The Appeal of Host-Read Ads

The Appeal of Host-Read Ads, Illustration by Michelle Kondrich
The Appeal of Host-Read Ads, Illustration by Michelle Kondrich

Why they’re the industry standard—and how to make them good.

There are certain inevitabilities in life—death, taxes, and that moment when your favorite podcaster pauses an episode to sell you on a free trial subscription. Podcasts may be the future of audio consumption, but when it comes to advertising, they rely on an old-school technique: the host-read ad spot. Just as Howard Stern used to take several minutes out of his morning drive-time show to wax rhapsodic about the wonders of Snapple and Nobody Beats the Wiz, podcasters often find themselves juggling the roles of show host and product spokesperson in order to get the job done. As the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s 2018 podcast revenue report revealed, it’s a practice that’s become the industry standard: Last year, host-read ads accounted for roughly two-thirds of all podcast advertising.

From an advertiser standpoint, the appeal of a host-read ad over a traditional stand-alone commercial is obvious. “Host-reads have been the predominant ad format in podcasting for many years, and that’s because they’re effective,” says Evan Lang, VP of Revenue and Partnerships, Audio at Vox Media. “Thousands of direct-to-consumer brands have enjoyed years of success in awareness, affinity, and conversion by having hosts help convey their message to an audience that’s predisposed to listen to them. That’s a rare and valuable opportunity that doesn’t really exist in other forms of advertising.”

But there’s another reason why host-read spots are so popular, and it has nothing to do with boosting the advertiser’s bottom line. Unlike traditional radio or TV advertising, host-read ads are increasingly being tailored to the listener and the intimate, earbud-induced environment that podcasting fosters.

“With the host-read component, it’s just more enjoyable,” says Frances Harlow, a longtime freelance podcast producer and former deputy creative director at Gimlet Creative (the in-house ad studio at Gimlet, which was acquired by Spotify in early 2019). “It’s not like TV, where the commercial comes on and you kind of tune out. People don’t skip [host-read] ads because they like the host, so they’re getting more of what they came for.”

It’s not just reading a script

Given that host-read ads inherently blur the line between the editorial and advertiser voice, their execution needs to be carefully considered alongside every other aspect of the show’s production. In other words, there’s a lot more to producing these ads than just having the host plow through a supplied script. While many podcasts use background music to subtly cue the listener that what they’re hearing is an ad, ultimately, “the script of a host-read ad must match the unique voices of the host,” says Lang. One tactic is to have the host share a funny personal anecdote that relates (directly or tangentially) to the product being pitched (aka the Maron method). And then there’s the Pod Saves America approach, where the hosts make a sport of riffing on—and at times openly mocking—the ad copy, to the point where it feels more like a casual water-cooler conversation than an ad break.

As the industry has become more lucrative (according to the IAB report, total podcasting revenue neared $500 million in 2018, and is expected to top $1 billion by 2021), companies like Gimlet have been investing greater resources in ad production. In her two years overseeing branded content for the company, Harlow’s one-person department ballooned to 16 producers, a setup that allows them to spitball unique approaches to each ad, record improvised rough cuts with the host, and send them back to the client for feedback and approval. For the tech podcast Reply All, they turned an ad for a metallic photo print service into a three-part narrative series culminating with the show’s hosts surprising each other with special prints they had made. “It’s a nascent industry,” Harlow says. “We were making it up as we went along.”

Of course, as podcasting continues to evolve, the goalposts are always moving. With major companies like Ford and Chanel getting into the podcast-ad game, the focus is slowly starting to shift from direct-response-type ads to general brand-awareness campaigns. Some of the more ubiquitous advertisers, like Blue Apron, have sensed listener fatigue with the standard promo-code approach and are even branching out to produce their own branded podcasts. But whether you’re a nationally known podcaster cutting sponsorship deals with BMW, or a purely independent operation thanking your local pizzeria for support, the objective for host-read ads should be the same: to hit the sweet spot that satisfies host, audience, and advertiser alike. As Harlow reasons, “With podcasts, the ad is as much a part of the listener experience as the episode itself.”

—Stuart Berman