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The Sound Barrier- Are We Heading For A New Age of Audio Ads?

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Audio ads served on digital platforms offer a degree of targeting and interactivity that would have been unthinkable in the days when broadcast radio dominated the music and speech market. So, in the era of music streaming, podcasts, internet radio and smart speakers, is it time for brands to pay more attention to the potential of the once humble audio advertisement.

According to figures published by Statista, Europe's advertisers spent 760 million euro on audio advertising in 2020 compared to just 246 million in 2017. That still represents a relatively small percentage of total ad spending, but this is clearly a growth market, driven not only by increasing consumption of audio content but also the popularity of new advertiser-friendly formats, such as podcasts. Emily Rule is Head of Strategy at advertising agency Wunderman Thomson. As she sees it, our relationship with audio has undergone something of a sea change during the pandemic. ,,As our lives turned upside down in March last year, our relationship with audio intensified," she says. ,,And even as we head out of hibernation, we're consuming audio in a much more deliberate way." In that respect, it's not surprising that advertisers are following consumers and diverting more resources to the audio space. But that raises a question. Will audio advertising across digital channels simply replicate what we've been hearing for years on broadcast radio, or is there scope for deeper engagement and genuine innovation? ,,Are we going to witness the demise of earworms and jingles," asks Rule. Well, as Mario Cabañas, General Manager of ad serving and sales platform Targetspot, acknowledges, audio ads have been slow to address the opportunities afforded by digital delivery of content. ,,A lot of the ads you hear sound like good old radio spots," he says. ,,But it's our job to say to brands you can do something different - you can experiment with formats."

Some brands have been doing just that. Pierre Naggar - Senior Vice President of Audio Ads platform Adswizz -cites the example of a recent campaign by Corona Beer. When the brewer sought to expand its reach in New Zealand, media company NZME offered ad slots that could be tailored to listeners according to their locations.

Enabled by the Adswizz platform, news-style reports offered updates of beach and surf conditions. Unlike conventional radio weather forecasts, bespoke reports could be streamed to listeners living within 15 miles of specific beaches. For surfers, in particular, this was much more useful than a report covering the country or region as a whole. Naggar says this kind of campaign illustrates how audio advertising is breaking away from the old radio/broadcast model and moving closer to the targeted campaigns that we see elsewhere online.

Targeting Options
So what are the possibilities? Well, as Naggar acknowledges, the targeting of audio ads tends to be based around information data that is willingly - or at least knowingly - provided by listeners, with login data a prime source. In addition, ads can be served according to contextual factors such as location, time of day, device and the type of content being consumed. Listener activity is an important aid to targeting. Is the consumer chilling towards the end of the day, still at work or engaged in a strenuous workout at the gym? And what mood - as revealed by the music choice - is the listener in. The answers to these questions inform the ads that are served.

Interests can also be factored in. ,,People are listening to podcasts about food, politics, lifestyle - that's absolutely great for targeting," says Cabañas. Alex Bussey is a strategist and CRO specialist at full-service agency Red Evolution. He stresses that targeting is not an exact science. As he sees it, you can certainly profile consumers based on age, location and what they are doing at any given time, but you can't expect anything close to complete accuracy. He cites advertising on Spotify as an example. ,,Spotify claims to have very accurate audience mapping," he says. ,,But a lot of the data is based on perceptions of the relationship between what people are listening to and what they are likely to be interested in.''

There is perhaps another problem. To a great extent we've probably all trained ourselves not to listen to ads within audio streams - or to go and make a coffee when they come on. Arguably, the ads themselves need to be more arresting. ,,This new age of audio is short and punchy, shareable, thought-provoking, and interactive. It presents an opportunity for brands to pivot away from blanket broadcast messaging and towards provocative conversations with their audience," says Rule. That will require experimentation. Targeting is increasingly underpinned by increased use of programmatic advertising platforms that allow media owners to trade with buyers in real time, as has long been the case with display ads. The result is new sales opportunities for media owners and - driven by analytics - a more personal experience for listeners.

And as Bussey points out, programmatic sales mean that audio advertising campaigns are likely to be more cost-effective. ,,It will be cheaper because you are only targeting ads at a subgroup of the audience," he says.

Interactivity
In theory, audio ads can be interactive but that's probably going to look different from the kind of interactivity we see on a website or social media channel. A consumer may be happy to click through from a news site or Facebook newsfeed to an advertiser's own site or landing page. The same consumer listening to a podcast or streamed music is unlikely to want to do the same thing. It would disrupt the audio experience.

Naggar says, there are audio-appropriate ways of provisioning interactivity. To take an example, Adswizz has developed a ''shake me-mode that can be used during an audio stream. ,,The ad asks users to shake their phones in order to download an app or a game," he says. It's a non-disruptive way of answering a call to action. For its part, Targetspot has been experimenting with voice interactivity via smart speakers. ,,You could hear an ad for Uber Eats and ask -when prompted - to download a discount voucher," says Cabañas.

New Horizons
As things stand, podcasts have become a growth area for audio ads. For instance, when the UK's Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB) analysed budgets for last year, it found a 17 per cent rise in audio budgets overall, with a hefty 43 per cent spike in podcast spend. That's probably not surprising as podcast listeners can be identified in terms of interests very effectively. But there are other opportunities.

Targetspot is serving ads to users of the Forbes.com website. Readers can press a button to hear audio renditions of articles on the site. Audio ads allow this to be monetized. Looking further ahead, the company is talking with games manufacturers about using non-disruptive audio ads to monetize gameplay. This is potentially a growth area. UK-based company Audiomob has already enabled brands such as Warner Music and Autoglas to advertise through online games.

Goals
Given that interactivity is still relatively limited, what can brands hope for from their audio campaigning. ,,It tends to be about demand generation," says Bussey. ,,You tell people about the product.'' Clickthrough rates can be measured if banners accompany the ads but this doesn't really work on mobile divices. Our main metric is Listen Through Rates, says Cabañas. There are also external measures. ,,A retailer might measure footfall in the wake of a campaign," says Naggar. The audio ad story is still evolving. But if budgets continue to rise, and personalisation improves, the likelihood is that sound will play an increasingly important role in delivering brand messages. 

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