Making Waves with Tech and Trust in the Podcast World

At the recent IAB Podcast Upfront in New York, some 20 audio brands made convincing presentations to some 200 media buyers, brands and agency attendees around the value of everything from innovative ad tech to celebrity shoulder rubbing.  

by E.B. Moss

At this eighth annual pitch fest for the still nascent – but rapidly adulting – podcasting industry we learned about quality, quantity, trust and tech. For example:

  • Quantity + Tech: 
    • Per the trade association that produced the event, “Podcasting is projected to grow 12% to over $2B this year and reach nearly $2.6B by 2026. The evolution of programmatic along with new revenues from video and live events, will help drive growth.”
    • That was validated by Cumulus Media Research head, Pierre Bouvard, who offered “third party objectivity” via the testimony of P&G’s former media seer, John Fix, who said, “I see no structural barriers in this industry for mass adoption of podcasting.” 
    • Even new attention-based metrics from Adelaide tied to the quality of ad placements were featured to the benefit of NPR, whose audience over-indexes for responsiveness… and yet:
  • Quality + Trust: 
    • A growing issue on the trust side is the “throw the baby out with the bathwater” issue of strict boundaries around keywords that limit ad buying lists. When podcasts like “NPR News Now”, “Meet the Press,” or even “Next Question with Katie Couric” are off the buy because of the contextual use of words like “war”, we need be reasonable about how much we should trust the tech for what gets flagged and deemed “unsponsorable” because of a low risk tolerance setting. “The GARM framework is a start,” said Dan Granger, CEO of audio and performance focused ad agency, Oxford Road, “but we can’t put our heads in the sand. Look at the transcripts! Brands need to trust us.” 

Triton Digital Rocks the Boat

Enter Triton Digital, quite literally the promulgator of programmatic tech for more than 10 years. Itself acquired by iHeartMedia some years back, now Triton has acquired Sounder to aid in quality and contextual logic in ad buying, and also rolled out more tech to enhance the quantity of programmatic inventory. 

The original Triton of Greek mythology was the son of Poseidon, who owned a cool tool that was “a twisted seashell, which he blew to calm or raise the waves.” In homage to how today’s Triton is making waves and raising the bar on tech. I did a deep dive on future opportunities in podcasting, with its President and CEO, John Rosso, for my own Insider Interviews podcast. While you can hear our thirty-minute conversation wherever, as they say, you like to listen to podcasts, Rosso provided this topline explanation of the three verticals that comprise Triton Digital and their value proposition for the industry:

“The first is content distribution, or content management. Think about podcast hosting and publishing, distribution, the live streaming of broadcast radio, online music services, that sort of thing,” he explained. “The second is advertising: a publisher side ad server for both streaming and podcasting, and a programmatic marketplace that allows our publishers access to demand coming from about 40 of the DSPs in the industry. And then the third vertical is audience measurement.”

More, Better 

The measurement Triton has primarily been known for is its monthly streaming rankers for the past dozen-plus years. But apropos the quantity and tech topic of the Podcast Upfront, they recently added podcast rankers, that are “more than country specific, but also a really unique approach to audience attribution for podcasting,” Rosso assures us. With the industry’s appetite growing for measuring more than just listens, or “downloads,” their new product lets you “go a layer deeper, much deeper, and understand the demography, the socioeconomics, the behaviors and intents of your audience.” How? “We marry up our census level information around podcast downloads with a statistically representative survey in the countries where we’re live with the product.” 

The “audio agnostic” Triton not only serves podcast companies on their network, but a broad range of audio publishers in 88 countries, “including mobile gaming companies that have audio ad units as part of their monetization strategy, and even retail media operations, which we used to call ‘storecasting’,” Rosso says, “whether speakers on top of gas pumps to the ceilings of convenience stores.” Given the surge in retail media — including audio use cases such as with Walmart Connect — it’s clearly another finger on the pulse placement.

Their attitude toward iterating and improving has a history that began with observing – and ultimately acquiring — the innovative tech behind the dynamic insertion of audio commercials that Ando Media had initiated. “That unlocked a lot of value for radio in their streams because suddenly there was a whole new commercial payload. The challenge at that time was that no one knew how to sell it and there wasn’t enough scale to sell it locally. But eventually that business gained traction,” just as it now is doing for podcasting – per that takeaway on quantity noted in the IAB’s podcast ad revenue study, thanks to Triton’s prescient efforts. 

“We’re seeing the programmatic business moving from secondary into a primary revenue source position, as we frequently see clients doing programmatic guaranteed deals, even with local advertisers; it’s sort of a new way of executing the campaign. There’s still a buyer. There’s still a seller. There are still humans involved in conducting the transaction,” Rosso adds, “But then ultimately, they may actually execute the campaign through a programmatic channel using PG.”

Tapping Tech and Common Sense for More Inventory

Triton is also applying a human perspective even when leveraging tech to drive more trust. Sound counter-intuitive? Consider their latest acquisition of Sounder, which for better podcast campaign quality. “Sounder,” Rosso explains, “specializes in analyzing podcasts in particular and getting an understanding of the content… being able to not just transcribe the content, but to understand at a deeper level what they’re talking about.” This is important for quality – especially as in brand suitability. But back to the element of quantity, it broadens the potential inventory options by recognizing topical relevance.

Rosso explained it this way: “If I want my ad campaign to run adjacent to New York Knicks content, historically I would have to buy Knicks podcasts or basketball podcasts or sports podcasts. But because there are only so many of those you have to keep broadening that aperture in order to scale your campaign. Sounder gives the ability to target contextually — against the actual content of the show, not the genre, not the title, and not the way the show itself is categorized. So, if you and I have a podcast about, say, gardening and go off on a tangent about the New York Knicks, now there’s an adjacency opportunity there to target against. I think this capability is a really exciting opportunity to scale a campaign very easily across potentially thousands of shows, especially in the fragmented podcasting environment.”

Future Casts…

During our Insider Interviews conversation we discuss more exciting opportunities, wax nostalgic about our co-working days when radio was pitched as “theater of the mind,” and share  forward projections about the mind games possible with synthetic voice (have you heard the new ChatGPT 4.o?!) For Triton’s immediate future Rosso says, “The most interesting and probably also the hardest thing we’re working on is to bring linear broadcast inventory into the digital buying ecosystem: to allow a buyer to scale a campaign across all audio types — streaming, podcasting, and now linear over the air. That involves not just the ability to execute a transaction, but also having audiences that you can apply across all three of these channels. It’s certainly the most gratifying work, as we see this all starting to come to life now.”

Net net – per the IAB report, “Publishers are set to drive growth in the coming years by implementing a range of strategies, such as refining audience measurement, harnessing programmatic, hosting live events, boosting content marketing, and advancing the production of video podcasts.”  Per virtually all research (here’s a sample from Sounds Profitable), marketers aiming for authentic connections and engaged consumers should dive in to podcasting. The systems are in place and the water’s great. 

Triton Digital and dozens of others will be at The Podcast Show London next week – the largest international show on the business of podcasting.

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