Minter Dialogue with Sarah Van Moselsarah van mosel

This interview is with Sarah Van Mosel, Chief Commercial Officer at Acast, a global podcast platform that provides premium hosting, distribution and monetisation services. Previously, Sarah had a senior leadership position at NY Public Radio, dealing with digital transformation and the podcast opportunities at radio. In this interview, we talk about podcasting trends, why podcasting is such a powerful channel and how brands are or could use the podcast media.

Below, you’ll find the show notes and, of course, you are invited to comment. If you liked the podcast, please take a moment to go over to iTunes to rate the podcast.

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Music credit: The jingle at the beginning of the show is courtesy of my friend, Pierre Journel, author of the Guitar Channel. And, the new sign-off music is “A Convinced Man,” a song I co-wrote and recorded with Stephanie Singer back in the late 1980s (please excuse the quality of the sound!).


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Podcast Transcript (via PopUp Archive):

Minter Dial (interviewer): Welcome to the Minter Dialogue podcast. So you and I, our paths didn’t cross at GEN 2016 in Vienna Austria last month, but you were in a panel with my friend Siobhan McHugh and another friend whose name I can’t remember… Vanessa Quirk … and you talked about podcasting and they were saying on Twitter that you guys were the queens of podcasting. So, tell us who you are, what you do and what is your mindset?

Sarah Van Mosel (interviewee): Sure, sure so I am the Chief Commercial Officer at Acast. Acast is a podcast distribution and monetization platform Headquartered in Stockholm with offices in the U.K. and now New York and my primary function is to develop revenue strategies and grow the business here in the U.S. Prior to, I was at New York Public radio or W N Y C which is the home of podcast behemoths like Radio Lab, Freakonomics, Here’s the Thing with Alec Baldwin and there I basically built the podcast business strategy, developed dynamic ad insertion for advertising and generally had a wonderful time working with all these sharp folks there. So what is my thing? My thing, as this Acast thing, I’m incredibly passionate about podcasting and our whole mission here is to grow the space is to just really sort of give podcasters the ability not only to generate revenue but diversify their revenue, in a number of ways that we work with with people that create content; but then also to build the overall space. Meaning have listening in places where it might not normally happen outside of apps, out in the world, in Twitter, in email newsletters and on blogs. Everywhere that people are that the interested in the content, we want them to push play and go. So that’s really what we’re all about.

MD: So I want dig back in a moment on your N.P.R. life but why should one be passionate about podcasting.

SVM: Well it’s really a space where content is free to develop based entirely on what people like. It is almost the most democratic of content growth, right? The the relationship between a listener and a content creator is a passionate one, it’s an intense one, entirely based on authenticity and because of that relationship on the advertising side, you see that this insane engagement; you see such effectiveness when done properly; so as a person who is a fan of good authentic content, doesn’t necessarily have to be polished. Doesn’t necessarily have to cost millions of dollars a year. It could be two interesting people talking to each other. That can be as successful as a show that’s produced by a professional broadcaster, and that’s what is so great about it.

MD: So, would you say that in this intimate space when you have your headphones or earphones plugged into your your ears? Your bullshit detector is higher?

SVM: Much, much, because the reason is podcasting is an active action. you’re not passively letting a curated master music flow over you you are reaching out for the show that you want to hear you’re constructing your playlist. These are the choices that you’ve made this is how and why you spend your time, running, doing the dishes, cooking whatever. So you are mindful about what you’re listening to and so you know that goes hand in hand. What is it that makes you choose those shows. Is the Personality, is the format of the show? You know, the perfect podcast could be a number of thing, but oftentimes it’s a mixture of things: a great personality that really engages the user so you care enough to tune back in and will listen to W.T.F. remarks. Some people really want to hear that intro because they want to catch up on what Marc was doing. How’s his relationships going and then tell to listen to the interview. Some people just scoot right past that go into the interview because they want to hear it or to genuinely interact with whom he’s talking to. So I like both of those things. And that’s why I will listen to him. Also when you have a perfect format, like Song Exploder, for example, it can be almost anyone hosting that show, but the format is such that you can take a piece of music and break it down into its component parts and find out what went into making that music from the Creator. That’s amazing. So you know whatever piece of music they’re highlighting that week, you’re going to learn from it, if you’re a music person. So those kinds of elements go into, you know, why people are so connected to the shows because there are, because of that authentic connection to that a personality or to a form that really sort of hit the spot with them.

