Published on 
June 9, 2021

Influencer marketing trends to watch in 2021


TL;DR

  • Podcast marketing is going to double in 2021 - in total sponsored episodes, number of podcast creators entering into the advertising space, and brands jumping on the bandwagon
  • Other platforms will start to see some serious activity: Twitch and TikTok creators are already dabbling with brand partnerships, but something to keep your eye on is a new platform called Clubhouse
  • Gaming and Lifestyle creators will continue to play tug-of-war for the #1 spot on the leaderboard: both in terms of total creators in the space and total content being created
  • Pre-roll shout-outs are becoming increasingly popular, vs. the feature-style formats we’ve become familiar with in unboxing and review content, in large part to protect the authenticity of the creator’s content while still nabbing maximum impressions for the sponsoring brand


2021 will be the biggest year ever for sponsored content marketing - why?

It’s a simple fact that programmatic and digital display ads are a thing of the past. Forbes contributor Dr. Augustine Fou put together an amazing data set showing just how much wasted spend goes down the pipes every year for major brands - caused by bot activity and resulting in major discrepancies between sales generated, real visits to a company’s website, and clicks measured. 


The big take-away? “Marketers could be spending far fewer dollars and getting the same levels of business outcomes; or spending the dollars more smartly in digital and getting even more business outcomes than they are now.”

Major brands paused digital ad spending in 2020 when COVID-19 hit, and most of them found no major change in sales revenues, further proving that marketers should be allocating their spending to channels that drive real humans to their products/services. At ThoughtLeaders, we’re constantly analyzing sponsored content, which is one of the most effective methods for brands to engage real human audiences every day, for more than just brand awareness but also to drive direct click-thrus and sales/installs.

We’ve put together the big picture of what’s been happening on YouTube, podcast, and private e-newsletter in the past 3 years leading up to 2021 to give our readers insight into what will happen in 2021 - and what marketers should be doing to capitalize on these trends. 



Podcast and newsletter look to overtake YouTube

As we’ve written about in the past, YouTube has been a preferred marketing format for ages, and our recent trends data show YouTube isn’t going anywhere. What’s more exciting is to see other formats of longform content - podcast and privately subscribed e-newsletter - scaling quickly for both B2C and B2B brands. There truly is a podcast or newsletter for every unique interest in 2021, and we expect brands to continue to seek out their ideal audiences through these formats. Check out the data below:

Oct 2017-Oct 2018

longform content data from 2017-2018



In 2017, we can see sponsored content concentrating mostly on YouTube with a smattering of podcast and newsletter mentions. 

YouTube: 14000+ sponsored videos across 4800+ channels, with 1600+ brands sponsoring

Podcast: 4000+ sponsored episodes across 1400+ creators, with 1400+ brands sponsoring

Newsletter: 1400+ sponsored issues across 80+ publishers, with 800+ brands sponsoring


Oct 2018-Oct 2019

long form content data from 2018-2019



Podcast and newsletter sponsorships are increasing, whereas YouTube is remaining relatively consistent. 


Dips in Jan seem to be consistent YOY, perhaps because brands are re-evaluating performance and budgets, as well as the fact that consumers are usually less willing to buy immediately post-holiday season, where advertisers have focused their biggest push to hit sales targets.


COVID Hits


January testing periods for content YoY



Newsletter and podcast shoot up to the same sponsored mentions as where YouTube was the year prior - and YouTube mentions have nearly doubled. We DON’T see the typical dip we expect in Jan, post-holiday, as Jan 2020 was when COVID-19 hit the international stage. Google Trends identified that the first mentions of COVID-19 began Jan 2 2020.

It’s also important to note that Gaming, prior to 2020, was the dominant content being created as well as being sponsored - in 2020, Lifestyle content overtook Gaming, and that may be directly tied to podcast increasing in popularity across brands of all kinds.

(Plus, podcasts got more popular for audiences to tune into in 2020, with as much as 75% of adult audiences listening/downloading at least 1 podcast according to Statista).

Biggest trend prediction? Podcast will overtake newsletter sponsorships in 2021. Will podcast overtake YouTube? Probably not - and we can see that by diving deeper into the efficacy of podcast vs. YouTube for specific profiles of brands and how they can appeal to the right consumer using either podcast or YouTube.



Appearance of brands across podcast vs. YouTube, 2018-today

First, we can consider podcast vs. YouTube in terms of total sponsored content being published, and secondly by measuring the total brands sponsoring on YouTube vs. podcast.

Brands and sponsorship trends



As we can see from the trend graph above, the total # of brands sponsoring on YouTube outpaces brands appearing on podcast. This should remain consistent in 2021, as there are generally twice as many YouTube creators talking about any given topic than podcast channels, meaning brands of all kinds can target their ideal consumers more easily through YouTube than podcast. 


That being said, the average times a brand repeats a sponsorship on YouTube vs. on podcast leads to a wide discrepancy from which we can glean some meaningful conclusions. 


