In the first episode of podcast tour de force Serial, journalist and public radio personality Sarah Koenig describes the homicide case that would be resurrected as the topic of her weekly show and would soon live on in watercooler- and cocktail-talk infamy as one of the most intriguing podcasts ever to have been produced. In Serial’s first episode, Koenig recalls reviewing the homicide case for the first time, describing it as “a Shakespearean mashup: young lovers from different worlds thwarting their families, secret assignations, jealousy, suspicion, and honor besmirched…” Just the kind of elaborate drama that’s captivated human interest for centuries and had previously been reserved for the small and silver screens. But the astronomic success of Serial was unignorable, and it became one of the first instances of Hollywood taking a legitimate interest in the emerging storytelling clout of the podcasting medium.
Since then, podcasts have become an increasingly viable breeding ground for not only new motion picture franchises, but new storytelling opportunities, new content possibilities, and new ways for brands to inject some authenticity into how they connect with audiences. They’re low-risk, low-cost, and ripe for testing new ideas – they’re also seeing more adoption than ever before.
Podcasting isn’t really a very new phenomenon at all, but because of its simple production model and sprawling appeal, the number of podcasts has grown exponentially, with some sources reporting a mind-boggling 1.5 million unique podcasts currently available for listening. Consider if each of those shows released a half-hour episode every week for a year: That would be 39 million hours or just over 4,450 years of content. The format is experiencing a massive renaissance, to the point where 2018 saw the first instance of Google queries related to “best podcasts” exceed those related to “best TV shows.” The sheer variety of podcasts is attracting listeners who may not have considered the medium just a few years ago.
Google Trends: Search queries containing “best podcasts” or “best TV shows” since September 2014
With 1.5 million shows to choose from, any new listeners have an unbelievably vast pool of content to explore: Podcasts about cereal to an in-depth Star Wars analysis where every episode scrutinizes a single minute of each film in the franchise. Both of these are completely real. For any micro-niche or interest you could think of, there’s probably a podcast about it, or at least an episode. The uniqueness of many of these podcasts is turning casual listeners into devoted fans, with many podcasts/hosts becoming iconic cultural phenomena in their own right.
To that end, TV has already staked a claim to podcasts like Homecoming (Amazon), 2 Dope Queens (HBO), Welcome to Night Vale (FX), Lore (Amazon), and Dirty John (Bravo). And, of course, there’s Maron (IFC), which, while it may not be a true direct podcast-to-TV transition, still owes a lot of its success to the titular comedian’s massively popular podcast, WTF With Marc Maron (the guy interviewed Obama, for crying out loud). Adaptations like these are turning podcasts into something that looks like an incubator rather than just digital radio.
Google Trends: Search queries related to “podcast,” “NBC,” and “NPR” in the past 12 months
The beauty of podcasting comes from a blend of intimacy with the listener and permission to talk about subjects that would be outright taboos for traditional advertising.
For a medium that’s ostensibly so one-dimensional, podcasting offers a huge diversity of ways for brands to create, advertise, or test based on their own internal objectives. On one hand, they can become flagship brand assets that create a space for users to engage with topics they’re interested in. On the other hand, they can be a way to test ideas or leverage affiliations with niche creators to discover new audience insights and potential ways to connect with an audience on a deeper, more authentic level.
The podcast space has morphed into something that caters to almost every niche interest and unique identity imaginable. Of course, “niche” sort of implies a smaller audience, but what many of these audiences lack in size they make up for in dedication and authenticity. To that end, brands might not reach the widest audience when partnering with a podcast, but it’s fantastic for connecting with individual listeners in a way that’s unique, relevant, and contextual.
Just looking at sheer demographics, a partnership like BMW sponsoring The Daily (The New York Times’ daily briefing by journalist Michael Barbaro) is a total match: Household income for the average owner of a new BMW is just over $124,000; household income for the average New York Times reader is about $118,000. Still, there’s a deeper implied alignment with the time-deprived well-informed and some on-the-go, sports-car-driving professional who doesn’t have time for long-winded conversations or lazy mornings over coffee and a newspaper. Their life moves fast, and so should their news.
Beyond demographics, brand/podcast partnerships can become a lot more nuanced and even in some instances hilariously playful. My Favorite Murder is an immensely successful (currently #8 on iTunes) podcast that scrutinizes the lore and madness behind some of the most and least well-known serial killers in history. It also features some of the most interesting (and completely appropriate) brand partnerships we’ve seen among any shows in the space: surf-and-turf delivery company ButcherBox, cruelty-free hair care company Living Proof, and modern jewelry designer Machete, just to name a few of the show’s most fitting advertisers based on its morbid subject matter. It proves that something as simple as a podcast host reading an ad can punch quite a bit harder when paired with relevant content. On the other hand, shows like The Weekly Planet are finding ingenious methods for integrating branded content into their programming, like turning ad reads into opportunities for comedic improvisation.
An ad read from a podcaster’s perspective functions as an invitation from a brand to the host saying, “Here are all the bullet points of what to hit on; structure it to your show.” Oftentimes it works because of a clear brand-show connection between the service offered and the content provided. However, like most brand integrations, the host reading an ad can be naturally abrasive to the ad-sensitive listener. So how can you lean into the medium in a way that takes advantage of one of its most prominent tools?
If Guy Raz (TED Radio Hour), Malcolm Gladwell (Revisionist History), and Sarah Koenig (Serial) were all given the same open-ended ad copy to read for, say, the Casper Mattress, would they all sound the same?
