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There’s a YouTube clip of popular podcast host Bill Burr singing about “sweaty balls.” It has over 130,000 views and is just one of the nine videos of this song from Burr’s podcast that listeners have pulled out and uploaded to YouTube. It’s funny! There’s a lot of profanity. And it’s an ad for direct-to-consumer underwear brand MeUndies.
“It's unlike anything we've ever seen,” says MeUndies founder Jonathan Shokrian of the widely shared jingle.
Our podcast apps are filling up with better and more innovative content — NPR’s “S-Town” just got dumped, Netflix-style, in our laps, and both NPR and the New York Times recently launched daily bite-sized morning programs that debrief news in the time it takes for another story to break — so of course the podcasts themselves are filling up with more and more advertisements hoping to be the next MailKimp — er, Chimp. (As if the names of frequent guests Jack-O, Cousin Sal, and Joe House weren't goofy enough to kick off the “Bill Simmons Podcast,” you now hear about MeUndies and MVMT Watches in the first five minutes.)
Clothing brands are especially excited by the format because it gets them in the earbuds of an audience that would probably cop to being a Nickelback fan before voluntarily digesting other ads. “Podcasts have aggregated late-20s, early-30s higher-income people,” say Five Four co-CEO Andres Izquieta. “It's definitely a more sophisticated, educated crowd that listens to podcasts.”
Both Five Four’s Izquieta and MeUndies’s Shokrian note that podcast listeners are proven early adopters — because they’re listening to the still-nascent medium. That’s especially key for Five Four, a clothing subscription service that sends customers a couple pieces of clothing every month, which is a “pretty progressive way of distributing the product,” says Izquieta. On podcasts, you find the guys patronizing “on-demand food and ride services, things like that, Blue Bottle coffee.”
Lex Friedman, chief revenue officer of the podcast advertising network Midroll, says there’s no single clothing brand in the highest spenders. But there’s a large variety of them advertising through the network, several toward the bottom of the company’s top 20 advertisers. Most hew close to what brands like Five Four and MeUndies are doing, says Friedman. A majority of the brands working with podcasts are selling curated box services, underwear, and socks.
Most are startups with tight budgets and, most importantly, an imperative to seek out new customers. The throughline across all these brands, and what separates podcast advertising from spots done on other mediums by bigger brands, is that they’re leveraging the direct-response format — that’s why you hear about those websites with a host’s name in them. Conceptual, abstract ads are something Friedman believes will one day exist on podcasts, but brands haven’t figured out how to make that work. What the brands have in common is that they’re still searching for people who are willing to experiment with having their clothes sent to them in a box once a month.
This is an especially easy sell if the people advising listeners to try these services are super handsome, well-informed dudes — think Rob Lowe’s West Wing character come to life — like former “Keepin’ It 1600” and current “Pod Saves America” host Jon Favreau, who is also one of the founders of Crooked Media. The former Obama speechwriter must have been engineered in a lab to sell clothes to other guys, because he’s the exact kind of dude you ask for a URL before he’s even finished telling you to check something out. “He fits the lifestyle, he's a guy on the go, an independent thinker, entrepreneurial,” says Izquieta. “That's what our brand stands for.”
But these hosts don’t have to be Friends of Barack to get customers to shop. What’s really key to this dynamic is their one-sided best friendships with listeners. Katelyn Berk, Bonobos’s acquisition marketing manager, says that oftentimes, podcast hosts are so effective because they become part of your life. “It's like admiring a celebrity, but in an even more personal way,” she says. Bonobos has stopped advertising on podcasts, but when it did, Berk says shoppers went out of their way to boast that they heard about the brand from a particular podcaster. “[They] wouldn't just say, ‘I heard of it from “Comedy Bang Bang,”’ they would actually describe what that host said, and add, ‘I see myself in him,’” she says.
These listeners form a very direct relationship with podcast hosts. “Where else are you going to be able to have an hour show with Bill Burr and he's just talking about life, and politics, and everything else going on?” says Shokrian. Of course, what he doesn’t mention is the underwear spot woven into all that. Podcast advertising is so effective because it does feel just that natural — like you’re having a conversation with a friend about something you’re deeply invested in and then they say, by the way, I just got new underwear and I’m obsessed with it.
That’s why the live reads (when the host does the ad him- or herself, rather than playing a produced spot) are so instrumental in getting people to shop. “If it's done right, you don't even realize that you’re listening to an ad until about 10 seconds in,” says Izquieta. “Done right,” for Five Four at least, means that these hosts actually care about what they’re selling.
The brand always asks to meet in-person with talent before advertising with them, and MeUndies makes sure hosts genuinely care about the product. The brands collaborate with hosts on scripts; it’s through this process that you get things like Burr’s sorta-viral jingle. On the flip side, hosts are emboldened to turn down advertisers if a partnership doesn’t jive. Friedman says that a host once turned down a huge deal with an airline because they “hated the company” and worried “it would sound disingenuous” to read the advertisements.
With hosts like these, it’s no wonder their listeners seem to trust them. Each of the brands I spoke with vouched for the medium with hard data. It’s the fourth-best channel Five Four advertises on, and Izquieta believes it would be higher but for podcasts’ still “very, very small” audience. Izquieta explains that while Facebook might drive lots of customers, a minuscule 1 or 2 percent clickthrough rate is considered successful. “It's significantly higher on podcasts,” he says. While Facebook is like dipping a net into the ocean, podcast hosts are more akin to herders in charge of a devoted pack. Bonobos’s Berk started spending more advertising dollars on podcasts when customers kept writing in that they heard about the brand from the medium. For MeUndies, podcasts are the top advertising channel, says Shokrian.
Friedman says that, through studies, he found customers recall ads from podcasts significantly better than from any other medium, including television, radio, and print. In a case study with the sock brand Bombas (which had the most success advertising on Colt Cabana’s “The Art of Wrestling”), its vice president of marketing Kate Huyett reports that up to 60 percent of new customers come from paid advertising, and podcasting is responsible for 15 percent to 40 percent of that. “It’s a pretty meaningful percentage of our paid portfolio,” Huyett writes. Another advantage is that the ads are actually cheaper than ads on Facebook, according to Izquieta.
That seems like a temporary condition of podcasts’ relatively small audience, though. Podcasts are still in their infancy, especially for advertisers. Friedman says that brands are currently experimenting with branded podcasts — mattress company Casper is working with comedian Chris Gethard on a show with a sweet sleep tie-in: It’s all about dissecting people’s dreams — and he predicts that a clothing company will have its own podcast before the year’s up. What will continue to drive the success of podcast advertising above all else, though, is listeners’ affinity with the host.
It’s why clothing is particularly well-suited for the medium. As long as listeners believe they’re BFFs with the likes of Bill Simmons, Tim Ferriss, and Scott Aukerman (of “Comedy Bang Bang”), they’ll keep ending up with the same gear the hosts are shilling. And in the grand tradition of podcasts, speaking of endings, here feels like a good place to stop.