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Apple is Building Higher Walls – Will They Succeed?

Arcade Podcasts

In association with AdColony.

In this exclusive article for ExchangeWire ahead of ATS London 2021, Jonathan Harrop, VP of global marketing and communications, AdColony, hones in on Apple’s latest pivot to content curation and “discovery”, and where this lifestyle focus puts it among its fellow big tech giants.

Apple wants to help consumers choose, even though the concept of “consumer choice” can be a misnomer. While apps and Apple Arcade dominate the headlines, with Apple doing its level best to make ad-based growth as challenging as possible, there’s another, less talked about example of Apple’s desire to curate: Podcasts.

Jonathan Harrop

Jonathan Harrop, VP of global marketing and communications, AdColony

The term itself is tied to the iPod. It’s that ubiquitous, and Apple is that critical to its development as a medium, but the company hasn’t been that active in the space outside of providing an app – until now.

How do you discover new podcasts? Chances are, it’s either through a) word of mouth, b) browsing through the Top 100, or c) hearing an audio ad on another podcast that you like.

I’m a big fan of the cross-promotion of shows within a single publisher or network. If I’m listening to “Stuff You Should Know” and I hear a clever ad for “Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard” or “How to Money”, I might tune in. Even shows advertised from outside that particular network, like the ones that I hear about on independent podcasts, I am partial to exploring.

While it’s true that consumers don’t want too many choices, that doesn’t make us mindless zombies. We value serendipity and self-driven discovery. I think few people would say that they “discover” new podcasts from the top carousel of Apple Podcasts or the curated collections that are hand-picked by the editorial team. As much as the company would like to think this, I doubt it’s true.

In a 2021 study, consumers who viewed a movie trailer that was described as “randomly selected” from 100 possible options enjoyed it more than when it came from a menu of ten options. Yet, Apple still has this vision of itself as a beautiful magazine or bookstore that you browse, with curated collections and designed end caps. It wants to be a discovery mechanism.

Apple Podcasts

How do we know this? Well, to start, in the press release announcing the new Apple Podcast app experience and subscription service, they used a version of the word “discover” no less than four times. (“Curate” was a close second.)

Interestingly, none of the podcast publishers endorsing the new subscription program, from NPR to Malcolm Gladwell, currently use either of them. Podcast creators are more interested in the new analytics tools because up until now, they’ve gotten no insights into their audience – certainly not at the level other platforms provide.

Apple’s attempts at being the best podcast app seem to be falling short among users. Over the past several versions, with 14.6 being the latest, it has become more challenging to navigate and control episodes and subscriptions.

Do these shifts keep the end-user in mind? It seems like Apple’s walled garden has grown so big that it’s beyond their ability to weed. Just like apps, there are some podcasts that would normally never be able to pass, but they are getting through. Is that what’s catalysing this re-emphasis on curation?

And let’s not forget the new emphasis on creation. Sure, Apple is now supporting a slew of content creators with the Premium model, but it’s also going the way of Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify by commissioning creators for Originals. With the 6-part, narrative nonfiction series The Line, which spans both Apple Podcasts and TV+, Cupertino is saying, “We are a media company.”

There’s been a lot of consolidation between “content fortresses” that are doing as much content and ad serving as possible. Apple has been pushing Apple Arcade harder with every new iOS version, so it’s interesting to hear speculation about starting an ad network. If you create limitations to what users can find on their own, such as those “rogue” channels like ads, now restricted via Apple’s privacy opt-in framework, you’re exerting control over what people are exposed to. And control over what users pay for…

That’s the crux of Epic Games’ argument that Apple’s financial control with the 30% cut of its IAP, or Airbnb getting charged the same on its digital experiences “sold” in-app throughout the pandemic.

If Apple did go the ad network route and start monetising its audience directly, I think a lot of legislators will suddenly salivate. But Apple is being very cautious with the possibility. In their perfect world, its curation of everything, from podcasts to TV to workouts, would be so good that consumers wouldn’t “need” ads to find new stuff.

But we know that’s not how things work. More importantly, I think they know better than to compete with Google, which is, at its core, an advertising company.

If Apple keeps going down this lifestyle (media/content and commerce) path, I think they’re shooting for Amazon, not Google. Granted, no one can see into the company’s ultimate business strategy, so it’s pure speculation. But then again, it’s also getting harder to see into its walled garden as the walls get higher – and that is a clear sign that a larger shift is happening.


ATS London 2021 will be held on 3rd and 4th November at Lee Valley VeloPark. Further information and tickets are available via the dedicated ATS London event hub.