The new obedience – how advertising in podcasts works best

Podcasts as a media format can generate a high level of loyalty and attachment among their users; reinforced by the “inner voice” they can even bring about changes in behavior. This opens up great opportunities for companies. However, the appropriate podcasts and advertising formats must be carefully selected. This is the result of a study conducted by the rheingold institute together with AS&S – ARD-Werbung SALES & SERVICES and Ad Alliance. rheingold psychologist Nicole Hanisch explains what advertisers need to be aware of.

Podcasts only know one direction in the growth curve and that is upwards. Every fourth German is now an active listener, and the trend is rising. The media format is particularly strong for problems that shape and determine people’s everyday lives – and the pandemic has given podcasts an extra boost. According to the podcast platform Acast, between January and April alone, more than 1,400 podcast episodes with “Corona” or “Covid-19” in their name were published worldwide and downloaded more than 27.5 million times. Podcasts are the format of the hour.

But what makes this medium so special and how can these special features be used skilfully? To find out, the rheingold institute, together with Ad Alliance and AS&S, conducted an in-depth psychological study – with surprising results. What is particularly astonishing is the enormous potential of podcasts on the one hand, and the great height of fall on the other, since both the proximity of the users to the medium and their sensitivity to interruptions and influences are very high.

Seductive multitasking

What is the motivation to listen to a podcast? One of the success factors of podcasts is that they deal with problems of contemporary culture. They help people to optimise themselves, alleviate loneliness, provide encouragement and offer seductive multitasking: escape from everyday life while continuing to function. Many respondents complained about a flood of media stimuli, news and private messages. The constant accessibility and permanent stimulus supply are experienced as exhausting and tiring. At the same time there is pressure to keep up and not to lose touch. Loneliness is also a major theme – a deficit in social contacts, exacerbated by the corona period – intensifies the need for closeness and touch in a figurative sense.

Podcasts are often listened to through headphones or directly on the smartphone – this direct access via mobile phone strengthens the personal relationship with the moderator, creates closeness to one’s own thoughts and intimacy. Through headphones the content of the podcast becomes a ‘voice in the head’.

Two needs – increased efficiency and everyday filtering

Podcasts can meet two needs particularly well: the pursuit of efficient multitasking and the increase of one’s own performance as well as the escape from everyday life. In both cases, this is based on a feeling of being “stuck”, which podcasts are able to resolve in a pleasant way. This can be, for example, a carousel of thoughts caused by worries or overload, or a closely timed lockdown in the home office that does not allow for breaks. Here podcasts offer a little escape, for example when cooking or cleaning up, where you can still function.

But you can also literally get stuck – in a traffic jam, for example. Such unproductive situations can be charged with meaning and inspiration through podcasts. Podcasts can also be helpful companions in temporary phases of life such as baby care, an unfulfilled single life or professional reorientation.

Two forms of use – the inner and the open ear

The experienced closeness that podcasts offer their listeners contributes to a completely new quality of opening and binding. By being lifted up like in the placenta, podcasts are often understood as a relaxing encapsulation from the visual stimulus-overflowing everyday life. Pure listening is more reduced and therefore more intimate than video and possesses a special urgency: the sense of hearing is one of the earliest senses, it is less distant and critical than seeing and addresses the unconscious.

“She means me personally. It is as pleasant to hear as a long voice message from my cousin, with well-intentioned tips”.

At the same time, podcasts are also a liberation from the dictates of everyday life by allowing several activities to take place simultaneously – psychologically they open up a world in the ‘in-between’: listening with only one ear and thus being inside and outside at the same time.

“I let the podcast run in the morning while I’m getting ready for work it. He explains to me how to become a good salesperson and keeps saying: “Anyone can be a good salesperson.”

They promote great loyalty to the format and the presenters and are even described by respondents as a modern relationship: He or she is always there for you and a feeling of social togetherness without risk and demands is created.

With the ‘coach in the ear’ the users experience support and encouragement. This makes it easier to overcome limits and developmental hurdles and even bring about changes in behaviour.

What does this mean for podcasts as an advertising environment?

“If the show gives the fan the opportunity to buy something he needs anyway, but the code gives him an advantage and the podcast also gets something out of it, then that’s actually nice and also fair.”

Basically, the specific podcast constitutions result in a higher sensitivity for advertising content – this opens up great opportunities for advertisers, but also requires a high level of attention for the particular mental state in which the listeners find themselves. The feeling of the immediate effect of what is heard ‘directly in the head’ arouses the concern of being exposed to the advertising content without protection. In addition, advertising interruptions are easily perceived as a disturbance of the state of ‘diving and isolating’ – the fantasy bubble in the head ‘bursts’ or the advertising content reaches the unconscious in an uncontrolled way, according to the fears of the respondents.

At the same time, the perception of advertising content differs significantly depending on the different formats. Formats with a more intimate connection to the listener (e.g. from the fields of entertainment or life coaching) basically offer great potential and a high degree of openness. Advertising is accepted here as a friendly tip from the presenter, even embedded. On the other hand, advertising content in formats with a distanced relationship to an authority (knowledge, management training, crime) is reacted to much more critically. Doubts about seriousness quickly arise here. The guiding principle here should be to clearly distinguish advertising and content.

“There are sponsors who are somehow related to the topic and then they complement each other … it’s like a partnership. And it also seems much more authentic!”

Sponsorship has proven to be the ideal advertising type for many formats. Clearly delineated and identified as advertising, it has a low impact and maximum transparency. Younger people in particular see it as part of the influencer logic: for them it is a matter of course that the podcast must also be financed. At the same time, positive repercussions on the brand could be observed, which were perceived as supporters of the ‘beloved’ podcast.

“To be honest, I expected a different content for a branded podcast. I would have thought that more advertising would be done for itself. I am really positively surprised by this.”

Branded podcasts can also work very well to strengthen the brand, if the transparency requirement is met and the podcast is not primarily used for sales. What is built up by a good podcast is first and foremost valuable trust and customer loyalty. There are no patent recipes for companies when it comes to creating podcast content. It is a matter of fine-tuning the brand core and the content concept, which psychologically addresses the heart and brain of the user equally.

Nicole Hanisch

Nicole Hanisch

Nicole Hanisch, a certified psychologist, is a member of the rheingold management and has been successfully working for the institute for several years. Her research interests are in the areas of trade and food & beverages. Tel .: +49 221-912 777-11 E-Mail: