Q&A: Zach Kahn, Podcast Marketing Lead at Vox Media

This week, The Idea dove into podcasts. We talked to Zach Kahn about podcast advertising, show development, and what platforms like Spotify can do to help listeners engage with their favorite content.

Can you give me an overview of your role as marketing lead for podcasts at Vox Media?

We’re part of a small but growing team inside the company. Sometimes that means I’m focused more on audience development — getting people who read our sites and our newsletters and follow us on different social platforms over into our podcasts. Sometimes it means converting existing listenership of podcasts to our shows or spreading the wealth amongst our different shows.

On the other side, I’m focused on enabling our sales and revenue teams to effectively monetize this line of business. So that means developing sales materials, crafting our go-to-market pitch and story, and having a point of view about some of the different industry topics or developments, whether that’s a conversation about podcast measurement or different ad buying mechanisms like programmatic advertising or dynamic ad-insertion.

What are some of the ways you’ve been able to monetize podcasts? What’s been working the best for you and how do you see it evolving?

A couple years ago is when we really started monetizing our podcasts, and that’s almost entirely through advertising (which is not dissimilar to the model for our digital sites and many of our other products). We had a bunch of different third-party partnerships with other people in the podcasting industry, including Midroll, Cadence13, which was at that time called Digital Media, Panoply, Slate, and we have really great relationships with all of them. In some instances, like in the case of our daily news podcast Today, Explained, we still work with Stitcher and Midroll to help us produce and monetize that show. But I think we saw an opportunity, as we have with our other content, to take some of that in-house and really perfect it by bringing it closer to some of the other aspects of our business.

As of this year, we’ve started building up a direct sales team that’s primarily focused on capturing and converting a lot of the big brand advertisers into podcast [advertisers]. We work with a lot of the Microsofts and Coca Colas of the world for branded video content, in display advertising, sometimes in events, and we see an opportunity to convert them into podcasts and into audio content broadly. We’re still servicing a lot of the different big players in podcast advertising today — the direct response advertisers like Squarespace and Harry’s — but I think there’s a real opportunity around helping those big brand advertisers really find their footing in audio, and specifically through podcasts today.

Have you been primarily taking existing advertising partnerships and working with them in audio or have you able to form new partnerships through your podcasts?

It’s a little bit of both. Some folks who have come to us and who really like our work in video and in text or find we deliver strong performance in terms of display advertising have said, “Hey, I listen to your podcast too and I noticed that you guys have ads on there, I’d love to be a part of that.” So we’ve been better over the past year at accommodating those.

And then some of it is new advertisers, people who are still brand advertisers who are advertising on other podcasts or radio programs like the NPRs and APMs of the world, who have started to take notice of some of the stuff we’re doing.

We’re also seeing a really interesting development, which is some folks come to us exclusively for a podcast — brand and direct advertisers — and some actually have podcasts or audio advertising as a component of a larger integrated program. I think that’s something that we are uniquely positioned to provide because we do have this existing expertise in display and in video and now we’re adding really high quality audio content and advertising to that mix. I think it’s a pretty compelling package that few can offer and is an exciting opportunity for us that we’re really looking forward to growing.

Recently, Tom Webster argued that podcasting still hasn’t had “The Show” — what House of Cards was for Netflix or what The Handmaid’s Tale was for Hulu — the “killer” show that brings new people to the platform. Have we seen “The Show” yet? Or are there too many shows to the point of saturation?

I think we have had some of those shows, right? The two that come to mind right now are Serial and The Daily. If you look at the audience acquisition numbers and people who are familiar with podcasts, you see spikes after those shows launched. It might be fair to say we haven’t hit our “Game of Thrones” yet, but we certainly have a “Seinfeld.”

I also don’t think that there are too many podcasts right now. Nobody says there are too many YouTube videos, therefore YouTube is doomed. I think it’s just a matter of better discovery and sorting. So right now, you’ve really only got one way to organize a podcast, and it’s by show and by episode. What I’d love for folks like Spotify to do, or seriously think about and have some form of public comment on, is why isn’t there a playlist for podcasts?

Two famous people — Anthony Bourdain and Aretha Franklin — just recently passed, and when that happens, I would love to go back and hear the Aretha Franklin interview conducted by Terry Gross on Fresh Air; I’d love to hear Anthony Bourdain on The Eater Upsell or on Longform and I’d love to just soak in that. But a show and a particular episode isn’t really the best way to make it easy for people, certainly who are new listeners to podcasts, to be able to engage with that content. So I think a playlist like, “Remembering Aretha Franklin” or “Remembering Anthony Bourdain,” would help facilitate that.

When you’re developing new podcasts, is there a template or general approach that guides the development of your shows?

I think we’re in the process right now of finding and developing a formula. We don’t try to do things that are already pretty well covered in terms of topic or format. We have an inclination to lean towards hosts who already have a pretty established voice in other mediums, whether it’s writing or video, and then helping them find how that voice translates in audio. Which is not to say we wouldn’t cultivate new audio talent, but I think that’s where we are now.

We look for hosts and for programming that we think appeals to a really curious, sharp audience, something that we think adds value to that really intelligent listener’s lifestyle. That might take different forms, but I think that is definitely a guiding light. If it doesn’t add value, might as well not do it.

We’re also taking a really disciplined approach to organizing around programming that’s working and producing more of it, just as we did with Recode Decode and The Weeds, which have moved from weekly to twice weekly with frequent bonus episodes on the weekends. I think you’ll start to see us do that with other shows that have really found an audience. I also think you’ll start to see us make some bets into things that we haven’t necessarily done — things like semi-narrative podcasts, perhaps in the future maybe some fiction podcasts. We don’t have any plans for that now, but I think there’s an appetite for what that might look like.

What are some of your favorite podcasts that you’re listening to right now?

That’s hard… We could be here for hours.

A podcast that I’m consistently listening to is Recode Decode with Kara Swisher. She has always been an incredible journalist and continues to be, but I think she’s really having a moment right now. She’s put her finger on the broader cultural conversation and political conversation about what’s happening with technology companies and social media platforms, and she’s having some really interesting conversations with people who are making them, people who are responsible for thinking about the ethics of them, people who use them, and I think she’s just leading the conversation there in a way nobody else is.

One that I think that people should listen to is a podcast produced by Polygon which is called The History of Fun, which explores the hidden backstories behind the things people enjoy. So that can mean anything from a game of Monopoly to Chuck-E-Cheese to Nick at Night. All kinds of different fun topics. Very 90s-esque.

What am I listening to that’s not from Vox Media? I’m definitely listening to The Daily. I think it is the best product produced by The New York Times since The New York Times website. It perfectly represents the value that they bring into the world and what they’re uniquely set up to do. So The Daily, for sure. I’m listening to a lot of The Ringer podcasts. In the same way that Kara has her finger on the pulse of technology, a lot of that team has their finger on the pulse of culture, and specifically what’s happening in movies and TV. From an industry perspective, from a fan perspective, they get that, and so it’s really interesting to listen to them and the people that they bring on their shows.