Pat LaCroix presents how to grow the podcast industry through contextual AI

Context Matters: Growing the Podcast Industry Through Contextual AI for Brand Suitability

by Pat LaCroix
EVP of Strategic Partnerships at Seekr

Originally presented on-stage at the 2024 IAB Podcast Upfront

Brands and marketers are becoming increasingly frustrated with the current realities of brand suitability in podcast advertising. Podcasts drive incredible ROI for advertisers who take advantage of the channel. Some of the smartest marketers at leading companies—including Seekr customers SimpliSafe, Tommy John, and Indeed—allocate big budgets toward podcast ads because they continue to drive performance.

So why is podcast advertising so woefully underfunded?

Advertisers lack a clear and trusted system to evaluate content for brand safety and suitability. With thousands of podcasts and years’ worth of audio conversations, marketing teams struggle to manually vet shows and feel confident that they’re placing their brand next to suitable content. In today’s polarizing media environment, they face the persistent challenge of hitting reach and revenue goals while facing restrictions and penalties from current brand safety tools.

Seekr is committed to giving advertisers the tools they need to drive greater reach and revenue responsibly through contextual AI.

The evidence is in the ad spend: podcast advertising is underfunded

The brand suitability struggle is reflected in dollars spent—the podcast industry isn’t receiving the ad revenue it deserves. Despite podcasts making up 5% of US adults’ digital media time, they receive less than 1% of all digital ad spend. In other words, the podcast industry only receives 20 cents on the dollar.

Further, the latest IAB Podcast Advertising Revenue Study showed that after years of double-digit increases, podcast ad revenue grew by only 5% in 2023, while digital overall saw a 7.3% increase. With 135 million listeners in the US and one of the most engaged audiences, this ~$2 billion industry should be a $10-15 billion industry.

The impact of brand suitability on the podcast industry

We can view the impact of brand safety on podcast advertising in three phases: before brand safety, the messy middle, and the future.

Before brand safety

In 2020, we faced unprecedented challenges as a society. The election, social unrest, Covid-19 and other events that shaped our culture and history scared brands and put them in a difficult position. Many of them fled shows and genres where sensitive social issues and controversial topics were being discussed, leading to an abrupt loss in reach for publishers, advertisers, and agencies.

The messy middle

As everyone looked for ways to move forward, the industry raced to apply existing brand safety structures to audio in hopes of giving brands a lens into the safety and suitability of content. These keyword-based structures weren’t originally designed for audio, and most of the tools misrepresented or over-penalized shows due to the simple discussion of certain topics.

The unintended consequences of this reality are that more ad dollars flow to lower quality media. And as podcast consumption has grown, the technology we use to evaluate audio has not kept pace. While well intentioned, today’s brand suitability offerings are black boxes that restrict reach for advertisers and revenue for publishers.

When you rely on keyword-based systems to trigger risk content ratings, you regularly produce false positives and negatives, because you are not evaluating the context of how the language was used. To evaluate brand suitability, it is not just the letters of the words, but also the context and spirit of the conversation that really matters.

The future: measuring civility in podcast conversations with SeekrAlign

At Seekr, we believe the future holds both responsible advertising and revenue growth.

We’re tackling the brand suitability challenge with SeekrAlign: a contextual and transparent AI solution that empowers brands and publishers to reach the broadest and most suitable audiences through precise and transparent risk scores.

With SeekrAlign, advertisers can improve their performance and increase reach while upholding their brand values.

Here’s how it works:

The Seekr Civility Score™ is a patented feature that tracks personal attacks, including those that may not register as hate speech under GARM but are still hostile in nature.

The Civility Score ranges from a value of 100 to 0 and is categorized into four labels: High, Medium, Low, and No Civility.

Unlike a linear algorithm that follows a strict set of rules regardless of circumstance, this scoring system factors in context, including nuanced conversations that can often occur within podcasts.

With traditional brand safety tools, shows like iHeart’s Next Question with Katie Couric, the New York Times’ Ezra Klein Show, and Today Explained by Vox could be blocked because of certain topics discussed—war, sensitive social issues, harmful acts—even though their conversations are civil, respectful, and informative.

AI enables us to review entire show transcripts on an episode level and at unmatched scale. As of May 2024, we’ve analyzed over 40,000 podcasts for brand suitability—that’s 35 years’ worth of audio.

And, where alternative solutions obfuscate their data behind APIs and unmarked transcripts—leaving you wondering how much you are being wrongly penalized—Seekr offers the opportunity to review our scores and flag inaccuracies to improve the product over time.

Why context matters in brand suitability

Let’s review some examples of how keyword-based systems get brand safety and suitability wrong.

97% of occurrences where words like “shoot”, “debate”, or “gay” are present in episodes, keyword-based tools inaccurately apply a risk metric when none is present.

Using the Seekr Civility Score, we can easily analyze words that are often perceived as problematic to better understand the tradeoff between reach and risk.

Last month, we reviewed a sample of 20,000 podcasts:

  • The word “shoot” appeared in 44% of podcasts.
  • The word “debate” appeared in 22% of podcasts.
  • The word “gay” appears in 13% of podcasts.

Yet on each occasion, we found these words were used as a personal attack 3% or less of the time.

Understanding reach vs risk in keywords to grow the podcast industry

Why is this data important for the podcast industry?

For advertisers: it helps them understand the universe of potential reach that they cut off when they use blunt force instruments to screen content for brand suitability.

For publishers: it shows the extent to which just a couple of words can lead to wrongful demonetization and helps them avoid arbitrary exclusion to protect their performance.

For agencies: it allows them to protect their client’s brands while helping them reach their revenue goals.

Whether it’s institutions like news or protected classes like the LBGTQ community, when we use blunt force methods for brand suitability, we put the future of quality and diverse content at risk.

2024 IAB Podcast Upfront

Pat LaCroix and Dan Granger on-stage at 2024 IAB Podcast Upfront, discussing how advertisers can grow the podcast industry through contextual AI

It was a pleasure to join folks from the podcast ecosystem at IAB’s annual upfront where Dan Granger and I took the stage to discuss our AI-driven solutions to brand suitability.

As founder and CEO of Oxford Road, Dan Granger sits at the unique intersection of advertiser reach and publisher monetization. He shared how his team uses SeekrAlign to help brands and publishers unite through purposeful, data-driven strategies.

In Digiday’s round up of the event, they noted how Seekr “dominated the conversation” around targeting in podcast advertising.

Key players in the podcast industry, including NPR, The Daily Wire, iHeart, SiriusXM, Cumulous Podcast Network, ESPN, and Paramount also announced new podcast programs featuring amazing talent. They shared on the importance of reaching multi-cultural audiences, problems they face monetizing news content, and more.

We’re looking forward to a year of responsible growth alongside these industry leaders.

Brand suitability is about civility, not exclusion

Blunt force, keyword-driven systems are not the solution to unlocking growth in the podcast industry. Advertisers can take control of brand safety and suitability so it’s an income driver, not the reason they miss their number in 2024.

Without the necessary tools to evaluate the true context of podcast conversations, we will continue to:

  • Restrict the reach and revenue of advertisers
  • Demonetize the long tail of quality and diverse perspectives that make the podcast industry so critical to society

SeekrAlign provides clear suitability metrics to empower advertisers to confidently increase reach and grow revenue for their business—and the podcast industry as a whole.

To learn more about how SeekrAlign is tackling the brand suitability challenge through transparent and accurate risk scores, contact our team today.