MD: So, before Sarah, you joined Acast last December, You’re working at a radio station and podcasting comes along it as sort of, I’d probably characterize it as reasonably disruptive component to a typical radio station’s life Can you talk us through what were the sort of the big moments and what allowed for. N.P.R. to get back into it make it more successful to get into the podcasting route.

SVM: Sure sure, so just a quick note on the organizational structure of Public Radio. New York Public Radio is separate from N.P.R. in that they are all competitors; NPR creates content that NYPR pays them to run on their platforms and they’re both out in the marketplace, selling to advertisers and competing with each other in that regard so NY public radio or WYNC was really one of the biggest most powerful players in the public radio space because they were beholden to no one but themselves and their listeners, whereas NPR are beholden to all the member radio station just a side note. So when you are #1 in the number one market and you have a pretty stable radio format like public radio, you somewhat buffeted from the winds of change in the media industry. Public Radio has a history of staying pretty stable when it comes to ratings but that said you know as you know as sort of ambitious as our CEO was in terms of growth, it was not in sync with what was happening in the marketplace of radio and specifically at buying in radio because public radio does underwriting or sponsorship but they are still soliciting the same advertising dollars from same entities that are spending on radio. So what do we do? How do we grow twenty percent when radio buying is down thirteen percent in our markets. What, how you solve that problem? We happen to have some excellent content producers and a very open minded management team that allowed us to explore. How can we know? Does the marketplace have an appetite for this content and so part of it was having amazing content with an amazing you know listener base. Being able to say I know who the listener base is; they’re valuable. They’re educated; they have a disposable income but on the other hand how do you actually extract all of the listening, all the revenue from listening that’s happening there. Before the adtech became available, it was simply host recording a spot or a producer recording a spot into the show. Editing it into the show. It was always going to be a part of the show. We call that “baked in.” Fine, baked in was fine, but you can only really get the value out of each individual show one at a time. You time didn’t have the capacity to really in the case of Radio Lab for example which got about six to seven million listeners a month, the listens were not entirely on the new episode. I would say sixty percent of listening was on the new episodes and the other forty percent was on the back catalog. Because people would get an episode recommended by a friend or really find it online; they would be in all sorts of different places in back catalogues; or people would start to binge listen Like Serial, so you can back into it. Exactly and most popular podcast in my experience are one better have evergreen content; their shelf life is infinite because they’re current stories, you are learning something; You’re not tied to something newsy. Daily and newsy do not work on the podcast space as far as I’ve seen in my experience so it shows that we had were definitely weekly to bi-weekly and long shelf life and so to unlock the revenue there, we had to come up with a way to have the ads rotate into the back catalogue and have multiple campaigns running within the existing catalogue because the launch was so much; one episode within five days of release would generate 1.7 MM listens. One advertiser may not want to buy all that space in one week They might want to spread it out over a couple of months. So when we sort of set it in our minds to figure out how to unlock that, once we did unlock it, that’s when the revenue really came to the fore and that’s when all of the budgets were predicated on the growth of podcasting as opposed to the decline of radio.

MD: In these digital, transformative years, there’s usually a leap of faith that has to be made that somehow, what was the leap of faith that you had to go through with your. C.E.O. of WNYC

SVM: That the dollars would follow the capability. Often times, just ask a sales manager or anyone who develops budgets, just because you have capacity to make money doesn’t mean the money’s going to follow. So that’s really the leap of faith. Unlocking millions and millions of impression: but would the demand be there, with the money actually follow? So that was my leap of faith; that the dollars will follow and it.

MD: All right so Sarah, that’s very cool. What about what’s going on in podcasting? Give us an update on the trends in podcasting from the New York side.

SVM: Sure sure. So what we’re seeing here at Acast –and we’re seeing it because we’re actually making a point to make it happen–is to bring in more diverse choices where the podcast space for years has been white men, either public radio style or comedy style, sort of talking to each other, and over the past few years more and more shows have emerged. With Women. Women of color people, the L.G.B.T. communnity and as more of those shows are surfacing, we’re approaching them. It is our sort of mission to say, hey, this is a place where diverse choices are welcome and bring your new audiences, because, they’re bringing new listeners into this space. It’s not like I said, the same people elbowing each other for the same twenty four million US people over twelve that are listening to podcast apps; These are new audiences. So, lots more voices are coming out, much more diversity of content is coming out, and also we’re seeing this trend toward having audio be shareable, right? So instead of relying on people to find it maybe in the iTunes top twenty chart, people can be in their Twitter feed and see an audio player and say. “Oh this is funny” or one of our podcasts, Another Round, from Buzzfeed, can tweet out: “Hey listen to this part in our show where Hillary Clinton completely chokes on our water because this question was hard. And boom, engaging people right there where they are as opposed to hoping they make it into this app and then find a chart and then subscribe to a thing. So a diversity of voices and a diversity of ways to accessing the audio is the trends we’re seeing out here.

