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Pioneering programmatic in podcasting: what we’ve learned in 4 years as market leaders

Pioneering programmatic in podcasting: what we’ve learned in 4 years as market leaders

Written by By Kevin McCaul and Michael BaystonGlobal Head of Ad Ops and Global Head of Automation2021.07.30

Since 2017, Acast has pioneered programmatic ad buying for the podcast industry. And 2020 saw all our hard work begin to pay off, as we achieved 215% year-on-year growth in our programmatic ad sales revenue.

2021 is shaping up to be better than ever, and we’re currently hiring for an Account Manager for programmatic sales based in New York. But it’s not been an easy ride to get to this point — and we’ve learned a thing or two along the way.

Here are some of the most important things we’ve discovered in four years of testing and learning. We’ve even split them into four sections to make them easier to digest.

1. Education, education, education

“We were confident a thorough education for everyone would benefit all parties”

Training everyone involved in the ad sales pipeline — including both our own people and all the partners we work with — really has been at least half the job. And, particularly when applying technology to a relatively new channel like podcasting, what’s key is how you educate those people.

The watchword for us throughout the whole process has been “transparency”, because we were confident a thorough education for everyone would benefit all parties (particularly our podcasters and advertiser clients) and help us to address any concerns around introducing programmatic execution.

Internally, this helped get buy-in from around the business. When Michael joined the company, most of the sales team had little idea of how programmatic revenue worked or how they could track it for their clients — today, they know exactly what’s going on and have become true advocates.

Externally, right from the start, we were honest with everyone we spoke to: this is new, and it’s going to be more challenging than you’re used to with, for example, display or video, but the potential is huge. And that did lead to some buyers and partners admitting they probably weren’t ready to jump in with us at that point.

But now, four years after we started that educational journey, we’re reaping the rewards — as shown by our programmatic ad sales revenue growth. Advertisers are coming back to us with much bigger briefs that show they’ve really understood what our automated solutions can do for them.

So, how did we do it?

Here’s how we approached the task with our buy- and sell-side partners:

  • We delivered 135 presentations to both agency trading desks and demand-side platforms (DSPs) throughout 2020. Our relationships with them are based on collaboration and co-creation.
  • We created 12 custom buyer guides for each of the key DSPs on how to set up Private market place (PMP) and Programmatic guaranteed (PG) deal IDs for podcast supply, including Google’s DV360 platform. As more buyers (and therefore problems) arrived, we went back to our DSP partners to refine and improve the guides — in turn helping them educate their customers on best practice set-up for podcast supply.
  • We collaborated with our supply-side platform (SSP) ad tech partner, helping them improve their podcast product. This included working with them to improve the transparency of podcasts in deal targeting, based on buyer behaviour and the feedback we were receiving.

With key buyers:

  • During the early days we naturally identified ‘star’ audio buyers at our agency partners, who were more likely to give automated execution of podcast supply a go — and who we hoped would work with us to make programmatic technology work better with the podcast channel.
  • From activity run by these customers, we learned how to deliver seamlessly against their campaign KPIs and their buy-side deal setups, and we used this information with other prospective customers.

And, crucially, with podcasters:

  • They’re the lifeblood of everything we do, so we had to convince our podcasters that programmatic would help bring them more revenue without sacrificing quality — and by addressing the myth that programmatic always equals low CPMs and poor quality ads.
  • Our approach has been the automation of the 1–2–1, direct insertion order (IO) process, including premium CPM levels, rather than an unlimited, commoditised open marketplace (OMP) route.
  • We made sure we could give creators clear programmatic revenue data, to show them exactly how it was supporting their podcast.

We’re not big fans of using technical solutions just for the sake of it, especially when we know it simply wouldn’t work for our creators. Take host reads, for example. We could have tried to implement programmatic here, but in reality very few buyers are currently asking for it — and it presents far too many hurdles in terms of production and quality assurance.

We will always be led by the best use of technology for the market, and the only ad format we’re currently hearing people ask for the ability to automate is standard audio ads. More to the point, we will never back an idea that undermines high quality sponsorship reads (the product that tends to make our creators the most money).

While one-to-one PMP deals have been the standard, from initial experiments with buyers using open-access deal IDs in DSP inventory discovery tools, we’ve seen that — as long as we have creative control — these solutions within partner buying platforms can offer some of the flexibility of OMP in other mediums.

