Why media companies are pushing podcasts at SXSW ‘Trojan-horse style’

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Some media companies plan to put the spotlight on their podcasts at SXSW next month by hosting multi-day programming, consumer activations and networking events for clients in a bid to land business from new advertisers this year.

And after a tough 2023, media companies are hungry for new podcast advertisers given ad slowdowns, stiff competition and other challenges in the medium.

iHeart is hosting its annual podcast awards live at SXSW for the first time. Vox Media is hosting a three-day-long podcast-themed stage at the event. And podcast company Sounds Profitable is hosting a podcast-oriented summit within SXSW. But right now, these are separate efforts by each of the podcast publishers, compared to a unified, dedicated podcast track.

“It has only felt more and more needed and relevant because of the number of podcasters and podcast companies that are there [at SXSW] and activating and the number of clients that are coming in and interested in what’s happening in the space,” said Will Pearson, president of iHeartPodcasts. The company’s podcast awards will take place on March 11 at the Fairmont Hotel in Austin, TX.

However, ad buyers differed on how much of a sales opportunity SXSW may provide for podcasters to pitch advertisers.

This can give “advertisers a more immersive experience [that] will help to fill any potential knowledge gaps plus heighten excitement as they see overall consumption and market growth rise,” said one ad buyer.

A second buyer, who also requested to speak anonymously, wasn’t so sure. “I think it’s a pretty big investment and I’m not sure SXSW is considered a rallying point for podcasting at this time,” they said in an email, citing other existing industry events like Podcast Movement. “My initial reaction is that SXSW likely wouldn’t drive a lot of dollars.” 

Vox Media — which shares an investor with SXSW in the form of Penske Media Corporation — is one of SXSW’s official partners this year, and its first-ever podcast stage will run from March 8-10 at the JW Marriott Austin for SXSW badge holders. Vox Media will record live episodes of podcasts shows like “Pivot,” “On with Kara Swisher” and “Where Should We Begin?,” among others. Sponsors include Atlassian, Allegra, Team Milk, San Diego Tourism Authority and Smirnoff.

Vox Media CMO Jackie Cinguina declined to share how much money Vox Media is putting behind the event, and how much was coming in from sponsorships or SXSW’s own investment. 

“A global festival chose us as their official podcast stage — to take three days of programming that they could otherwise monetize,” Cinguina said. “That’s how I would quantify that.”

Sounds Profitable is putting on its first-ever, day-long Sound Summit, consisting of four panels at the Thompson Hotel on March 9, with sponsors including Ad Results Media, The Roost, ESPN/Good Karma Brands and Magellan AI. Sounds Profitable founder Bryan Barletta described the event as a trial for a dedicated podcast programming track at SXSW, and will feature audio execs from NPR, Wondery, SXM Media and Paramount, among others.

“SXSW has showcased podcasts during our event for several years, and as the medium has grown, the demand and interest has grown as well. We have a unique audience that is comprised of engaged early-adopters, as well as advertisers and brands, who provide a great path for podcast creators and distributors to grow their audience and partnerships,” Jann Baskett, SXSW co-president and chief brand officer, said in an email. “We look forward to amplifying the incredible talent shaping the future of this medium.”

Costs of sale

In addition to the consumer-focused programming, the podcast companies are hoping their podcast-themed events at SXSW will bring in new advertisers.

“Reaching people outside of the podcast ecosystem [is] our main goal of going to [SXSW]. The overall group of folks that are involved in podcasting are very close knit and trying to reach people that aren’t spending in podcasting and help educate them is really our main purpose,” said Michael Kropko, Ad Results Media co-CEO.

Sounds Profitable is spending $150,000 on its SXSW event, which includes costs such as travel for four employees, catering and photography, Barletta said. The company is about $10,000-$15,000 from breaking even with four sponsorships of the summit itself, he added. Sounds Profitable is in discussion with another potential sponsor.

iHeart is also taking over the Hotel Saint Cecilia in downtown Austin to host networking events and more intimate, invite-only meetings with iHeart clients, distribution and content partners and talent. iHeart is sending a “couple dozen” employees to the event — more than in previous years because of the awards, though Pearson could not give an exact number.

Over the years, advertisers at SXSW have grown beyond the tech or entertainment spaces into a variety of categories, according to Pearson. iHeart declined to share how many sales reps it was sending to the event this year, or how much money the company was spending at the event. Pearson said it was certainly more than in the past, given the live awards show. “We’re going big,” he said.

But there’s no question sponsors are a big part of offsetting some of these costs for media companies. Samantha Skey, CEO at SHE Media (owned by Penske Media), said sponsors will pay publishers in the low-six figures for activations at a festival like SXSW. (SHE Media is hosting three days of programming, up from last year’s two, and will record podcasts live as well at SXSW.)

Sponsors for the iHeartPodcast Awards include The Hartford, YouTube, Audible and Planet Oat. Botox Cosmetic, Espolón Tequila, Candle and Waymo and The Hartford are sponsoring iHeart’s events at the Hotel Saint Cecilia. Pearson declined to share how much money the company was getting in sponsorship revenue for SXSW, but noted it was more than in years past.

The overall sponsor interest in iHeart’s SXSW events, “in combination with what we’re generating in terms of the number of meetings that are happening… I don’t think there’s any question on our end that it’s been very much worth the investment that we’re putting into bringing the awards to SXSW,” Pearson said.

Even more next year?

Barletta said next year, he’d like to see a dedicated podcast programming track at SXSW, rather than the over 40 separate podcast-related events at this year’s festival.

“We are working very, very hard to do right by podcasting, and help claim the space Trojan-horse style by buying our way into these spaces,” Barletta said. “There is a lot more going on at SXSW [with official partners] like Vox [and the iHeartPodcast Awards]. But those are all branded… they’re specifically about Vox, about iHeart. We need something that’s for podcasting.”

The Sound Summit stage is a way to test a podcasting track for next year’s SXSW festival – but that will depend on how well their event does this year, Barletta said. Sounds Profitable — along with its four sponsors — are also hosting two networking events for SXSW badge holders.

“It’s a first-annual [for us]. There’s a lot of unknown,” Kropko said.

This story has been updated to include all four of the Sound Summit sponsors.

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