We spent $51,975 on podcast advertising: here’s everything we learned

I remember the day Ahrefs’ CMO Tim told me I was “now in charge of podcast sponsorships.”

I said: “Awesome!!!”

I had never listened to a podcast in my life.

Naturally, the rest of my day was spent getting real intimate with Google. Here’s an overview of what I learned that day:

  • Podcasts are highly‐targeted. There’s a dedicated, top‐quality podcast for every imaginable niche out there, from true crime case reports to discussing Buffy the Vampire Slayer. This also means that we can reach just about any audience we want to.
  • Podcast listeners are among the most engaged and loyal audiences ever. The nature of the medium means that podcast hosts speak directly into our ears for over 30 minutes at a time, and many listeners build a strong affinity with the content and show host. Makes sense!
  • The traditional success metrics are impressions and downloads per show. Obviously, the higher the numbers, the better.

I also learned that there are three main categories of ads in podcast sponsorships:

  1. Pre‐roll: ~15–30 second ad at the start of the show.
  2. Mid‐roll: ~1‐minute ad in the middle of the show.
  3. Post‐roll: ~15–30 second ad at the end of the show.

As a general rule, mid‐rolls are the most expensive, followed by pre and post‐rolls.

Cool, I thought, this all sounds pretty straightforward.

You know how the story goes by now: I was quite wrong.

Over the course of half a year, I trial‐and‐errored my way through all the things that Google doesn’t tell you.

The good news? I’m about to share everything we learned with you.

Let’s start right from the beginning, shall we?

First Attempt: $14,200 Spent

While I’d personally never listened to a podcast before 2018, that isn’t true of 44% of the US population.

There’s a huge, thriving community of podcast listeners who avidly follow their favorite hosts, discuss takeaways from the latest episodes and recommend shows to each other. Many people even make a good living off podcasts now!

Taking notice of all of this, Tim decided to pay this channel some attention over a year ago.

Our first experience with podcast advertising: Tim spent ~14k USD to promote a special offer on five different podcasts, tracking traffic and leads by creating a specific landing page for each show.

Here are the results:

Budget: $14,200
Podcasts sponsored: 5
 Hack the entrepreneur by Jon Nastor
 PNR With This Old Marketing by Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose
 “Mad Marketing” & “The Hubcast” by Marcus Sheridan & George Thomas
 “$100 MBA Show” by Omar Zenhom
Pageviews: 339
Trial signups: 11

The conclusion, in Tim’s own words:

It was quite foolish to expect a substantial ROI from “cold advertising” a complex product like Ahrefs with a 30‐second pre‐roll in a 30‐minute podcast.

This is probably a good time to mention what Ahrefs does.

We’re an industry‐leading SEO toolset. We help you get more website traffic from search engines and increase sales. We’re also very well known for our blog, which at the point of writing, sees close to 175k organic traffic a month.

a screenshot of our organic traffic growth via Ahrefs’ Site Explorer

Tim’s first thought was that we’d never sponsor podcasts again (and no wonder; it cost us almost $1.3k for each trial signup!)

But then he noticed something. While attending conferences and networking with people, many of them told him that they’d heard about Ahrefs in podcasts.

Sometimes an existing user would mention that they were happy to hear about us on their favorite show; sometimes a random person (not even in marketing) would remember us from an old podcast mention. Even if they didn’t convert at the time, they thought that Ahrefs was kind of cool — and this brand recognition stayed in the back of their mind.

That’s when it all clicked.

We were going about it all wrong — rather than being a tool for lead generation, podcast advertising is a tool for gaining exposure and brand awareness.

Image Credit

I wish the rest were history.

Second Attempt: $37,775 Spent

Armed with Tim’s findings, I set to work with a new understanding of how podcast advertising fit into our marketing strategy.

These are the lessons I learned.

Get in early, because the “big” podcasts are always full.

Many podcasts don’t explicitly state that they accept sponsorships on their websites, so you’ll have to do a manual check.

Usually, the top podcasts are open to sponsorships and openly broadcast this. Many even have dedicated pages and “sales pitches,” like this one from Entrepreneurs on Fire.

Just one problem: these podcasts are really, really popular.

So much that when I started contacting them around mid‐April 2018, many were already fully booked for the quarter (some even through the year!.)

Note: This is actually a good thing because it means that these podcasts care about the quality of their content. Nobody wants to listen to a podcast that’s chock full of ads. You don’t want to sponsor a podcast that’s squeezing you in with four other sponsors, either.

Back to the topic.

After securing some positive responses, I found out that…

Pricing is completely arbitrary.

Some podcasts are completely transparent with their pricing structures and publish this on their websites.

