clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

Filed under:

Say goodbye to your favorite podcast promo codes

Promo codes helped build an industry, now big brands are moving in

Füm is the type of product that traditionally sells well through podcast ads. It’s a smoking cessation device, and when paired with a podcaster who uses it themselves, people buy. That’s why Adam McNeil, PR manager at the company, says he went from spending $3,000 per month on podcast ads at the beginning of this year to between $25,000 and $30,000 by the end. “It’s become our number one revenue source,” he says.

McNeil is one of many direct response advertisers who’ve found a home in podcasting. You’re likely familiar with the others: Mailchimp, Casper, Manscaped, Tommy John, and any other that relies on promo codes. They’re synonymous with the industry. But in a year filled with indie shows going to big networks in eye-popping, multimillion-dollar deals, as well as a broader push from tech companies to make money off the space, these direct response advertisers say they’re getting priced or pushed out while the aspects they’ve come to know and love about the industry are disappearing.

McNeil, for example, says the cost to advertise doubled on one of his brand’s go-to shows after it was acquired — although so far, they’ve honored his prior price point. The appeal of advertising on the show has waned, however, because the hosts pack more advertisers into the same amount of time.

“If there’s only a few ads on the episode, it seems a little less intrusive to the listener, but all of a sudden, now there’s four, maybe five, on that episode,” he says.

Although the changes are often positioned as good for podcasters and the industry itself — more people are making money and attracting advertiser interest — this also comes with a compromise, the loss of the tight relationships between direct response brands and podcasters. The thing that helped make podcasting what it is today.

Another advertiser, who asked to remain anonymous over fears of straining their industry relationships, echoed McNeil. “We did have a show that we really loved working with,” they say. “It wasn’t small, but it was part of a smaller network, and everything about that felt like a true partnership. It did not feel like it was a transactional sale from a salesperson.”

The partnership was a “smash success” from the get-go, they say, with the team reaching their goals in half the time it typically takes.

That all changed when that show got acquired. “I was just shocked by the difference,” they say. No longer could they switch out ad copy for a campaign that would run over three months. “If we’re not spending like half a million dollars, you don’t care if your listeners get sick of hearing our ads?”

Plus, the show’s team previously guided them on how to create the best ad to talk to that specific audience, and the hands-on help no longer came with the amount the brand spent. Their embedded tracker wasn’t even configured correctly to determine how many people heard the ad. “It was like pulling teeth” to get everything in order to just run a successful podcast ad. The brand didn’t re-up their contract.

“I found that the larger companies are probably a lot more willing to just take your money and let you fail, or let it just happen,” McNeil adds. “The smaller networks are a lot more keen on trying to make sure that it’s a win for you, so that you renew the contract for four months, six months, a year.”

The issue is only becoming more pressing for both advertisers and show publishers. Acquisitions and licensing agreements occur regularly now, often with big price tags attached. This year, Amazon Music acquired SmartLess in a deal reportedly worth as much as $80 million while Spotify is exclusively licensing Call Her Daddy for a reported $60 million. Meanwhile, Vox Media, which owns The Verge and Hot Pod, acquired Criminal Productions, capping off a year of acquisitions and partnerships that included Cafe Studios, Longform, and Gastropod. Also, SiriusXM acquired 99% Invisible from Roman Mars. Much of the impetus behind these deals is not only to buy reputable and far-reaching programs, but to also bulk up ad inventory. The publishers then, of course, are incentivized to make back the cash they spent.

One ad buyer, who also requested anonymity to speak freely about rates, says Spotify upped prices for its acquired and licensed shows. CPMs, or the cost per thousand listeners, on those programs are up three times as much, they say. A host-read ad that lived forever on Joe Rogan’s show used to cost tens of thousands of dollars previous to him going exclusive to Spotify. Next year, to get any ads on Rogan, the minimum spend is $1 million, they say, at a CPM upward of $60.

