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I worked in PR before Twitter or Instagram existed — and TikTok was just a sound your clock made. I witnessed the birth, teenage years and adulthood of what we now know as “influencer marketing” and now have a front row seat for the incredibly similar (and potential-filled) story arc playing out in podcasting.
In my earliest days in PR in the mid-noughties, working with “influencers” largely meant paying a big celebrity even bigger bucks to turn up at a launch, give interviews around a product and generally be the face of a campaign. This — if all went to plan — resulted in column inches. And the word “inches” is essential here. We used to assess the campaign’s success by literally measuring the amount of space a PR-led article took up in a print publication. Iknowright?
Back then, the potential for “normos” to build a following — let alone monetize it professionally — was pretty much non-existent outside of perhaps blogging, which was a slog. The lucrative bridges between socially-founded communities and cash-rich advertisers had not yet been built.
But then came YouTube. And (The) Facebook. And Twitter. (As well as proper camera phones.) Adoption spread quickly, and with it, the opportunities for anyone, anywhere, to create content and build a following.
From a creator revenue perspective in these early days of such social platforms, meaningful monetization was largely reserved for the big names. Big tech had yet to really kickstart the creator economy. Advertisers still wanted the safe bet of a known face, with a large following — no matter how disengaged — to hawk their brand.
But that started to change. In 2008, Google used its acquisition of DoubleClick to build an advertising ecosystem on YouTube, and the rise of The Influencer™️ was on. In the late noughties, Zoella, Alfie Deyes, Tanya Burr, Ryan Higa, Dude Perfect and many others behind them took hold of millennial attention and big advertiser budgets, diverting them to YouTube. It’s a widely-held belief that when YouTube started using the word “creator” in 2011 over “YouTube star,” the creator economy as we know it today was truly born.
Even so, it wasn’t until Instagram became the ubiquitous presence it is today that things really started to shift. YouTube — whilst accessible to anyone — still had a relatively high barrier to entry for the masses. Slick make-up tutorials or edited gaming videos didn’t happen just like *that*. But with Instagram, suddenly everyone (and their cousin) was a photographer. And then, with the arrival of video capabilities on Instagram itself, a… “content creator.”
This really opened up the creator economy to “micro” influencers as well as macro ones. Brands woke up to their potential: more affordable ambassadors with more modest but highly engaged followings, who could target niche areas and audiences as a means to maximize return on ad budgets. In fact, AdWeek suggests that micro influencers can drive 60% higher campaign engagement rates than macro.
Agencies and platforms that found scalable ways to connect these niche profiles with brands sprung up everywhere. Advertisers could easily plan — and crucially, measure — a comprehensive, scalable influencer marketing campaign, with big returns. In fact, in 2016, 40% of people said they’d purchased an item online after seeing it used by an influencer on Instagram, Twitter, Vine, or YouTube (Twitter and Annalect, 2016). Even better: complementing a big-bucks ad campaign with an even more targeted influencer strategy paid off. I lost count of the number of new briefs I worked on with that goal during that time. It’s easy to see why: According to Deloitte, the average return on spend for influencer marketing is $5.20 compared to $2.63 for digital advertising.
So why have I just spent a few minutes generalizing wildly (sorry) and telling you stuff you probably already knew? Because 2015-ish me is excited to see how podcasting is now echoing this trend (pun sort of intended), and the potential within it.
In my early days at Acast five years ago, you had to have a pretty well-established listenership to be courting the attention of advertisers in podcasting. In fact, back then we didn’t accept any podcast onto the platform which had fewer than around 15,000 listens a week; the demand and the resource needed to service it meant that we had to go for the big numbers. Advertisers everywhere were waking up to the potential of podcast advertising and especially the effectiveness of sponsorships — having trusted voices with engaged listenerships amplify their brand in their own style through what many call “host reads.” Influencer marketing in audio.
Then, in 2019, we acquired Pippa to expand into an open platform for anyone to host a podcast, and the number of creators of all sizes in our network started to really accelerate. In fact, it’s grown 780% since 2019. Podcasting has always had a relatively low barrier to entry, but now platforms like ours were really ramping up the professionalization of the space. We opened up monetization to anyone — meaning our creators could start accepting advertising on their podcast from day one. Our YouTube moment.
Soon, as well as the established names in the space, we knew we were sitting on tens of thousands of podcasts with highly engaged, dedicated followings that are incredibly attractive to advertisers: micro influencers in the audio space.
The jewel in the crown of podcasting is those sponsorships or “host reads” — endorsements read in the host’s own style, which create a connection with leaned-in listeners and drive brilliant results for advertisers. Now, the massive opportunity lies in how we follow that path laid down by social platforms in activating this supply: thousands and thousands of podcast voices with thousands of advertisers of all sizes wanting to use those micro (as well as macro) influencers to…influence: reach and convert customers.
A leap forward in this came last quarter when we launched our self-serve platform for advertisers. Now any advertiser with any size budget can start their own ad campaign, using their own ad creative, in just a few minutes — bringing more revenue to more shows of all sizes. Next, we are looking at turning that same process on for those host-read sponsorships — matching up micro audio influencers with advertisers at scale.
The smartest podcast advertisers are no longer simply looking at the largest shows they can buy; they’re instead structuring their campaigns to reach their target audience in the most effective ways. That’s why true influencers — those who’ve built up deep listener relationships, no matter their size — are key to the future of podcast advertising.