These 3 factors are holding back podcast monetization

Podcast advertising growth is inhibited by three major factors:

  • Lack of macro distribution, consumption and audience data.
  • Current methods of conversion tracking.
  • Idea of a “playbook” for podcast performance marketing.

Because of these limiting factors, it’s currently more of an art than a science to piece disparate data from multiple sources, firms, agencies and advertisers, into a somewhat conclusive argument to brands as to why they should invest in podcast advertising.

1. Lack of macro distribution, consumption and audience data

There were several resources that released updates based on what they saw in terms of consumption when COVID-19 hit. Hosting platforms, publishers and third-party tracking platforms all put out their best guesses as to what was happening. Advertisers’ own podcast listening habits had been upended due to lockdowns; they wanted to know how broader changes in listening habits were affecting their campaigns. Were downloads going up, down or staying the same? What was happening with sports podcasts, without sports?


Read part 1 of this article, Podcast advertising has a business intelligence gap, on TechCrunch.


At Right Side Up, we receive and analyze all of the available research from major publishers (Stitcher, aCast), to major platforms (Megaphone) and third-party research firms (Podtrac, IAB, Edison Research). However, no single entity encompasses the entire space or provides the kind of interactive, off-the-shelf customizable SaaS product we’d prefer, and that digitally native marketers expect. Plus, there isn’t anything published in real-time; most sources publish once or twice annually.

So what did we do? We reached out to trusted publishers and partners to gather data around shifting consumption due to COVID-19 ourselves, and determined that, though there was a drop in downloads in the short term, it was neither as precipitous nor as enduring as some had feared. This was confirmed by some early reports available, but how were we to evidence our own piecewise sample with another? Moreover, how could you invest 6-7 figures of marketing dollars if you didn’t have the firsthand intelligence we gathered and our subject matter experts on deck to make constant adjustments to your approach?

We were able to piece together trends we’re seeing that point to increased download activity in recent months that surpass February/March heights. We’ve determined that the industry is back on track for growth with a less steep, but still growing, listenership trajectory. But even though more recent reports have been published, a longitudinal, objective resource has not yet emerged to show a majority of the industry’s journey through one of the most disruptive media environments in recent history.

There is a need for a new or existing entity to create cohesive data points; a third party that collects and reports listening across all major hosts and distribution points, or “podcatchers,” as they’re colloquially called. As a small example: Wouldn’t it be nice to objectively track seasonal listening of news/talk programming and schedule media planning and flighting around that? Or to know what the demographics of that audience look like compared to other verticals?

What percentage increase in efficiency and/or volume would you gain from your marketing efforts in the channel? Would that delta be profitable against paying a nominal or ongoing licensing or research fee for most brands?

These challenges aren’t just affecting advertisers. David Cohn, VP of Sales at Megaphone, agrees that “full transparency from the listening platforms would make our jobs easier, along with everyone else’s in the industry. We’d love to know how much of an episode is listened to, whether an ad is skipped, etc. Along the same lines, having a central source for [audience] measurement would be ideal — similar to what Nielsen has been for TV.” This would also enable us to understand cross-show ad frequency, another black box for advertisers and the industry at large.

How to use Amazon and advertising to build a D2C startup

Entrepreneurship in consumer packaged goods (CPG) is being democratized. Every step of the value channel has been compressed and made more affordable (and thereby accessible).

At VMG Ignite, we have worked with dozens of direct-to-consumer startups trying to both find product-market fit and achieve scale through Amazon and online advertising.

This article focuses on customer acquisition, particularly Amazon and online advertising, for the direct-to-consumer (D2C) CPG venture. Selling on Amazon, specifically third-party (3P), has become an increasingly important component of the D2C playbook. About 46% of product searches start on Amazon, which makes it a compelling source of sales even for early-stage ventures.

Table of contents

How to find product-market fit 

People say that ideas are a dime a dozen. They aren’t valuable. But finding product-market fit? Now, that’s hard. The gap between an unexecuted idea and proven product-market fit can seem vast. Yet it’s a critical first step because, ultimately, marketing amplifies your product and value proposition.

If they aren’t compelling, marketing will fail. If they’re compelling, even mediocre marketing can often be successful. So start with a great product that people love.

How do you create a great product, you ask? A/B test your product configuration like you A/B test your landing page, copy, and design. Your product is a variable, not a constant. Build, ship, get feedback. Build, ship, get feedback. Turn detractors into your customer panel for testing.

Early-stage D2C companies typically get their first customers through three channels:

  1. Begging your friends and family to buy and promote your product.
  2. List it on Amazon as a 3P seller. Figure out the platform and start selling!
  3. Advertise on Facebook. Start with a daily budget of 10x your price point to get started and start tinkering with creative, audiences, and settings to minimize cost per order.

