Recording, but not for the masses: Big brands' new podcast strategy

Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and Jack Daniel's are among the brands tapping into the podcast boom for the first time to reach niche audiences.

Major brands are turning to podcasts, but not to reach mass audiences. Instead, they’re targeting smaller segments with the booming audio medium.

The trend is a break from the past, when brands sponsored fiction podcasts produced by other storytellers. This time, marketers are harnessing them for a different content play: reaching niche audiences, from people they’d like to hire to consumers who share a specific interest, such as time management.

Some brands are generating thousands of listens per episode, meaning that landing in the top three of Apple’s most popular podcasts is not out of reach.

Late last year, Home Depot rolled out Give Me an H, a podcast series that offers an "insider perspective" on the retailer’s culture. Each episode is eight to 10 minutes long and features interviews with company executives, such as EVP and chief information officer Matt Carey and merchandising head Ted Decker.

The podcast targets job seekers, as the retailer hires hundreds of thousands of people every year, says Stacey Tank, Home Depot’s VP of corporate comms and external affairs.

"We had noticed that the leadership pages of our corporate website – Built from Scratch – were always in our top 10 most-trafficked pages," Tank says. "Quite a high volume of candidates were researching their functional leaders as part of their interview prep. We wanted to give candidates a more interesting and personal way to get to know our leaders beyond just an article and a photo."

Home Depot timed its episode featuring Carey to coincide with a major hiring announcement for technology positions.

"Our primary audience is new recruits, so who better to feature that week than our head of technology? Sure enough, numbers went through the roof on that episode," says Tank. "Jim Cramer even mentioned it during Mad Money."

The podcast with Carey has more than 1,000 listens. Others, including an episode with Decker, tallied more than 7,000. Each podcast is hosted by Home Depot HR VP Arlette Guthrie and is produced internally by the company, which has in-house TV and audio studios.

"We look at listenership for each episode. We also love to hear qualitative feedback," says Tank, who notes that one candidate said he accepted a job offer after getting a sense of Home Depot’s family-oriented culture from the podcast.

Tank says her team is working on ways to stretch the podcast into new topics and guests.

An estimated 67 million Americans ages 12 and up, or more than 20% of the U.S. population, have listened to a podcast in the past month, according to a 2017 study from Edison Research, which also found monthly listeners of podcasts are growing by between 21% and 24% each year.

Podcast listeners also tend to be a very engaged audience. The same report shows that consumers listen to at least 80% of the episodes they download.

These are the kind of numbers capturing the attention of corporate communicators.

"Podcasting is a great way to communicate in an intimate yet casual way with people who are opting in to hear something specific," notes Emily Schmid, director of digital content at Walmart. "As voice-activated shopping, and voice-activated search, grow in popularity, podcasting is also a great way to stay ahead of emerging technology."

The world’s largest retailer has a podcast called Outside the Box. Its second season launched on May 22 with a focus on the concept of time as a currency. It features Q&As with external guests such as Wharton School professor, bestselling author, and TED Work Life podcast host Adam Grant and Brent Messenger, global head of community at freelancer services platform Fiverr. Outside the Box also brings in guests from within the Walmart family, like Andy Dunn of online clothing brand Bonobos.

Every episode is hosted by Charles Crowson, a former journalist who works in Walmart’s comms department.

"Our work on this podcast – building a conversation around how others are thinking about the importance of time – is happening in parallel with what’s going on with Walmart as a retailer," notes Schmid. "We’re listening to our customers and offering them more choices for saving not just money, but time like our pick-up towers and online grocery services."

Creative agency Omelet works on the podcast with Walmart, while Golin conducts media outreach in support of it. Outside the Box episodes are released weekly on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Stitcher, as well as its own website.

There’s also a consumer appetite for brand podcasts that take audiences behind the scenes. A new podcast from Trader Joe’s called Inside Trader Joe’s was recently number three on Apple Podcasts.

In the five-episode series, employees answer burning fan questions, such as why store parking lots are so small and why bananas are sold individually. Trader Joe’s produced the five episodes in-house.

"Our goal was really just to provide some insights into what we think makes Trader Joe's special," says Kenya Friend-Daniel, PR director at Trader Joe’s, via email. "We hope our customers will listen for themselves and walk away better informed and hopefully entertained."

Inside Trader Joe’s has been so well-received, Friend-Daniel notes, the retailer is working on more episodes.

Whisky brand Jack Daniel’s also launched its first podcast in February. Titled Around the Barrel with Jack Daniel’s, the first season consists of 12 episodes with guests like master distiller Jeff Arnett and brand historian Nelson Eddy, who opens up about the brand’s connection to the military for an episode timed to Memorial Day.

DVL Seigenthaler/Nashville, a Finn Partners Company, has been guiding the spirits brand on the audio content. Targeted at employees and potential employees as well as hardcore fans, agency managing partner Jimmy Chaffin says metrics have surpassed goals, with little promotion besides social media conversation.

"If you overmarket it, I think people will turn it off, because people aren’t looking for an ad," he explains. "A podcast is meant to be something pure and something that people discover organically or through word of mouth, rather than heavy promotion."

What that also means: don’t overproduce.

"That is one of the challenges in editing, which is to step back and leave it as is," admits Chaffin.

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