From Oct 2018-Oct 2019, we’re measuring around 1900 brands sponsoring podcast content on just 1600 or so podcasts, but the average mentions a brand is sponsoring each podcaster tops 6-8x:

Brands sponsoring on podcasts


Conversely, on YouTube, the average mentions hover around 2-3x per YouTube channel:

Brands sponsoring on YouTube



What does this mean? Podcast is a highly effective platform that sees high returns for a select pool of brands whose target demographic lives within the world of podcast, whereas a much wider group of brands are able to test and succeed on various channels on YouTube. However, since there is so much available inventory for brands to explore on YouTube, the testing patterns remain scattered across YouTube - the only brands with 5+ average mentions on YouTube are sponsoring under 50 YouTube channels per year, again showing that they have found a niche group of creators, very similar to the patterns we’re measuring on podcast.


Top podcast sponsorship trends to watch

As explained above, the #1 content being created on podcast is Lifestyle-related, but it’s not the #1 content being sponsored (by total # of brands mentioned)... who can take a guess?


Here’s the top podcasts churning out the most content - we’re seeing everything from discussions around gaming, religion, true crime, and parenting to sports and casual conversations (like Uncle Joey’s Joint, for example).

Top podcasts with the most content



If we look at the top podcasts by total brands mentioned, we can see that Technology, Business, and Marketing are actually leading the way.

Top podcasts by total brands mentioned


Back To Work is a great example of how multiple brands across various industries can find success through podcast marketing - and definitely one of the best examples of why podcast marketing will continue to grow in 2021.

The podcast features anywhere from 2-5 sponsoring brands throughout their segments on each episode, with detailed explanations of the brand and the referral code and link in the episode caption description.

Back to Work podcast and brand success

We can see CBD brand Feals appearing right alongside cloud hosting service provider Linode - what a juxtaposition! This is quite common when we dive deeper into the content of the podcast itself - Back to Work is an award winning talk show with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin discussing productivity, communication, work, barriers, constraints, tools, and more. You can see why CBD brand Feals wants to appeal to the listeners of this podcast as equally as a company like Linode or Eero.



Twitch influencer marketing is on the rise

Twitch is well-positioned to be the leading platform to test in sponsorship in 2021, accounting for 72% of all hours watched live online in 2020. Per InfluencerMarketingHub, “the most common promotions you’ll see between brands and Twitch influencers are shout-outs, giveaways, and product unboxings”, which aligns with what we typically see on YouTube, the main difference being that both podcast and YouTube are typically not streamed, but rather recorded content being uploaded and published retroactively to the site.

Twitch may in fact offer viewers a greater level of interaction and engagement with a brand since the ad is running live.

Another thing to note is that while Gaming content is still the dominant stream on Twitch, the demographics of viewers are continuing to evolve. Per InfluencerMarketingHub, in 2017, more than 80% of Twitch users identified as male with 55% falling in the age range of 18–34.


Numbers from Q2 2019, however, show that those numbers have shifted quite a bit with just 65% of Twitch users identifying as male and 35% identifying as female (non-binary currently isn’t reported). And, 73% of Twitch users are aged 16–34.


Twitch’s audiences are wide-ranging in terms of where viewers are tuning in from, which is probably the most notable characteristic of Twitch vs. the traditional platforms of YouTube and podcast. The United States accounts for more than one-fifth of the platform’s desktop traffic (23%) with Germany (7%), South Korea (6%), Russia (6%), and France (4%) distantly rounding out the top five. Twitch gets traffic from 247 additional countries.

What viewers want on Twitch


As with all social media marketing tactics, the ad MUST be integrated well, entertaining, and engaging for it to work - generally, Twitch viewers don’t want to be sold to, however they do come to Twitch for the next best thing: to be an educated consumer. That’s a BETTER reason to market on Twitch: the consumer knows they can get your type of product or service from several different vendors, but they’re on Twitch in large part to understand what their favorite influencers are using, and why they prefer that brand over another. That’s prime territory for any marketer as the willingness to buy is the undercurrent driving viewers to Twitch.



What’s going to sell best in 2021?

As mentioned above, consumers know when they’re being sold to, and it needs to be done in a way that creates a relationship with the audience if you’re going to see returns on your marketing spend.

Our recommendations on the best format for sponsorship are explained below:

the best format for sponsorship marketing


1) Part of the content

An integration is part of the content. It doesn’t sit on the side like a banner ad, it’s actually a part of the video, podcast, newsletter. The creator will during the larger content piece allocate a portion of it to a favorable mention of the brand.


2) It’s a recommendation

For a sponsorship to be considered an integration it must be an actual recommendation by the creator. They are actively exerting their influence over their audience for the brands benefit.


3) It’s short

In both YouTube and Podcast the sponsorship is between a 30 to 120 second message. In a newsletter it’s most likely a paragraph.


4) It’s designed to sell

This is highly subjective and there are plenty of exceptions to the rule but the majority of integrations are designed to directly contribute to marketing/ sales funnels. It isn’t a branding exercise and this is reflected in the use of special offers, coupon codes and tracking links.