The companies that succeed are often the ones that iterate the fastest. In his book Creative Confidence, IDEO founder David Kelley and his co-author (and brother) Tom relay a story of a pottery class that was split into two groups.

The first group was told they would each be graded on the single best piece of pottery they each produced. The second group was told they would each be graded based on the sheer volume of pottery they produced.

Naturally, the first group labored to craft the perfect piece while the second group churned through pottery with reckless abandon. Perhaps not so intuitive, at the end of the class, all the best pottery came from the second group! Iteration was a more effective driver of quality than intentionality.

Don’t know how to manage Amazon or Facebook? Here are some best practices:

How to get started with Amazon

Twilio launches SendGrid Ads and new cross-channel messaging API

At its annual Signal developer conference, Twilio today announced a couple of new features for developers on its core messaging platform and users of its recently acquired SendGrid email service. The new Twilio tools now allow developers to create multi-channel messaging tools and to get real-time streams of conversations in order to run them through transcription services, a translation tool or other machine learning models.

The company’s $3 billion acquisition of SendGrid closed less than half a year ago, so it doesn’t come as a surprise that Twilio would use its biggest event of the year to showcase the service to its developer community.

It’s a bit of an odd one, though. See, SendGrid already announced the beta of SendGrid Ads back in November 2018. As best as I can tell, Twilio SendGrid Ads, which is now launching in beta, is the same product, but a Twilio representative tells me that the ads product is now more deeply integrated into SendGrid Marketing Campaigns, and also got a bit of a redesign. A form of this integration already existed in the previous version, though.

The general idea here is to allow SendGrid users to run multichannel display ad campaigns on Facebook, Instagram and Google from their SendGrid accounts. The advantage of this, the company argues, is that marketers will be able to use data from their email campaigns and website data to then retarget users on other channels. Similarly, they can use lead ads on Facebook to get potential customers to sign up for their SendGrid mailing list.

SendGrid Ads will cost $50 per month, plus the cost of the ads. SendGrid will also take its own cut of 5% of any media cost over $500.

Screen Shot 2018 11 13 at 8.52.55 AM 960x656

The new developer tools are pretty straightforward. Twilio Conversations, now in public beta, is a new API that allows developers to create solutions that integrate various messaging channels like SMS, WhatsApp and other chat tools.

“Over the last two decades, we’ve watched businesses evolve their communications with customers from the phone call, to website chat, to native mobile apps,” said Chee Chew, chief product officer at Twilio. “Leading companies have figured out that the next evolution of great customer experience is through messaging. Twilio Conversations empowers businesses to build personal, long-lived connections with their customers on the channels they prefer.”

Twilio Media Streams does exactly what it promises to do. Previously, you could get a recording to a call. Now, you can tap into the real-time call to analyze that stream in real time. That’s useful for all kinds of AI tools that aim to help call center agents, for example. This service is now also in public beta and will cost $0.004 per minute, in addition to the rest of the fees associated with the call.

Targeted ads offer little extra value for online publishers, study suggests

How much value do online publishers derive from behaviorally targeted advertising that uses privacy-hostile tracking technologies to determine which advert to show a website user?

A new piece of research suggests publishers make just 4% more vs if they were to serve a non-targeted ad.

It’s a finding that sheds suggestive light on why so many newsroom budgets are shrinking and journalists finding themselves out of work — even as adtech giants continue stuffing their coffers with massive profits.

Visit the average news website lousy with third party cookies (yes, we know, it’s true of TC too) and you’d be forgiven for thinking the publisher is also getting fat profits from the data creamed off their users as they plug into programmatic ad systems that trade info on Internet users’ browsing habits to determine the ad which gets displayed.

Yet while the online ad market is massive and growing — $88BN in revenues in the US in 2017, per IAB data, a 21% year-on-year increase — publishers are not the entities getting filthy rich off of their own content.

On the contrary, research in recent years has suggested that a large proportion of publishers are being squeezed by digital display advertising economics, with some 40% reporting either stagnant or shrinking ad revenue, per a 2015 Econsultancy study. (Hence, we can posit, the rise in publishers branching into subscriptions — TC’s own offering can be found here: Extra Crunch).

The lion’s share of value being created by digital advertising ends up in the coffers of adtech giants, Google and Facebook . Aka the adtech duopoly. In the US, the pair account for around 60% of digital ad market spending, per eMarketer — or circa $76.57BN.

Their annual revenues have mirrored overall growth in digital ad spend — rising from $74.9BN to $136.8BN, between 2015 and 2018, in the case of Google’s parent Alphabet; and $17.9BN to $55.8BN for Facebook. (While US online ad spend stepped up from $59.6BN to $88BN between 2015 and 2017.)

eMarketer projects 2019 will mark the first decline in the duopoly’s collective share. But not because publishers’ fortunes are suddenly set for a bonanza turnaround. Rather another tech giant — Amazon — has been growing its share of the digital ad market, and is expected to make what eMarketer dubs the start of “a small dent in the duopoly”.

