How Brands Can Use Podcasts

Podcasts OgilvyOne Digital Innovation

This article originally appeared on

Eight years ago, my wife and I got a puppy named Lola. She’s a pit bull mix with a seemingly endless amount of energy, which has resulted in at least one long walk every day. While walking has been a great escape from staring at a monitor all day, other pet owners will quickly tell you, it can get boring, fast.

I started listening to podcasts as a way to pass the time. It started simple with some of the mainstays back then; “This American Life”, “Stuff you Should Know” and my perennial favorite, “Radiolab”. The more I listened, the more I felt I knew the hosts and the way they told stories.

I often caught myself referencing something I heard on a podcast in my day-to-day conversations with friends and family, as if the radio hosts were close friends or colleagues. It quickly became evident that podcasts are such an intimate and personal way of telling great stories. Since then, I’ve been watching the podcasting space evolve and believe now is the time that marketers and brands start taking podcasting seriously.

The Fundamental Ingredient: Killer Storytelling

Many public radio fans know that NPR describes “Driveway Moments” as those times when you are driving somewhere, listening to a radio show and arrive at your destination before the story finishes. You’re so riveted to the story, you sit in your car parked in the driveway until it ends. I’ve had a few Driveway Moments myself but when I listen to podcasts, Driveway Moments happen anywhere. These moments are the proof-point that illustrate how powerful strong storytelling can be on this platform. The intimate nature of listening to a story through only one sense allows your brain to create a visual in the same way reading a book does.

What’s interesting about podcasts is that unlike video, listeners tend to have a higher tolerance for longer form content. Many podcast listeners I’ve spoken with have suggested that they enjoy episodes that range anywhere from 15 – 20 minutes. When asked what the ideal length for video content is, most would balk at anything over 3 minutes. In my own non-scientific research, I’ve also noted that podcast listeners are far more likely to listen to something they may know nothing about but trust in the content provider they are listening to. Again, this behavior seemed highly unlikely when considering watching a video that a viewer had no knowledge of. The video format requires undivided attention and is a far more active experience than listening to a podcast. Podcast subscribers are far more likely to be listening passively while doing something else (like say, walking a dog).

Why Now?

By now, many of us have at least heard about podcasts, in fact at least one third of Americans have listened to a podcast. Research from Edison tells us that about 21% of Americans listen to podcast at least once a month. What’s causing this renaissance in audio-only storytelling? There isn’t one simple answer but we have a few ideas:

  1. The Connected Car Commute: Car commuters have long been a loyal audience for radio programming. However the GSMA estimates that 50% of all cars sold in 2015 will be internet-connected, and 100% by 2025. These estimates surely indicate a sea change in a captive audience hungry for different types of content, including podcasts.
  1. Better Storytelling Formats: Podcasters are constantly learning how the platform works and how listeners engage with each episode. No one has really figured out the formula, which has led to a lot of interesting experimentation with different types of formats. Also, the barrier to entry is low which has allowed many niche interest groups the ability to create successful podcasts. So even if you want to create a podcast that is designed to be boring enough to put you to sleep, you can do that.
  1. There’s an App for That: In fact, if you own an iPhone, you already have a podcast app created by Apple. Podcast discovery is an integral component in generating new listeners and apps like OvercastPocket CastsStitcher and SoundCloud have made it increasingly easy to find something new to listen to. In another sign of groundswell, Spotify recently included podcasts on its music streaming service. 

Can Podcasts Go Viral?

It’s nearly impossible to talk about podcasts without referencing Serial. After it’s first season, Apple reported the show was the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads and streams in iTunes’ history. Estimates also suggest that the first season accounted for over 40 million downloads. Yes, Serial has been a huge success but I would argue that the success of this great show has less to do with the podcasting platform and more to do with Sarah Koenig’s first-rate journalism and incredible storytelling. That said, whether or not podcasts can actually go viral in the same way that the first season of Serial did have been hotly debated.

It’s uncommon to see the latest episodes of your favorite podcast travel across social networks in the same way other mediums like videos or photos do. For whatever reason, audio-only content isn’t uniquely sharable on the social platforms we use every day. To resolve this viral dilemma, WNYC has recently started experimenting with “audiograms” which are 15-30 second audio clips shared as video clips on social networks like Twitter and Facebook.WNYC Audiogram[2]

The experiment does feel like they are hacking the platforms by injecting audio content through a video format but it’s too soon to know whether or not it’s successful. Podcast discovery on social media has a long way to go so if you’re trying to be the next Serial, I would suggest you re-evaluate expectations and invest in the long game.