This, plus the option for buyers to set up both PMP and PG directly with Acast, makes us confident in DSP open access executions as a gateway to our supply.

Where OMP enables anyone to buy via a DSP with limited contact, our ultimate approach will always maintain a human element — because it’s our belief that podcasting needs hands-on curation.

And that’s why we run a curated marketplace, where we can still vet brands and individual ads to ensure they work for our creators, as well as making sure individual podcasts are suitable for our advertisers.

2. Execution and delivery

“Programmatic guaranteed has now become the most popular execution type in our marketplace”

By necessity, we were on a fast-growth, test-and-learn footing — but that didn’t mean we could afford to under-deliver or leave buyers unsatisfied. It was important that we made good on all the education we’d been doing, by proving that programmatic in podcasting works in practice

We needed a testing ground — and we found the perfect market in Australia. It’s a highly developed region with broad adoption of programmatic, but not so large as to be unwieldy or difficult to manage.

That allowed us to do the following:

  • We adopted a troubleshooting mindset, and learned from mistakes the media industry had made when introducing programmatic to display and video. Early on, it was less about defining literal steps to take with each customer and more about understanding that we were working things out as we went.
  • Each new activation was closely monitored, nothing was assumed, and we triaged issues at speed. We worked closely with buyers because, at the time, there was little guidance from omnichannel DSPs — after all, they had no experience in this space.
  • Would geo-targeting work if the buyer targeted by city or zipcode? Was the companion banner compatible? How could frequency capping work? It all needed to be tested and tracked.
  • We were able to identify the challenges for programmatic within the open podcast ecosystem in which Acast operates — where our ads are served across all podcast listening platforms — helping our decision to focus on the automation of direct IO (PMP and PG executions).
  • We were also able to shape our pricing. We tried multiple approaches, but ultimately it was about finding the right level for our creators — higher yields for podcasters would put to bed any concerns they had about lower CPMs.

We were able to take all those learnings and translate our success in Australia to the next group of markets: the UK, Ireland, France and the US. Now, in our fourth year, Acast is listed in the inventory discovery tools of six major DSPs and we’re working with buyers based in 20 markets, using multiple execution types.

We’ve reached the point that, while PMP is still used across the board, by mid-June 2021 programmatic guaranteed has now become the most popular execution type in our marketplace.

On top of this, we have a fully fledged vendor onboarding process that we’ve honed in multi-market engagements, in response to clients’ requests that we work with their chosen ad tech — but more on that later.

Next, we were ready to scale things up:

  • Our ability to present clear revenue data attributed to programmatic to Acast’s leadership team led to an increased focus on automation and its benefits at all levels of the business — which in turn led to the provision of more resources.
  • This allowed us to double our resource base, bringing in more people who could help us push programmatic forwards — and who could help us train up the rest of the company.
  • The podcast ecosystem lends itself to a more complicated set of processes and knowledge base among ad operations teams, which meant Kevin’s training for his team needed to be highly fluid, and they needed more exposure to DSP collaboration than you’d expect within other digital channels.

Eventually, we’re aiming to get to the point where everything runs smoothly and the whole thing just ‘works’. But we’re also realistic. We know that’s still some way off because — while a lot of audio specialist buy side adtech platforms have nailed it — there’s still a lack of standardization for audio execution among big ad tech companies and the omni-channel DSPs.

Reorienting major vendors and their customers to the intricacies of the podcast ecosystem will require a lot of hard work, and a healthy dose of patience.

3. Privacy, data and targeting

“We focus on contextual targeting, relying on and understanding the context of the conversations happening within podcasts on our platform”

The fact is, podcasting in the open ecosystem means Acast’s supply is more constrained — predominantly due to reliance on IP addresses, because there’s a lack of logged-in users across third party listening platforms and apps.

While that means we don’t work with a lot of data, it also means — with cookies set to be consigned to the history books in late 2023 — we’ve developed solutions specifically for podcasting which means that we’re 100% future-proof.

The landscape is slightly different inside and outside Europe:

  • Outside Europe, given both the lack of standardization and device ID-based non-addressability with podcast supply, audience targeting can only be achieved on the supply side.
  • With our partner Nielsen, we can target audiences based on web browsing, demographic and purchase data, replicating the types of granular targeting buyers have come to expect.
  • Inside Europe, GDPR means all publishers need to align with the IAB’s Transparency and Consent Framework 2.0. The trouble is, in the open podcasting ecosystem, there’s no way to get consent — so we took a leading role in collaborating with the IAB to ensure podcast companies were compliant with guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO).
  • Along with the likes of Global, Bauer, Triton and AdsWizz, we worked with the IAB to help educate and prove to DSPs that our targeting methods remained in line with TCF 2.0.