To which Spotify spokeswoman Erin Styles says, “We believe the many innovations taking shape will benefit the entire marketplace, including creators and advertisers, and we’re confident that advertisers of all sizes will continue to find immense value in the space.”

Meanwhile, a separate podcaster who signed on with a big network says a buyout of their show now sells for five to 10 times more than they were charging on their own.

“[Prior to all these acquisitions, advertisers] could be a mogul and be sitting on hundreds of personalities that could only advocate for [their] business, and it was performing, and it was building the brand,” says Dan Granger, founder and CEO of ad agency Oxford Road. “Then you start selling companies for $300 million with these really generous multiples, and all of a sudden, at some point, they’re going to have to show a return on that.”

This leads to a world in which direct response advertisers not only lose access to the programming or treatment they once enjoyed but have to contend with bigger brands dominating the space because they can afford the more expensive ads. Magellan AI tracks the brands spending the most on podcast ads per month, and the top 10 list from October includes, yes, some brands one might expect, like HelloFresh and ZipRecruiter, but also Fortune 500 companies, like Capital One and Amazon.

“The large brand advertisers that are advertising across television and radio and Pandora and Spotify are also looking for that type of scale that now podcasting, because it has grown so much, can provide,” says Greg Leader, SVP of advertising partnerships at SXM Media.

These brand advertisers also often care more about putting their name into the world rather than literally selling a product, which changes the stakes of the marketing game. No more promo codes necessary.

Alongside this broader change in the types of advertisers filtering into the space comes a push for, as Leader mentioned, scale, or the ability to reach lots of people quickly. To make their money back and maximize revenue, publishers are encouraging dynamic ad insertion, meaning ads aren’t baked into a program, as well as programmatic ads that aren’t inserted into specific shows necessarily but included based on audience targeting. The thing the direct response advertisers loved about the space — the baked-in, host-read ads that lived on forever as testimonials — are dissipating, at least at the space’s highest levels.

McNeil, for example, says Füm advertises on a YouTube-distributed show and one episode reached a million views. It normally banks around 100,000. Füm paid for those 100,000 impressions, technically, but ended up with way more exposure because the ad lived on forever. “You lose that opportunity to go viral the moment you do dynamic ad insertion,” he says. Once the promised impressions are reached, an ad is swapped out for a different brand.

Which isn’t to say everyone feels for these advertisers. Maybe they had it too good, or maybe they purposely undervalued the podcasters.

“It’s the cycle of life,” Granger says. “You move to a cool, new neighborhood, and there’s an art gallery, and there’s some microbreweries, and there’s craftsmanship and products. Then there’s Starbucks, and then the place gets gentrified, and then everybody complains that it lost its edge. And then one day, there’s Walmart. And like, yeah, this is life. It doesn’t mean that you can’t get what you need, but if you think the street is going to be all noncorporate independent? No, the big money’s going to come, and they’re going to occupy the most real estate.”

Others think this situation is good news for podcasting as a growing, more profitable space. “I think of our industry kind of like an island being fueled by the volcano that’s underneath, adding more magma each year,” says John Goforth, CRO of Magellan AI. “The square footage is getting bigger and bigger.”

Multiple people I spoke with suggest the industry is merely stratifying — the top shows are going exclusive in million-plus-dollar deals, cutting off access to the protein shake makers of the world while smaller, newer podcasters stream in, hoping for the protein shake makers to buy an ad. The direct response advertisers, they say, should look in new places and for new talent.

“There’s always going to be somebody coming up in the world before they get picked off by Spotify,” Granger says. “And [the advertisers are] just going to have to surf on those, they’re going to have to keep riding those waves, but it’s work.”

The question is whether the advertisers who helped build the space are willing and able to find a place on these newer shows, or if the podcasting industry’s onward march means leaving the mattress sellers behind.

Tech

Desk setup videos have taken over YouTube — and my life

Policy

Timbaland and Swizz Beatz sold Verzuz to Triller — and now they say Triller didn’t pay

How-to

How to enable end-to-end encryption on Facebook Messenger

View all stories in Tech