The "Skippability" Of Podcast Ads

easy there, skippy

Well, it's almost time. Next week, Edison Research releases our 2021 Infinite Dial study, along with our partners at Triton Digital. We've put out an Infinite Dial report annually since 1998, though it was once called the "Internet and Multimedia Study," and I've been involved with it since 2004. Movies were just a nickel then. The Berlin Wall had yet to fall. Everyone was doing The Twist. And I was poring over those early Infinite Dial data tables, printed overnight on a dot-matrix printer in the middle of a room with giant reel-to-reel driven mainframes, fed by punchcards. The mainframe was fed by punchcards, that is. I was fed by a nice, cold bottle of Yoo-Hoo. Simpler times.

I love this time of year, because it is a natural level-set for how I think about audio in particular, but also media usage in general. I get to spend a few weeks just reflecting about what has occurred over the past year in the world of media, and to consider what those trends mean for content creators, advertisers, producers, and talent. And this year, there are some great stories in the Infinite Dial.

If I give any data away early in this space, enforcers from Edison and Triton will remove my limbs with plastic cutlery and stuff me into a spare Amazon box (I'm sure they have one.) So, no numbers today. But I will tease something that raised one eyebrow, Spock-style, when I saw it--the percentage of listeners who tell us that they skip ads on podcasts, and how often they engage in this horrifying-to-our-bonuses behavior. To some extent, people will always overstate ad-skipping behavior, and how we think about data like this certainly has to be put into that context. Still, ad-skipping behavior is something that we have tracked for years, and in podcasting at least, this year's data struck us all as a tick upwards, to be sure.

You'll see the exact data on March 11th (and I hope you'll register to hear me and Triton's John Rosso walk through the data with our characteristic dad-joke-driven insight.) But I thought it would be worth a brief chat here in our space together about the "skippability" of podcast ads, and whether or not this is a thing with which the industry need concern itself.

I spent some time listening to the most recent episodes of a few popular podcasts this week, and took some notes. To be fair, I looked at shows that were either roughly 30-40 minutes long, or the first 30-40 minutes of some longer shows, so that the "container" for advertising was roughly the same for each. I skipped ahead a lot, but was very careful to record where I heard advertising, and how long the breaks were. By the way, a great way to evaluate an interview podcast is to listen to it by continually hitting the "30-second skip" button and counting how many times it resumes with the guest's voice, and how many times it is the voice of the host. Skipping through Fresh Air, for instance, I almost always skipped in to the voice of the guest. I'm sure there is a lesson here that I am not smart enough to elucidate.

Here are some selected podcasts and my rough notes on their advertising loads for the first 35-40 minutes:

Astray (iHeart)

  • Produced spots

  • 0:00 T-Mobile ad

  • 0:30 Content

  • 14:52 T-Mobile ad

  • 15:55 Content

  • 26: 50 Facebook Groups

  • 27:50 Content

  • 36:09 National Grid (local electric utility, :30 post-roll)

Ben Shapiro (Daily Wire)

  • All "live" and host read

  • 0:00 Cold open

  • 0:15 Express VPN

  • 0:20 Pure Talk

  • 1:27 Content

  • 8:52 Rock Auto

  • 10:06 Content

  • 34:55 Helix Sleep

  • 36:04 Content

  • 45:00 Promo

  • 45:40 Cross promo for another podcast (:30 post-roll)

The Tim Ferriss Show (Independent)

  • Host-read, mostly live

  • 0:00 Magic Spoon

  • 2:20 Eight Sleep

  • 4:30 Content

  • 34:00 LinkedIn Jobs

  • 35:16 Content

The Breakfast Club (iHeart)

  • Talent read, not live

  • 0:00 Pepsi/Dig In

  • 0:30 Mountain Dew

  • 1:00 Production/Intro

  • 1:30 Content

  • 16:00 Coors Light

  • 17:00 Pepsi/Dig In

  • 18:00 Content

  • 30:00 Mountain Dew

  • 31:00 Miller Lite

  • 32:00 Content

Do No Harm (Wondery/NBC News)

  • Produced spots

  • 0:00 content/promo

  • 3:45 Bud Light Seltzer Lemonade

  • 4:35 This Is Actually Happening cross promo

  • 4:55 Content

  • 17:10 Butcher Box

  • 18:10 Bibigo Dumplings

  • 18:40 Content

  • 25:40 Manslaughter cross promo

  • 26:40 Content

  • 42:45 Cross promo for This Is Actually Happening

The Bill Simmons Podcast (Ringer/Spotify)