How Brands Are Experimenting With The Platform

For years, podcasts have been produced by anyone with a microphone but within the past year, we’ve tracked some great content generated by brands brave enough to test the waters.

  1. PanoplyBuilt around the success of the Slate Political Gabfest, Chief Content Officer, Andy Bowers has built a podcasting empire that now includes publishers like Vox, The Huffington Post, New York Magazine and the Wall Street Journal. In just a few years, Panoply has become a leader in developing new content with interesting partnerships as well as a sustainable model for monetization.
  1. The Message”: In partnership with the Panoply network, GE launched an 8 episode fictional mini-series in one of the most inventive storytelling (and yes, native advertising) formats I’ve seen on the platform. “The Message” follows a graduate student who works for the NSA to investigate alien-like signals from space. The podcast masterfully weaves in technologies pioneered by GE without ever mentioning the brand.
  1. Startup – Ford: Gimlet media has re-envisioned the way brands advertise on podcasts and the results are interesting. For it’s second season, Startup Podcast sent reporters to Ford Motor Company to capture stories that would then be crafted into advertisements throughout each episode. Ads included interviews with engineers and experts at Ford who told interesting stories about how a car is manufactured. Once the episodes were published, Ford created a microsite that hosted the ads as content pillars with additional content for people to learn more. If you’re following along, the ads were so compelling; Ford turned paid media content into owned media in a really engaging way. Didn’t see that coming.

How Brands Are Advertising

While audiences still remain relatively small compared to other digital platforms, advertising continues to grow as the platform evolves. Podcast networks continue to experiment with interesting approaches to advertising that break the model of what a typical ad sounds like and the early experiments have proven successful. Recent ad effectiveness studies from Podtrac have shown that advertising on podcasts resulted in 62% average unaided ad recall, an 81% average increase in product or service awareness and a 69% average brand favorability rating (numbers unheard of on other digital advertising platforms).

Slate-owned, Panoply Network launched “Megaphone”, a service that allows advertisers to insert dynamic, timely ads to any podcast, regardless of when it was published. As more and more listeners dig into archives of their new favorite podcasts, brands can ensure their ads still resonate with timely, targeted messaging.

Ok, heard enough and ready to dive in? Here’s what Brands should know

  1. Invest in the long-game: Podcasts work best as a series of episodes, regularly scheduled rather than one-offsIt takes time to build up an audience so find reasons to drive fans back to your show. Don’t jump into podcasts without a well-thought out content calendar.
  2. Be Consistent as much as you can: Successful podcasts tend to follow a pre-established formula based on the format and content of the show. Find a producer that can establish a recognizable rhythm to your show and use it consistently throughout each episode.
  3. Treat the platform as a unique channel: Don’t think you can just take the audio from a video of a panel discussion and turn it into a podcast, it won’t work. Also, invest in quality audio equipment. Although the barrier to entry is low and it may seem all you need is a computer and a microphone, the quality of your audio is a reflection on the brand.
  4. Figure out how you’ll determine success: podcasting metrics are notoriously bad, in fact many are still debating on what a “download” actually means, so don’t count on them to be a true guide on your performance. Instead, think about how podcasts can be seamlessly integrated into your marketing strategy.

Where To Begin

If you are interested in diving into a podcast, get a dog, a podcast app and check out a few of my favorites on your next long walk:

Podcast Network Podcast Show Podcast Episode
NPR RadioLab Antibodies Part 1: CRISPR
Gimlet Media Reply All #44 Shine On You Crazy Goldman
Millennial #1 Welcome to Millennial
Radiotopia 99% Invisible PDX Carpet
New York Times + WBUR Modern Love “One Last Swirl”
Panoply The Message Episode 1
Welcome to Nightvale Pilot
WTF with Marc Maron Episode 613: President Barack Obama

Matthew Whatley is the Vice President, Digital Strategy of OgilvyPR in Washington, DC

Follow him on Twitter: @matthewwhatley

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