On Podcast Advertising

I may take considerable heat for this… but somebody has to say it.

Here’s an audio version of this article for your dining & dancing pleasure.

As podcasting continues to grow in popularity, there are more and more conversations about what constitutes effective podcast advertising. The hot trend right now has the conventional wisdom pointing to “host-read” ads. Proponents of having the podcast host read the ad themselves will tell you that it comes across as a personal recommendation from a friend, instead of sounding like a commercial. There’s even data out there that suggests things like a 50% increase in purchase intent among listeners who hear a host-read ad.

Hold on. Let’s inject some hard truths into this conversation.

As a person with three of my own podcasts (who produces multiple podcasts for multiple national corporations), I perked up when I saw the 50% thing. Then I dug a little deeper. Here’s where the number comes from: According to the data, 4% of podcast listeners have decided to purchase something based on a “commercial” in a podcast. Let me be sure you don’t think that’s a typo: FOUR percent. On the other hand, 6% of podcast listeners have made a purchase decision based on an ad read by the host of the podcast. SIX percent. But, if you want to get really specific, six is fifty percent more than four. So technically, the stat as presented isn’t misleading.

And as a person who spent more than four decades on the air, has not only voiced thousands of commercials but also thousands of endorsement / testimonial / host-read ads, here’s the other thing I can tell you with absolute guaranteed certainty: If you take a live commercial I’m about to read, and put it up against something written and performed by an advertising legend like Dick Orkin?

Before I go a single step further, let’s have a listen to one of the dozens of commercials that Dick Orkin wrote and performed along with Bert Berdis, for Time magazine:

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zDQLTzNOyH0[/embedyt]

My prediction is that Dick’s stuff will win every time. This in spite of the fact that I’ve had dozens of sponsors over the years who have told me that the live commercials I did for them outperformed every other radio personality’s version in a given market. In fact, I’ve done conference calls where I’ve been asked to coach announcers in other cities on the finer points of what made my version of the same information more successful. I don’t point this out to puff out my chest; I point it out because I know that I get above average results with my “host-read” ads on the radio, and I still promise you that a pre-recorded Dick Orkin commercial would do better. So imagine how much better Dick’s spot would do than a host-read ad that was merely average. Or below average.

As it applies to podcast advertising, here is my take as a broadcaster, podcaster, writer and producer, on why host-read ads outperform regular ads: Let’s say you could find someone who could produce a pre-recorded podcast ad that had the same power to influence a buying decision that a Dick Orkin commercial had. That would cost you money. Maybe even a lot of money. Unless you cut corners, which probably means they didn’t have a full understanding of demographics, psychographics, unique selling propositions, key benefits, positioning statements and the myriad other things that are covered in tons of useful books about advertising and marketing, including mine. Maybe there are podcasts where they just had someone other than the host read a ten-second piece of relatively boring copy and that’s part of what counted toward the total number of “non host-read” ads. By the way – where’s the breakdown of the lengths of those ads? Because I don’t often hear pre-recorded commercials on podcasts that are longer than fifteen seconds; I’ve heard host-read ads that drone on for two full minutes. So are we even comparing apples to apples here?

Here’s something I’ve noticed during my time as a podcast listener: Most pre-recorded podcast ads are incredibly boring. Especially, for some reason, some of the ads from some of podcasting’s biggest sponsors. In fact, I’d say they’re some of the worst offenders. I know of one of my favorite podcasts in particular – it’s almost constantly in the list of the Top Five podcasts in its category and boasts subscribers in the six-figure range – where the sponsor’s 15-second tag line is read by one of the show’s producers. Not a professional commercial voice. Not an actor. The person on the other side of the glass from the host. Did the data include that as a “non host-read” ad? No wonder the average response got driven down.

If you really want to know why host-read ads outperform “commercials”, driving the buying intent from a microscopic four percent to an overwhelmingly massive six percent (?!?!?!), it’s because writing an effective commercial is hard. It’s a throwback to the conventional wisdom among the “experts” and “gurus” from half a century ago who told everyone that funny commercials don’t sell. It turned out that funny commercials do sell… it was just that most people who thought they were writing funny commercials were actually writing un-funny commercials, or funny skits that weren’t effective advertising.

Look, you’ve got multiple services out there on the internet that claim their Artificial Intelligence engine can write better marketing copy than a human. What’s terrifying is that people who don’t really understand marketing copy actually believe such ridiculous claims. It’s quite possible that AI can write better copy than some humans. You can program an AI to stay away from time-wasting, useless phrases like, “conveniently located” or “all your business needs”, for example. However, exceptional copy needs to be done by exceptional writers.

For the fun of it, I signed up for one of those AI copywriting services, and put in some details to have it write an ad for Time magazine. To be fair, I didn’t tell it to write a specific length of copy, just that I needed it to be short, and that I wanted the perspective of the spot to be “Witty”. With the memory of the Dick & Bert radio commercials still fresh, here’s the complete, unedited version of what the AI gave me, that the company claims is “better”:

Do you want to know what’s happening in the world? Time magazine is a weekly news magazine that covers everything from politics and economics, to health and science. It’s an award-winning publication with over 100 years of experience bringing readers the most important stories of our time. For more than a century, we have been at the forefront of journalism, reporting on world events as they happen. We are committed to delivering high-quality content that informs and inspires readers around the globe. And now we’re available for your phone! Download our app today so you can keep up with all things going on in the world every day.

Rather than get into a really intensive dissection of all the ways this copy is horribly broken (like the way it shifts from third-person to first-person halfway through), let’s look at a few of the most very basic things that you already know from the earlier pages of this book.

For starters, it opens with a useless, disposable question. It opens with the equivalent of, “Do you come here often?” Then, it tells me some basic, almost clinical information that could literally be claimed by hundreds and hundreds of different publications – and by the way, that equally disposable sentence is the one and only time that we see the words “Time magazine”. The “more than a century” line is interesting, but wasted in a sentence that still manages to become disposable by linking that century of experience to yet another feature that hundreds can claim. Don’t even get me started with the sentence that follows, about being “committed to delivering high-quality content”. The last two sentences are similarly wasteful; being available on my phone, and having an app that lets me keep up with the world is a benefit that could literally be applied to half the apps on my phone, including Instagram, Facebook and even Google Chrome – because with the Chrome browser on my phone, I can go to Time’s website, CNN’s website, or literally any other website on the planet.

Honestly, I don’t even know that the copy that this service generated is as good as the first piece of copy I wrote when I was fifteen years old. There’s not even the attempt to appeal to a single emotion that I can spot. And remember, that’s what the AI spit out when I asked for something “Witty”. Overall, the copy from the AI generates emotions like disdain, sadness, maybe even a touch of hopelessness, because there are actual people who believe that what’s above is good marketing copy, and is worth paying for.

If you have a podcast, and you want to see the potential of what a real commercial could do, you should look up Lisa Orkin on the internet. Dick’s daughter. She’s amazing, and she’s leading the fight to make podcast advertising suck less by putting it back in the hands of people who know how to make great audio commercials. She’s still running the Radio Ranch, and continues her late father’s legacy by doing work that would make him proud. (You don’t have to tell her I sent you.)

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