I love podcasts. I want podcasters to have a lucrative and sustainable business. I think sponsorship is a good business model. But I squirm in my seat a little when I hear sentences like the following during a podcast sponsor read:
- “Company X are great people.”
- “I used Product Y before they even sponsored us.”
- “Company Z was kind enough to send me a sample.”
- “We only accept sponsorships for things that we like.”
Sponsorships are not charity. For the companies doing them it is a business decision. They are not sending complimentary products out of kindness. They know that the sponsor read will carry more weight if the podcaster can relate a first hand experience. And they are not expecting or receiving an objective review during the sponsor read.
I completely understand that podcasters are grateful to their sponsors. After all, this income is what makes the podcast possible. But no matter how genuinely friendly the relationship between podcaster and sponsor, money is changing hands. This is a paid endorsement.
So here’s the thing: When a a podcaster reinforces a sponsor read with their own personal relationship with the sponsoring company, it erodes their credibility more, not less. Podcasters want to reassure us that their endorsement is honest, but what they do instead is to raise a question about their credibility.
I think podcasters sometimes start with the assumption that accepting the sponsorship is in itself an implicit endorsement. And given that, they take the only reasonable approach, which is to go all in and sell the endorsement. Explain it. Justify it. But I question that starting assumption. I don’t think sponsorship necessarily implies endorsement. Rather, the more professional distance between them and the sponsor, the better off they will be in the long run.
In February Campbell Soups started sponsoring Richard Sherman, cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks. Do we take from this that Sherman loves Campbell Soups? No. The reason we watch him is that he’s going to shut down a wide receiver. He’s not presenting “This Week in Canned Goods.” Even if his sponsor was Nike and he was wearing Nike gear, we’re not listening to his advice on sporting goods. We’re watching him play the game. The thing he’s endorsing and the thing he is doing are related, but different.
Sponsorships on tech podcasts are more complicated in two important ways.
First, tech podcasters are in the business of expressing opinions with candor. When they inject personal endorsement into a sponsor read, they are sharing an opinion for money. This amplifies the potential for perceived conflict of interest a lot.
Second, because of the nature of the audience, there is a large overlap between kinds of products and services that are advertised and the topics of the show itself. Sponsor reads do not pretend to be balanced and perfectly objective, but when they include positive personal experiences they essentially become product reviews that espouse the benefits of something without mentioning its drawbacks. It is jarring when a podcaster switches from lambasting one product during the non-sponsored part of the show, to lauding a different product during the sponsor read a few minutes later.
And even if sponsor reads were studiously accurate reviews, podcasters would have to think beyond any real conflict of interest to the perceived conflict of interest.
Just Give Me Plausible Believability
Of course, the perception of conflict of interest wouldn’t be eliminated if the personal endorsement was absent. Even if sponsor reads were read from a script by a dispassionate electronic voice, there would still be the questions about coverage of a sponsoring company at some other, non-sponsored, point in the show.
But that would be ok with me. I’m perfectly happy to trust that there is a Chinese wall of sorts between the words in the sponsor read and the words during the rest of the show. It is completely plausible to believe that the podcaster maintains this wall, and I want to believe it.
The problem with the personal endorsement is that it takes away my ability to apply benefit of the doubt. It just isn’t plausible that the podcaster’s excitement for every single sponsored product is completely natural and not influenced by the payment they are receiving for saying those words.
Less Personal, More Personality
All else being equal, will advertisers pay less for a less personal endorsement? Or favor a podcast where the endorsements are more personal? I believe so. They know that often the most powerful endorsement is an organic one from someone people look up to, and they want the sponsor read to approximate this as closely as possible.
But there are alternatives to “personal” when it comes to making a compelling and powerful sponsor message. And they come from a place we should have expected: veterans of public radio who were early entrants into the podcasting market.
I was agonizing over an early draft of this post when I discovered Alex Blumberg’s new project, StartUp, a podcast documenting his journey as he starts his new podcasting company. It is gloriously meta, and as well executed as you would expect from someone who previously produced the award winning radio show and podcast, This American Life. What struck me in particular was Alex’s approach to sponsor reads. He mentions being transparent, and plays the same music in the background to every sponsor read to help listeners distinguish between the sponsor read and the rest of the show. He makes the reads interesting by doing them “documentary style”, including tiny interviews with sponsor employees and info about their products in the company’s own words. The sponsor reads are brimming with Alex’s personality, but have none of his personal endorsement for the things they promote.
Another great example is the hit podcast, Serial. I’m sure it’s no coincidence that Serial is hosted by another veteran of This American Life, Sarah Koenig. The sponsor message sounds like the result of a producer going into the street, asking a bunch of people to read the sponsor message and splicing the result together for a funny and punchy message that has loads of personality. When Sarah does the read herself, the message is short and her delivery is dry, just like the sponsor messages you hear on public radio.
One of Serial’s advertisers is MailChimp, a company that has sponsored many tech podcasts at some point or another. So maybe other podcasters will follow this lead and put less “personal” and more “personality” into their sponsor reads.
Or perhaps this is unrealistic, and only podcasts with large audiences will have the luxury of forgoing personal endorsement. I hope not, because I don’t think the current approach is sustainable. Even a very slow credibility leak will eventually catch up with podcasters whose value is based on being critics, commentators and thought leaders.