Behavioral advertising — aka targeted ads — has come to dominate the online ad market, fuelled by platform dynamics encouraging a proliferation of tracking technologies and techniques in the unregulated background. And by, it seems, greater effectiveness from the perspective of online advertisers, as the paper notes. (“Despite measurement and attribution challenges… many studies seem to concur that targeted advertising is beneficial and effective for advertising firms.”

This has had the effect of squeezing out non-targeted display ads, such as those that rely on contextual factors to select the ad — e.g. the content being viewed, device type or location.

The latter are now the exception; a fall-back such as for when cookies have been blocked. (Albeit, one that veteran pro-privacy search engine, DuckDuckGo, has nonetheless turned into a profitable contextual ad business).

One 2017 study by IHS Markit, suggested that 86% of programmatic advertising in Europe was using behavioural data. While even a quarter (24%) of non-programmatic advertising was found to be using behavioural data, per its model. 

“In 2016, 90% of the digital display advertising market growth came from formats and processes that use behavioural data,” it observed, projecting growth of 106% for behaviourally targeted advertising between 2016 and 2020, and a decline of 63.6% for forms of digital advertising that don’t use such data.

The economic incentives to push behavioral advertising vs non-targeted ads look clear for dominant platforms that rely on amassing scale — across advertisers, other people’s eyeballs, content and behavioral data — to extract value from the Internet’s dispersed and diverse audience.

But the incentives for content producers to subject themselves — and their engaged communities of users — to these privacy-hostile economies of scale look a whole lot more fuzzy.

Concern about potential imbalances in the online ad market is also leading policymakers and regulators on both sides of the Atlantic to question the opacity of the market — and call for greater transparency.

A price on people tracking’s head

The new research, which will be presented at the Workshop on the Economics of Information Security conference in Boston next week, aims to contribute a new piece to this digital ad revenue puzzle by trying to quantify the value to a single publisher of choosing ads that are behaviorally targeted vs those that aren’t.

We’ve flagged the research before — when the findings were cited by one of the academics involved in the study at an FTC hearing — but the full paper has now been published.

It’s called Online Tracking and Publishers’ Revenues: An Empirical Analysis, and is co-authored by three academics: Veronica Marotta, an assistant professor in information and decision sciences at the Carlson School of Management, University of Minnesota; Vibhanshu Abhishek, associate professor of information systems at the Paul Merage School of Business, University California Irvine; and Alessandro Acquisti, professor of IT and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University.

“While the impact of targeted advertising on advertisers’ campaign effectiveness has been vastly documented, much less is known about the value generated by online tracking and targeting technologies for publishers – the websites that sell ad spaces,” the researchers write. “In fact, the conventional wisdom that publishers benefit too from behaviorally targeted advertising has rarely been scrutinized in academic studies.”

“As we briefly mention in the paper, notwithstanding claims about the shared benefits of online tracking and behaviorally targeting for multiple stakeholders (merchants, publishers, consumers, intermediaries…), there is a surprising paucity of empirical estimates of economic outcomes from independent researchers,”  Acquisti also tells us.

In fact, most of the estimates focus on the advertisers’ side of the market (for instance, there have been quite a few studies estimating the increase in click-through or conversion rates associated with targeted ads); much less is known about the publishers’ side of the market. So, going into the study, we were genuinely curious about what we may find, as there was little in terms of data that could anchor our predictions.

“We did have theoretical bases to make possible predictions, but those predictions could be quite antithetical. Under one story, targeting increases the value of the audience, which increases advertisers’ bids, which increases publishers’ revenues; under a different story, targeting decreases the ‘pool’ of audience interested in an ad, which decreases competition to display ads, which reduces advertisers’ bids, eventually reducing publishers’ revenues.”

For the study the researchers were provided with a data-set comprising “millions” of display ad transactions completed in a week across multiple online outlets owned by a single (unidentified) large publisher which operates websites in a range of verticals such as news, entertainment and fashion.

The data-set also included whether or not the site visitor’s cookie ID is available — enabling analysis of the price difference between behaviorally targeted and non-targeted ads. (The researchers used a statistical mechanism to control for systematic differences between users who impede cookies.)

As noted above, the top-line finding is only a very small gain for the publisher whose data they were analyzing — of around 4%. Or an average increase of $0.00008 per advertisement. 

It’s a finding that contrasts wildly with some of the loud yet unsubstantiated opinions which can be found being promulgated online — claiming the ‘vital necessity’ of behavorial ads to support publishers/journalism.

(For example, this article, published earlier this month by a freelance journalist writing for The American Prospect, includes the claim that: “An online advertisement without a third-party cookie sells for just 2 percent of the cost of the same ad with the cookie.” Yet does not specify a source for the statistic it cites. We’ve asked the author for the reference she was using and will update if we get a response.)

