This interview was first in the Podcast Business Journal newsletter, with the latest podcast news and data. Subscribe free today.
Lizzy Pollott is SVP Marketing, Communications & Brand at Acast — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability
SS: What and who is Acast? I always get confused. You’re so broad and so wide!
LP: I think we are SO broad and SO wide! We have many different customer sets and we are many different things to different people. So sometimes it is really hard to explain. So if I’m down the pub and someone says “What is Acast?” I tend to say… well, do you know what a podcast is? And then I say - we essentially host podcasts. So if you have a podcast, we get it out into the world and across all the listening apps for you. We help you make money through advertising and through subscriptions from fans. And then we help you grow that show through lots of different tools and services. We essentially host, monetize and grow 92,000 podcasts across the world. And we work with thousands of advertisers. And there’s pretty much not many countries in the world where we aren’t present and doing that.
SS: Who would you then say is your biggest competitor?
LP: Well, by virtue of the fact that we are across so many parts of the industry - and the industry is incredibly fragmented - there’s lots of different players doing lots of different parts of what we do. So actually, there’s no one big answer to that question. If you are an independent podcaster looking for hosting, you might be looking at us, you might be looking at Anchor, you might be looking at Buzzsprout, or Podbean. Whereas, if you’re an advertiser looking where to spend your money, it’s an entirely different competitor set. You might be looking at spending, for example, in the UK on our podcast or with Global and DAX. So there’s no one answer to that.
SS: You recently announced interchangeable ad slots. What are they?
LP: This is quite an involved answer, but I always like to explain as if I’m talking to the person with the least knowledge in the room. So forgive me if any of this is really obvious. When you place adverts in podcasts, so we have the traditional adverts made by a brand that typically 30 seconds long, and they are put against different podcasts all around the world. And then you have what podcasting is more famous for, which is a sponsorship. Sometimes people call these “host reads”. So that’s where you think of your favourite podcaster who’s talking to you about the branding question in their own voice and in their own tone.
So in any one episode, you might have slots available. Let’s say at the start of an episode, you might have two slots marked for two ads, one each. And then you might have a slot, which is marked for one of those host sponsorships. So traditionally, that’s how podcasts ads have been sold. Actually, what we did is we innovated a way of automatically being able to detect whether a sponsor read has not been sold in that sponsor slot today. Instead of just wasting that slot and not actually putting any message in, we can now automatically convert it into an ad slot and put an ad in its place in real time. So as I say, it’s incredibly involved and it’s quite a niche subject.
But what it’s done is it has increased our marketplace capacity. So the amount of inventory that we can sell against by over 10 percent in the last few months, which is, in a marketplace as big as ours, incredibly valuable. And it’s also good for podcasters because it means they’re potentially making more revenue because we are decreasing the number of slots that go unsold for them.
SS: So that’s just something that is available to every podcaster on the Acast platform, or is it just available to a few of the top end?
LP: We’ve been testing it with a few to make sure that it’s working. And it’s working so well that we’re now rolling it out globally across as many of our podcasters possible. They don’t actually need to do anything themselves. This is all sort of work on our end that we’re doing to maximize those returns.
SS: Now, one of the things that I have to say, the penny took a while to drop for me. So I’ll be very honest, probably two years ago, feels like somewhere in the middle of the pandemic, Acast announced that they were going to transcribe every podcast. We all felt that this was a good thing for people who were hard of hearing. So they could read the transcription of a podcast. And I just thought that’s what you were doing. I thought that was very good, maybe a little expensive. And then the penny drops. I was listening to Matt Deegan talk about it on the Future of Media podcast. And suddenly somebody said, yeah, well, if you take every transcription and you can then work out that a basketball podcast categorized as basketball was talking about cars for 10 minutes for some strange reason, but they were. You could see that within the transcription and you could place car ads around that element of the podcast. And that’s when the penny dropped for me. So is that how you were aiming for conversational targeting when you started?
LP: There’s a few things behind it. First of all, everyone knows that in advertising, context is queen. And as Acast, one of the biggest tenents that we hold dear is we want to always ensure that the listening experience for listeners and the experience for podcasters and for advertisers is as great and authentic as possible. So when you bring context into podcast advertising, it becomes incredibly powerful.
So you’re right. In transcribing hundreds and thousands of podcast episodes, our data scientists got to work and suddenly the opportunity for advertisers to capitalize on that was really clear. What we’ve done is we’ve launched a suite of targeting capabilities for advertisers, which we put under the conversational targeting umbrella. And what’s really exciting about that is advertisers are able to target individual conversations on an episode level and get really granular in where their adverts are appearing.
