Podcasters Are Buying Millions of Listeners With Mobile Ads

POdcasters are always looking for new, eye-catching places to promote their shows, from billboards to parade floats to airplane banners. However, some networks have discovered a less glamorous but highly effective way to attract millions of paying listeners: loading mobile games with a specific type of advertisement.

Every time a player taps one of these fleeting in-game ads – and wins virtual loot for it – a podcast episode begins downloading on their device. The podcast company, in turn, can attract the player as a new listener to its program and add another coveted download to its overall tally.

This practice allows networks to quickly accumulate downloads by tapping into a source of hyperactive video game users. But it also begs the question of who is a legitimate podcast listener and what amount of time should be required to be considered a download.

“Not all impressions are created equal,” says Larry Chiagouris, a marketing professor at Pace University. “I do not say [this tactic is] not ethical or illegal, but it raises questions. If someone is trying to play a game and that’s the purpose of that interaction, they might just be out to play the game and not be that interested in the information being shared.”

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Podcasts typically rely on downloads as the primary metric for ad sales. When a person taps an in-app play button on their mobile device, an entire episode is downloaded so they can listen to it without a good internet connection — say, on a plane or the subway. An episode’s ad is inserted at that moment of download, which means that even if a consumer is only listening for 10 minutes of a 30-minute show, at the 15-minute mark, the mid-roll ad is often ready to be heard — not to mention , counted by the sales team.

To date, the podcast industry has said next to nothing about its adoption of this video game strategy. In August, DeepSee, an ad fraud detection company, released a research paper showing how the practice is capturing the attention of gamers.

“Nobody really asked questions about it or what the experience is like for users,” said Rocky Moss, DeepSee co-founder and chief executive officer.

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One game referenced in DeepSee’s article is Subway Surfers, a popular mobile app from Danish company Sybo that has been downloaded about 3 billion times since its debut in 2012. Over a two-week period in August, Bloomberg found several publishers using the game to collect podcast downloads, including the New York Post, independent podcaster Scott Savlov, and IHeartMedia Inc.

Officials from the Post and IHeart declined to comment.

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Savlov says he spends “nominal” money on in-game advertising and initially used it to generate interest in his show when it first launched. These days, he says, he’s looking more at social platform algorithms to promote his celebrity interviews.

“Don’t rely on me [in-game ads] solely because at some point you want as much organic and authentic growth as possible,” he said.

The podcast networks that actively promote mobile game downloads do so through an intermediary company called Jun Group, which was founded in 2005 and sold to Advantage Solutions Inc., a marketing and distribution company, in 2018. Jun Group CEO Corey Weiner said the company specializes in bringing consumers closer to products, websites and podcasts by placing its ads on over 1,000 mobile apps, which collectively reach 100 million unique users.

“There’s a very important reason why all the biggest brands in the world invest so much money in brand awareness, because without it you don’t have a chance to break through the clutter,” he said. “Every publisher, every content creator, since the beginning of time has invested in marketing to promote themselves, and this is just another way of doing it.”

He said the company hasn’t accurately tracked how long players stay on a podcast after clicking an ad.

“I think the standards bodies, the people involved in deciding what a podcast game is, might decide to raise the bar for what a podcast game is,” Weiner said. “Even if you raise the bar, [the ad] will still exceed the bar. So actually I suggest we raise the bar because we can jump right over it.”

According to someone who spoke to Jun Group, the price the company charges podcast networks for these ads can vary depending on whether they’re targeting specific demographics or guaranteed to attract unique listeners. The starting price for a 20-second ad is $27 per 1,000 page views on the site. To monetize such downloads, podcast networks can turn around and sell the resulting audience to brand advertisers, presumably at a nice premium on what they pay Jun Group.

Jun Group’s main podcast client is IHeart, creators of shows by Will Ferrell, Charlamagne tha God and Shonda Rhimes. According to a person familiar with the effort, the radio company, which bills itself as the world’s leading podcast publisher, has spent more than $10 million since 2018 and has gained about 6 million unique listeners monthly through those ads. The company mainly runs its in-game campaigns at the beginning and end of months. The impact can be seen in the publicly available charts created by Chartable, a podcast marketing company owned by Spotify Technology SA.

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In the last week of August, IHeart podcasts represented more than half of the top 10 trending shows—although one of the podcasts listed hadn’t released new episodes in months and another hadn’t released new programs in over a year. Some of the specific shows Bloomberg encountered in Subway Surfers also appeared further down the charts, including Life in Spanglish, Run That Prank, and All the Smoke.

(Disclosure: IHeart is a Bloomberg Media partner, and DeepSee spotted promotions for a Bloomberg podcast running on Subway Surfers).

IHeart also holds the top spot in Podtrac, a monthly podcast ranking that measures networks unique audiences and downloads. In the month of August, it reached approximately 35.5 million unique listeners, 11 million more than its closest competitor, Amazon.com Inc.’s Wondery. The company reached 24.6 million unique listeners in August 2020 compared to National’s 24 million Public Radio topped this list for the first time.

The incentives to invest in marketing channels like Jun Group’s are clear. The audio industry is characterized by an investment frenzy. To get their money back as quickly as possible, companies will rely in part on increasing the reach of their podcasts to generate more ad revenue. The industry is expected to surpass $4 billion in revenue in 2024, up from around $700 million in 2019.

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