Podcast hosts shouldn’t read ads to maintain trust

Podcasts “leverage the relationship between a show host and their listeners” to push products and services in their adspots. I recently had a frustrating experience where I realized that I’d internalized something I’ve heard read aloud over and over by a podcast host as a genuine endorsement. It shattered the trust I’ve built with this host and made me question their integrity and how podcast advertising works.

Host-read ads are the most common form of advertisement on podcasts. These are either the regular program host reading from a script provided by the advertiser, or it’s the host coming up with some talking points about the company on-the-spot. It can be hard to distinguish from the main content, especially when guests on the program inject their own comments to the advertisement — just like they would during any other part of the program

It’s no accident that this has become the preferred advertisement format. Quoting from a 2015 piece in The New York Times about podcast advertising:

Advertisers are naturally attracted to being associated with well-liked hosts. ‘When the host is personally reading the ad and telling a story about the product in her own words, it lands with the audience in a different and more authentic way than a traditional ad spot,’ said Mark DiCristina, marketing director at MailChimp, an email marketing company that’s one of the most prolific podcast advertisers.

A Best Practices in Podcast Advertising from audioBoom, a podcast advertisement broker, is very straight forward:

[T]he true value of podcast advertising lies in an advertiser’s ability to leverage the relationship between a show host and their listeners.

I conducted a very unscientific survey of the most recent episodes from the 33 podcasts that I’m currently subscribed to. All but four had host-read ads. Some podcasts play a small jingle before and after their ads, and others play some low-key background music while they read the ads. Most however, went straight from content to ads without even a small break of silence in between. The average host-read adspot in my own unscientific survey lasted three minutes and twenty seconds.

In talk-show style podcasts, guests and co-hosts would even drop in comments and discuss the advertiser during the ad read. There were generally very little differentiation between the programming and the advertisement.

This style of advertisement seem to be quite profitable too. 60 % of podcast advertisement revenue in 2016 came from host-read ad spots, according to a study by PricewaterhouseCoopers. The study was sponsored by the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) and several of the largest podcast networks and producers.

The trust issue

I recently wanted to move to a new domain registrar and was in a bit of a hurry to get it done. I recalled having heard or read good things about Hover.com and that others liked it. I follow a lot of blogs written by techies, and seemed to remember that I’d heard about it through them. I didn’t do my research here and was quite disappointed with Hover.com.

After I reviewed what had happened and lead up to the decision, I realized that I’d been influenced by ads. I didn’t have any memory of anyone giving a positive review of Hover. I’d problems finding any positive reviews of their services on the web that don’t contain a paid affiliate link. What I did remember was podcast hosts reading ads for Hover.com.

I felt deceived, and I still feel like my trust was violated. I’m also angry with myself for not realizing that I’d been influenced by ads. Podcast ads tend to be quite long, which is just yet another way they mix in with the regular content.

Advertisers buy adspots to reach new and influence potential buyers and decision makers. I’m not fundamentally against the idea in any way. I run ads on my own blog. However, I don’t like the increasing adaptation of advertisement into the main content. So-called “native advertisement”. Native ads are styled to mimic the content their included with, whether that be an audio program or a website.

The problem is that when you can’t clearly tell the content and advertisement apart, you blur the lines between what a host says is authentic and can be trusted — and what is financially influenced or even dictated by an advertiser. We trust familiar voices, and I at least feel very familiar with the hosts I’ve listened to regularly for years if not decades.

I made a list of the podcasts that I listen to with host-read advertisements, and unsubscribed from a quarter of them. This was a away overdue cleanup of the shows I spend my time listening to, but I unsubscribing also gave me a way to signal my annoyance with how these shows are monetized. It gave me some way to assert a little bit of control.

Hosts shouldn’t read ads

I feel pretty strongly now that hosts shouldn’t read ads. It interferes with their credibility on almost any type of show. A different voice should read the ad, or an ad produced by the advertiser should be played instead. The thing with podcasts is that you may be doing other things while listening to them. You may not hear the ad jingle or pay fully attention when a section of a show is introduced as an advertisement. Properly distancing advertisements from content is tricky in an audio-only form, and even more difficult when you only hear the same voice.

I don’t believe podcast hosts can be both a trusted voice and the voice of an advertiser at the same time. I’ve thought about this many times over the years, but this hasn’t affected me directly before since podcast ads have been largely focused on U.S. audiences/consumers.

I believe methods like programmatic ad insertion could help podcasters better monetize their international audiences and diversify income by not being reliant on one big advertiser. I’ll write more about this later in a separate article. Programmatic ads and dynamic ad insertion would also help ensure the podcast host doesn’t know who the advertisers are going to be, and thus can’t influence the program as they’d be entirely removed from the production process.