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October 29, 2020

An Inside Look at Podcasting in 2020

by David Brashears

A Conversation with Jon Schnaars of Pushkin Industries

Ask 30 people what they listened to on the way to work last year, and probably 20 of them would reference a podcast.  It’s the new way to access an older media format, and it is still growing by leaps and bound. I’ve been an avid consumer of podcast content for the best part of the last decade, and have built some relationships with industry professionals, so I thought it’d be a good idea to reach out and learn how one of the most interesting media industries of the new millennium was faring through the modern state of things.

I became familiar with Jon Schnaars through an independent genre film critique show upon which he is one of the regular hosts.  Jon has been a host on a few different podcasts for nearly 15 years and has seen how the platform has grown and evolved in that time.  Through his career, Jon has worked in advertising and marketing strategy for companies like Google—part of that time working with the YouTube team on advertising and content integration, and on the agency-side helping brands utilize advertising partnerships to grow their position. Along with his duties as a content creator these days, he now also works within one of the larger independent podcast production companies based in New York, Pushkin Industries.

inside podcasting

Pushkin Industries is a joint venture between Jacob Weisberg and Malcolm Gladwell (bestselling author of The Tipping Point, Outliers, blink, David and Goliath, What the Dog Saw, Talking to Strangers, and more) that was launched in 2018.  In their first year they produced 7 shows, including Malcolm’s own highly regarded “Revisionist History.”  Currently the company produces 14 shows on a wide range of subjects.  

The company has earned their reputation for quality content by partnering with acclaimed academics, journalists, and authors to bring their unique perspective to subjects within their areas of expertise.  Pushkin has partnered with noted writers and academics like; Michael Lewis (bestselling author of Moneyball, The Big Short, The Blind Side, and The Fifth Risk), Harvard professor Noah Feldman, acclaimed historian Jill Lepore, Yale professor Dr. Laurie Santos, cook and journalist Tamar Adler, economist and journalist Tim Harford, and many others.

So, I asked Jon if he had some time for a quick virtual conversation to learn more about how Pushkin is navigating 2020, and how he sees the industry as a whole responding to the new behavior, and emerging attitudes, of the podcast audience.  Here’s what I learned.

Jon Schnaars

David: As I’ve paid attention to a lot of the content I’ve been consuming, I’ve perceived some of the same trends for podcasts in 2020 that other more traditional media industries are working through.  I know that I, and a large section of the general audience, have consumed podcast media within my daily commute in the past.  With so many people currently working remotely, have you seen a change in listening behavior this year?

Jon: There aren’t great industry ad reach metrics out there.  A lot of what you can find are based on surveys and some industry anecdotal data.  So, I can share my own perception on how things have evolved this year.  We (Pushkin) were on a healthy growth trajectory coming into 2020 and were on projection through February. Then things started to trend outside of our projections.  As you said, the biggest impact to our industry has been the change in commuting behavior.  With people staying home, and having less transit “down time,” there was a near immediate impact to podcast as an industry.  

Luckily, that rebounded relatively quickly for us.  By mid-to-late June, we were seeing our own listenership stabilize.  However, I will say that there has definitely been an uneven distribution of that kind of stabilization as it pertains to different shows and content.  There have been different sectors that have been hit harder for sure.  For example, true crime podcasts—which had been a huge segment of popular content for several years—was hit particularly hard.  There was a lot of dialogue and theories that audiences were averse to some of this content (which can be stressful for some) in the midst of real-world anxiety that people were dealing with.  Now, I think most of them have recovered at this point as well, but it has been interesting to see how different content has been impacted.

Now, there have been a lot of conversations that would suggest that there has been a direct impact on what we’d call secondary—or even tertiary—shows that may be supported by a more casual audience. These are the shows that have depended more on listeners that aren’t necessarily “appointment listeners” (subscribers that have a standing appointment to download and listen to their favorite shows), but have generally performed well in the weeks and months following their release. That would suggest to me that maybe the total time people are listening to podcasts is still lower than it was in 2019.

David: So, how do you see advertising integrating into podcasting these days?  My perception has always been that the podcast content creators were largely made up of independent personalities with sort of a “rebel radio” attitude towards advertising.  Has this evolved, or is that very much a part of the balance between brand advertisers and show creators even in 2020?

Jon: What you’re calling the “rebel radio” piece was certainly there, and still is.  There is now sort of a convergence between that side of the industry and then basically what has been the public radio format.  Shows like This American Life is still like a top 5 podcast every week, and their audience is huge compared to many other independent shows.  

From an advertising perspective I think those two content segments are very instructive. If you look at content creators like Mark Maron and Joe Rogan, who are very much those independent voices in the industry, you can see they have always had advertising partners that were very much from the DR (Direct Response) strategy.  The advertisers aren’t necessarily evaluating show content for brand alignment as much as looking at general listenership and demographic data and putting together a broad campaign based mainly on CPM.

