SVP of Podcasting and Influencer Marketing, Stephen Smyk, discusses placing his first podcast influencer ad--in 2007
In 2018, Veritone One acquired podcast advertising agency Performance Bridge; and with it, founder Stephen Smyk. Stephen is now Veritone One’s SVP of Podcasting and Influencer Marketing. In December 2019 I was able to catch up with Stephen and ask him about the first podcast ad he ever placed, back in 2007! I asked Stephen to start our conversation with how he started Performance Bridge. Listen or read on below to hear what led up to the pivotal point in 2007 when his innovative idea changed the trajectory of podcast advertising forever.
You can still hear the Audible ad from May 13, 2007, on Episode 97 – This Week in Tech. The ad runs from approximately 23:28-28:20.
Abridged Excerpts Below
As transcribed by Veritone aiWARE.
Stephen: Performance Bridge was kind of an accident. We ended up happening was I relocated out of New York City back to my hometown of Binghamton, New York. We had probably been there for two days before I got some phone calls from some colleagues that were in the industry that said, “Gee, you’ve been doing customer acquisition online for a number of years now. What do you plan on doing?”
And I said, I have some great ideas, but I’m not ready of kick those off yet. So I’m just going to kind of take a little bit of time. And they said, “So you have some time, can you do me a favor? Can you help me out with this project I’m working on to acquire customers for people with a few different companies?” So fast forward about literally two weeks and we had four clients and I had to hire a couple of people to help coordinate acquisition campaigns.
So, three weeks later, Performance Bridge was formed. What was our real focus was on, it was purely customer acquisition. We were digital first, and I say digital first, we were digital only. The formation of Performance Bridge was all about testing channels, identifying what was working, and scaling those channels when we could with the focus on, the balance of acquisition cost of a new customer for a client versus value. It’s really easy to test in and find little pockets that you can efficiently acquire customers. It’s really, really hard to scale those. So we made our name on being able to test in. When as the company evolved, we were really, really lucky a few years later, to start working with Audible.
Audible was at a point then where they had a really, really great product. It was prior to smartphones, it was prior to a lot of the technology we take for granted today, and they need to do identify people who owned MP3 devices and who were interested in spoken word audio. It was not an easy task and a hard one to communicate to people. We leveraged a number of channels and we had some success. And at some and we approached the client about this great opportunity that we thought made a lot of sense, which was podcasting. At that point, there were significantly fewer podcasts than there are today.
Why Podcast Advertising?
Veritone One: Why was podcasting even on your radar at that point?
Stephen: [Podcasting was] on my radar because I actually spent a lot of time commuting between Binghamton in New York. And I did actually, I was an Audible customer, I listened to books. But one of the ways that I kept in touch with technology trends was I would actually listen to a couple podcasts that were that were technology based podcasts. One of those being a podcast, it’s still produced today. It’s called This Week in Tech, and is hosted by Leo Laporte and I’m still a big fan of Leo’s after all these years.
At one point [Leo] referenced that he loved Audible. And I thought, you know, hey, this would be interesting. At that point, Leo did have a couple of advertisers, but it wasn’t a significant portion of his business at the time.
So we reached out to his rep firm and talked to them about potentially putting Audible in an ad spot. And what ended up happening is that Leo had a number of people listening to a show. It was an expensive at the time for us, it was an expensive outlay for something that wasn’t tested. So there was a little trepidation. So we tested on a smaller podcast first, in February 2007. We generated a number of customers within a short period of time. So then the next month we came back and we made a significant commitment. We spent $900 dollars and sponsored a second podcast and we had a tremendous amount of success with that second podcast.
Connecting Audible and the This Week in Tech Podcast
Leo [Laporte] had been an Audible customer for seven years prior to doing the ad. When we started talking to him, he was so excited about the opportunity that his ad read, now I look back on it, it was about an eight minute ad read. He was able to talk about all of the joy, the excitement, the differences in listening to a book than reading a book. The ability to use downtime for messaging and for books to become actually clearer because he’s listening to him than reading them. It was all of the points that Audible had been trying to make about their product and had been unable to communicate in 30 second ad or display ad banner. You know, in all these limited forms, because it was still somewhat of a new concept, totally different. It was hard to explain to people and it was hard to find people who had an MP3 player who were interested in spoken word content and to be able to explain how it works. So I think it was just one of those really, really natural ad reads that we had remarkable success in a very, very short period of time. Literally within a couple of days, we had seen significant new customers trying Audible.
The folks at Audible were very excited about it. And we made it a priority of the campaign to focus and determine how we’re going to scale it. So probably within three or four years after that, we continued to work with Audible. Audible asked us to take our other channels that we were managing for them and put them on the backburner and spend all of our time focusing on podcasting and how we could scale and build podcasting.
So that’s really the evolution of it. For a few years later, a number of people reached out to us and said, we love what you’re doing for Audible. Could you do the same thing for us? So that’s how we ended up in it, becoming a podcast first agency. And that’s how we became so focused on customer acquisition.