  • Host-read, mix of live and inserted

  • 0:00 Ringer Dish cross promo

  • :23 Paramount Plus

  • :35 Nissan Kicks

  • 1:08 cross promo Ringer podcast network/show tease

  • 2:28 PEARL JAM

  • 2:48 Content

  • 21:00 Constant Contact

  • 21:30 Content

  • 38:20 Miller Lite

  • 39:20 Content

Fresh Air (WHYY/NPR)

  • Announcer (not host) read

  • 0:00 Hometap

  • 0:15 Content

  • 20:55 Western Governors University

  • 21:25 Content

  • 30:00 Saatva Mattresses

  • 30:30 Consider This cross-promo

  • 30:45 Content

  • 41:10 Hint

  • 42:40 XFinity

  • 42:10 Content

  • 48:30 Focus Features - Land (:15 post-roll)

The Daily Show Ears Edition (iHeart)

  • Produced spots

  • 0:00 Amex/Built to Last podcast

  • 0:35 Paramount+

  • 0:50 Content

  • 12:07 Amex/Built to Last podcast

  • 13:05 LaSalle University

  • 13:35 Content

  • 24:05 Contakt World podcast cross-promo

  • 25:10 Content

  • 32:47 Upwork

  • 33:17 FB Groups

  • 34:17 Content

  • 35:00 National Grid ((local electric utility, :30 post-roll)

As a listener, I certainly preferred the podcasts that got into the content quickly. Do No Harm, Fresh Air, and Astray got there in 30 second or less. On the other end, Tim Ferriss took 4:30 to get to content. I certainly remember the early days of Bill Simmons' "presenting sponsor" deal with ZipRecruiter, which often took several minutes before getting to content, but the recent one I listened to squeezed in two live-read sponsor messages in the first minute before a segue into a cross promo for the Ringer network. The total ad content varied a little--from about two and a half minutes to around five. Some stuck in a local post-roll; others, a cross promotion. A couple of the pre-produced spots stuck out a little to me, but mostly they were produced in a matter appropriate for the hushed tones and warm embrace of your trusted headphones.

The Breakfast Club had about five minutes of ads--at the longish end of my brief survey--but the spots were largely (maybe entirely) voiced by the talent, and very relevant to the show. The Daily Show, on the other hand, also exceeded five minutes of ads, but featured produced spots that felt a bit disconnected to the show itself. Taken in total, if I were a regular listener to the eight shows I selected, the advertising world has summed me up as someone who drinks beer (I stopped drinking), has trouble getting a good night's sleep (really, I stopped drinking), and is looking to go back to college (I SAID I STOPPED DRINKING.)

If you are waiting for a pronouncement about the "right" number of ads, or the perfect ad break length, I must disappoint you. We certainly have enough data to indicate that listeners prefer host-read ads, but other forms of advertising can also be quite effective--this is why we watch the ads during the Big Tom Brady Game every year. And although listeners are typically more receptive to host-read ads, when a host freelances into long, unscripted paeans to a particular product or service, people do tend to look at their watches--not only because the spots are long, but also because they aren't as tightly focused on a message as their pre-produced brethren and sistren. That said, I found nothing *too* egregious during my grande tour de la publicité. Podcasts certainly haven't succumbed to the insanity that is the average spot break for a commercial AM/FM radio station, for instance.

Still, you are going to see the data on frequency of ad skipping next week, and even knowing that people tend to overestimate this behavior, you're going to think the amount of ad-skipping is high. Is this a problem?

After thinking this through, I don't think this data is problematic, and I don't think it is about the current advertising load on popular podcasts. Yes, podcasts have more ads than they used to. But we also know that podcast listeners remain generally positive about the ads and the sponsors they hear in their favorite shows. So why do they skip ads? The answer is disarmingly simple: because they can.

Before you stop reading, I want to point out something I don't think I have seen elsewhere: podcasts are the only audio medium that even has skippable ads. Ever thought about that? You can't skip ads on AM/FM radio, or on the ad-supported streaming platforms like Pandora. You can't skip the ads on the talk channels on SiriusXM. There aren't any ads to skip on premium streaming services, or the music channels on Sirius. Your audiobooks don't have ads. We can avoid ads by paying for premium services, yes--but in the audio kingdom, podcasts sit by themselves as things that a) have ads, and b) give you the power to skip them.