MD: So as you say, it was sort of a little niche geeky thing to begin with and but now it seems to have tipped into a more mainstream thing. At the very beginning, where we’re like “should the word podcasting even exist?” It’s a dinosauric, horrible technical word. Are we beyond that and is podcasting mainstream? Where do we sit in terms of numbers?

SVM: I think podcasting is definitely mainstream when you have fifty-six million people in a month engaging in an activity and you consider the Super Bowl only had one hundred fourteen million people listening, I think that’s pretty mainstream so. So now what right? It’s a big group of people but it’s a very specific group of people I think the next step is to do a couple of things: learn as much as we can about this audience, how they behave? What they want? What they prefer? How they let the marketplace know their preferences by listening, not listening, switching over to something else, engaging with the ads. That’s another area because I come from the business side, where I am excited to see what comes out of the research there. AB Testing. One of my crusades this coming year is to engage the creative community to really come up with a form factor for an ad that is built just for podcasts, because I believe that radio ads don’t work on podcasts, not in terms of effectiveness, but in terms, they are really breaking that experience, because when you think about, the earbuds are really in your body. When you have creative that is built for catching your attention in a busy environment that’s a misfit. So I am going to make it my mission this year to really sit around a table with a bunch of great creative thinkers and say if you could just invent the perfect form factor for podcast ad, what would that be? And in some cases, it’s custom content. We’re seeing that now more and more; that’s a really cool space that’s bubbling up, and it really blurs the line between an ad and content in an interesting way, as long as they are transparent about what it is. And also I don’t think we should forget the meat and potatoes in the space which is the pre-recorded ad, that’s important to not get wrong, because that’s where you can turn off a lot of people if you do it wrong.

MD: I’m sort of a fan of when the author says it kind of ad as opposed to these prerecorded stuff, because let’s say you have different recordings that you’re going to insert so every listener is going to get a different ad, because of the way that the sponsor has decided it, it can be somewhat interruptive and the challenge is how to make that authentic and sort of natural to the user experience. One of the things that you and I were chatting about before, is discovery and as you were talking, I was just thinking, well, what if I could plug in “Great podcasts to walk outdoors to” Or “Great podcast to drive to”? Or must be other ways that people would like to discover podcast. Have you been exploring that as well?

SVM: Absolutely, and it comes with data. So you need a combination of machine learning and human analysis to really get to the heart of how to curate a list. Now it’s a chicken and an egg thing. Because on the one hand podcast is so great because it’s not curated and people are taking that extra step to go out and find what they want, because they really firmly want what they want because they went so hard to go get it. Would that get watered down if they were put in a more passive role and served up something that we think it was “Download this list of ten”. Exactly, exactly! So a big part of me thinks that, no, most people would actually appreciate the help because it’s a lot of work and it might grow this space because the more you can give someone something that, based on their behavior, in an iterative, Spotify kind of way, or a discover weekly way, which is great in a Spotify experience, and I think that’s something we’re all working toward. And what it takes is a whole lot of data, about this person is listening to these shows and this person is listening to these shows and what do they have in common, what are the differences? What do you think you can recommend? Is it peer to peer or is it simply what are the elements, breaking down the genome of the podcast, so to speak. What are the elements that make up the show, what other shows have similar elements, or at least ninety percent and that person recommends that… So we’re taking both of those approaches actually as we evolve our product.

MD: So maybe from a content standpoint interesting, but it’s also going to be interesting or important for the ad space. to have them able to understand the data of the listener profile and whether my format and my content and my product or service that I’m trying to promote fits in?

SVM: That’s true and it’s going to mean that the rise of the networks is going to be even more important right? Because when you have a collection of 800 to a thousand shows, you’ll have a richer product offering for someone who wants to listen and discover than someone who has a handful of shows, right? And so I think networks will emerge that have a personality much like you know H.B.O. Go and Netflix. You know, you subscribe to multiple viewing apps or services because of the kind of content you’re going to get from them and I think right now, podcasting is sort of following in the footsteps of digital video but we’re at the very early stages, where there’s just a lot of syndicated content available on platforms back in the Hulu days and soon you’ll see the networks emerge with their own sort of personality and unique original content that speaks to who they are and why you would want to subscribe to that network as opposed to another one.