Unfortunately, most aren’t. You’ll have to contact each podcast and ask for their current rates.

So, how much does podcast sponsorship cost?

I wish I could give you a more concrete answer than “it depends,” but I really can’t. The shows set the pricing (this is sometimes negotiable, especially if you’re looking to sponsor for a longer period).

This can range anywhere from $300 per episode to…well, see for yourself.

This is the full list of podcasts that Ahrefs ended up sponsoring this year, along with how much it cost us.

*If you’re looking to sponsor these podcasts, their rates may change from the time of publishing.

Some podcasts offer contracts to be signed, while others simply send an invoice. You can request a contract if you’re uncomfortable with not having one.

Classically, ad placements don’t vary much.

Remember what Google told us about pre, mid and end rolls?

This is generally true, although they’re not always all available (or labeled as such.) Get in touch with your chosen podcast, and you’ll instantly find out what the deal is for each show.

Here’s an example:

Whether or not they call it a midroll, this offer is exactly that.

The ads themselves, on the other hand, vary wildly.

Most podcasts will ask you to provide an advertisement “script”.

You’ll need to prepare some pointers or paragraphs for the show host to read off.

Here’s an actual one I wrote:

Even while writing it, I found “ad reads” like these to be rather unauthentic — you can see that I was trying to get the podcast host to add their own spin on it and share their own experience with Ahrefs.

No matter how good a podcast host is, true enthusiasm for your brand is hard to fake. So I count myself lucky that I ran into John from Marketing over Coffee early on.

When I reached out to him, this is what he proposed:

This blew my mind: he can do that for us?!

Image Credit

Podcast hosts know their audience better than anyone else. Having them promote us in their natural voice, and in a completely organic, non‐scripted way, was definitely the best way to go.

I jumped on board in a second, and that turned out to be a fantastic decision.


Podcast sponsorship is incredibly time‐consuming.

As you can probably tell at this point, there is A LOT of back‐and‐forth involved in sponsoring a podcast.

The more established a podcast is, the more rigid their processes are and the longer you’ll have to spend discussing things and ironing out details.

Be very prepared for some frustration and lots of lost time. It’s not anybody’s fault; sometimes things just don’t work out.

I’m mentioning this just in case somebody sees this article, decides that podcast ads are another “low‐hanging fruit” type of marketing activity, and assumes that all you need to do is toss some money into it and sit back.

No.


Getting the Most From Your Advertising Spend

Since we decided to do away with conversion tracking, I had to get a little creative with how we went about handling our advertisements.

Here’s the highlight reel of how we got the most out of our budget.

Organic, not scripted, mentions

This means that we give podcast hosts a free Ahrefs account, walk them through our tools (it’s ideal if they’re already familiar with us) and give them full control over all mentions of us and their placement in the shows.

Click through to hear the difference between a scripted sponsorship mention and a non‐scripted one.

Not to say that scripted ads are bad, necessarily. In the clip linked above, Rebecca does an absolutely fantastic job of promoting us according to the script I provided. She’s enthusiastic, authoritative and even adds on some points of her own.

But when the podcast host is fully fluent with our tools and then given the freedom to promote us however they wish, the difference in both the depth of content and persuasive strength is quite clear.

This has benefits beyond just higher quality mentions on their own show, by the way.

Proof: Matt Giovanisci of Moneylab went on other shows like Niche Pursuits and The Fizzle Show (episode 285) and raved about us there, too. We got a handful of new signups after. (You’re the best, Matt!)

Click through to listen to a couple of my favorite “ads” from the shows we’ve sponsored so far:

Giveaways + social media engagement

It seems that the current industry standard is for advertisers to set up a unique promo code and specific landing page for tracking purposes, as well as to give people a nice incentive to convert.

Since Ahrefs never runs any promotions or discounts and we weren’t looking at podcasts as a direct lead generation channel, we figured out another way to spice up our podcast mentions.

What we do instead is run Ahrefs account giveaways with a tweet‐to‐enter mechanic.

It’s a win‐win for everyone involved: the podcast host gets a great prize to boost audience engagement and some extra social shares. We get extra attention to our message and a way to gauge if the ad resonated well with that show’s audience.

And of course, listeners love the chance to win a subscription to the tool they heard about on the show.

These days, I like asking people to tweet @ahrefs and @podcast and convince us as to why they should win the account. It makes for entries like these:

People are clearly excited to win an account and know exactly what they’ll use it for — definitely a win for working with Moneylab.

This also ties nicely into…

Testimonials

We pulled off something really cool with John and Chris at Marketing over Coffee: we managed to get one of the winners of the account giveaways back on the show to give us a testimonial!

You can’t get much more authentic than this. Have a listen and see.

