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Why podcasts have such terrible ads

You have only a few seconds until these headphones try to sell you on MailChimp.
You have only a few seconds until these headphones try to sell you on MailChimp.
Shutterstock

As podcasts have become a staple of our commutes, some of their quirks have become more ... noticeable. And annoying.

Of course, we have undying gratitude for podcasters' hard work — but do they have to mention Squarespace 17 times in a row? And why do they act like iTunes reviews are the most important currency in the world?

But as it turns out, many of the most aggravating podcast tics have perfectly logical explanations, and understanding those tics can tell us a lot about the future of the medium. These aren't problems with artists, but an immature form that's on the cusp of change.

Why podcasts have awful ads for the same four companies over and over

The USPS is every podcaster's obsession

The USPS is every podcaster's obsession.

Lisa J. Goodman/Getty Images

Podcasts obviously need to air ads to make money. But why do those ads have to be for the same companies all the time? If you listen to a lot of podcasts, you'll hear enough Stamps.com ads to think that philately is a national obsession.

The ad repetition isn't an illusion. In May of this year, Marketplace and FiveThirtyEight tasked an intern with listening to the ads that played during the top 100 podcasts, and the list was dominated by five companies: Squarespace, Stamps.com, Audible, MailChimp, and Dollar Shave Club (there's a lot more data in the article).

So why do these particular companies dominate? One reason is technological. As the Atlantic notes, podcast ads often offer promo codes for some product or service (i.e., they mention a code that you can use to get a 10 percent discount). That's partly because podcast listenership is disaggregated among a bunch of different services (iTunes, Stitcher, YouTube, SoundCloud, etc.) and different times (people might listen a whole week after a podcast airs). Both of those factors make it harder — or at least more complicated — to sell advertisers on listenership alone. By contrast, a promo code verifies a "conversion" on an advertisement in a concrete fashion, since advertisers knows exactly where their sale comes from. That model works well for stamps, but less well for glossy brand-building campaigns.

The other reason is business-related. Many bigger companies prefer to move the needle on big buys that newer podcasts often can't offer. (Though some podcast companies have made dents in the market — for example, startup Gimlet Media snagged a Ford sponsorship for one of its signature shows.)

It's possible this will change in the future, however. Podcast networks and podcast ad networks (like Midroll, which sells ads for famous WTF podcaster Marc Maron) could someday make podcasts more appealing to major advertisers. Less popular podcasts, though, will likely continue to have no ads at all or scrape the bottom of the barrel.

But, of course, ads aren't the only annoying podcast tic.

Why podcasts are obsessed with you rating and reviewing them

"Rate us," the podcaster begs incessantly.

"Rate us," the podcaster begs incessantly.

Shutterstock

It might seem obvious why podcasts want good ratings and reviews: They can convince curious listeners to take a leap and spend 20 minutes trying out a new show. But that's only part of the reason podcast hosts are constantly pleading for ratings.

The real prize is taking advantage of iTunes' algorithm, as Nick Loper at Side Hustle Nation details. If podcasts can gain more visibility in Apple's podcast app and store, they can gain more listeners. And the best ways to appeal to Apple include:

  • Maxing out downloads. ITunes often ranks podcasts by how many total downloads they have, which gives podcasters an incentive to break out their work — or at least include as many potential downloads as possible.
  • Getting reviews, quickly. This is why podcasters are always asking for your love. Loper theorizes that "rating velocity — the speed at which ratings and reviews are submitted to iTunes" — is a key factor for the algorithm. That means podcasters have a huge incentive to tell you to engage with their podcast, since it can determine placement in the "New & Noteworthy" section of the site, recirculation in other related podcasts, and other recommendations for users. If you're lured into the podcast by a good review, that's great, but the real point of begging for reviews is to get you to see the podcast in the first place.

The reason all those podcasters are obsessed with iTunes is that it provides the best algorithm to pick up new listeners. On the web, a host of media companies have swarmed to big players like Facebook, and the same dynamic is visible in podcasting. Some companies will have the resources to post on every podcast platform, but the biggest ones will get the most attention — and right now, that's still iTunes. That could push further consolidation as well as iTunes' own possible monetization efforts — after all, Apple is already selling ads against its new Apple News app, and it could conceivably do the same for podcasts.

Why podcasts beg for you to subscribe

"Subscribe, or we will never release your family."

"Subscribe, or we will never release your family."

Shuttestock

The dynamic is similar for subscriptions: Of course podcasters want you to subscribe, because it means you're likely to listen to their show. But they also want you to help them impress the iTunes algorithm.

My Wife Quit Her Job podcaster Steve Chou is, like Nick Loper, another savvy online marketer who realizes the algorithm might be his most important audience member. Subscribers are another key piece of landing in the iTunes New & Noteworthy section, and without it, a podcast might fall off the radar.

Dan Lyons, guest-blogging at Propodder, sees it as beneficial to iTunes, as well — subscribers come back to the app and don't use alternatives like SoundCloud. So a subscriber is a valuable user to iTunes, which, in turn, makes subscribed shows worth promoting. Other networks have the same incentives, which means the subscription war is on (this should be familiar to YouTube video viewers, as well).

The only way around the mighty algorithm are guest spots, cross-promotion, and an internal network with the muscle to help break a show out of obscurity. That's yet another incentive for consolidation through a content network, like Gimlet, Earwolf, Nerdist, or a host of others that might include a public radio audience.

So podcasting's biggest annoyances are, at heart, business problems that are quickly being remedied. Are these changes good or bad for the future of podcasts? It depends on your preferences. At the very least, you may hear fewer repetitive ads for MailChimp as podcasting continues its march toward the mainstream. But what's annoying or not will depend on what you can tolerate during your commute and — most likely — how bad the traffic is.


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