Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

Podcasts Are a New Resource for Ad Tech Firms to Strip-Mine

Adrianne Jeffries, the Markup:

In 2014, the podcast “Serial” debuted, introducing the medium to mainstream listeners. (As of September 2018, “Serial” had more than 340 million downloads across its first two seasons.)

That same year, Acast, a podcasting company based in Sweden, announced “dynamic ad insertion.” Previously, ads were “baked in” to a recording, but now podcasters could mark their files with ad breaks, enabling a hosting company to switch in a different ad based on the time or location the podcast was downloaded. It also paved the way for ads to be sold programmatically, based on a bidding system that automatically matches buyers and sellers without the need for salespeople. Much of the advertising on the web, including Google Ads, is bought and sold this way. Programmatic buying requires consumer data in order for advertisers to rapidly experiment with different ways to target users and optimize ads for the best results.

“That’s probably when I certainly saw things start to change,” said [Andrew] Kuklewicz, the CTO of PRX. “Once you can actually dynamically inject ads, then that data that I’d be able to get from requests becomes actionable. And once that’s possible, then we start to look a lot like the rest of ad tech right now.”

Ashley Carman, of the Verge, in August:

The latest update to Overcast, a popular iOS podcast app, is bringing new transparency to podcast ads. Listeners who are in the beta can now view the services their favorite podcasts use to serve ads and track listeners. This means listeners will be able to tell when a podcast is using dynamic advertising, which allows networks to swap and target ads based on the specific person listening. For most people, this likely won’t change the shows they enjoy, but for the audience that cares or wants more information about how a podcast serves them ads, it’s a notable transparency feature that isn’t yet available in any of the other major podcasting apps.

This version of Overcast was released in September, and it is not the only the app prioritizes user privacy. Marco Arment has been pointing out for years the dangers of big money coming to podcasts:

Big Money isn’t going to sell nicely designed, hand-crafted, RSS-backed podcast players for $2.99 or ask you to pay what you want to support them, because that doesn’t make Big Money.

They’re coming with shitty apps and fantastic business deals to dominate the market, lock down this open medium into proprietary “technology”, and build empires of middlemen to control distribution and take a cut of everyone’s revenue.

This is entirely right.

Given the dearth of regulation in ad tech-adjacent industries, podcasts — like websites — can be as respectful of privacy as creators want them to be. Educating users is a good step toward levelling the field, but more controls are needed at higher levels. It cannot be up to individual users to figure out how much privacy they are willing to sacrifice with the default being all.