Branded podcasts make a comeback

Experts share how podcasts are helping brands reach consumers on a deeper level in "today's 140-character world."

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

Murder mystery podcast S-Town recorded 10 million downloads in its first 10 days of release. Horror anthology Lore became such a popular podcast that Amazon adapted it into a TV series. Inspired by the success of these non-fiction podcasts, among others, global brands such as United Technologies Corporation, Microsoft, and Virgin Atlantic have released branded podcasts this year.

And to ensure high-production values, each brand has turned to experienced radio producers for their audio offerings. The goal for each brand wading into audio storytelling is to deliver content audiences want to listen to, but that also aligns with their comms and business objectives.

The popularity of podcasts is rising with monthly listeners growing from 21% to 24% year-over-year in the U.S., according to an Edison Research report from April. Further, the report says 40% of Americans have ever listened to a podcast.

Marc Johnson, senior director, digital strategy at APCO Digital, says years ago there was a lot of excitement about the possibilities of podcasts for comms, "but the opportunity went dormant for a while."

"One of the reasons that they are making a comeback now is better content producers, but also because of the impact of Netflix," he says. "People have become accustomed to binging content over a longer investment of time. And they are used to consuming content in an episodic format."  

Johnson says this makes "the podcast a great replacement for long-form content, such as white papers." This content traditionally helps position companies as thought leaders.

This is exactly why United Technologies – an APCO client – launched its first podcast series, Race to 9 Billion. With it, the company is positioning itself as a leader in helping the industry with sustainable solutions to global population growth. According to forecasts, 35% more people will live on Earth by 2050.

The first six-episode season launched in May with social media promotion. In each, the company’s chief sustainability officer, John Mandyck, interviews experts in commercial aviation, green buildings, and food. Guests have included Tai Lee Siang, chairman of World Green Building Council, and JetBlue’s head of sustainability, Sophia Mendelsohn.

United Technologies has seen a more than 200% bump in traffic to its website since the launch of the first season, and is already preparing for the release of Race to 9 Billion’s second season in a few weeks.

"We’d been looking for different channels to reach our customers and, frankly, to reach our employees across the globe on a deeper level," says Mandyck.  "In today’s 140-character world, audiences have a yearning for a deeper examination of issues. A podcast is proving an easy and effective way to do that. It is about storytelling."

Race to 9 Billion is recorded and edited by the same production crew behind NPR’s weekly show, Living on Earth. A best practice: Keep an episode long enough in duration to substantively dive into an issue, but no more than 30 minutes.

"It is a sweet spot not only to grab people on their commute in their train or car, but also just in terms of natural attention span," Mandyck says.

Microsoft also premiered a branded podcast this year. On its Story Labs site visitors can listen to .future for a story-driven exploration of trends from artificial intelligence and gaming to cybersecurity.

.Future represents the first partnership between Microsoft and Gimlet Creative, a unit of Gimlet Media that has created branded podcasts for the likes of Gatorade, Tinder, and Spotify. WPP recently spent $5 million for a minority stake in Gimlet Media.

"Within Microsoft, many of its staffers also produce homespun podcasts, which can be a perfect approach depending on your goal," says Doug Dawson, Microsoft’s head of influencer relations.

But with .future, Dawson says they purposefully aimed for a product that matches the production quality of a Serial or S-Town.

"They tell stories in an artful, carefully crafted way," he says. "We tried to use that high bar of storytelling as our guide for .future in telling real, impactful stories meant to spark a wider conversation."

Dawson adds that Gimlet also "brought to the table a big rolodex of killer talent in the audio production space to help bring our ideas to life."

.Future host Cristina Quinn, for instance, is a technology reporter.

"Many of the voices you hear in .future came from outside Microsoft, which really helped to broaden the show’s perspective," says Dawson.

Virgin Atlantic also partnered with Gimlet Creative on its podcast, The Venture, which profiles people behind pioneering businesses. For years, the airline has targeted business leaders and entrepreneurs via written content and live events like its five-city Business in Adventure series, in which Virgin CEO and founder Richard Branson moderates a wide-ranging discussion with entrepreneurs.

Jenna Lloyd, head of the airline’s marketing and communications, tells PRWeek, "We know there is an appetite for hearing from entrepreneurs who have ventured into the unknown, and podcasts gave us a new platform to tell interesting and inspiring stories with a wider audience."

Metrics lacking
Pros in this space say there is a lack of metrics for clients, another reason that brand investment has been minimal over the years, although they say work is being done to improve podcast tracking.

"What we’re able to pull from our data sources is limited across the podcast industry right now," says Nazanin Rafsanjani, creative director for Gimlet Creative. "But podcast platforms are gradually starting to add in more metrics and analytics, so we're excited to see how that side of measurement continues to evolve."

A former producer at The Rachel Maddow Show, Rafsanjani oversees the roughly 12-person team making Gimlet’s branded podcasts. She says "we’ve been working with both comms departments and marketing departments" on them.

Given the lack of data sources, Gimlet creates a plan for clients that involves digital, social measurement, and brand surveys to supplement downloads. For The Venture, Gimlet provided a brand lift study, which showed more people became aware of Virgin Atlantic and are also more likely to consider the airline for their next flight to London, says Lloyd.

"More importantly, people enjoyed the experience and have been asking for more, so watch his space," she says.

Brand leaders also wish Apple would provide data from its podcast app iTunes.

"I hope they do some day," says United Technologies’ Mandyck. "That’s obviously where a lot of people go to listen to a podcast."

Since United Technologies has made Race to 9 Billion accessible via a devoted website, in addition to iTunes and Google Play, the company can at least use metrics from its website to help gauge effectiveness.

Still, brands want more than just download numbers. They’d like demographic information about the listeners, and metrics such as average jump-out rate could also help them refine their audio content.

"There are only a few providers helping us get real data, but we should see a lot more innovation in the next two or three years as far as measurement," predicts APCO’s Johnson.

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