Podcast companies live and die by their download numbers: the more of them they have, the more listeners, clout, and ad revenue comes rushing in. But apparently, not all companies come by those numbers honestly. A new report shows some of the web’s biggest podcast distributors have been essentially “buying” downloads by encouraging “engagement” via annoying auto-download adware campaigns.
Bloomberg News reports that some companies are inflating their numbers by paying mobile advertising firms to display ads for their podcasts in popular mobile games. The ads reward gamers who click on them with additional in-game points or rewards, but, they also automate the download of a podcast episode onto the gamers’ phones—thus boosting the download tally for the company in question. Podcast companies then earn more money by translating the boosted web traffic into additional ad sales.
It seems that some companies have been using this tactic quite a bit. In the case of iHeart, the self-proclaimed “#1 podcast publisher globally,” the company has reportedly spent some $10 million over the past four years procuring about six million unique listeners per month for its programs. The New York Post has also been boosting its download tally in this way.
Bloomberg’s reporting builds off of research previously published by DeepSee, a fraud detection company that recently began looking into a trend called “rewarded traffic.” Researchers define this trend as an arrangement in which web users are “paid to visit a certain web property.” There are different ways it can work, but most of them involve something similar to the podcasting strategy: mobile users are incentivized to engage with a specific website or product via rewards, points, or some other digital prize.
“For years, millions of daily visits to ad-monetized publisher destinations have likely been generated this way,” DeepSee researchers write. “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.”
Bloomberg writes that the contractor assisting most podcasting companies with this strategy is the Jun Group, a mobile advertising firm that tells clients it can “increase sales for your product by matching the right message to the right customer” (apparently the “right customer” for Zooey Deschanel’s podcast is a guy playing a phone game called Subway Surfers).
Corey Weiner, the CEO at Jun Group, has defended the advertising practice, arguing that it’s just like any other form of corporate self-promotion. “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,” he told Bloomberg. “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.”
We reached out to iHeart Media, Jun Group, and the New York Post for comment on this story and will update it if they respond.