At the same time policymakers in the US now appear painfully aware how far behind Europe they are lagging where privacy regulation is concerned — and are fast dialling up their scrutiny of and verbal horror over how Internet users are tracked and profiled by adtech giants.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing earlier this month — convened with the aim of “understanding the digital ad ecosystem and the impact of data privacy and competition policy” — the talk was not if to regulate big tech but how hard they must crack down on monopolistic ad giants.

“That’s what brings us here today. The lack of choice [for consumers to preserve their privacy online],” said senator Richard Blumenthal. “The excessive and extraordinary power of Google and Facebook and others who dominate the market is a fact of life. And so privacy protection is absolutely vital in the short run.”

The kind of “invasive surveillance” that the adtech industry systematically deploys is “something we would never tolerate from a government but Facebook and Google have the power of government never envisaged by our founders,” Blumenthal went on, before a few of the types of personal data that are sucked up and exploited by the adtech industrial surveillance complex: “Health, dating, location, finance, extremely personal details — offered to anyone with almost no restraint.”

Bearing that “invasive surveillance” in mind, a 4% publisher ‘premium’ for privacy-hostile ads vs adverts that are merely contextually served (and so don’t require pervasive tracking of web users) starts to look like a massive rip off — of both publisher brand and audience value, as well as Internet users’ rights and privacy.

Yes, targeted ads do appear to generate a small revenue increase, per the study. But as the researchers also point out that needs to be offset against the cost to publishers of complying with privacy regulations.

“If setting tracking cookies on visitors was cost free, the website would definitely be losing money. However, the widespread use of tracking cookies – and, more broadly, the practice of tracking users online – has been raising privacy concerns that have led to the adoption of stringent regulations, in particular in the European Union,” they write — going on to cite an estimate by the International Association of Privacy Professionals that Fortune’s Global 500 companies will spend around $7.8BN on compliant costs to meet the requirements of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). 

Wider costs to systematically eroding online privacy are harder to put a value on for publishers. But should also be considered — whether it’s the costs to a brand reputation and user loyalty as a result of a publisher larding their sites with unwanted trackers; to wider societal costs — linked to the risks of data-fuelled manipulation and exploitation of vulnerable groups. Simply put, it’s not a good look.

Publishers may appear complicit in the asset stripping of their own content and audiences for what — per this study — seems only marginal gain, but the opacity of the adtech industry implies that most likely don’t realize exactly what kind of ‘deal’ they’re getting at the hands of the ad giants who grip them.

Which makes this research paper a very compelling read for the online publishing industry… and, well, a pretty awkward newsflash for anyone working in adtech.

 

While the study only provides a snapshot of ad market economics, as experienced by a single publisher, the glimpse it presents is distinctly different from the picture the adtech lobby has sought to paint, as it has ploughed money into arguing against privacy legislation — on the claimed grounds that ‘killing behavioural advertising would kill free online content’. 

Saying no more creepy ads might only marginally reduce publishers’ revenue doesn’t have quite the same doom-laden ring, clearly.

“In a nutshell, this study provides an initial data point on a portion of the advertising ecosystem over which claims had been made but little empirical verification was completed. The results highlight the need for more transparency over how the value generated by flows of data gets allocated to different stakeholders,” says Acquisti, summing up how the study should be read against the ad market as a whole.

Contacted for a response to the research, Randall Rothenberg, CEO of advertising business organization, the IAB, agreed that the digital supply chain is “too complex and too opaque” — and also expressed concern about how relatively little value generated by targeted ads is trickling down to publishers.

“One week’s worth of data from one unidentified publisher does not make for a projectible (sic) piece of research. Still, the study shows that targeted advertising creates immense value for brands — more than 90% of the unnamed publisher’s auctioned ads were sold with targeting attached, and advertisers were willing to pay a 60% premium for those ads. Yet very little of that value flowed to the publisher,” he told TechCrunch. “As IAB has been saying for a decade, the digital supply chain is too complex and too opaque, and this diversion of value is more proof that transparency is required so that publishers can benefit from the value they create.”

The research paper includes discussion of the limitations to the approach, as well as ideas for additional research work — such as looking at how the value of cookies changes depending on how much information they contain (on that they write of their initial findings: “Information seem to be very valuable (from the publisher’s perspective) when we compare cookies with very little information to cookies with some information; after a certain point, adding more information to a cookie does not seem to create additional value for the publisher”); and investigating how “the (un)availability of a cookie changes the competition in the auction” — to try to understand ad auction competition dynamics and the potential mechanisms at play.

“This is one new and hopefully useful data point, to which others must be added,” Acquisti also told us in concluding remarks. “The key to research work is incremental progress, with more studies progressively adding a clearer understanding of an issue, and we look forward to more research in this area.”