New Group Aims to Warn Advertisers About Podcast Perils, Hot Talk

Brian Steinberg
·4-min read

Madison Avenue is paying more money to podcasting. Now a group of people focused on the industry wants advertisers to pay more attention.

The Media Roundtable, a group of organizations that aims to promote civility and stronger dialogue in media, is launching a chart of what it considers to be the podcasts that display the most and least bias. The debut of the chart, prepared by the research organization Ad Fontes Media, is part of a bid to get advertisers to support content of a better quality in an era when the proliferation of niche outlets makes such stuff more difficult to track.

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“Oftentimes, the best performing programs for an advertiser are the ones that have the strongest opinions and often can be very polarizing. It’s very alluring. There are a lot of businesses that have built their companies on the back of polarizing personalities,” says Dan Granger, CEO of Oxford Road, a media buying agency that does a lot of work with podcasters and is a member of the Roundtable. “Then you wake up one day and you see something trending on Twitter because the host of one of these shows said something controversial and all of a sudden, everyone freaks out.”

Ad Fontes Media assigns a team of analysts with viewpoints from across the political spectrum to listen to various podcasts and examine the reliability of the information presented as well as whether hosts engage in rhetoric that is “dehumanizing, vilifying,” says Vanessa Otero, founder and CEO of the organization. “We are trying to make noise saying advertisers have to be more responsible about the money that’s flowing to certain news sources,” she says. The group’s analysis tends to rate general-news programs from mainstream news outlets as less biased and programs from specific partisan hosts as more biased.

The goal of the organizers is to help advertisers find a way to monitor content and avoid boycotts launched by activists and consumers, who often call out sponsors on Twitter and other social-media outlets. The National Institute for Civil Discourse and the Cambridge Negotiation Institute are also involved in the Roundtable.

Madison Avenue’s potential podcast woes highlight the growing influence of so-called “direct to consumer” marketers, a category of advertising that is growing as more companies employ e-commerce techniques. These advertisers include companies that go on to become the next Warby Parker, Purple or Casper and generally graduate to TV and video advertising after spending several years employing direct-response techniques. They can sometimes focus more on spurring transactions than on developing a broader brand profile and are less finicky about where their commercials appear.

The Media Roundtable’s effort surfaces as advertisers’ media plans are under tightening scrutiny. In November, shareholders in home-improvement retailer Home Depot and advertising holding company Omnicom Group filed resolutions calling on the companies to “commission third-party reports investigating whether their ad buys contribute to ‘violations of civil or human rights’ on social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter,” according to Open MIC, an advocacy organization that helped coordinate the effort. Advertisers whose pitches accompany disinformation or hate speech are often called out by organizations like Sleeping Giants.

Podcasts have been a challenging place for advertisers. Listeners have a very direct, personal connection with hosts and narrators, and commercials can get in the way of that relationship. Podcasts typically run with just a handful of spots and sometimes the host is the one who delivers them.

The medium, while smaller than other venues, is in the midst of a surge that is expected to continue for the next few years. PricewaterhouseCoopers forecasts $800 million will be spent this year on podcast ads in the U.S. By 2024, the total is projected to be $1.7 billion. “Podcasts have the ability to get very specialized,” says CJ Bangah, a principal of technology, entertainment, and media at the consulting firm. “If you want to reach consumers with certain goals or interests, it can be a very powerful platform.”

Advertisers can block digital venues from their media plan by isolating content that contains certain keywords. The same feat isn’t all that possible with podcasts, according to executives. The sheer number of individual producers and episodes they make means that “no matter how big your staff is, it’s almost impossible to follow all of thta, especially on a daily or weekly basis” says Scott McDonell, chief marketing officer and co-founder of BizCounsel, and former vice president of marketing at LegalZoom.com. “I think a guide is sorely needed so brands can make their own decisions aligned with what they feel comfortable with.”

Oxford Road’s Granger hopes the new idea will get advertisers to think harder about where the place their money and send more dollars to media of higher quality. “All we need to do is reward better behavior in media through an increased opportunity for ad dollars,” he says.

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