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Pondering Possibilities in Podvertising

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You can’t walk 50 feet in a major city without seeing them. You can spot them a mile away by the dual white wires that dangle from their ears. They’re young, technically savvy, loyal, enthusiastic card-carrying members of the burgeoning iPod Nation.

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They represent an attractive demographic of early adopter influencers that marketers covet. And, thanks to an emerging revolution in online audio content called podcasting, there are all kinds of new and exciting ways to reach them through “podvertising.”

The iPod is white hot this holiday season. Apple shipped more than two million of the portable audio players in the most recent quarter ending in September. Analysts now estimate that the Cupertino, California-based company will sell another four million devices this quarter alone. A recent Merrill Lynch report even noted that iPod adoption is out pacing the Sony Walkman’s rapid rise during the 1980s.

As the iPod Nation swells, it is spawning a completely new online content medium called podcasting — a play on the words broadcasting and Web-casting. A podcast is a time-shifted audio program that can be created using a simple microphone-equipped PC. It is distributed to subscribers via RSS. Users who subscribe to a program’s feed receive new episodes on their Mac or PC as they are released. The audio file is then subsequently automatically synched to an iPod or equivalent MP3 digital music player, allowing the subscriber to listen to the time-shifted program at their convenience.

Podcasting was hatched last summer by former MTV VJ-turned-entrepreneur Adam Curry. Since then it has been widely evangelized and adopted by the blogging community. In just two months the number of Google results for the term “podcasting” jumped nearly 1,000 percent, from 5,950 pages in early October to Google+Search”>more than 500,000 pages this month. Surprisingly Google still doesn’t even recognize the term (it asks if you mean “broadcasting”), but don’t take that lack of recognition to mean that the content and audiences aren’t there yet.

The number of podcast programs is rising rapidly. Podcast Alley, an online directory, currently lists 500 distinct programs. While many of the more popular programs — such as the hilarious Dawn and Drew husband and wife show — are homespun creations, the mainstream media is getting into the act as well. Seattle’s KOMO radio, the BBC Radio and Minnesota Public Radio have all started to make some of their programming available in podcast form.

Early evidence also suggests that programs are attracting listeners in droves. The Engadget weblog’s popular podcast edition receives 55,000 downloads per episode, according to the show’s producer, Phillip Torrone. Newsweek.com recently reported that Curry’s own show, “Daily Source Code,” has 10,000 subscribers.

So now that podcasting is here to stay and the medium has been validated by emerging and large players alike, it’s time for forward-thinking marketers to start looking at podvertising. According to Torrone, Engadget has lined up two soon-to-be-named sponsors for its regular podcast. Why not you?

Here are some podvertising possibilities worth pondering. If there’s one fundamental that permeates all of these potential models, it’s this — make sure your marketing is targeted and offers high value so the audience doesn’t skip over your ad:

* Audio Spots — One of the earliest forms of podcasting that will emerge will be brief inserted audio spots. Doug Kaye, who hosts the very popular IT Conversations podcast, recently said he is testing technology to insert spots and promos on-the-fly. While this is a natural evolution of a time-tested classic radio advertising model, it has possible downside in the podcast world. Users who find these ads obtrusive can easily skip over them on their iPods.

* Sponsorships — A more viable approach, one that is more sustainable, is underwriting an entire podcast. If this sounds familiar, it’s because this is a throwback to the Golden Age of Radio when a single company would sponsor an entire hour of variety programming. Such sponsorships might closely resemble TV product placements where the ads become part of the content in some meaningful way. For example, it’s possible a podcast sponsor might be able to embed a full audio news release right into a program, provided it is consistent with the show’s content.

* Promotions — Promotions and giveaways, akin to those that dot the radio dial, also transcend nicely to the podcast world. For example, advertisers and podcasters could team to offer special discounts to listeners. This will make it less likely that the consumer will skip over an ad.

* RSS Ads — Right now, anecdotal evidence shows that most podcast listeners are using a dedicated application like Curry’s iPodder to subscribe to program feeds. However, this may change over time as the more popular RSS aggregators that have an installed base — including FeedDemon and Bloglines — all add support for podcasting. As this happens, you can bet that marketers and audio publishers will start running short interstitial text ads in the podcast’s RSS feed, just as they are beginning to do with blog feeds.

* Roll Your Own — Last but not least, marketers should also start looking at rolling their own podcasts. This could embody everything from audio infomercials to entire specialized programs that build loyalty among select customers. Earningscast, for example, has already started publishing select quarterly company investor conference calls in podcast form.

This list is by no means exhaustive. Just as BMWFilms.com revolutionized online advertising, savvy online marketers will find outside-the-box ways to dabble in podcasting. Some will be successful, others won’t. The key thing is to start investigating and experimenting because podcasting is here to stay.

This article appears in my December column for iMediaConnection, which was recently published. I have added links for further context.

Steve Rubel is a PR strategist with nearly 16 years of public relations, marketing, journalism and communications experience. He currently serves as a Senior Vice President with Edelman, the largest independent global PR firm.

He authors the Micro Persuasion weblog, which tracks how blogs and participatory journalism are changing the public relations practice.

Pondering Possibilities in Podvertising
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