Back in 2006, the Ricky Gervais Show became the most-downloaded podcast ever (at the time), generating 261,670 downloads a week during its first month.

This was a particular heyday for podcasts, with Gervais introducing many listeners to a new medium.

In the next ten years or so, however, podcasts waned in popularity, almost becoming redundant until the likes of Serial and This American Life bought them back into the spotlight (and everyone’s ‘must-listen-to’ lists). Serial has now generated over 300m episode downloads and counting.

Now, podcasts are well and truly back in fashion, presenting a whole host of new opportunities for brands and advertisers alike. And, it seems – influencers. Last week I attended Mindshare’s Huddle event, where podcast platform Acast hosted a panel talk featuring a few influencers that have dabbled with audio content.

So, why are podcasts proving to be popular in this way, and will they become as big as Instagram in terms of influencer opportunity? Here’s more on the story, and what it means for brands.

The new ‘ear of influence’

According to Jamie Laing, star of reality TV show Made in Chelsea and now the host of the popular podcast Private Parts – the medium is made for influencers, and podcasts should be considered the “audio version of YouTube and Instagram”.

Could podcasts enable influencers to have real and honest conversations, while projecting that all-important quality – authenticity?

Arguably,  the way channels such as YouTube and Instagram have evolved, they are now perhaps guilty of perpetuating the unauthentic and promoting overly contrived content.

Anyone can post a branded image or video and call themselves an influencer – but surely not everyone can sustain an hour-long podcast?

Sam Shetabi, content manager at Acast UK, suggests this is why users are increasingly consuming podcasts, as well as being more open to influencer podcasts in particular. Alongside their intimate nature, they align with a new desire for longer and more conversational content over snappy and bitesize videos.

Interestingly, this shift to ‘mindful media’ was also cited by Mindshare as one of their predicted trends for 2019. As a result of events like the Facebook Cambridge Analytica scandal and reports of a link between technology overuse and ill-mental health – people are becoming more aware of what they consume. Meanwhile, tech companies are becoming more accountable, creating tools to enable us to make more mindful media choices. Podcasts, with their long-form and immersive nature, are playing their part.

An authentic ad experience

The intimate nature of podcasts also means a new opportunity for brands to advertise in a more authentic way. Unlike a sponsored post on Instagram, for example, which can easily get lost amid a sea of similar content – advertising in podcasts is almost impossible to miss, with listeners less likely to skip than they are to scroll past on Instagram.

There’s also the fact that most adverts are read by the podcaster or influencer themselves. An ‘ad read’ as they’re called inherently feels more authentic and natural than a branded advert, with influencers able to inject their own personality, jokes, and asides around the core message.

It’s not the only opportunity for advertising either. Another increasingly popular role is branded content, whereby an entire episode or specific portion of a podcast is dictated by the brand. Influencer Anna Newton, who also spoke on the Acast panel, suggests that it’s not as salesy as it sounds, with influencers now having the power to decide which brands best align with a podcast and its audience. “If it’s not right”, she insists, “they get a polite thanks but no thanks”.

This point was highlighted in another talk I attended at Huddle, this time by influencer Louise Pentland. Interestingly, she suggested that – as well as the importance of brands finding the right influencers to work with – influencers themselves have even more of an impetus to get it right.

With many having an audience of millions, it could prove disastrous (and highly obvious) if they create paid-for content with a brand that’s at odds with their style or personality.

The general consensus from Acast’s panel was also that podcasts might escape the criticism and controversy that influencer advertising campaigns have received on other channels.

With greater influencer control, greater desire to create honest and meaningful content, and a natural style of promoting messages – it’s an alternative that many influencers (and brands) are drawn to.

Expanding to live events

Finally, another reason influencers seem keen to get involved with podcasts is the opportunity to widen the format to include live versions and events.

Again, this is good news for brands, with bigger and larger-scale sponsorship a possibility.

Private Parts, Jamie Laing’s podcast, has just completed a 23-date tour around the UK, something Laing cited as a proud personal achievement. Again, its success relied on the power (and influence) of Laing himself, with fans most likely buying tickets on the basis of seeing him rather than the content of the show.

It’s not just live events that podcasts can lead to either. Sam Shetabi referenced how My Dad Wrote a Porno – one of Acast’s most popular productions – has just been commissioned as a TV show for American channel HBO.

While it’s not exactly an influencer-led production, it is definitely an example of how a podcast can build influence, evolving from its audio beginnings to something much bigger and potentially branded. That’s certainly food for thought for anyone dabbling in the (not so small) world of podcasts.