As podcasting is growing and evolved and it’s changed fairly, fairly significantly over the years, what we found is campaigns that are authentic, campaigns that are in a host voice, trusted voices that people are tuning in to listen to is the difference that podcasting brings than many other medium bring. We still use that as the core of campaigns. Those are our best performing when we’re measuring performance of the show. Some of those shows may not be the biggest reaching shows. They may be smaller, but their audiences are very, very loyal and they’re really receptive to a host’s opinion about a product. So whatever vertical you want to talk about and we have clients that have really, really great products and it makes our job significantly easier to work with top tier advertisers. We don’t sell it. All we have to do is put the product in those hand at the host and let them tell their honest feelings about it.
Podcast Advertising from 2007 to Serial
Veritone One: So going back to 2007 and those early days. Did you ever reach a point where you felt like you maxed out a podcast inventory and that was a problem and you kind of had to wait for a podcast to catch up?
Stephen: Thank God for Serial. So for many years we were running hundreds of shows in a given month. And at that time, podcast weren’t of this size and scale that they are today. It was still hard for people to find them. Thankfully, I mean, there are a couple of key things along the years that we look at the iPhone and the smartphone was significantly important, too, to our efforts in growing podcasting. So that was kind of the first step up where it was like, OK, this may become a mass media.
And then as we saw, it was a lot of male early adopter technology type content that was in podcasting. With the advent of shows like first This American Life, but kind of what really kind of kicked it into gear. What we saw with Serial, which was by This American Life, brought in a whole group of people that weren’t aware of podcasts before. There have been times where we’ve taken a step back and said, have we done every single show that’s possible to buy? And there are a couple times where we answer, yes, we probably have done them all. So thankfully for us, thankfully for our clients, thankfully for the industry, continued to kind of grow and evolve.
Veritone One: Were you working with This American Life in 2015 and was advertising on Serial an option?
Stephen: Yes, we worked extensively with This American Life. It was a hugely successful channel for us for a long period of time. It was also one of the largest, if not the largest podcast for many, many years. We worked closely with them, great partner over the years, we still with them today on behalf of Audible and on behalf of other clients. So it’s been a really, really great relationship for us over time. But when Serial came out, the This American Life, folks approach us with the opportunity to get in. They wanted what we thought at the time was a lot of money for a new show. So we recommended to the client that we pass on the opportunity.
Of course, it was hugely successful.
So we missed that one. However, we were able to get into subsequent episodes, so we missed the first two. I think we missed the first two episodes. I think at first that was in the third episode. But yeah. So it was one of those where we think we’re in three of the original episodes maybe four. But yeah, there was think it was really actually a fairly different time because we were moving to they were they were one of the first shows that were dynamic. We certainly had so it wasn’t in the content, they were putting it at the end of the show. So they were literally breaking a ton of ground. They were doing a very short pre roll and then something at the end. And there were so many unique things with that. And knowing how conservative, not only Audible, but many of our clients were, that it was like super important that we hit set goals in this. So.
So I for many, many years was unable to live down with my dear friends inaudible every time they said, why didn’t you say we shouldn’t do that? And I said, yet to this day I still say, yep, I I made that recommendation. I was totally wrong on that one.
But subsequent to that I think I’ve been kind of vindicated because Serial was a very, very unique situation. So while there are really, really large shows that come to market and reach lots of people. It’s a little bit different than those early Leo shows where Leo’s talking in his own voice about his experience with the product. When you start getting into these larger shows where a host may not be reading it. Where a host may not talk about their experience and where the product may not be a really, really great fit with the topic that hosts are talking about. Those are all of the things that we’re keeping in mind as we’re doing these in and we’re evaluating them and we’re making recommendations to clients all the time of why we think something makes sense and why it doesn’t. I’d like to think and my hope is, is that our clients think that we’re right way more frequently than we’re wrong. But there are always going to be shows that either surprise us on the upside or surprise us on the downside. And our goal is to limit our clients opportunity for failure. We don’t want to be put in situations where something doesn’t work. It happens. But our goal is to minimize that risk as much as possible.
Describing the Early Podcast Advertising Agency Landscape
Veritone One: So another kind of broad question for the 2007 to Serial/2015 period. In those few years, what was the podcast advertising landscape like? Were there a lot of other people starting to advertise on podcasts, were you the only agency in town for awhile?
Stephen: We were the only agency at the time that was in… There were some. There’s a distinction between a representation network and a media buying agency. And it was very, very blurred for a long time at the beginning of podcasting and up until and in some instances is probably still a little blury. And that distinction is very simply there are people who will show will hire to sell their ad inventory. That’s what we refer to as a rep network. They’re representing the show. So they will contact a potential advertiser and say, we have 10 ad spots in our show over the next three months, we will sell it to you for X amount of dollars and you should buy it because this is how great the show is.
What we as a media buying agency are a little bit different than that. What we do is we look across the entire landscape and we find just the right shows for our clients. And we basically work with those shows or their rep network to get our clients into those shows. Yes. We were the only media buying agency that specialized in working with the client to identify the best spots for them. However, there were rep networks that were selling lots and lots of different shows to a variety of people.
