March 2007 - The Podcast Strikes the Right Key

As podcasting experiences exponential growth, its viability as a marketing and advertising medium is beginning to come into focus.

By Tom Dellner

Podcasting is a fascinating new medium that’s evolving and taking shape before our very eyes. For marketers, it’s at once intriguing and full of promise-and beguiling and frustratingly unsettled.

To call it an immature space is an understatement. A report published last year by The Digital Group included a survey of cell-phone owners, ages 15 to 50, who also owned iPods or some other mobile digital music player-a group that one would expect to include a high percentage of podcast listeners. And yet a full 90 percent had never used podcasting, with nearly 40 percent admitting that they had never even heard of the term before.

However, the podcast audience is one that’s exhibiting exponential growth. eMarketer, in a recently released report, estimated a total active podcast audience (those who download one or more podcasts each week) of 7.5 million in 2008 and 18 million in 2011. (The current total podcast audience-those who have ever listened to a podcast-is estimated to be approximately 20 million.) eMarketer podcasting analyst Mike Chapman believes that the 2011 active audience might actually grow to be closer to 30 million.

Marketers, recognizing the growing market and unique appeal of the medium, are embracing podcasting in increasing numbers, with brands like IBM, Dell, BMW, Whirlpool, Starbucks, American Express and John Deere all producing podcasts or advertising in existing podcasts. eMarketer anticipates U.S. podcast advertising and marketing spending to reach $400 million in 2011.

Podcasting is the publication of an audio or video file to the Internet. Listeners can subscribe to podcasts via RSS feeds. New episodes are delivered automatically, which the consumer can then play on his or her computer, or on an iPod or other mobile digital media player.

Although the necessary technology has been in place since 2001, podcasts weren’t widely available until 2003. In 2005, the New Oxford American Dictionary named “podcast” the word of the year. Today, there are more than 80,000 podcasts (with almost 90 percent of them in audio form), produced by traditional media outlets (NPR’s podcasts are extremely popular, as are those from network and cable television like ESPN), corporations and individuals.

Perhaps podcasting’s greatest appeal is that it establishes the marketer as a media owner, allowing a company to speak directly to a precisely targeted group of consumers and prospects with an intimacy previously unavailable. A podcast can be an effective brand-building tool, establish a marketer as a thought leader, provide detailed product information and drive lead generation or sales efforts-all while building a powerful relationship with the consumer and inspiring customer loyalty.

Someone who subscribes to your podcast is likely to be a highly engaged listener. According to eMarketer’s Chapman, “One of the most exciting aspects of podcasting to a marketer is the quality of the audience. Someone who subscribes to your podcast is signaling very loudly that the subject is exactly what they’re interested in.”

But the podcaster has to be mindful that this is a user-controlled media, with a different set of rules. “The listener is going to be more sophisticated and insist on a forthright presentation,” says Ken Kohl, founder of San Francisco-based Acquaint Media, an online media company that offers podcast marketing services.

“It’s a different culture,” says Lisa Wehr, CEO of Oneupweb, an online marketing firm based in Lake Leelanau, Mich. “It’s much like forms of social media…the listener needs to feel as though they’re sitting in the same room with you.”

In other words, it’s about talking with-not at-the listener.

Starbucks learned this lesson the hard way, producing a podcast that the audience deemed too corporate. “The minute you heard it, you realized what the purpose was. It’s what the marketing person wanted you to hear; it was about selling the Starbucks brand,” explained Michael Geohegan, CEO of Newport Beach, Calif.-based GigaVox Media, during a panel discussion held recently for a special edition of the podcast “On the Record…Online.” As a result, the audience tuned out and the Starbucks podcast was widely ridiculed across the blogosphere. The Chicago Tribune even ran a story harshly criticizing the podcast-certainly not the sort of publicity and word of mouth Starbucks was hoping for.

Done right, a podcast can support all your other marketing efforts by showing that you’re walking the walk. Allow the experts in your company-the brightest, most articulate members of your team-to engage listeners on topics they care about, whether it’s how best to use your products or a candid discussion about the relevant issues affecting your consumer base.

“[Podcasting] is about adding a new level of transparency to your marketing communications efforts,” says Eric Schwartzman, president of Los Angeles-based iPressroom and host of “On the Record…Online.” “Marketing used to be about what you say, what the company says to the world. Today, it’s increasingly about what you do.”

Podcasting is a way to powerfully reinforce and amplify your marketing message by showing the consumer that you’re delivering on it, which is increasingly important with the popularity and reach of social media.

“Today, you can’t just say, ‘We’re a great company, we have a great product,’” says Schwartzman. “People have access to…blogs and podcasts and they’ll call you on it. They’re going to cry foul.”

Although podcasts can take many forms, with an informational or entertainment orientation and cover almost every imaginable topic, podcast marketing experts agree on several keys that are essential to a successful podcast.

Content - Without compelling content, a podcast will fail. It’s as simple as that. “You have to understand what your audience wants first, then build your podcast around that,” says Dr. Tony Marino, CEO of Portland, Ore.-based Podcast Media Services and creator of The Podcast Radio Show. “It’s basic need-satisfaction selling.”

A corporate podcast can be product oriented, focusing on improving consumers’ experiences with the product or perhaps allowing customers to call in with questions or to share their experiences. However, many of the most successful podcasts take a different tack. Whirlpool’s “The American Family,” for example, has built up a very large and enthusiastic subscriber base with discussion-based content that focuses on a wide variety of issues impacting the company’s core consumer group-from children’s allergies to foreign adoption to choosing elder care.

