mostly on the Internet. Podcasting is one of the formats LaNeve is looking at for multiple products and brands.
It's a little harder for companies with lifestyle brands, like Heineken, or everyday brands like Unilever's Axe deodorant, to sustain an infomercial podcast. (Imagine a 12-minute infomercial on deodorant?) Instead, these companies are exploring sponsored entertainment. Heineken has been distributing podcasts at its Web site (www.heinekenmusic.com) since December. Its first podcast was an interview with DJ Daniele Davoli who's among the DJs hosting the brewer's "Thirst" tour of live music events around the world.
RADIO REVIVAL? Unilever hasn't taken the plunge yet, but executives there and at rival Procter & Gamble are looking to sponsor content that ties in with certain brands. "This is an area where there's a lot of discussion about what's going to work," says marketing consultant Dennis Keene. An obvious tie-in for a brand like Axe or P&G Old Spice, says Keene, is a podcast produced by a men's magazine like Details or Men's Fitness, where the content is about fitness and health.
Before that happens, expect to see more ads posing as podcasts from media companies. Celebrities, especially actors and music artists are dabbling in podcasts to push new CDs and films. Paris Hilton recently used a podcast to promote her new movie, House of Wax. And music label BMI just launched podcasts to promote its new artists. "This is all being driven by the growing 'on-demand' nature of media," says Jeff Marshall, senior vice-president and managing director of Starcom IP. Consumers want their entertainment and information when they want it, not when it suits a broadcaster to run it," says Marshall.
Some ad execs are hoping podcast technology will help revive radio. Ad clutter is enough of a problem that Clear Channel Radio (CC) has moved to reduce ad time by 19% per hour and encourage advertisers to buy 30- and even 15-second spots instead of 60-second ads that it found prompted tune-out by listeners. It created its own consulting unit, Creative Services Group, to help advertisers create shorter, more compelling ads.
RECYCLED BROADCASTS. Publicis Groupe Chief Creative Officer David Droga says he has only just been introduced to podcasting as a medium, but he sees its potential for "really waking up creative from the dreck that is most radio advertising." Short radio theatrical plays that are the audio equivalent of edgy Internet films and could be serialized and tied into the advertised brand is one idea for running ads in podcasts. Even at that, many podcasts are moving to time-coded guides in which such ads could be skipped if they weren't entertaining enough to attract the listener.
Radio companies already are trying to turn some of their traditional programming into podcasts to capture new ad revenue. Public radio was the first terrestrial radio producer to begin podcasts, offering a few of its more popular shows, like On the Media and Science Friday. Infinity Broadcasting recently announced plans to make podcasts of its shows available.
Clear Channel Radio says it's planning to offer edited versions of its on-air shows, focusing on popular interviews and comedy sketches. Clear Channel's Glenn Beck and Phil Hendrie will be the first syndicated radio personalities to be podcast. And podcaster Adam Curry now has a show on Sirius Radio called Adam Curry's Podshow. Some of the same companies that advertise on the radio shows are being offered slots on the podcasts, but without as many breaks, and the ad content is not as long.
Zenith Media, a large media-buying agency for advertisiers, recently authored a white paper on podcasting, emphasizing the benefits of reaching early adopters. "Advertisers who embrace the new technology and communicate to consumers in meaningful ways through podcasts may be viewed as innovators, forward-thinking, cutting-edge, and the envy of the neighborhood," the report says.
Now what advertiser doesn't want to be thought of as all that. By David Kiley in New York