Podcasters are padding their listener counts with spurious numbers originating from junk online games which trade digital loot in exchange for watching advertisements, a new report states.
Author Ashley Carman summarized the scheme in a Sept. 26 Bloomberg article, “Each time a player taps on one of these fleeting in-game ads—and wins some virtual loot for doing so—a podcast episode begins downloading on their device.”
“The podcast company, in turn, can claim the gamer as a new listener to its program and add another coveted download to its overall tally,” she continued.
Carman quoted Larry Chiagouris, a Professor at Pace University, to point out the obvious problem, “I’m not saying [this tactic is] not ethical or illegal, but it raises issues. If someone is trying to play a game and that’s the purpose of this interaction, they may just be eager to play the game and are not that interested in the information being shared.”
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The article explained that generally speaking, podcasts count their advertising metrics by the number of downloads, because ads are embedded at the time of download.
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Advertising industry analysts DeepSee referred to the technique as “Rewarded Traffic” in a July article, describing the approach rather unflatteringly as something that “could best be considered an abuse / misapplication of rewarded ad placements.”
DeepSee goes into some somber detail, “For years, millions of daily visits to ad-monetized publisher destinations have likely been generated this way. In these situations, advertisers have no idea that they are paying to reach a user who is being compensated to interact with the publisher’s content.”
The firm explains that although Google has a marked and stated problem with “incentivized traffic,” rewarded traffic to the contrary skates the line because it pays with digital, in-game currency instead of real rewards, such as gift cards.
In its own investigation, Bloomberg found that outlets as big as New York Post were utilizing a game called Subway Surfers, which boasts a download statistic of more than 3 billion, to peddle podcast clicks.
Moreover, Carman stated that podcast networks are relying on middleman company Jun Group, a firm which claims to facilitate ad placement in 1,000 games that allegedly reach 100 million users.
CEO Corey Weiner told Bloomberg that Jun’s positioning was a product of a crowded marketplace, “There is a very big reason why all the largest brands in the world invest so much money in brand awareness, because without it you have no chance of breaking through the clutter.”
“Every publisher, every content creator, has invested in marketing to promote themselves since the dawn of time, and this is just another way of doing it,” Weiner added.
Bloomberg paraphrased Weiner as further stating that, conveniently, his company “hasn’t specifically tracked how long gamers will stay on a podcast after clicking on an ad.”
Relying on “someone who’s spoken with Jun Group,” the cost of the service isn’t cheap: a 20 second ad starts at $27 per 1,000 page views.
Despite the ostensible and self-evident problems with the advertising method, it may be working.
Based on comments from “a person familiar with the effort,” Carman stated that Jun’s main client, IHeart, a company “which bills itself as the top podcast publisher globally,” has, since 2018, picked up 6 million unique monthly listeners at an arguably fractional cost of “more than $10 million.”
“The impact can be seen on the publicly available charts produced by Chartable, a podcast marketing company owned by Spotify Technology SA,” the article states.
And case-in-point: Carman’s editor was forced to point out during their review and posting process that “IHeart is a partner of Bloomberg Media, and DeepSee discovered promotions for one Bloomberg podcast running in Subway Surfers.”