I’ve been working in podcasting for 5 years. In that time, every aspect of the podcast industry has professionalised. Production standards are much higher, listening numbers have grown significantly, advertising revenue has increased, creative ideas have diversified, and higher-profile talent have woken up to the opportunity to get involved in the medium.
Despite all of these great advancements, the most common challenge that creators face remains the same — discoverability. Competition is strong (there are now > 2 million podcasts on Apple) and building an audience isn’t easy.
If you’re an independent podcaster it’s incredibly hard to start from scratch and pick up large numbers of listeners. However, generally, you have the luxury of time and creative freedom. Unless you decide to set them, there aren’t deadlines or specific KPIs you need to hit. Producing podcasts for some of the biggest brands in the world comes with a different kind of pressure.
An ongoing podcast, released weekly, is a good way to build an audience, but that’s not always practical. Often brands can’t commit to a podcast on a regular basis for the long term.
Instead, they commit to a series at a time. It means that their podcasts run as ‘campaigns’ — a more manageable way to approach things, and one that brands are familiar with. There’s a start, middle and end (and a set budget attached). What this means is that you have a very short window to make the podcast a success. This applies no matter how you are defining success.
How do you address this challenge and what are the pros of podcasting for big brands? There are plenty, but for the purpose of this blog, I’m going to focus on using paid media effectively as part of your wider promotion and marketing strategy.
Having spent my time in advertising I’m well aware of the ratios between spend on production for a big TV campaign vs the spend on media to promote said advert. The old adage of ‘there is no point producing great content if nobody is going to see (/hear) it’ rings true. Not only do brands get this more than most, but they have the budget to act accordingly.
For years I’ve wanted to see podcasts promoted in the same way that other content is when it’s released (TV shows, books, records). Big studios and investors are helping pave the way for podcasts in this respect and so are brands.
For one of our recent productions, we worked alongside multiple agencies on ‘Business Unusual’ — a podcast for Vodafone, hosted by the brilliant Claudia Winkleman.
Tess is a planning manager at Carat, the brand’s media agency and, along with her team, led the paid media buying for the series. In planning the media for a podcast launch, Tess highlights an interesting challenge, which is that you are “essentially running a mini campaign to drive people to the main campaign (the podcast itself). You need to really think about balancing reach with conversions on quite a tight budget.”
Tess’s first point is crucial — podcast promotional content solely exists to get people to go somewhere else to consume the actual content (the podcast). From a user experience point of view, you’re trying to get people from social (eg Facebook) to move to another platform or from listening to their favourite podcast (and hearing a trailer for yours) to move to your show, or at least bookmark it for later. This creates a unique challenge — “often the campaign asset or ad is the main message we are trying to communicate”. That’s not the case for podcast ads.
Tess’s second point stands out for me. In the world of podcasting, the budgets set aside for promotion by a global brand are huge in comparison to the norm in podcasting. However, in comparison to media budgets for other campaigns and content, they’re small. This shows how far podcasting still has to go.
For ‘Business Unusual’, “audio trailers ran across Acast, Spotify and DAX, as well as ads across social media, including Linkedin where there were weekly trailer videos for each upcoming episode. We had to ensure we were reaching our broad SME audience (campaign objective) whilst refining it to those who are already big podcast listeners, this way we could balance reach vs conversions”.
On this series, the format, production, talent and promotion combined to great success. The podcast was one of the most listened-to branded shows of 2020, has picked up award nominations, smashed listening number KPIs and, importantly for Tess and everyone else involved, performed well in research.
“We turned the dial on how small businesses viewed Vodafone, increasing our ‘Innovative’ metric by +11% and ‘Supportive of Small Business growth’ by an astounding +23%. This was fantastic to see, proving that investing into fully ownable content can help move the dial on brand perception metrics”.
Putting the Vodafone case study to one side, as someone who works across all types of media, I was intrigued to find out what Tess has noticed about podcast audiences and how they differ from other mediums:
“Podcast listeners, particularly those listening to branded podcasts, are committing themselves to 30 minutes with you. That’s more time than you ever get with an audience unless you’re commissioning an AFP, an event or long-from content partnership. That is unique and offers an opportunity for brands to build brand-love and affinity that they wouldn’t otherwise get.
What’s also true is that podcast listeners are generally very time-poor. Podcasts are ‘found time’ and people are often multi-tasking whilst consuming that medium. Knowing that these are busy audiences means that there is added pressure to ensure content is engaging and resonates with them. They won’t be afraid to flick to the next podcast that catches their eye otherwise.”
I often talk about the fact that people listen to podcasts whilst multi-tasking and consider this a positive, but Tess’s observation that podcasts are ‘found time’ is a great one. In my mind, most content these days are consumed on found time — but perhaps podcasts embody this even more than most. If you only listen to a podcast whilst cooking or running, the content really does need to be strong (and add value), otherwise not only is it a waste of your limited time, but it could be ruining the time you spend enjoying your hobby.
I regularly talk about the opportunity for brands to have their own original podcast vs sponsoring another show. It’s a clear distinction and one that I often discuss with clients. Media agencies play a role in both:
“Having a wholly ownable space and set amount of time with an audience is fantastic when done correctly. Getting that full 30 minutes with a consumer is exciting for brands, it gives them an opportunity to tell a real story and build brand affinity that would take years to build through more traditional mediums. It also adds an air of legitimacy to a business, particularly ones that are trying to shift their image or enter a new category; having a point of view helps build credibility and trust. Sponsoring shows has its own benefits too but fulfils a different role”.
And moving forward? “Brands are increasingly recognising the value in their effort of creating their own content for the entertainment and education of their audiences, it’s a value exchange that we’ll continue to see more of as people expect brands to do more than just sell to them”.
On this point — great branded podcasts don’t sell a product — they use their time to teach you something new, introduce you to new talent or ideas, draw an emotive response and ultimately… make you feel a certain way about the brand.
Large paid promotional campaigns are a luxury most podcasters can’t afford.
Many of the brands we produce original podcasts for don’t have the budgets necessary to run across the platforms mentioned in this piece, and that’s ok — we create bespoke plans at every level no matter the client or budget (focusing on earned and owned media). However, no matter the budget or size of brand, finding your audience remains a challenge. Usually, the key challenge.
Agencies and marketeers are well-versed in advertising a product and reaching their audience using a mix of traditional and digital media. Relatively speaking however, podcasting is a new medium — one that is growing at an alarmingly quick rate and with it, bringing large competition. There is no easy way to reach your audience or build a following. You can’t buy listens in the way you can buy eyeballs on your TV ad and there certainly isn’t a golden formula for podcasters right now. This ongoing challenge for creators and media planners will continue to test the industry’s strategic thinking and creativity.
Josh is Director of Commercial & Client Relations at Listen
Tess is Planning Manager at Carat