There are currently two main types of integrations: a shout-out/mention, or a dedicated/feature.

In regards to podcasts, a channel suggests ad-roll ad spots inside their episodes. This can be a pre-roll, mid-roll, or post-roll. There are a number of brands taking advantage of podcasts sponsorships. You’ll get a variety of B2C, B2B, and D2C brands exploring this format. 


Noom and Four Sigmatic sponsorships are high impact. In the content of the episode, the content creator takes time to discuss the importance of healthy foods and healthy habits as it relates to that podcast episode’s topic. 


Here we have Noom Sponsoring Unruffled podcast: 

“Start your free trial today.”

The integration is a pre-roll, where the host mentions she will be responding to a listener, a mother who wrote to the show asking how to deal with a difficult child. The host states that as parents, we don’t take time for our personal health. Noom is a program that creates habits and behavior changes for a healthier lifestyle. It’s a high impact sponsorship that relates the sponsor to the content of the episode. 


Another example of an integrated sponsorship inside a podcast is shown by Four Sigmatic on the Wellness Mama podcast. This brand picked not only a channel geared towards their audience but also an episode in which their promotion fits so wonderfully. 

Four Sigmatic integrated podcast sponsorship


Four Sigmatic is sponsoring an episode discussing a major health issue that Four Sigmatic’s products address. Four Sigmatic products directly market benefits for immune health:

Four Sigmatic coffee offering


And this episode transcript shows us how they’re being mentioned within the integration:

“Welcome to my Mommy’s podcast. This podcast is brought to you by Four Sigmatic… a company I’ve loved for years for their superfood mushroom-based products. They use mushrooms like lions mane, chaga, cordyceps and reishi in delicious products. Did you know that mushrooms are more genetically similar to humans than plants are? And that they breathe oxygen and exhale CO2 just like we do but mushrooms spores can survive the vacuum and radiation of space. These amazing fungi are always a part of my daily routine in some way, usually with Lion’s Mane Coffee or Matcha in the morning, I’ll turn to their plant protein and mushroom elixirs like chaga and cordyceps during the day and reishi at night to wind down. As a listener of this podcast, you can save on all Four Sigmatic products. Go to foursigmatic.com/wellnessmama and the code wellnessmama gives 15% off.”


Notice the podcast host is giving her personal recommendation, allowing the message to not only be heard but also have her message resonate with the audience. 


Dedicated content

The purpose of the content itself is to highlight the brand when it comes to a featured integration.


Dedicated content is harder to come by as a brand because usually a creator will not wish to give the entirety of themselves and their content over to a brand unless they really believe in it, they feel it will genuinely benefit their audience and are paid accordingly.


It represents the perfect synergy between brand and creator.


Take for example this dedicated email newsletter created by Creative Veila for Porkbun, registrars of the .design domain.

dedicated eblast example

Creative Veila is a creator and resource hub specifically for designers, one that comes with a $10 a month price tag so they need to be so sure that a fully dedicated sponsorship such as the one above is absolutely aligned with the interests of their audience.

It’s not just for professional tools, however… this Airfare Watchdog dedicated email promoting a credit card through the Points Guy is another great example of synergy. The entire purpose of the Airfare Watchdog community is to monitor deals on air travel and the Points Guy is offering a solution for getting great deals on flying.


dedicated newsletter send with The Points Guy



Dedicated content is a multi-format approach and can be incredibly effective on YouTube. Take for example this video by Forrest Knight where he uses the full 45 minutes of content to demonstrate how Circle CI can be used in the Software Development Life cycle.

Dedicated YouTube video for a brand



Circle CI’s offerings are innate to his content - it makes perfect sense - in Forrest’s 181 videos to date (June 2020) 117 of them have mentioned software.


Again this is not just for professional solutions. Check out this video by JeromeACE for World of Warships where he features 21 minutes of dedicated gameplay. It makes perfect sense to dedicate an entire piece of content to WoW gaming as JeromeACE’s channel is predominantly gameplay content, where he reviews a variety of other games as well. 

World of Warships dedicated video on YouTube


There are amazing opportunities for most brands on YouTube with dedicated content and it’s a simple formula to explain why. Everyone watches YouTube, every topic is covered, and therefore every brand can find an audience through a creator who covers a topic relevant to their brand. Simple.


Dedicated content on podcasts, on the other hand, is hard to come by. The opportunity to have your CEO, CMO, or spokesperson come on a show is the ideal PR and sponsorship move. You don’t find many agencies or podcast channels giving away these types of ad spots, but when a podcast network is offering “interview” slots, these are the type of dedicated podcast episodes that give your brand the opportunity to be featured in full-length podcast episodes to discuss their company's mission, share best practices, and inspiring stories behind the brand’s success. Who better than to have your rock star CEOs, CMOs, or CTOs - experts in both leadership and subject matter be interviewed.


This type of integration allows the brand to choose which podcast episode they’d like to be featured on and partner with for a dedicated interview sponsorship. These podcast interviews are evergreen content you can share with your audience once aired. 

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