MD: So, in your experience because you see so many of these, how do you determine or how do you qualify a great podcast?

SVM: I think that’s very personal to the listener A great podcast for me, makes me care about the host in the sense that I want to tune in again and hear what they have to say either becacuse they have a unique point of view or they’re entertaining or I learn something. I The time that I have spent and I will come away with something of value, something that’s valuable. Or if it’s truly entertainment. They make me laugh and I know that they will make me laugh 99.9 percent of the time and that’s a pretty high target to hit, so again it’s worth my time because I get that joy out of it.

MD: So maybe I need to add a little more flavor and personality in my show! Message to Minter! What about the world of branding and podcasts. So for a Media, you’re a radio show, you’re a television show, this is obvious. You are in the media agency world, So, like Mitch Joel, you’re one of these bunch of white guys coming out they’re doing their thing, but what about brands? Do you see any brands? What are the opportunities for brands to get with the program?

SVM: Absolutely I think this is probably one of the most exciting emerging spaces in audio right now, especially in the podcast space. We’ve seen some great first shots out of the barrel, with GE’s The Message and the Panoply group. There were first in to do that kind of play. Actually specializes in this kind of thing. We’re also seeing great work from Gimlet, and we’re now we just launched one and forgive me I forgot the title, but it did it with eBay. And it’s about work and startups which is lovely, which is right in our sweet spot, but we host one from a group called Betaworks It’s called The Intern” and The Intern is a podcast about about a young woman that works at Betaworks and Betaworks is basically a star product incubator and so she’s talking about the companies that they are incubating, which is kind of a P.R. play for Betaworks which is brilliant because it’s a really engaging podcast and she’s incredibly appealing as a host because she’s a twenty something girl in New York that just landed and this is her story. So all kinds of really rich ways and the the common denominator in these that I’m calling out is that the content is good. You know they’re not just a shilling a product, they’re getting their brand values across in a way that has high value for the listener, right, so not only do they understand that this is coming from this brand,. OK, I think that most podcast listeners, particularly millennial are open to the fact that a brand want to market them in this way. But you’re only allowed to market in that way if it’s good. If you fall flat, you can fall really flat and you’re gong to get a lot of blowback. So be careful as just as you are stepping out onto the ice.

MD: So if I’m a brand, I’ve decided that I want to go into podcasting, I’ve got great content, I’ve got some of the values that are aligned, and emotion hopefully somewhere in there, What about distribution? How do I get it out there? Do I need to be putting it up only on my site? Or should I be thinking socially in another way?

SVM: Then this is one of things that Acast is mostly known for: in addition to having a platform that hosts and distributes it, you also need a way to get out there. We work with publishers who, like Business Insider, and now Vogue, who do not only have it on our player put the R.S.S. feed everywhere so that all the apps can have it but also integrate it into their copy on their site. You know if you’re talking about something that you mentioned in your pocket you’re going to get in line player on your site so that you can hear that right then you’re also tweeting out not only the whole episode, but moments from the episode so that you know we’re advising people who make content to actually build in shareable moments, maybe four shareable moments per podcast so that you can tweet those out and gain audience. We’eve seen data that shows that when you tweet out a moment you actually increase and sustain audience, more audience than when you first pushed play. So it’s a very specific strategy for building audience and engaging people outside of apps and that means you need embeddable and shareable players at your disposal to do that.

MD: So when I just listen to you at Acast, are you more focused on the the B2B user experience or on the end user user experience I mean, of course, you don’t want to use one without the other, but how do you start to prioritize?

SVM: To date in our evolution we’ve been focusing on the the B2B are focusing on working with those podcasters, getting them on the platform and getting a advertising revenue to those podcasters so that they can grow and have that ecosystem blossom. We’ve moved into the next step of our evolution with the launch of Acast plus which is the ability for the podcasters to do in an in-app purchase with their users. So let’s say you have a podcast and you have a following and you did a little side project or you have the other thing that you want to offer them for two dollars. You’re not keeping your back catalog behind a pay wall, you’re offering them something that they have the ability to pay for within the app. And so you can diversify your revenue. You have ad revenue on your regular podcast and you also have this other thing that you do. That’s the point in our evolution where now we’re sort of beckoning users to come to the app to see what these podcasters have on offer so that they can engage with their podcast in this way. And so we just have started that evolution very successfully in Sweden and in the U.K. We just started to roll it out in U.S. So we’re watching it very closely.

MD: We talked about discoverability and, of course, one of the challenges, like with video, audio is not so searchable by itself on Google. So what are your approaches to that?