Production quality - “Any broadcast delivered visually or orally is going to be compared to what the viewer or listener is familiar with,” says Kohl, “which generally means TV or radio. So, production value is important.” The opening, music, effects and bumpers are all key. While professional talent-or at least a person with charisma and a modicum of on-air proficiency-is suggested for the host, scripting and extensive editing is often discouraged, especially with experts, guests and other interviewees. Let people be people. You’ll want an outline of talking points, but a certain amount of pauses, “ums” and “ers” can lend authenticity and credibility to the podcast.

Promotion - Producing a podcast is in many respects like creating a website: if you don’t promote it, no one will find it. House it in a prominent location on your website. “Utilize all your existing marketing communications to promote your podcast-e-mail, mail, banner ads, press releases…everything,” says Wehr. “Leverage relationships with companies you’re friendly with to see if they will allow you to promote the podcast on their websites. Another key is making sure that it is sent to all the podcast directories [like iTunes, iPodder and Podcast Alley, where many listeners go to search for podcasts] and to make sure that the audiofiles and feeds are in the right format, with the proper tagging and information to make them searchable both on the web and in the directories specifically.”

Most experts suggest publishing your podcast in conjunction with a blog. Doing so will help encourage word of mouth and peer-to-peer sharing of your podcast, as well as promote a dialogue with your listeners. Solicit their feedback to help you refine future content.

Consistency - Once you start producing a podcast and building a subscription base, it’s important to deliver your episodes consistently-whether it’s daily, weekly or monthly. Use the previous podcast to announce the date of the next episode and make sure to follow through.

Delivering the marketing message - While it’s essential to provide compelling content that keeps your listeners coming back, a podcast is of little use as a marketing tool if no marketing message is delivered.

While simply providing quality content itself will, over time, help build brand awareness and customer loyalty, it’s perfectly acceptable to begin to add more overt promotions. “Timing is critical,” says Marino. “So many podcasters want to get down on one knee and propose on the first date. You have to build the relationship over time, delivering quality content that’s valuable to them. If you do this consistently and want to run two to four minutes of advertising within a 30-minute podcast, they’ll listen to your spots.”

A podcast can be quite effective for driving people to your website to participate in a promotion or engage in a transaction; however, this channel is not well-suited to an aggressive sell. “Keep it light,” says Wehr. “Use the commentator or host for the promotion and do your best to integrate it with the subject matter so that it doesn’t interrupt the content’s flow.”

Producing an original podcast isn’t for everyone. Especially if it’s aggressively promoted, podcasting can be fairly expensive. And perhaps more important, it requires a significant and ongoing time commitment. For those marketers intrigued by podcasting’s potential, but who aren’t prepared or able to devote the amount of time required, advertising in an existing podcast is an interesting alternative.

The primary appeal is the highly targeted, focused nature of podcast audiences. As Schwartzman explained in a recent episode of “On the Record…Online,” “When you buy that page in [a national magazine], you expect a fraction of a percentage of the audience to be actually interested….Why pay that much money, when you could go directly to that fraction of a percentage much more cost effectively and measure the return?”

Generally, it’s less expensive-and certainly requires less of a time expenditure-to reach an established podcast’s existing audience than to build your own over time. The drawbacks? Podcast usage data is difficult to gather. It can be hard to accurately measure the demographics and reach of a given podcast’s audience. Not long ago, ad rates were seemingly pulled from the air.

The podcasting marketing industry has recognized these problems and, in recent months, leading companies-like Podtrac, Oneupweb and RadioTail, among others-have developed technologies to better measure podcast audience size. Podtrac, based in Washington, DC, also has teamed with TNS Global and Mediamark Research International (MRI) to develop a survey-cross-indexed with MRI’s “Survey of the American Consumer”-to provide podcast advertisers with some of the same demographic information available with traditional media. Although the technology isn’t perfect, it has given advertisers far more effective tools to make an informed media buy.

Podcasting began as a primarily advertising-free medium and remains uncluttered today, with few podcasters accepting more than a single advertiser per episode. Rates are calculated on a CPM model or are a flat fee based on demand and typically range from $1,000 per episode to $10,000. And with more than 80,000 podcasts available on a myriad of topics from the broad to the extremely obscure, virtually any niche audience is accessible, as are demographics that are becoming increasingly difficult to reach through traditional media.

Repurposed radio or television spots typically are not well-suited to this channel. “Radio and TV ads are often obnoxious because they need to get attention,” says Greg Galant of RadioTail in New York City, specialists in podcast advertising. “With podcasts, the user has opted-in and hit the play button-you’ve already won their attention. Just don’t lose it.”

Many of the most successful ads are short, host-read (leveraging the host’s relationship with the audience) and-as noted above-seamlessly integrated into the show’s content. The more closely the advertiser’s product or service fits the podcast’s format and topic, the better.

“It can become almost like product placement if the fit is right,” says Bill Flitter, co-founder of Pheedo, an RSS marketing solutions company located in Emeryville, Calif. One of Pheedo’s clients, Mindjet, develops “mind-mapping” software that helps individuals organize thoughts and information. Mindjet sponsored a technology-oriented podcast, and the host used the product to help plan an event as part of the episode. The episode proved a success for podcaster and advertiser alike, according to Flitter. “Mindjet actually received more leads from that podcast than from their adwords on Google.”

Podcasting is clearly a developing, immature media channel and marketers are still “feeling their way” as best practices emerge. However, given the medium’s predicted growth and the exciting potential of its unique attributes, it deserves a hard look and serious consideration, along with the more established marketing channels. Although it goes without saying that no marketer should jump in haphazardly, those who embrace podcasting early will be able to promote their podcast or advertise in a relatively uncluttered market.

We would appreciate your feedback. To submit comments, please e-mail the magazine at [email protected].


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