Our philosophy has always been using a media buying agency, and especially at this time it is still up to today. Our responsibility is completely to the advertiser. Our client is the advertiser. I don’t care what shows they choose to go on. That’s completely their choice. We make recommendations. We make all sorts of suggestions to them of what we think and why we think that shows are the right fit. But I’m under no obligation to sell that inventory. Our responsibility is purely what’s the best show for our client to be on and how do we identify that that’s special. Do we look at historical performance? Do we look at how they’ve done, you know, ad reads over the years? Do we look at performance data like, you know, we get a lot of sales from this guy from the show. So there’s a whole number of factors that we’re looking at as we’re working with clients to determine what shows are the best.
The Secrets to Podcast Advertising Success
So from probably 2007, my guess is probably to 2011 or so. We were probably the only agency that was doing at scale that was doing podcast buying. And this is, you know, iPhone comes out. You know, Apple starts doing a great podcast a little bit better in these types things. Podcasts are starting to get bigger. A couple other agencies, including the agency that started Veritone, which was our ROI Direct, which was a traditional radio agency, started buying some podcasts for some of their radio advertisers. A couple other agencies started up, you know, over the years. And, you know, today now there’s a number of agencies that that can buy podcasts. Anybody can buy podcasts. It’s not particularly difficult to buy podcasts. The trick is, is what and how do you buy podcasts? And I think that’s the area where we see that the experience and the other things helps distinguish us from other folks out there. We continue to look at many, many years data. We look at many, many years of experience with tons of different shows, with tons of different hosts, with tons of different networks being able to identify what, why and how is really why people engage us. And I think and I think what distinguishes us from most and why, you know, all of these years later that we’ve had a lot of really, really longstanding clients that we’ve had a lot of success for, that we’re really, really proud about.
You know, it’s we’re only as good as our clients no matter how good we are. If our clients don’t have good products. If our clients aren’t willing to educate hosts, work with hosts and provide them with product and those hopefully, you know, can you have success? Yeah, but you’re not going to have huge success. Only the commitment of a lot of our really, really great clients makes the channel work. And we’ve had. Listen, we’ve had some clients that that have tested in and haven’t had the success of others. But certainly many of the clients that have really said, you know what? We want to reach people that we can’t reach in other channels.
The demographics that you can find in podcast consumers. And what comprises the podcast universe is, when you’re talking about listeners, you’re talking about very educated people. You’re talking about people with high household income. You’re talking about, you know, very desirable demographics in age group. And these are people who can’t reach in many other channels. You know, these are people that no longer are subscribing to cable TV. They’re streaming most of their video content. These are the same people that aren’t listening to other forms of audio because they’re subscribing to two channels. You know me, they’re subscribing Audible or they’re subscribing to Sirius XM or whatever it may be. But this is it’s a subscription economy and people are avoiding ads. So podcast is one of the few areas that we know as an agency that we still identify is a really great opportunity to reach people that you’re not going to be able to reach otherwise. And we hope that it continues to be the way that listenership is growing so rapidly.
The Growing Future of Podcast Advertising
Veritone One: It seems like it’s only going to continue.
Stephen: We continue to see all of the trends going the right way. Not only are we seeing significant growth in the people that are listening to podcasts, but of the time that they’re spending, listening to audio content, more and more of them are listening to more podcasts. So where, you know, you look at a lot of Edison does probably the best job of anybody out there and tracking this year over year, they’re seeing continued growth in podcasts, listening. Their continued continued time spent listening to pod casts continues to grow the number of podcast. People are listening to. So yeah, I think that it’s really a great opportunity for advertisers and for content producers. I mean, there’s there’s a huge audience out there that are just looking for really, really great content.
Veritone One: Yeah. And there’s so much any kind of topic.
Stephen: Yeah. It’s exciting as as a consumer to be able to have those kind of options and those are options that I could never find before. You know, I mean, one of the reasons that, you know, in going back to the Leo story, Leo did a TV show. What was called the tech TV network. But it was too expensive to produce regularly. So that type of content was missing — the real time news and information. So if I wanted to find out a new launch of a product that happened a couple of days ago, where was the best place to find about that? I could read about it in a blog or something online. But I wasn’t gonna be able to do that while I was driving or I was, you know, while I was flying.
So those were the things that I think for me personally, where I found and I think we’re podcasting kind of continues to excel is to be able to identify content niches. That aren’t supported by mass media and it’s done by people who are true experts who truly love what they’re talking about. And you can feel that authenticity and that enthusiasm from them. And as a listener, it makes me feel more engaged. So, you know, there’s a variety of different ones, whether it’s listening to developers like an Accidental Tech podcast or something like that, you know, like to be able to hear that and to get really a direct line of communication. For most. It’s almost like the host and I are having a conversation. I mean, I’m doing most of the listening. I rarely talks back, but just when I’m listening to. But but I feel like that they’re talking to me to a to a big degree. And I think that that’s really the other thing that makes that the medium so powerful.