Those early DR advertisers saw that they could get a large audience through podcasts for pennies on the dollar of what they’d have to spend on more traditional media.  They also saw that they were able to get unique ad reads by hosts that felt much more like sponsor copy that general advertising copy.  It was, and still is, a great deal for what it costs.

On the flip side, public radio has had a much more sophisticated relationship with brand messaging.  They have built a system that offers more engaging, and in-depth, brand voice through curated content that aligns the voice of the show with a brand position.

Now you are seeing these two ad strategies co-mingling within the same show on a regular basis.  These larger brand partnerships generally come with better budgets and more opportunity for creative content within a show.  At Pushkin, our aspiration is obviously to create content that drives the highest CPM we can while also being able to sell all our advertising spots. So, while we undoubtedly would love to partner with and build unique executions for a large brand-focused advertiser, we’re also focused on staying nimble enough to deliver value to a more response-focused advertiser as well.

David: That’s interesting.  I have seen the podcast advertising model align pretty closely with another media that I know you’ve worked within, YouTube.  It does seem like there are three different kinds of advertising that happen in both of these media types; DR, sponsored content, and then full brand messaging partnership productions.  An example I was really impressed with was the General Electric podcast mini-series The Message that was a professionally produced series based on a science fiction premise that ultimately acted as a vehicle to inform and educate an audience about some new medtech that GE was developing.  It was an incredibly clever, and effective, vehicle to share their information.

Jon: Some of the people I work with actually made that show, lol. Pushkin has actually done a similar partnership with Lexus with our mini-series, Go and See.  Malcolm was invited to the Lexus facilities in Japan and was taken through the process of design and production for the company and produced a series of podcasts based around his experience.  Like the GE show, this was a full partnership between the Lexus brand and Pushkin.  That kind of content is a great way to synthesize a brand position with a unique podcast host’s perspective to speak to maybe a smaller audience that is highly engaged in an area that you want to inform.  It can be very powerful. 

No matter what kind of advertising we bring to our shows at Pushkin, we try very hard to make sure the ad reads, sponsor copy, or full production come across as genuinely aligning with our audience and show perspective.  Malcolm prides himself on doing the best ad reads, it’s like a personal competition between him and every other host out there.  It’s important to us that the advertising blend in pretty seamlessly with our content so that we sustain some professional synchronicity with our audience.  Our first priority, after all, is to build great content that engages with our listeners.

David: So, as the advertiser relationship becomes more sophisticated, how are content producers like Pushkin showing results back to their brand partners?

Jon: We, like many other independent publishers, are partnering with sales organizations that do a lot of the heavy lifting on ROI with our advertising partners.  We have some data on how shows perform and audience engagement, but for the most part that reporting is done by our sales partners.

As an example, when we completed the Go and See show, we did a fair bit of reporting on KPIs like listener engagement, show downloads, and other general analytics to show performance.  Beyond that, Lexus had us do some surveys and use other listening tools to follow listener response from the content.  In cases like this, we’ll partner with a market research professional like Nielsen to help us develop those benchmarks and collect data.

Generally, the value of podcast advertising is the intimacy the message has with the listener.  What makes it work so well is that it happens very organically as a personal conversation between a trusted host and an individual within the listeners own head.  The podcast connection is usually much deeper than it is within most other media. It’s not even really a community response to a brand message, it’s very personal between two people in most cases—and that makes it pretty unique.

All of that to say, when you do see studies come back on ad performance within podcasts—they’ve always been positive.  Or at least, I myself have yet to see any data that has not shown the value of advertising within podcasts.

David: So, we’re coming to the end of our time together. I certainly appreciate speaking with me, Jon.  I did want to ask one final question about your thoughts on the future of the podcast industry moving forward.  How do you see the trajectory of this industry within which you’ve spent the better part of the last 13 years?

Jon: There are so many ways to answer that question.  As it pertains to advertisers, I think we can confidently say that a lot of our adtech will continue to improve I do think that platforms, like Spotify, have an opportunity to leverage the fuller data picture they can create around users to provide interesting advertising solutions. There are other listening platforms that in theory can build similar offerings, but Spotify has more scale at this point. On the flip side, Apple remains by far the largest listening destination, yet adtech has not been something they’ve shown an interest in developing – for podcasts or other parts of their ecosystem.

However, the content publishers, like Pushkin, will continue to grow their own scale which will give them the ability to do larger, and more interesting, things with their ad partners.  As larger advertisers get comfortable with the podcast space, I think you’re going to see better integrations within show content—or even across a series of different shows.  I think we’re going to see more experimentation within the content that I think will be exciting.  

I want to thank Jon for taking some time to speak with me, and for sharing his perspective on the podcast industry.  It’s exciting to see the industry continue to grow and offer new opportunities for savvy brands to partner with a wide variety of personalities to engage their audience.  We look forward to continuing to see how advertisers leverage the power of podcasts to help educate their audience in new and innovative ways.

If you’d like to learn more about podcast advertising or ideate on your own brand messaging within this medium, and other media markets, contact me and let’s have a conversation.  We’re ready to help you build a strategy that aligns with your brand voice and builds real growth.