Sound Value: Podcasting in Content Marketing

3 Points to Consider Before Starting your Show


When we hear the term podcasting, Serial probably comes to mind. Serial was the “fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads and streams in iTunes’ history”. Part investigative journalism, part entertainment, this product from the creators of This American Life, itself a extremely successful podcast (and radio show), has had investors seriously looking at the genre of podcasting as a growth medium. The number of podcast networks is also growing. Slate has Panopoly, and former This American Life producer, Alex Blumberg, snagged USD 1.5 million in startup funding to form yet another podcast network, Gimlet Media. Blumberg created a podcast Start Up to document his journey and to get the attention of investors. Those programs and networks are funded by paid advertisements. Top shows command CPM rates of between USD 20–45 compared to radio of between USD 1–20.

While one can dream of creating one’s own advertisement-funded show, and perhaps make that a reality like Alex Blumberg, I’d hazard a guess that the question of whether to start a podcast for their organization has crossed the minds of many a content marketer.

So where does podcasting fit in the content marketing universe? To ask a more basic question, is podcasting even relevant to content marketing? And what are some key considerations for an organization that wants to start a podcast show as part of its content marketing strategy?

Does podcasting have a place in content marketing?

Yes it does. Slack, the youngest billionaire startup (according to Fortune) started podcasting this year (2015). Goldman Sachs, the investment bank, published their first podcast episode in December 2014. And it’s safe to assume neither of these organizations are podcasting purely for the love of it.

What purpose does podcasting serve in digital marketing?

Most frequently, a podcast is a vehicle to demonstrate that the organization is a thought leader in their field. In the customer journey cycle, a podcast fits into the awareness and discovery phases. Research from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism suggests that a brand’s credibility grows in the minds of consumers the more they consume the brand’s content. Furthermore, the driver of consumption is the perceived usefulness of the content.

Also a podcast can serve as a nucleus around which to build a user community. Once again Medill’s research suggests that there two types of communities — passion and trigger event. Passion communities tend to have greater longevity even though individual members may drift in and out. Passion communities that develop around a brand or product tend to become advocates and evangelists, and are also a source of ideas for improving existing products or creating new ones.

Trigger event communities are formed by people experiencing specific life-changes and are seeking answers. Members of such communities want guidance from experts rather than their peers. A podcast that features experts of relevant specializations can be perceived as an authoritative source of information for a specific domain and attract those seeking expert guidance in that domain. Members of a trigger event community have a start-finish relationship with it. They tend to leave once they’ve found what they’re looking for or if the trigger is no longer as relevant to their lives. The nature of such communities means that many new people get exposed to your brand or organization through your podcast.

While there are quite a few factors that can influence the success of a podcast show, here’s an easy-to-remember list of 3 items to kickstart the process.

1. Theme and Audience

Selection of the theme of your podcast is probably the most important factor in its success. Obviously, the theme has to bear some relationship to your organization’s business. Below are some questions to ponder over:

  • Is there demand for your proposed theme?
  • How does this theme relate to your organization or brand?
  • Who else is producing a podcast on a similar theme?
  • How popular is that podcast?
  • If you are the competition, what is your unfair advantage?

There are techniques floating out in the blogosphere for assessing whether there’s demand for the theme you’ve picked. And these usually carry the audience analysis label. Many of these tools revolve around the volume of tweets and retweets.

One prominent tool is topsy which enables powerful Twitter searches. It’s especially useful for finding influencers on a topic which is something you’ll probably want to do after you start publishing episodes of your podcast. Another useful tool is bit.ly — probably the most popular link shortner. Bit.ly has a very useful feature — it resolves shortened links to the original URL and displays analytics for the underlying URL. Since it’s such a popular link shortener, one can gain useful insights into the popularity of almost any web page, and who are doing a great job at sharing that content.

Besides finding out how popular your proposed theme is, it’s important to bear in mind that you need to hit the sweet spot in how broad or narrow your theme is. If the scope is too broad, you will almost certainly find it hard to develop a loyal audience. On the other hand, with too narrow a scope, you’ll find it hard find material to keep the show going on a regular basis. Which brings us to the next point of consideration.