So traditionally, podcasts are categorized into different categories, depending on the topic of the show. So if you have a podcast, let’s take Off Menu - one of the UK’s biggest podcasts hosted by two comedians, Ed Gamble and James Acaster, two brilliant comedians, I may say. They get a celebrity on to talk about their dream meal. So ostensibly, that is a category classified as a food podcast and a comedy podcast. But actually, once you analyze the conversations happening within episodes, the topics that they touch on are so broad that suddenly this opens up that podcast to a whole new wave of advertisers who might traditionally not consider Off Menu on their hit list.
So the first thing that we launched was IAB category targeting. So the IAB, one of the great pillars of the podcasting industry around the world, has a different categories of subjects, which they label, a “common taxonomy”, which helps us all play in the same sort of playing field. So they have different categories, which they can assign to podcasts. So the first instance, what we’ve been doing is we transcribe hundreds and thousands of episodes using transcription technology.
Then we use NLP, so natural language processing tech. So things like IBM Watson, also AWS Comprehend, to extract all the metadata from those transcriptions. And then that can match those with different IAB content categories to therefore actually classify individual episodes of podcasts in different categories. So this might all sound quite sort of like top line and theory based.
So if I give you a real example. Last week Off Menu, which is, as we know, a comedy and a food podcast: they had on the best actress in the world today, Florence Pugh, picking her dream meal. And of course, there was a lot of conversation about food. There was a lot of comedy. There were a lot of jokes happening. But naturally, being an actress, she spoke a lot about film. She spoke a lot about different movies that she’s shot, working with different directors. So actually using IAB category targeting, that episode can be identified as being potentially interesting to film fans, movie fans and also film and movie brands. So whereas before we might have just assumed that we’d want to place advertisers targeting food and comedy subjects, we can actually open that up by instantly perhaps serving a Netflix ad or Amazon Prime or for a movie. So that that was really exciting.
SS: The other thing you announced there was something called keyword targeting. And again, I was just trying to understand what’s the difference between keyword targeting and conversational targeting.
LP: Keyword is even more granular. So as the name suggests, we’re actually looking at individual keywords that are mentioned within an episode. And a keyword could be just a word like hot or weather or tea, but it could also be an entity. So it could be a person or a brand. So then advertisers can actually target mentions of individual words within episodes - so they can get even more granular if there’s a particular topic in question they want to target.
So actually, by way of example, again, if we carry on with the episode of Off Menu from last week. So another part of the conversation Florence happened to talk about a birthday present that she bought for her grandmother. So actually, if you were, let’s say, a MoonPig or a FunkyPigeon - other birthday card brands are available - you might want to buy mentions, keywords of birthday, for example, because at that moment in time, birthday is atop of mind. Maybe you’re thinking, oh, it’s my dad’s birthday next week. What am I going to buy? Lo and behold, a beautiful advert for a birthday card provider is probably going to make you more like to convert.
So with IAB category targeting and keyword targeting, they’re both parts of conversational targeting. They’re slightly different, but they both have their uses. I would say that category targeting allows for more reach, sort of broader targeting, because if you think about it, there’s going to be lots of conversations around particular topics. Brands can go really wide in their targeting in that. But then if they layer on keyword as well they can get incredibly specific around individual words. As you and I both know, the podcasting industry is still so young compared to other industries, and so the potential is incredibly exciting. We still don’t know what we don’t know.
We could actually probably just sit here right now and thinking, OK, well, if we have this at our fingertips in terms of transcription, AI, NLP, we could do this or what about if we tried doing this? And so that’s what our data science teams and our tech teams around the world are working on every single day.
SS: Now, you’ve also recently launched a self-serve platform for podcast advertising.
LP: To spend money on podcasts, the way it’s previously been done (and is still currently done with a lot of big brands) is through media agencies. And that’s worked incredibly well. But what we’ve been able to do is open up podcast advertising to a whole new subset of brands, smaller brands, small businesses, SMBs, SMEs, as people call them, who can actually have access to our advertising platform themselves. They can log in. They can start a podcast campaign for as little as $250. They can choose their targeting. They upload their own audio creative. They set their parameters, they hit play and away they go. And they can set up their own advertising campaign in as little as 15 minutes.
It’s really democratising podcast advertising for anyone, anywhere to use it. We’re also seeing a big use case as well from podcasters themselves. We know podcast advertising is effective. We also know that you’re using it as a channel to grow your own podcast is effective. So we’re actually seeing a lot of podcasters using our self-serve advertising tool to advertise to other podcast listeners and grow their own shows. We’re seeing a lot of demand from it, particularly in the US.
SS: Recently you launched in Spain. You also had Megan Davis, your international MD at Acast, saying that Italy was very important to them in 2023. Tell me more about your internationalisation plans.
