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The Endorsement Ad, Call It ‘Social Audio,’ Is Having A Moment With Marketers.

A confluence of trends is making personality endorsement ads a more important instrument in marketer toolkits. First, COVID disruptions have blown up the traditional marketing playbook, forcing brands to seek out ways to quickly pivot their messaging and campaigns. Second, more brands are embracing podcasting, where endorsements are the primary ad unit, and that’s leading marketers back to radio, where product pitches have been used for decades. A third propellant is the rise of social media influencers – online tastemakers with massive social media followings sought out by brands for their product endorsements.

As brands take advantage of the high engagement and high trust radio and podcast hosts have with their audiences, personalities are now being positioned as influencers. “That connective tissue between the audience and the host is almost unachievable in any other space,” says Marshall Williams, CEO of agency Ad Results Media, which specializes in audio endorsement campaigns for brands that include Fan Duel, Sleep Number Bed and Rossi Shoes. Its clients leverage the trusted relationships hosts have cultivated with millions of followers to forge a connection between the influencer and the brand. “We have never found anything that can replicate the success we get from these host-read influencer ads,” Williams says.

Gayle Troberman, Chief Marketing Officer at iHeartMedia, calls endorsement ads “one of the most powerful opportunities we have at iHeart.” The radio, streaming and podcasting giant refers to them as “social audio” since brands increasingly use them as an extension of social media campaigns. In addition to having a host talk in their own authentic way about a product on the air or in a podcast, the endorsement runs across their stations, delivering the reach and frequency that’s difficult to achieve in social media. Personalities also push the message out on their own social pages.

Pandemic Accelerates Trend

With the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic creating huge challenges for media planners, brands often need their media to move faster and more nimbly than TV, out of home and even digital. That’s creating new opportunities for radio and podcasting. “As clients had to very quickly pivot their campaign and their messages, we’re seeing a lot of brands coming back to radio, and to our influencers as part of that, because of the speed and agility with which we can get a message out at scale,” Troberman says. What’s more, the pandemic appears to have only strengthened the bond between hosts and their followers. “What we've seen through this pandemic is that the audience truly leans on these local personalities for companionship, empathy, information and entertainment,” says Tim Clarke, VP of Content and Audience at Cox Media Group’s radio division. “They have an enormous ability to activate these followings that they’ve cultivated.”

Meanwhile, podcasting is enjoying explosive growth and with it, so is the host-read ad. While they account for about 70% of business at Ad Results Media, host-read podcast ads are helping drive more of its business back to radio, which makes up the other 30%. “Podcast advertising has brought people back to the idea of audio,” Williams says. “Most of the bigger brands we represent, like Molson Coors, come back to us and say, ‘This podcasting is cool. We love the alignment. Can we find the same style of ad on radio?’”

Social Media Extension

Audio influencers are also harnessing their social media followers to help brands exploit of-the-moment marketing opportunities. After Justin Bieber tweeted about much he and music mogul Scooter Braun were missing double-stick popsicles last year, Unilever seized the moment on Twitter to create momentum for the relaunch of Double Pops. The company got iHeart’s influencers to join the campaign, tweeting about their personal memories of the sixties-era confection. “It become just a beautiful authentic conversation about the nostalgia and love for the double popsicle,” Troberman recalls. “We blew past the target that Unliver and the team had for a social outcome.”

While the trend is growing, buyers and sellers agree that influencer ads only work when there is the right fit between host and brand. “Consumers can detect when it’s not authentic,” says Clarke, who refers to radio influencers as “brand ambassadors.” iHeart keeps a database of its influencers, including their key passions and backgrounds. When a brand wants to work with hosts who are parents, for example, the database helps it find the right personality for the brand.

A MARU/Matchbox study of 1,571 adults 18+, conducted for Westwood One from November 2019-January 2020, underscores why marketers are so enamored with audio influencers. Three in ten respondents said they search for a product or service that their favorite DJ, personality or show recommended. And more than half (53%) said they pay more attention when they hear their favorite personalities or DJs in ads.

“The reason we got into audio is, dollar for dollar, it yielded the best return on investment and that was built around the host-read ads,” Williams says. “We just found the best return on ad spend of any media we tried.”

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