With brand dollars pooling in, podcasters are trying to figure out attribution

After years of haggling over definitions, jockeying between trade groups and slow-walking from publishers, podcasting has a metrics foundation that brand advertisers feel comfortable standing on. For their next trick, podcasters are trying to trace their new clients’ investments back to business outcomes with attribution.

Last month, Chartable, a podcast analytics firm launched last summer, debuted SmartAds, an attribution product that uses tracking pixels and partnerships with a device graph to track the behavior of people who download podcast ads.

Oxford Road, a performance marketing agency that specializes in audio and television, is busy conducting a pilot with Barometric, a similar technology that tracks podcast ad listeners moving down an advertiser’s sales funnel.

And Megaphone, a monetization platform that works with publishers ranging from Gimlet to Vox Media to Slate, has been busy this year evaluating client campaigns; it has conducted “a couple dozen” attribution studies for clients since the fourth quarter of last year, after doing none over the same period the previous year, said Megaphone’s head of sales, Ken Lagana.

Being able to tie results to spending could accelerate the flow of brand dollars into podcasting. But limited scale, shifting agency opinions and broader issues of separating the effect of podcasts present challenges.

“We’ve had a pretty significant number of brand advertisers reach out: grocery brands, pet food brands, beer and wine companies that don’t have the same direct-to-consumer metrics,” said Marshall Williams, partner at the ad agency Ad Results Media, which helps brands buy both terrestrial radio as well as digital audio ads.

“What they’ve said is, ‘We like this space, we think it has our audience, it has enough reach; is there a way we can quantify whether the ads work?’” Williams continued. “And the answer is, ‘Maybe.’”

While podcasting is still tiny relative to the rest of digital media, its advertising market has been surging. Podcast advertising revenue totaled $479 million in 2018, well ahead of the $414 million projected, and is expected to exceed $1 billion by 2021, according to IAB/PwC research.

A lot of that recent growth has been powered by brand advertisers. Brand awareness ads accounted for more than 38 percent of podcast ads in 2018, also according to that same IAB/PwC research, up from just 25 percent two years ago.

Through the first half of this year, a majority of the advertisers Megaphone works with have been brand advertising, rather than performance marketing, a first for the company, said Andy Bowers, Megaphone’s chief innovation officer.

While some of those dollars are coming out of brands’ experimental budgets, most are coming out of digital and audio budgets, Lagana said. That puts podcasting, as a format, up against formidable competition, including terrestrial radio and digital advertising, where measurement and attribution vendors have spent years fighting for mind- and market share, most recently with digital publishers as the battleground.

And even with agreed-upon metrics in place, podcasting has plenty of quirks. Apple, for example, the leading source of podcast consumption, still does not offer data about whether individual users have listened to ads. Some attribution vendors triangulate around that problem by noting the IP addresses that are sent tracking pixels, then mapping that to a device graph to see whether those users took actions elsewhere.

“There’s a lot of explanation that has to go into this,” said Dave Zohrob, the founder and CEO of Chartable. “Before they [the sellers] even get to the point of what the lift is, you have to give them [the buyers] a 20-minute explication of the joys and limitations of the medium. There’s a fair amount of friction there.”

Publishers also have to put up with the fact that few brands and agencies have set attribution methodologies for podcasts specifically. While some agencies have attribution methodologies in place for performance-based campaigns, there is no industry standard for podcast attribution yet, said Kristina Lutz, president of investment at Starcom.

“Someone will figure it out, at some point, but I think right now it’s being treated more as an upper, upper funnel for those advertisers,” Lutz said. “[Preferred attribution methods] varies by client and what they’re trying to accomplish.”

For now, there is also limited raw material to experiment with. An estimated 62 million Americans will listen to podcasts weekly in 2019, up from 49 million in 2017, according to Edison Research. That growth is healthy, but it is dwarfed by the raw tonnage of impressions available in other digital media. And while a handful of publishers’ shows drive most of the listening, few publishers or ad networks can offer the scale that might necessitate an attribution study.

“There’s probably not 12 publishers [that can offer enough impressions],” Zohrob said. “Somebody the size of Barstool [Sports, a top 10 podcast publisher] could deliver enough impressions, but they’d have to sell all of their impressions to one brand over a month.”

For a medium that has only just finished ironing out its measurement problems, these are nice problems to have. But the stage is set for a rush of attribution experiments. “We’d like to see more competition,” said Brigid Judge, manager of digital audio investment at Horizon Media.


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