Advertisers should tap into personalisation, context and powerful storytelling to succeed in digital audio media, writes IAB UK’s Elizabeth Lane.

A little over a decade ago, the radio industry was struggling to compete with the rapid innovations in digital media, DAB was in its infancy and podcasts were niche. Yet today the digital audio market is booming. According to IAB UK’s 2020 Digital Adspend report, advertiser investment in podcasting rocketed by 43% – displaying the biggest growth of any single channel last year – while online audio rose by a very healthy 17%.

Now, the latest findings from IAB UK’s Real Living 2021 study – released as part of our first Audio Week – show that spend is following listener trends.

People have been listening more frequently to all digital audio formats since the start of the pandemic: 39% of people say they are streaming more, 35% are listening to more podcasts and 33% are tuning into more online radio.

What do brands need to know to capitalise on the fast-growing audio opportunity?

1. There is an 18/7 window to make yourself heard

When we conducted our first Real Living study back in 2015, rates of people listening to online audio fluctuated significantly throughout the day. Fast forward to 2021 and this is no longer the case. Not only has there been a big growth in overall listeners, but they are listening around the clock (or near enough). Our research shows that advertisers have 18 hours a day, seven days a week to be reaching vast online audio audiences.

2. Listeners develop a scheduled soundtrack to daily life

However, this doesn’t mean that people are listening to the same thing throughout the day. Listeners naturally develop a schedule for content, with music streaming and online radio building throughout the day to peak in the late afternoon, while podcast listening remains largely consistent before dipping from midnight onwards.

We found that people create a defined listening pattern to complement their daily routines – for example, starting with music and motivational content in the morning, and ending with sleepcasts or nature sounds to unwind.

3. Context matters more than elsewhere

Context matters with all advertising – but when it comes to online audio, it’s even more important to respect the consumers’ environment.

Our study shows that people consider online audio to be an extremely immersive and intimate space, strongly linked to their mood. In fact, 50% say that they wish brands could understand their mood so that they can integrate better with their chosen audio content (vs. 19% that disagree) and 45% are more likely to consider buying a product if an audio ad connects with them in the right way (vs. 23% that disagree).

Brands, therefore, need to be closely attuned to contextual factors such as genre, location and time of day and adjust their tone accordingly.

4. Ads need to work hard to be accepted

When it comes to premium online audio environments, acceptance of ads is below average with people expecting an ad-free experience. However, 52% say that they are willing to listen to advertising in exchange for premium audio – posing opportunities for advertisers that can capitalise on this valued environment.

Previous studies have already shown that listening to music releases dopamine in our brains, helping to produce a feel-good state, and podcasts – whether that be meditation or true crime – require a comparatively high degree of focus. This is backed up by our findings that all online audio channels over-index for enjoyment, and podcasting over-indexes for engagement.

For advertisers, this compounds the need to earn their place via well-considered content that enhances the listener experience and doesn’t dispel listeners’ immersion. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we found that shorter ads with more spaced out ad breaks are favoured, while ads are less welcome in user-curated content (e.g. someone’s own playlist).

5. Especially for you: Personalisation counts

With personalised audio ads already on the rise, it’s encouraging to find that relevance is the number one recommendation from our respondents on how online audio ads can be improved. While this arguably creates challenges for a digital ecosystem that is shifting towards increased privacy and less tracking, personalisation and relevance is clearly a valued aspect of digital audio ads.

Taking it one step further, 55% of our respondents said that they would be interested in a radio station that was created ‘just for me’ – indicating that further steps towards more tailored online radio content would be welcomed.

Overall, advertisers shouldn’t underestimate the emotional connection that listeners have with the digital audio content they are consuming. From podcasts to playlists, digital audio is not only a constant companion throughout the day for listeners, it’s also highly reflective of mood state.

Advertisers looking to succeed in the audio space should not only be attuned to this close relationship and respect the listening context, they should use it to their advantage. By tapping into personalisation, context and powerful storytelling, brands can harness the audio opportunity and make themselves heard in a highly effective way.