While this is a little difficult to pull off regularly, it’s a good example of the cool things you can do with the podcast medium.

Working with foreign‐language markets

Early on in our podcast venture, Andres Kloster from La Maquina del SEO (translated: The SEO Machine) asked us to sponsor his podcast — which is held entirely in Spanish.

The partnership turned out to be a big success.

Nobody in the Ahrefs team speaks Spanish or is familiar with the market, so Andres and his team do all the groundwork for us.

They source for and conduct interviews with SEOs from Spain that we’d otherwise never be able to form a connection with (Natzir Turrado, Ruben Alonso, David Ayala, José Márquez and Juan González Villa, to name some names).

They also create content for us in Spanish and distribute it to their audience, which gives us a lot of exposure.

Just look at these sweet engagement numbers for the September 2018 giveaway:

The #lamaquinadelseo hashtag on Twitter is really active, too, where Ahrefs is featured lots.

I’ve even noticed recently that Spanish speakers have started asking Andres questions about Ahrefs tools after listening to his podcasts.

Job well done in my book!

Gauging success

It’s not completely true that we’ve stopped all tracking of our podcast sponsorship efforts.

When you sign up for a paid trial with us, we have a mandatory field that asks where you heard about us. I keep a pretty close eye on this.

From July to October 2018, we’ve seen 126 paid trial signups from “podcast.”

Some things to note:

  1. Our $37,775 spend includes shows we sponsored that haven’t aired yet;
  2. Sometimes people quote the podcast show itself or even the host’s name, so the actual numbers are higher;
  3. Ahrefs is often mentioned organically on non‐sponsored podcasts, so not all of these are due to sponsored mentions;
  4. We used to run a free trial instead of the current paid one, which means it was easier to get signups in the past.

Yes, the numbers aren’t the most accurate. But this is enough to give us a good feel for what’s working and what isn’t.

You know the sponsorship is working when people say things like this:

Or they enter our giveaway with videos like this (this guy won the subscription.)

Statistics like downloads and impressions are fancy, but they don’t count for much in the end (aren’t these numbers terribly easy to game, anyway?)

My main takeaway: it’s not always all about measurable ROI. If you look in the right places, you’re likely to see some other kind of magic at work.

Final Tips on Choosing a Podcast to Sponsor

The main thing to decide is whether you’d like to sponsor a “bigger” or “smaller” podcast. There are pros and cons for both (if your budget allows for it, feel free to experiment with both, of course.)

Bigger podcasts come with the benefit of a huge existing audience and lots of experience — they can really get your name out to an impressive number of listeners. They also tend to have broader topics, are extremely professional and pretty much guarantee the quality you’ll be getting, from timely communications down to the actual show production.

On these shows, people might not become customers instantly, but it’s likely that they’ll make mental notes and might convert in the future.

Cons? They tend to be expensive and can be a little rigid. Since they have a dedicated team and processes in place (you often don’t even get to connect with the host himself at all), there’s zero room for flexibility — you work around their format. That’s the only way that you’ll be granted access to their audience.

Image Credit

My advice is: don’t be afraid to take a chance on a “smaller” podcast.

They may not have crazy impressive reach or download statistics to show you, but they’re often more affordable, more passionate, more willing to work with you and most importantly, generally have a super strong personal connection with their audience.

Also, look out for signs of enthusiasm and passion as early on as possible.

How excited the podcast host is about your product will translate directly into how excited their audience gets about you.

This is what you want to see:

Because this translates into mentions like this:

Another thing: “smaller” podcasts tend to be a lot more proactive and dedicated to making the partnership work for both of you, while “bigger” podcasts have brands lined up through the year just waiting for a sponsorship slot. They aren’t going to go out of their way to accommodate you.

This is the kind of email you’ll get from a more established podcast:

And this is one from a “smaller” one.

So: depending on your budget and resources, find a podcast that’s a good fit for you.

If you have lots of money and not much time, you’ll probably want to work with an established podcast that will take care of all the work for you.

On the other hand, If you have a million creative ideas and want the flexibility to experiment, look for a smaller one.

That’s A Wrap

To sum up: working with established podcasts feels a little more “pay‐to‐play”. Or to put it admittedly crudely, kind of like an audible version of Google Adwords.

Working with smaller podcasts, on the other hand, is a different experience that feels closer to influencer marketing.

Remember that there are countless ways to work with podcasts, from giving the hosts a specific message to promote to allowing them full control and fully enabling them to be brand ambassadors. Don’t pigeonhole yourself into thinking you can only “run some pre‐written ads.”

I hope this post demystified a good bit of the podcast sponsorship experience!


Thank you for reading! If you enjoyed this post, I’d love it if you could hit the clap button 👏