P017: The Things That Are Made Possible

Last week’s issue used a tweet about online advertising to examine the ways we receive good answers to unasked questions. This led to some interesting discussions in the office about the nature of advertising, the business of content and the relationships that can form in the process.

It seems to me that when most people think of online advertising, they end up imagining a classic “pick two” scenario:

Pick Two

With this model, ads are something to endure, situated between the user and the reason for their arrival on-site. Typically unrelated to the task at hand, these ad placements drive awareness, but with a negative association. A good litmus test for these crummy types of ads is if there’s a “skip” button. If so, some poor designer realized that this was going to be a disruptive experience but didn’t have the juice to prevent it.

Now, let’s whistle past the rabbit hole of product placement and subliminal advertising and try and mix our metaphors in the direction of advertising that is (1) not intrusive and (2) might actually be of use to the user. In my experience, the best ads are not even ads at all, they are recurring sponsorships on podcasts from NPR, Radiotopia, 5by5 and Mule Radio Syndicate, and they all follow basically the same playbook:

Speak in Your Own Voice

The hosts and producers of the shows are the ones reading the ad. It feels less like a paid placement than an endorsement from a trusted friend. The more time you spend listening to a particular host, the more you value their perspective.

Respect Both Listener and Advertiser

Most sponsor reads are less than two minutes and most carry with them an incentive for the listener in the form of a coupon code to get a discount on the product or service being advertised. This gives the user incentive to listen to the ad and because the code is tied uniquely to that show, it gives the host incentive to do an appealing spot.

Be Honest About the Bottom Line

So many podcasts exist as a viable, long-term proposition solely because of the revenue generated by these sponsorships. My buddy Shane hit on the nature of this by recalling the phrase “made possible by” and its repeated usage throughout public broadcasting. Without these sponsorships, these shows would literally not exist in the form that they do today.

Can You Tell Me How to Get to a Sustainable Revenue Model?

This is so deeply ingrained in the public broadcasting model that an episode of Sesame Street might be brought to you by the letter I and the number 12. Surely the most cynical among us might carp that Sesame Street is desensitizing kids to the devil that is advertising, but back in the real world, advertising literacy is a real thing. With the number and letter “sponsorships,” Sesame Street is establishing a relationship between creative works and the means to produce them that a child might not be exposed to in our seamless, App Store culture. And after the show, maybe one kid will see the actual sponsorship read and want to learn more about the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Maybe not, but either way, Muppets don’t work for free.

Periodically yours,

Bob Sherron