Even as other mediums entered the mainstream, radio has continued to attract brands as an advertising channel. But the rise of podcasting has gradually awakened some companies to a new reality.
In today’s digital landscape, they don’t have to advertise through audio content on radio programs. They can make their own content, and publish it like anyone else.
That realization has inspired a new entrant into the crush of digital marketing trends. Branded podcasts are quickly gaining traction. And thankfully, these companies aren’t publishing hour-long infomercials—they’re making compelling content that naturally attracts an audience.
Podcasts aren’t quite a mainstream marketing strategy yet, but they could be headed that way soon. Credit for that potential should be given to early pioneers who have leveraged the medium for unprecedented success. As Digiday notes, recognizable brands like GE, Prudential, Shopify, Netflix, and Slack have all launched podcasts within the last couple of years, seeking a fresh way to engage with their target audiences.
The notion of listening to feature-length commercials is likely to turn off many would-be consumers. In today’s deluge of advertising, the average person is desperate to cut through the noise and listen to something compelling and of genuine interest.
And that’s exactly why these podcasts are succeeding: The best examples are original and crafted for entertainment purposes first and foremost. The way they advance a brand’s marketing strategy is more nuanced—and invisible to listeners fully engaged by the content.
GE’s branded podcast, The Message, is a great example. It’s nothing like what consumers might fear: a sales pitch for washers and dryers, or a fairy tale starring a stainless steel refrigerator. The Message is a science fiction story told in podcast form—one that brings an Orson Wellesian flair to new media.
The podcast is created by Panoply, the podcasting imprint of Slate Media Group, with GE taking on a minor role in the creation of the story. The formula worked perfectly: The Message made podcasting history by rising to No. 1 on the iTunes podcasts chart in 2015.
“They wanted it to touch on themes that were important to the work they do,” said Andy Bowers, chief content officer of Panoply, to NiemanLab. “We found a few places where there were some overlaps with the technology that they do, so it was baked in there. But the writing and the creative part came first.”
The Message is always presented as sponsored content, but its story is so compelling—and its branding so understated—that fans have listened undeterred. Meanwhile, GE is generating great buzz for helping fund and create an exciting serial podcast, all while informing its content with ideas and themes that fit the company’s goals.
Not every branded podcast can reach No. 1 on the iTunes chart. But the fact that it’s even possible should encourage any company looking to get into the game themselves. Podcast audiences have made it clear they care about quality first and foremost. For brands, the challenge is building a foundation for a branded podcast to succeed on the basis of its own merits.
Joe Pulizzi has some guidelines every brand should follow. Founder of the Content Marketing Institute, Pulizzi co-hosts a weekly podcast, This Old Marketing, that takes a look at content marketing news from across the industry. That podcast has matured into a successful operation, and Pulizzi sees audio content as a marketing channel that’s going to become more important to brands in the future.
Pulizzi recommends five steps to lay a foundation for success. First, brands should focus on a niche audience. Look at GE’s strategy: Instead of aiming to make a podcast with broad appeal, the company creates content for fans of long-form science fiction. A small, passionate audience always beats out a large, passive listenership.
Brands should also try to find a new angle for telling a story—a twist on traditional expectations that raises audience interest and distinguishes your content from the rest. That content should be published on a consistent, reliable basis, and the podcast should be integrated with the rest of your marketing strategy so that your company can continue to build its audience.
After that, all that’s left is to publish the podcast. And one more thing: Be patient, because results don’t come overnight.
Podcasting isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. Brands have plenty to gain from entering the space and producing their own content, but it takes time to build a podcasting audience, and even larger to start generating a strong ROI.
“We believe it takes 18-to-24 months to be able to drive monetization from the target audience,” Pulizzi told me. “Our podcast, #ThisOldMarketing, started to take off at about the two-year mark.”
Podcasts aren’t cheap—to do it right you have to invest in quality microphones, recording and editing software, original music and artwork, and your own time to make it happen, among other things. But their value is in their long-term potential to build and hold an audience—not necessarily an easy thing to quantify. At the same time, not every company will be concerned with turning a profit. Like other digital marketing trends, brands aren’t simply looking for ad revenues as a measure for their ROI. Brand exposure, conversions and sales, increased customer loyalty—all of these are incentives for brands to keep on podcasting.
At some point, those results will have to come. But brands should feel encouraged that genuine efforts to produce a good product will be rewarded with an engaged audience. It doesn’t matter whether it’s visual, written, audio or however else you might tell a story: Consumers want good stories.