Not a new thought but necessary background: Podcast hosts have what marketers want, a captive audience that is there for every word. Which lends itself well to advertising.
Sixty percent of listeners in an Adobe Analytics survey stated that they look up products or services they hear about through a podcast ad. Why is that? It is within the very nature of podcasts, and it’s what makes them so special. A deep dive into a niche subject matter that is delivered with humble authority disarms the listener and makes them more keen on trusting their recommendations. And it’s not just a host’s charisma that sustains a listenership; in many cases, listeners are drawn to a host/brand’s subject matter expertise.
Take AT&T and Revisionist History, for example. In the latter half of the most recent season, Mo Katibeh, Chief Marketing Officer of AT&T, and Malcolm Gladwell, the host, engaged in a conversation in lieu of a typical ad read. The conversation spans multiple episodes and features the two exploring the capabilities of a 5G network from a business perspective as well as the technology’s ramifications for the future. The beauty of this format is twofold: Firstly, humanizing and simplifying unfamiliar, complex topics is just the thing Gladwell’s brand of journalism was built on; secondly, it blends into the format of the podcast, removing the abrasiveness of a typical spot that’s been jammed into a show. In the end, AT&T spreads awareness and builds brand expertise by cloaking its ads in Gladwell’s characteristic storytelling format. And it’s not just branded content in two- to three-minute increments: Brands with the most intense fanbases are grasping user attention for hours.
The smartest brands are finding ways to parlay their innate industry expertise into fascinating looks into interesting worlds. 23andMe is a longtime podcast devotee in many ways – they find ingenious partnerships with true-crime shows or even exceedingly strange shows like The Last Podcast on the Left’s weird look into the history of eugenics. As of 2018, 23andMe began using the medium as a way to reinforce their subject matter expertise through the original podcast Spit. The podcast features celebrity conversations on the topic of DNA through the lenses of ethnicity, culture, and family.
In a similar vein, brands can use the medium to explore a wide variety of tangential topics that they might still have authority to discuss. The weirdly popular Inside Trader Joe’s podcast touches on everything from produce, to sustainability, to package design, to just why the heck everyone there is so nice.
The beauty of podcasting comes from a blend of intimacy with the listener and permission to talk about subjects that would be outright taboo for traditional advertising. Aside from the podcast obsession with serial killers and true crime (we don’t even have to source it; you know it’s true), some brands have taken some equally astonishing risks in the content they’ve chosen to surface through podcasts. One of the most shocking-yet-genuine examples just might come from John Deere in its podcast series titled Out of the Darkness, a special feature from the brand’s long-running publication, The Furrow, which is a sort of story-centered trade publication aimed at the agricultural industry. Out of the Darkness homed in on the topic of rural depression, specifically how it has led to disproportionately high suicide rates among farmers. While the topic is more grim than what most brands would tolerate, John Deere leaned on its unique subject matter expertise and deep audience commitment to justify such a harrowing investigation into a legitimate industry epidemic. At the same time, it used existing content as a launchpad for an idea that could be reborn in an audio format.
In an effort to turn passionate fandom into even more quality time-spent-with-brand, Wizards of the Coast (proprietor of the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons and purveyor of many things nerdy) is launching its new campaign module with an original podcast arc. The module, Baldur’s Gate: Descent into Avernus, will be played over the course of seven episodes as Podcast into Avernus to tease gameplay and let users delight in other players’ enjoyment of a new campaign.
Illustration: Chris Rallis/Wizards of the Coast
This is the type of long-form, intensely niche branded storytelling that thrives in podcast form. The convenience of an audio format allows listeners to engage as passively or actively as they’d like over the course of the three-hour campaign. With such a flexible medium, it wouldn’t be surprising to see more brands with equally passionate fans experimenting with extremely long-form content.
…definitely as far as the name’s concerned: Podcasts offer an insanely broad range of activation possibilities, but with each one advertisers should always keep in mind that they’re intruding on a very intimate media experience between the listener and the programming. To best integrate with audiences or programming, remember:
The strength of podcasts comes from their specificity and resonance within a niche audience. Develop a complete understanding of what types of content and culture your target surrounds themselves with, and devise ways that you can work your way into their podcasting routine through popular shows within an interest. Consider My Favorite Murder’s killer partnerships with fitting advertisers like ButcherBox and Living Proof.
Listeners constantly praise the intimacy fostered by podcasts, and brands should not treat that expectation lightly. Know that your message will be an intrusion on a user’s connection with a podcast, and use that knowledge to explore ways to integrate your messaging more naturally into the content. Malcolm Gladwell is a master of this on Revisionist History.
Think of how you can either repurpose or enhance existing content through podcasting. HBO does an amazing job of creating podcasts for TV fandom to overflow into (e.g., Game of Thrones and Chernobyl). John Deere even goes so far as adapting stories from its print publication for podcast episodes.
Focus on brand strengths when considering topics that the brand can justifiably remark on through podcasting. Once that’s been decided, branch out to related topics to give your podcast longevity. Look at how 23andMe’s Spit teases topics like ethnicity, culture, and family out of the subject of DNA; Inside Trader Joe’s talks about everything from package design to botany.
Think of ways you can service an existing content need in your audience or how you can set up a future possibility for podcasting. Wizards of the Coast senses opportunity in the playtest podcasting format with its new Dungeons and Dragons module. Not to mention, it’s a great chance for brands to come in and align with a hosting talent who might be one of podcasting’s next major influencers.
Categories: 2020 Digital Trends