The Upfronts: podcasting is the latest battleground

Media companies dazzled advertisers with new content and audience metrics.

Audio has taken on new prominence in the past year, with audio chat app Clubhouse soaring into popularity. But good old podcasts still have a horse in the race. 

Podcast listening has continued to grow over the last year, as has advertiser interest in the medium. This year’s IAB Podcast upfronts, hosted last week virtually, reflected just that. 

According to IAB research, podcast advertising revenue grew 19% to $842 million last year, and is forecasted to exceed $1 billion in 2021. Monthly podcast listeners increased 16% year over year, and the number of podcast shows available has quadrupled.

By 2023, podcasting is expected to become a $2 billion market. 

In 2020, ads dynamically inserted into podcasts increased their share to represent two-thirds of all ad revenue, while host read and pre-produced ads increased from 27% to 35%. 

Direct-to-consumer brands still dominate podcast advertising, but traditional brands continued to enter the space in a big way. Pharmaceutical brands, for example, doubled their podcast investments to 9% year over year. 

News was the most popular genre shared, with growth across the science and health shows (no surprise there), as well as fitness content. 

Still, podcasting isn’t perfect for brands. As advertisers continue to invest in the space, the IAB anticipates greater demands for better measurement. 

Here are key takeaways from the 2021 podcast upfronts:

Contentis king

Advertisers have plenty of flashy new shows to choose from as mainstream media companies lean heavily into podcasts as a new engagement avenue for their audiences — as well as a new revenue stream. 

CNN, for instance, launched several podcasts in 2020, including “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.” This year, the news giant is set to expand its portfolio to reach the Hispanic audience, adapting popular podcast CNN 5 Things in Spanish with CNN in Español while launching a new Spanish-language news podcast called “Desafios Globales.” CNN is also working on a post-COVID recovery podcast with Dr. Sanjay Gupta. 

Wondery, acquired by Amazon for a reported $300 million in December, will release new programming with Amazon Music, featuring integrations with Alexa, across the True Crime, Game Show and Pop Culture genres. Currently, 17 of Wondery’s shows are in development for TV adaptations with more entering production later this year.

iHeartMedia, on the other hand, is leaning into partnerships, such as one with the NFL and famous producer Shonda Rhymes. The radio giant is also making a big play for the Hispanic audience with “My Cultura,” a Latinx podcast network expected to launch in July. The network will be powered entirely by Latinx creators and producers, including Daniel Habif, Amara La Negra, Patty Rodriguez and Enrique Santos,  and plans to have 30 original podcasts by next year. 

ViacomCBS will also launch several podcasts with ties to its TV slate, including shows tied to “Wildn’ Out,” “Rupaul’s Drag Race,” “Love and Hip Hop” and “YellowStone.” ViacomCBS will also tap into Nickelodeon to create podcasts for kids, including “Blue’s Clues Storytime with Josh and Blue,” “SpongeBob Bingecast” and “Avatar: Braving the Elements” set to launch in 2021 and 2022. 

But audience still matters

This was an upfront, of course, so each of the media companies presented made a case to ad buyers about their unique audience reach. 

NPR, for instance, said that podcast advertising surpassed its predictions by 40% this year, while its radio listeners increased 163 million, nearly returning to pre-pandemic levels.  

Meanwhile, Sirius XM, Stitcher and Pandora, which recently rebranded to SXM Media, touted reaching over 150 million ad supported listeners, including across its partnerships with Soundcloud and NBC. One-fourth of the company’s 116 million podcast listeners in the U.S. are Gen Z, women and multicultural, and three out of five of its listeners tune into podcasts for more than 6 hours per week, according to an internal survey. Almost half (41%) listened to more podcasts while working from home. 

CNN on the other hand, receives more than 200 million podcast downloads and reaches 6.9 million listeners per month across its network, 65% of which are under the age of 45. 

And Wondery reaches 12.6 million global unique listeners, with 553 million unique downloads and over 10 million podcast episodes. According to Jen Sargent, CEO of Wondery, one in every 2.4 adults listen to a Wondery podcast, and the platform has over 30,000 episodes surpassing 2 billion global downloads. Wondery has also added 55 million Amazon Music subscribers to its network since the acquisition. 

iHeartMedia has 30 million unique listeners and sees 250 million downloads a month. During its presentation, CEO Conal Byrne said iHeartMedia’s network reaches nine out of 10 adults in the U.S. across podcasting and radio.

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