How Healthcare Marketers Can Harness the Power of Podcasts

Introduction

Podcasts have boomed and become a mainstream entertainment source. Within the U.S., it is estimated that there are 155 million podcasts listeners (over half of the population 12+). 44% of listeners consume on a weekly basis, a percentage that has practically doubled in the last 4 years (The Infinite Dial, 2020). This surge is largely attributed to the ever-growing use of smartphones and speakers, so it’s likely unsurprising to find that the largest percentage of listeners fall between ages 25-35 (29%), followed closely by consumers aged 35-44 (22%) (MM&M, 2020). Growing popularity has also impacted supply, leading to clutter in the space. In 2019, over 29 million episodes were available to the public, which is a 60% increase from July 2018 (MediaRadar, 2020). A recent study cited in a MM&M article found that 94% of listeners are doing something else while listening, such as household chores (61%) or driving (55%) and they are more engaged in the podcast content. 

The increase in popularity has led to a rise in ad spending on podcasts. As of 2020, the U.S. podcast advertising marketplace is on track to reach $1 billion in the next year. As podcasts rise, other audio platforms continue to see a decline, like digital radio that expects double-digit decreases. Like many other advertising outlets, COVID-19 threatened to delay growth in the first half of the year, as ad campaigns halted due to the pandemic. The decline took a quick turn in the third quarter as spend rose to $782 million – about a 10.4% increase. Today, U.S. podcast advertising is expected to grow to $1.1 billion in 2021 – a 44.9% increase. The projections follow the expansion of the listener base of podcasts, which will exceed 50% of the share of digital audio listeners in the U.S. in 2020 (eMarketer). 

Listeners throughout the world turn to podcasts for entertainment and education. The wide array of engaging topics cover even the most niche interests and are conveniently tailored to busy lifestyles, allowing a user to listen where and when they want. Being consumers themselves, HCPs have begun turning to podcasts in order to stay abreast of medical  developments. Currently, 29% of all HCPs are listening to medically relevant podcasts, primarily during their commute or while at home (CMI/Compas Media Vitals, 2019/20). With countless podcast options available at their fingertips, HCPs have become more aware of trusted educational resources vs. “edutainment” podcasts, looking to trustworthy and credible publishers as they’re consuming medical information. 

Podcasts in the healthcare space 

Podcast audiences are generally loyal, engaged, and likely to take action after having heard an advertisement on the platform, making this a valuable medium for pharma. 54% of listeners are more likely to consider brands after hearing an advertisement, while 76% state they enjoy listening due to their hosts, showcasing the strong relationship and influence hosts build with their followers (The Infinite Dial, 2019).  

So, what’s currently available to pharma marketers?  Many major medical publishers and hospital systems have begun publishing their own podcast content for both patient and physician audiences, some as recently as 2019. Historically, advertising opportunities across medical publishers have been limited, either being offered as value-add, program add-ons, or restricted to banner sponsorships. Increased adoption has not only prompted the development of new series, it has also encouraged publishers to expand their promotional offerings, an uptick that’s particularly been seen for physician audiences. However, there are still limitations to consider from an ad standpoint, and not all well-known medical publishers are actively recording podcasts or offering sponsorships for patients at this time. 

Currently, advertising opportunities are available through select medical publishers such as: 

Patient:  Everyday Health, Remedy Health, Health Union, Intellisphere 

Physician:  Medscape, Frontline, Intellisphere, ReachMD, Everyday Health, Harborside Press, Healio 

Other platforms, such as WebMD, JAMA, and NEJM have active podcasts/audio segments, but are not currently offering sponsorship opportunities, though this may change in the future. 

Outside of major medical publishers, marketers have an option to utilize podcast networks/platforms to place audio ads across a variety of different shows or content categories (both endemic and non-endemic), reaching listeners at scale. Targeting within these networks is relatively limited and may be difficult to reach niche patient audiences without waste; however, this could still be a fit for brands that have strong patient awareness initiatives due to the tactic’s reach, volume, and lower cost of entry. 

If there are not any podcasts that meet a brand’s need for sponsorship or relevant content, brands can create their own podcasts as an effective way to engage patients, healthcare professionals, and current and future employees.

Benefits of a brand-owned podcast, as noted by MM&M:

• Offers an outlet to take more time on longer, more complex stories; information that cannot be captured in a short form video clip or sound bite 

• Opportunity to bring in a diverse set of voices that can spend the time and dive deeper into a specific topic for an episode or two 

Challenges:

• Find the right balance of content that engages patients but at the same time is not too clinical 

• Finding the right host that are subject-matter experts that have a kind voice that will resonate with patients and HCPs 

• Creating a balance of industry or condition centric topics and brand promotion – either way the message needs to be conveyed in an authentic way 

Overview of advertising opportunities 

To date, there has been little standardization between opportunities, specifically amongst medical publishers. As a standard baseline, banner sponsorship is offered with audio placements as an additional,  optional component. Certain publishers will also offer customized opportunities, which are catered to a brand’s objectives and only created during sponsorship.  Below summarizes NPP options and considerations for Pharma Marketers, consistent across both patient and physician audiences: 

Banner Sponsorship:  Generally provided with all opportunities or as a stand-alone  option. High SOV/ownership option surrounding an existing series across all podcast pages on a publisher website.