I think it is claiming that power that is really at the heart of this data. AM/FM listeners are powerless to do anything about the ads. And thanks to a measurement system that does not hold content accountable at the spot level (or even the ad break level), they never will be. In radio's current measurement system, if you listen to five minutes of a station during a fifteen-minute block, that station is credited with the entire quarter-hour, even if you spent 9 minutes of it tuned away during an interminable spot break. If AM/FM radio were subject to the same measurement scrutiny as digital media, the market would get to fully have its say about the efficacy of having 18 minutes of commercials in an hour. But it isn't, and they don't. So, even though I am sure you can sing it with me right now, we will never know how many times 1-877-KARS-4-KIDS actually causes tune-out. But with podcasts, thanks to modern ad-tech, we do know this. And given the newfound power to skip ads in their favorite audio programs, consumers will claim that power.

The answer is not to only use live host reads--that doesn't scale. But it is exactly the modern ad technology that measures ad skipping behavior that enables its cure: tighter integration with the content. The real promise of dynamic ad insertion is not to spew cheap remnant advertising into the post-roll of every show--it's to enable a better experience--one that is custom to the show. These kinds of ads not only don't get skipped, they work a TON better. This is what I hope we eventually use dynamic ad insertion for--to maximize the experience of the listener and make the best possible introduction between that listener and a relevant product or service.

I think podcasting already does a pretty good job with this, but even so--people will claim their power, and people will skip ads. I remember years ago working on a music research project for a smooth jazz station back in the 90s (my son, who just earned First Chair for the euphonium for the All-District band in his school system, looks upon my involvement with this as akin to falling in with Charles Manson.) The project cost around $30,000 in 1995 dollars (worth roughly 1000 shares of GameStop today) and involved testing over 600 smooth jazz tracks with a sample of listeners to put together the *perfect* mix for Kansas City. Or Phoenix. The details are a little fuzzy. But I was riding with my boss from the hotel to the station to present the results of the research, and right after the reassuringly smooth sounds of Sade faded out, we were greeted by an appallingly bloodcurdling scream: "YOU NEED A CAR NOOOOOWWWWW! MITSUBISHIIIIIIIII! YOU NEED A CAAAAAARRRRGGHHHHHHHHHHHH!"

When we got to the station, my boss was livid. "We just spent tens of thousands of dollars and all of this work making 45 minutes of an hour perfect. It will be an utter waste of money if you can't get control of the other 15." And he was right--while we devote our time and treasure to the content portion of a podcast, the ads are also part of the product, and the experience. When a listener exercises their power and skips an ad, they aren't rejecting advertising in general--they are telling you, in no uncertain terms, that this particular ad isn't right. I hope we learn from that, and from the ads they don't skip.

Crappy ads can't get skipped on AM/FM radio, and stations don't get penalized that badly for running them. You might punch around the dial a bit, but the low-resolution of the measurement system means that the offending ad won't be identified or removed. They can get away with it. You can't. You won't. You can't rely on the experience of radio to understand the parameters of effective ads for podcasts. You have a much tighter relationship with the listener, and they in return are able to vote with their skip button to an unprecedented extent, at least for audio. Your show is five cans of Coke in a six-pack. If that sixth can is a can of Yoo-Hoo, that six pack is literally not going to go down very well.

What I am watching: Resident Alien, with the wonderful and talented Alan Tudyk. Imagine Northern Exposure, except the town doctor is actually an alien who has to fit in while he completes his mission--to destroy the earth. Regardless of how it sounds to you, watch it for Tudyk, who is a goddamned national treasure.

OK, friends--going dark until the Infinite Dial comes out on March 11th, and I hope you will be there! Also, I am planning to pop onto Clubhouse afterwards for a little post-Infinite Dial wrap/rap session, which I am only telling you about here, so it's a newsletter-reader-only treat. If you have an iPhone, just pop on Clubhouse around 3 PM eastern and look for the Infinite Dial room. If you have an Android phone, Clubhouse doesn't like you or think you matter. But I do.



Photo Credit: By Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0, My fantasy baseball league used to shower the yearly winner in Yoo-Hoo. I am thrilled I never won.