2. Frequency and Format

How frequently should you publish? That depends on the resources you have to produce the podcast. Producing a quality podcast takes time and money. I believe an episode every two weeks is the sweet spot when starting out. Two weeks is long enough for you and/or your team to do the necessary research, book guests and engage with your audience through social media channels. And the gap short enough for the audience to keep coming back for more. Regularity is also key to developing a loyal audience. So if you’re publishing every other Tuesday at noon, stick to it, until you have empirical data to suggest that another day and/or time is better.

The format of the show must suit the theme and your target audience. Very often, podcasts adopt the interview format. And there’s good reason for it. If your brand is one that experts in the domain that your podcast covers are keen to be associated with, then you’ll probably have little difficulty in getting them to appear on your show. The interview format is great for establishing thought leadership and requires far less pre- and post-production work than the documentary format (more about the documentary later). You or your superiors may be tempted to interview only employees of your organization. But this will almost certainly be perceived by your audience as a cynical marketing exercise and, consequently, they’ll tune out.

Those who’ve listened to canonical podcasts like This American Life and Radiolab may bowled over by the sense of inexorable forward movement of these shows. That sense of dynamism is created by the constant change in voices — the cycle of commentary + realia + vox pop, and not forgetting the sound effects. This format, which I call “documentary”, takes a lot of work at the pre-production and recording stages. And also a huge amount of work at the editing stage. Here’s a screenshot of the editing tool when producing an episode of Radiolab.

ProTools screenshot of an episode of Radiolab. Source: transom.org

Incidentally, Radiolab is produced by a team of 15 people!

One other popular format that is popular is that of the panel. This is where 2–4 regular panelists provide an update of new developments in the domain of interest, and comment on these items, and/or 1–3 topics. In order to carry off this format, your panelists have to be very knowledgeable in the domain and have scintillating on-mic personas.

3. Editorial and Production Values

I’m going to digress a little to provide some perspective. While podcasting as a means of automatically downloading audio files (mp3) started to take off in 2004, I’m of the view that it was Apple’s support for podcasts in iTunes v. 4.9 (June 2005) that really tipped the balance and ushered in the first wave of podcasting. Subsequently, teenagers and adults were talking about everything and nothing into a microphone plugged into a USB port of their Mac or PC, and then getting that recording listed on their iTunes channel. Not surprisingly, the quality of most podcasts of the day was absolutely dismal.

By about 2010, podcasting seemed to have withered on the proverbial vine. Many critics were quick to relegate the medium to scrap heap of digital media. However, podcasting didn’t go gentle into that good night. By this time, radio stations were podcasting their on-air shows in order to reach a greater off-air audience, and radio stations were probably responsible for keeping the medium ticking along. Publishing companies like Slate, who got into the podcasting early in the game, held on fast. Fast forward 3–5 years, these companies are now raking in the profits big time. Some analysts are more interested in the causes of the podcasting renaissance but I’ll save that for another post. What’s salient to this article is that podcasting’s near-death experience wiped out most of the low quality productions; the survivors and the new entrants, generally, have high editorial and production values.

I cannot stress enough about the importance pre-production planning and research. Nothing you do in post-production will compensate for a lack of substance. One last point about production values: watch those level meters! Few things are a bigger turn off to the listener than the distortion that comes from “recording too hot”. You know it’s too hot when they level meters hit and stay in the red zone, and when played back, it sounds like you’ve got an AM transistor radio from the 1970s turned up too loud. The really bad news is that you can’t fix that during post-production!

National transistor radio. Source: Alexander Turnbull Library, New Zealand

There’s lots more to discuss about podcasting like distribution and building an audience but I think there’s enough here to get the wheels turning in your organization. I’d love to hear your views. So please send me a tweet or comment below.

Key sources:

About the author

Kelvin Param is a co-creator of the research podcast from the University of Melbourne, Australia, Up Close. And was the show’s executive producer for eight years. He’s currently a content strategy consultant.

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