May include eNewsletters distributed to opt-ins to drive traffic to podcast hosting pages. 

Audio Placements:  :15 – :30 audio spots generally placed twice within a podcast episode. These are located pre-, mid-, or post-roll (may be based on brand preference) and can either be pre-recorded or scripted and read by the host. Due to length, the placement will most commonly acknowledge the corporate or brand sponsor, though allotted time may require an unbranded message due to ISI restrictions. Most podcast sponsorships offered can continue without the use of audio components, as most programs are built out as either a flat or CPV cost structures.

May require audio creative to be approved for global use if podcast is available on iTunes/ iHeartRadio/Spotify, etc. for download  In some cases, audio promotion ads live in perpetuity with the podcast; where this happens it’s recommended that unbranded assets be utilized.

 Custom Sponsorships:  360 sponsorship created on behalf of the brand or company. Includes custom created podcast content per brand objectives, custom drivers/banner sponsorships, as well as the housing of brand content on podcast pages and/or social media drivers. Produced by the publisher using either scripted or unscripted podcast content. Scripted content is guided by brand and will require MLR review prior to launching.

Most sponsorships above will need to remain broad due to targeting limitations in sponsoring series housed on the website, however, offerings align contextually and are included within relevant sections on publisher sites. Custom opportunities may have the flexibility for more refined targeting parameters/target list incorporation if needed. 
 
Podcast networks and platforms offer audio options to reach patients, purchased on a CPM basis. The length of these ads run anywhere from 30 – 60 seconds and can be placed in two ways: 

• Host read ads, either pre- or mid-roll. Mid-roll is most favored by brands on these platforms due to the relationship that’s built between host and listener and are generally more effective.  

• Pre-recorded messages placed dynamically within podcast content and allows for more flexible targeting options:  Geo-targeting, demographic, behavioral, content category (news, health, sports), copy splits, etc. 

Measuring success

Ad measurement within podcasts continues to present unique challenges due to a podcast’s downloadable nature, in addition to major podcast players possessing tracking limitations. Once a file has been downloaded onto a user’s device, it’s almost impossible to track if brand messaging was heard or even if the podcast was played. This also holds true for podcasts housed online – though they may appear to be streamed, in actuality they’re progressively downloaded as a user is listening to the file, rendering standard tracking approaches useless. With so many obstacles, how are marketers expected to measure this unique medium? Currently, the truest way to report ad delivery is through downloads garnered during a specific time period: 

• Total Downloads:  An option to indirectly determine number of ad impressions in lieu of tracking abilities 

• Unique Downloads:  Most closely resembles total audience size and is a recommended approach to measurement by the IAB 

Filtration processes should be put in place to ensure most accurate measurement, eliminating pre-loads, bot traffic, and electronic anomalies, while applying a file threshold will more accurately represent valid downloads (counted when a user has downloaded at least 1 minute of content). Though these steps will help to provide cleaner reporting, setting appropriate  performance benchmarks continues to be a challenge as the medium is not yet established in this space. 

Additional program components may offer more measurement flexibility, such as display or publisher reported site data. Reach, frequency, and viewability should still be considered primary KPIs as banners continue to be a large component of many endemic programs. To help track overall engagement, CTR and SVR should be considered as well as publisher page views, unique visitors, etc. as secondary metrics.

If possible, creating awareness/recall studies remains to be the most efficient way to validate podcast effectiveness and lift. 

Conclusion 

Though podcast usage is continuing to grow, the pharma space is still in a state of infancy. There are limited opportunities available through medical publishers as many are still exploring or in initial stages of development as they continue to evaluate listenership and traffic, while measurement has not yet caught up to the standards expected within other digital channels.  

Even with known limitations, podcasts can be a valuable and engaging medium as they boast a strong and loyal following, activate audiences, and are continuously being used as an educational resource: 

If considering podcasts for physicians: Physicians are more receptive to sources they deem credible. It may be beneficial to focus efforts with trusted publishers where information is contextually relevant. Remember  targeting parameters are limited and use of target lists may not be permitted; however, broader  initiatives such as generating brand or unbranded disease state awareness, sponsorship around key conference timing or brand milestones to increase exposure, or KOL/peer-to-peer initiatives are examples of situations where podcasts may be a fit within a media mix. 

If considering podcasts for patients:  Targeting parameters remain limited and there may be challenges reaching niche audiences; consider audience size and age demographic during evaluation, as well as content to ensure brand safety if considering networks that run across a variety of content/category types. From a strategic standpoint, brands can look to podcasts to generate brand or unbranded disease state awareness and increase reach, increase exposure during “awareness months,” or align with brand advocates/KOLs to leverage the listener/host relationship, to name a few. 

As podcasts continue to grow, marketers should continue to keep in mind best practices and evaluate its appropriateness in the media mix as publisher offerings and measurement standards evolve.