The Podcast Renaissance

The fledgling medium slowly gained audiences in the mid- and late-aughts, then skyrocketed in 2014 with the release of Serial. Anyone who was anyone had a podcast. Advertisers, like audiences, took notice.

The fledgling medium slowly gained audiences in the mid- and late-aughts, then skyrocketed in 2014 with the release of Serial. Anyone who was anyone had a podcast. Advertisers, like audiences, took notice.

Humble beginnings are just beginnings

Podcasting, a portmanteau of iPod and broadcast, was hardly a medium of instant success back when it debuted in 2004.

A Google search of the term would return just 2,750 hits by the end of podcasting’s first year. Audio files distributed through RSS feeds was a promising concept, but these were early days. Smart phones were not yet ubiquitous. Content creators—comedians and sports fans among them—produced highly niche material. No one had even imagined turning a profit. Even podcast pioneers David Winer and Adam Curry could hardly have foreseen the gold rush that was to come. 

Apple, just as it has before and since, changed everything.   

Distribution + user experience = profit

In 2005, Apple released an update to iTunes that offered over 1,000 podcasts free of charge. It was a visionary moment for Steve Jobs (again).

That December, “podcast” became Word of the Year in the New Oxford American Dictionary. Now a Google search of the term would return 100,000,000 hits.

Still, by 2006, only 22 percent of Americans had ever heard of a podcast—and only half that many had actually listened to one.

Apple continued its strategy to lead distribution. In 2012, the company released the podcast app for iPhones. Most critically, the app allowed users to “subscribe” to a podcast, meaning the content automatically downloaded to their devices. The algorithm would also recommend similar content based on a user’s interests. The app’s “trending” section, meanwhile, was a perfect feature to hook new listeners that were unfamiliar with the medium.

The user experience was impeccable, and the reach was undeniable. Podcasts were gaining popularity with listeners. Next up: advertisers.

First come audiences, then come advertisers

The flashpoint for podcasts came in 2014 when This American Life producers releasedSerial. The true crime mystery swiftly became the most downloaded podcast of all time—a record it still holds today. Podcasts moved from esoteric niche content to fodder for the office water cooler. And no one benefitted more than MailChimp.

MailChimp, the email marketing platform, took a risk sponsoring Serial in its first season. Podcast advertising was virtually unheard of, and the show was new and unproven with audiences. The gamble paid off, though. Nearly 70 million listeners tuned in to Serial, hearing between segments the now-infamous “MailKimp” line. The ad became such a viral sensation that it even inspired a skit on Saturday Night Live.

Podcast advertising became one of the most bankable markets. It wasn’t just because of reach; podcast listeners were also a highly desirable demographic. They tend to be well educated with a higher-than-average household income.

graph of monthly podcast consumer income data showing an equal distribution across salary range
graph of monthly podcast consumer by education with nearly equal data distrubtion will less for high school users
graph of monthly podcast consumers by age showing very high use by those age 18 to 54 and minimal for those outside that range

The specificity of podcast subject matter also meant that advertisers could use a highly targeted approach. SimpliSafe, a home protection system, advertises on the popular true crime podcast Casefile. The podcast Gravy, which discusses culinary traditions in the American south, is sponsored by the Southern Foodways Alliance. When podcasts took off, options for advertisers were almost innumerable.

And when the medium had proven its mettle, brands rushed to court the producers.  

Oversaturation bursts the bubble

By 2018, ad revenue from podcasts spiked to $479 million in US markets. The number of active podcasts on iTunes was 550,000. For every advertiser, there was a podcast. And for every podcast, content creators hoped, there would be an advertiser.

There wasn’t.

In late 2018, Audible laid off its entire podcast division. Buzzfeed followed suit, shuttering its in-house podcast unit. Panoply, a podcast network under the Slate brand, moved away from content creation to focus solely on hosting.

The issue, experts say, was that there were simply too many podcasts out there. Audiences were overwhelmed with choice, and advertisers couldn’t rely on the metrics. Number of downloads isn’t synonymous with number of listens. Add to those truths that it’s also difficult to produce a high-quality podcast, and the downturn became an inevitability.

Is the golden age of podcasting over?

Maybe not. While it’s true that audience expectations are higher and competition for sponsors is fiercer, one fundamental part of podcasting remains unchanged: we yearn for good storytelling. It’s true, in fact, for nearly all communications—and why storytelling has become something of a buzzword in content marketing.

When done well, though, it works. Critical to Serial’s success was its flawless, gripping story. A single narrator, week after week, unravels a mystery revolving around a mesmerizing cast of characters. It’s a tried and true structure across nearly every medium we consume. It’s not that we want podcasts because they’re podcasts; we want podcasts because podcasts—the good ones, at least—tell stories.

Can you make podcasts work for your brand?

The intimacy of the audible experience is part of what makes podcasts so powerful. When listeners are riveted, they don’t skip a word—including mid-show ads.

That’s why the advertisements can be so memorable. Smart companies can find popular podcasts that share their target audiences, and then offer partnerships on advertising such as promo codes for listeners. The only risk is relying on the podcast’s continued strong performance.

Producing content as a corporation, on the other hand, is trickier. Producing a podcast just for the sake of it is likely to be a losing endeavour. Research, production, editing, distribution and promotion cost time and money, and a saturated podcast market means building a loyal audience can be a glacial process.

If your company is sure it’s the right choice, just remember there’s no formula for how to monetize a podcast. Stay on brand, know your audience, expand your reach and monitor your performance. Those are table stakes.

But to court advertisers, not to mention audiences? Tell good stories.

Podcasts we love

Under the Influence

The History of English podcast

On Brand

Marketing Over Coffee