Digital audio must learn from past mistakes of programmatic

Digital audio must learn from past mistakes of programmatic

The growing digital audio sector must be aware of content risks and find ways to collaborate and standardise when it comes to brand safety.


Over the last few years, with many locked inside their homes, consumers found comfort in audio. Even as the world continues to reopen, digital audio still grabs the ear of listeners.

Podcasts, music streaming services, online radio and everything in between has flourished, with the UK sector seeing a 500% increase in revenue in Q1 2022 when compared to 2021. Music streaming services such as Spotify, Apple Music and Pandora also saw a growth in users over the pandemic, both in paid subscribers and ad-supported freemium users.

But as with any fast-growing medium, digital audio presents challenges to advertisers. As this year’s controversy surrounding Joe Rogan’s podcast has shown, even established content providers can cause brands safety headaches.

How can brands and advertisers reap the rewards of audio while staying clear of potentially harmful content?

The power of digital audio

Where consumers go, advertisers follow. This maxim has been no less true for digital audio. Three-quarters of respondents to IAS’ 2022 Industry Pulse Report expect ad investments to increase in 2022 to match consumer adoption of audio streaming. This will lead to ad spending on digital audio reaching a global total of nearly $7bn on digital audio ads by the end of the year.

One reason why advertisers are quickly matching consumer excitement around digital audio is the effectiveness of audio ads. The intimate nature of audio — especially when on headphones — means that listeners are more responsive and trusting.

Nearly half of US podcast listeners state that they trust podcast adverts more than advertisements in other mediums, while 81% report taking action after hearing a podcast ad.

Targeting can be effective on audio. The segmentation of most audio types by topic or genre means that advertisers can find relevant audiences. However, as will be discussed, while this level of targeting may help a brand narrow down their audience, the content of individual episodes or songs can cause brand safety issues.

Lagging behind

During the early years of growth in digital audio, many platforms focussed on turning listeners into paid subscribers, rather than relying on an ad-funded model. However, with the cost of living crisis combined with subscription fatigue, many are finding an ad supported model effective — Spotify, for example, ended 2021 with nearly half of their 406 million monthly users utilising their ad-funded model.

This initial focus on subscribers has meant adoption of programmatic has been slow in digital audio. In 2021, only 5% of the global podcast ad revenue of $1bn was made from programmatic. Fragmentation of the digital audio space has further hampered the ability to utilise the capabilities of programmatic. With listeners tuning in on different platforms for different content, getting a clear picture of their profiles and preferences has proved difficult.

As digital audio continues to grow, the expansion of programmatic into the space is likely. Though this will bring numerous benefits for advertisers looking to unlock audio in a cost-effective way, it also brings its own issues. Increased fraud and brand safety risk plague much of programmatic’s initial uptake on the wider internet. However, the industry can learn from these previous mistakes.

Maturing digital audio

For programmatic to become a trusted purchasing method in digital audio, transparency will be key. The adoption of industry-wide standards is one method to ensure this. IAB and the Media Rating Council, for example, have already developed guidelines for what constitutes an ‘Audible Ad Impression’ in digital audio – assessing whether an ad has been played with the mute button off or been played for more than two seconds, among other measures.

Open Measurement SDK standards are a further set of measurement guides aiming to increase transparency. Governed by the IAB, the OM SDK is a set of toolkits designed to facilitate transparent third-party viewability and verification measurement for ads served in certain environments. This strategy can include support for in-app and out-of-app listening — for users streaming on the web browser version of SoundCloud for example.

Episodic level brand safety is another issue that will need addressing if advertisers are to take advantage of digital audio’s targeting abilities. Take, for example, Joe Rogan.

One of the most listened to podcasts, and the recipient of a $200m exclusive deal with Spotify, the show ran into controversy due to Rogan’s comments around mask wearing and vaccines. However, the majority of the episodes in his podcast are safe for most brands. Avoiding the show completely could mean brands miss out on reaching a large audience.

One solution is speech-to-text technology. This can be utilised to effectively scan and categorise digital audio on an episodic-level in a similar way to written content. When utilised alongside frameworks such as those laid out by GARM and IAB, brands can quickly determine the safety and suitability of each episode rapidly.

On the horizon

Digital audio’s unique ability to chime with consumers means it is not going away any time soon, and this is good news for advertisers. But the industry needs to be wary of the increasing risk as the content type continues to grow. Collaboration and standardisation will be powerful tools in keeping brands not only safe in these new environments, but also finding receptive audiences.

For example, IAS and Spotify recently announced a new partnership to establish a third-party brand safety solution for podcast advertisers.

It’s a big milestone for the industry: the companies will embark on a rigorous analysis to help the industry understand the tools and resources necessary to effectively deliver brand safety in podcasting and digital audio writ large.

The solution will be powered by Spotify’s first-party data and verified by IAS’ independent analysis solutions based on the Global Alliance for Responsible Media’s categories and guidelines. Ultimately, the firms intend to create a first-of-its-kind brand safety and suitability tool to aid in campaign planning, management, and reporting.

Like this, lessons learnt from previous applications of programmatic buying need to be applied if advertising in digital audio is to become truly scalable and effective.

Csaba Szabo is managing director, EMEA, Integral Ad Science (IAS)

Mediatel are the audio experts operating at the centre of audio trading, distribution and analytic processing. Contact us for more information on J-ET, Audiotrack or our RAJAR data engine. To access our audio industry directory, visit audioscape.info and to find your new job in audio visit Mediatel Jobs, a dedicated marketplace for media, advertising and adtech roles.

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