LP: One of the beauties of the Acast model is that we can be present in many countries without actually having to have boots on the ground. So our tech platform, the expertise that we have means that where we see demand and demand generally means where podcast listening is growing and there is demand from listeners to listen to podcasts, then the advertisers tend to follow.
Our international team, Megan and her brilliant team have been monitoring that demand over the last few years: and where we see it, we’ve been signing up podcasts to work with us. So we’re in Italy, in Spain, we now have a presence in Singapore as well. And we started signing and monetising shows in those regions, which is brilliant because first of all, obviously it allows us to work with advertisers in new regions, but it also expands our international reach for, let’s say, our podcasts in the US or the UK who might have listeners in those regions where we can also monetise them.
SS: Tell me more about Asia, because that sounds like a really exciting opportunity for Acast.
LP: It’s another place that podcast listening is just growing exponentially. So we launched last year. I think we saw a 21% increase in monthly listens across Singapore, Hong Kong, Philippines, Indonesia in about six months at the back end of last year. So now we’re working with some of the biggest podcasters down there and then in turn, matching them with some of the most important advertisers in the region. And it’s just so exciting to just see we are in quite mature markets.
Podcasting has been around in the UK forever and has been very popular forever. And so it’s so exciting to see where other regions are going through that same journey we have, and the demand is exploding.
SS: I want to come back closer to home. Last week, you announced something called Acast Amplifier in Ireland. Tell me more.
LP: Acast Amplifier is our incubator program to discover and supercharge new podcasting talent, which we do for a number of reasons. One, because we truly believe that there is so much great podcasting talent out there, which just needs that push to get started and in some time support as well. And because we want to ensure our network is full of as many different voices as possible.
So we first launched this last year in the UK. It was incredibly successful for us. And what happens is anyone who doesn’t currently have a podcast can apply. They can submit their idea, which is then judged by a panel of judges of some of our most well respected podcasters in the market. And then the lucky winners, their podcast gets made. They receive a grant. They receive coaching, consultation from us and so on and so forth. The podcast that won was called Memories from the Dance Floor, which I recommend you check out - it’s doing incredibly well.
Ireland has long been a very important and successful market for us. We work with many of the biggest podcasts, most popular and successful podcasts over there. So we thought it was time to discover some new talent. So we’ve launched Acast Amplifier in Ireland, which is now open if anyone is listening and has an idea and space in Ireland. Applications close on April 21 - and they could see their show being made: receive that grant, get all the coaching that they need, receive actual materials as well, equipment from people like Shure and Focusrite. So yeah, we really believe in supporting and nurturing new talent wherever we can.
I’m excited to hopefully do this in a few other of our regions as well, once we’ve done it in Ireland.
SS: Do you do much in Australia and South America?
LP: Yes, absolutely. Australia is one of our oldest and most successful markets. I’m sure Australia is so unique as it’s as a region and the team down there have made amazing strides. They work with all different kinds of podcasts as publishers. The advertising scene is booming down there. So yeah, it’s long been a really strong market for us. Same with New Zealand, actually. New Zealand has a real blossoming scene as well.
And the same in South America. We’ve been in Mexico for a few years now. We have many lessons across the region, which we monetize. We have a lot of listening happening. So that’s also seen a lot of growth. So the short answer is yes.
SS: One of your most popular shows is Sh**ged Married Annoyed. Last year, you launched bonus content and exclusive benefits using Acast+. Is that something you’re going to be doing more with some of your top end slate podcasts?
LP: We believe in helping our podcasters make money in whatever way suits them. Advertising is perfect for many podcasts. But there are some podcasts that prefer either not to have adverts, or it doesn’t suit their show. And actually, they have very loyal followings, who actively want to support them and will support them financially and will pay for things like being able to access bonus content. Or in some cases, if they do take ads to listen ad free.
And so in line with what is happening across a lot of the industry, subscriptions are really becoming such a big thing. So Acast+ allows podcasts to, as I say, offer ad free listening, bonus content, special sort of one off series and so on and so forth. And it’s just a way for podcasters to diversify their income streams. And we have some of our biggest podcasters around the world.
You mentioned Sh**ged Married Annoyed, who have a bonus segment called Extra Extra every week for their subscribers. Mark Maron, one of the biggest, most established podcasters in the world. He has WTF Plus as well. One of the most successful Acast+ shows we’ve had is in Ireland with Tommy, Hector & Laurita. And they’re doing really well because, as I say, listeners often recognize that actually you get most podcasts for free. And we’re very lucky that ad supported model like podcasting means that you’re accessing brilliant content for free. But often they do want to support and they actually are willing to pay for either extra content or perks. We rolled it out across all of our markets and we’re seeing some podcasters have real success from it. So yeah, we’re continuing to innovate with it. We’re continuing to support it.