SVM: Now we’re working very closely with a group called Pop Up Archives out of San Francisco. Anne Wootton is the CEO and she has taken it on herself to embrace podcasting, in particular, and she and our dev team are working together to transcribe the audio, make it searchable online and to surface the kind of content that people will enjoy, based on having these data points. You can’t tell that something is a comedy podcast unless you can have these markers. You can’t tell that this is about women’s issues unless you have these key words, so they’re helping us to take a more sophisticated approach to just tagging the episodes with a general term.

MD: Well, the other thing that comes to mind is, to the extent that you transcribe accurately — which remains a challenge — how usefully searchable is text that is spoken? So you and I are speaking, we’re talking, yibber-yabbing… That’s going to end up in the transcript. Well, Google search mechanisms: will they pick up that text in the same way they might pick up an HTML properly tagged H1 in your blog post which has a superior tagging or searchability, than just banal text, right?

SVM: I think it’s because such early days in the transcription space, particularly with podcasts, we’re going to see what rules emerge with Google, right? They’ve got their own toe in the pool of podcasting and so we’re watching that very closely. What are more favorable instances, or what are the more favorable conditions that need to exist in order for your content to surface when someone does a search. I think that has yet to be determined. I know that Google, on the one hand, is dipping their toe in Google play; and on the other hand, we are talking to them directly about supporting the ad tech side of audio, we’re not so very interested. So there’s a long road to down there and while these big digital entities like Facebook, like Apple, like Google, Spotify and Pandora, all of us are sort of circling around. Not many of them have engaged in a way that will help those of us that are in the heart of it, to pivot to support it.

MD: It must be awfully interesting for you to try to figure out who are your allies and who are not your allies?

SVM: Daily! The podcast industry is still friendly enough. We joke about it. Every year/nine months, we have this summit. of folks who are in this space. The first year, we had there were thirty one people; this year we had fifty-five, including the biggies…. but we all show up and and hug each other, because we’ve all worked together in previous jobs. It’s a very sort of welcoming and friendly space and there’s a willingness, even though there’s competition — and believe me there is competition — there’s this overall sort of fellowship of: We want to grow this thing… This thing is going to grow. What is it that we need to make it grow? And that really makes it a pleasure to work in this space, frankly.

MD: Well if I might push back: except when it comes to agreeing on a standard?

SVM: No, believe me, I’m in the middle of that and that’s really the clash of two ways of thinking. There’s the old school that, dare I say it, that has emerged and have been working in the space since podcasting developed ten years ago; and their business model is based on volume and they are paid based on what they deliver. And then you have this newer wave, the public radio group — which I started that initiative — to get them all to agree to the same way of filtering the audio servers in order to count. This way is much more responsible and Acast follows that path as well and I’m in charge of the group that is going to push that forward here in the U.S. And it’s really not a question of: is the way in town correct? It’s a question of: we just all need to count the same, right? We can get into the minutiae, and believe me we do: what you count, what you don’t count, what’s fair, etc.. It does not matter. It just has to be the same so that when a buyer buys a hundred thousand impressions from Podcast A and a hundred thousand from Podcast B, they’re getting the same amount of stuff, so that they know this campaign was more effective on Podcast B, because I got the same amount of stuff and I spent a little less money and I got more for what I spent. At the end of the day, that is what the buyers need.

MD: And so it has to happen. I don’t want to entice you to badmouth but Apple’s I Tunes could be so much better?

SVM: It could. Like I said, I wish they would come out with a very strong point of view on the direction that they would like to go because, again, we would be happy to pivot and do what we need to do in order to support that. With it, in the absence of that, what we’re doing is everything in our power to get listening to happen outside of that environment. So they’re less of a factor in the future.

MD: Alright, Super! We’ve done our half hour allocated time. You have mentioned a number of podcasts, you’ve mentioned a number of podcasts, if you have one that you would like to shout out and say this is my favorite but otherwise, tell us how people can track you down.

SVM: Sure sure OK! So right now, I I’m really loving the ongoing podcast Another Round. It’s a favorite of mine; it’s two women of color talking about what it’s like to be not only a woman, but a black woman in this world, in pop culture and funny as anything. Quality, quality content. And it’s an example of the kind of voices that are emerging and going to be more prevalent. And to get with me, I am SarahVM on Twitter. I’m also

MD: Spectacular! Well I’ll put all the show notes as I’m busy writing down the links for the show notes. And, Sarah, thank you so much for coming on the show.

SVM: My pleasure thank you.

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