At Acast we focus on contextual targeting, relying on and understanding the context of the conversations happening within podcasts on our platform, rather than needing first-party user data. That includes keyword targeting using AI-powered speech-to-text transcription, and curated podcast collections hand picked by our experienced global content teams.

This works particularly well in podcasting versus other channels because of the wide range of genres — both niche and mainstream — that are available. It’s influencer media at its best, and today’s buyers are demanding transparent, contextually targeted, premium supply sources.

However, we also believe that ingesting universal IDs — which will replace cookies and device ID — is a feasible solution for the open podcasting ecosystem. Adoption has already started in the US and, while some players are yet to be convinced, we will once again be working to educate the whole industry on its potential.

Our position as a creator-first, tech-savvy podcast platform means Acast can be the single trusted middleman between podcast content, buyers, and multiple vendors.

As Jim Rubio, Associate Director, Digital Activation at OMD in New York City, said: “I recognize that Acast’s programmatic capabilities in the podcast space is at the forefront of the industry. Acast was the only tech partner that was able to activate our niche B2B audiences in podcast, programmatically (through a DMP).”

4. Transparency and measurement

“Acast is still the only podcast company aligned with all four of the IAB’s Podcast Measurement Guidelines 2.0 metrics — and the IAB even hosts its own podcasts with us”

When we looked at automating the direct IO, we wanted to start from scratch with a truly transparent and democratised approach:

  • We provide a 100% transparent safelist of all our podcasts, split by targeting segments, and supply daily reports detailing ad impressions by show upon request — which was a game changer for our advertiser and agency clients.
  • The open ecosystem presents challenges around real-time measurement, but it also provides a level of scale unrivaled by ‘owned and operated’ listening platforms and so-called ‘walled gardens’.
  • We know how important attribution is for our clients, and have established strong partnerships with both the IAB and experienced measurement partners like Podsights, Claritas and Kantar — allowing us to deliver for both our creators and our advertisers.
  • We provide post-campaign brand uplift and attribution reports by working with key measurement vendors. There are challenges here based on region and the scale of each campaign, but we’ve learned that due diligence in campaign planning will be rewarded — so our insights team looks at plans with a fine-toothed comb to decide, before we start, whether brand uplift is a suitable metric.
  • Over the past 12 months alone, we’ve also vetted more than 20 best-in-class vendors — putting in the hard yards so our partners don’t have to. One thing we’ve learned here is not to go ‘all in’ on one vendor for every campaign. Instead, we choose bespoke vendors every time — because every client, and every campaign, is different.

Here’s Nathanial Thompson, Associate Media Planning Director at Essence Global: ““We’re extremely happy with the success of the campaign we ran with Acast. Not only were we able to see results in product recall, we were most excited by the statistically significant uplift in purchase consideration driven during the campaign. The partnership with Acast allowed us to immerse ourselves within the conversations already happening between creators and their listeners, making the advert feel authentic and relevant to the listener — with minimal disruption.”

Acast is also still the only podcast company aligned with all four of the IAB’s Podcast Measurement Guidelines 2.0 metrics, and we’re a leading partner in the 2.1 recertification in process right now. In fact, the IAB even hosts its own podcasts with us.

However, as a prominent member of the IAB Tech Lab Podcast Working Group, we believe the industry needs to go further. We need:

  • Leadership from the IAB on podcast-specific measurement — podcasts must be prioritized the same as CTV, display, and video. It’s merited: in the US alone podcast ad revenue is forecasted to exceed $1B this year and $2B by 2023.
  • The SSP and DSP communities need to collaborate urgently with the IAB — and all parts of the podcast industry — on a clear and productive route forward on podcast specific measurement tools for our many advertiser customers. Demand is currently high and will only grow further with the correct solutions in place.
  • Podcast creators and publishers need more assurances from key listening platforms that user privacy will be balanced with their preferences for open ecosystem podcasting, which can only thrive with help from advertising revenues.

If you’ve made it this far, you’ll know we’ve had to follow a winding road to get us to this point. But, after four years of testing and learning, 2021 is the year programmatic has really started to pay off for Acast. Here’s to the next four — and beyond.

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