SS: One of my biggest bugbears, and I don’t know if you have an answer to this really, is why do consumers have the perception that podcasting should be free? We pay for music, we pay for films, we pay for books. But there is this old conception in the marketplace that, oh yeah, it’s just, you know, somebody behind a mic and clearly it’s free. Why do I have to pay for podcasting? Do you have any thoughts?
LP: I’ve not actually really thought about it in depth before, other than having to hold myself back when I see people moaning about podcast ads on Twitter. And I just want to say to people: do you realise you’re getting this for free? I do wonder if it’s something to do with radio. So you grow up, listen to the radio, you turn on the radio, it’s a sense that it’s free. Yes, hopefully your parents would have paid for a licence if you listened to BBC Radio in the UK. But I wonder if it’s a hangover from radio times.
I never used to have to pay to listen to Geoff Lloyd and Annabel Port on the Virgin Drive Time show, and many people see podcasting as being born out of radio. So I do wonder if it’s a hangover from that, because of course, these people will spend hours watching YouTube videos and not think twice about the ads that they’re getting in between if they haven’t paid for premium.
But I do think the tide is turning. I think as podcasting grows and as podcasting becomes even more mainstream, I hate it when people say podcasting has just become mainstream. But as it becomes even more mainstream, I do think that people are beginning to understand a bit about the industry and it’s becoming even more professionalised.
I think the perception of podcasting is definitely different now to what it was five years ago. And I also think that, you know, RCO always likes to use a phrase, a rising tide lifts all boats. So actually, I think that I think it’s beautiful that Sh**ged Married Annoyed can exist in the same podcast feed. If I open my podcast app next to a podcast that I listen to, which is called Big Boys Don’t Cry, which is two chaps who talk about romantic movies every week. They’re not celebrities. I found them quite by chance, but I’ve become just as hooked on their podcast as I am to Sh**ged Married Annoyed or anything else I listen to.
I think that our industry is so beautiful in that way in that it can really code switch from the big high value names, the big advertisers right through to people who simply want to make something about something they love. I’m not sure this is actually answering your original question, but I’m saying that I do think that the perception value is changing. I think audiences are understanding more. There’s a quid pro quo, which is why things like Acast+ are valuable because people I think are starting to get that - OK, I can listen to this podcast with ads, but if I really don’t want to, I can pay three pounds a month and get it without ads because I recognise the work that’s been put into it.
SS: You did a deal with Amazon Music talking about removing ads.
LP: We are always looking at different ways to generate revenue for our creators. So it might be through advertising. It might be through Acast Plus ad free listening and it might be a hybrid of the two.
So this was something that Amazon wanted to do. They wanted to work with a few thousand of our podcasters to be able to deliver those podcasts ad free to their subscribers on their own podcast app, which is great because it’s another way that we are ensuring that we can secure revenue of creators in a different way. And I think, again, like I’ve said before, our industry is so young that it’s really exciting that we can experiment and we can open up these new pathways all the time for revenue generation.
This was another one of those experiments, which has worked incredibly well for Amazon and incredibly well for us. So yeah, long may it continue. I think it’s important that we continue to innovate and make sure that this industry can stay as sustainable and evolving as brilliantly as it is.
SS: The launch of the Podcast Standards Project was a few weeks ago, and Acast were one of the named partners in that. What is that to you guys?
LP: Acast has long been advocates of what we call open podcasting. So we believe anyone should be able to listen to any podcast on any app and also therefore those podcasters be able to monetize across any listening app. So we founded an RSS technology that is very much what we support and what we champion every single day.
So when this working group was first talked about at Podcast Movement in Dallas last year - of course, that’s something we want to be part of because we want to supercharge the open podcasting ecosystem for everybody. So our partners, but also in some cases, competitors all want to come together to find a way to ensure that open podcasting remains open and remains strong. That’s naturally something we want to be a part of.
So we’re in that working group alongside the different apps, the different hosting platforms. And it’s something I’m really looking forward to seeing how that develops and the strength in numbers that we can put together to evolve open podcasting for as long as it makes sense.
SS: What’s the rest of 23 looking like? Is there anything that we should be looking forward for Acast?
LP: We’re going to be continuing to innovate, particularly when it comes to advertising, our marketplace capabilities, programmatic. We haven’t talked about in detail here, but it is a big thing for us.
And I’m really excited to see how that continues to develop lots more brilliant podcast signings. We’re partnering with Higher Ground for podcast ads, distribution and sales, which is of course the production company founded by Michelle and Barack Obama. So it has Michelle Obama’s podcast, The Conversations Between Barack and Bruce Springsteen. And that’s really exciting for us. So they’re going out in the open ecosystem and working with us on that.
And again, we don’t know what we don’t know. So who knows in three months time what we’ll be announcing. All I would say is stand by!
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