Is Your Next Marketing Win A Branded Podcast?Category:Podcasting

Published by Eric Hadley, Marketing iHeart Media

Among the big winners at the iHeartRadio Podcast Awards were “The Joe Rogan Experience,” “Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard” and “Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness.” As a marketing leader at iHeartMedia, I’m a listener and fan of these podcasts, which air on our platform, among others. But I believe the most-watched category by my fellow marketers was no doubt Best Branded Podcast, a distinction likely lost on most casual listeners, with nominees including blue-chip brands like Sephora, Fidelity Investments and Trader Joe’s. (The winner was Tinder for “DTR,” a podcast about dating in the digital age.)

While once considered a niche marketing play, branded podcasts have formally arrived and are proving that smart, compelling storytelling can be more effective than ads at winning new customers and deepening relationships with existing ones.

It’s not hard to understand why branded podcasts have blown up in recent years. Podcasting is on a tear, clocking an average of 90 million listeners a month, with more than half of the U.S. population (over 12 years old) having listened to one. The podcast audience is a marketer’s dream, with almost 40% sitting in the coveted 18-to-34 sweet spot.

There are now roughly more than half a million podcasts to choose from, according to one estimate, though experts say we’re still in the early days of the boom, thanks to the explosion of smart speakers and enhancements to discoverability.

For companies looking to articulate a brand story and connect with audiences, a branded podcast is a compelling solution. Here’s what to keep in mind to ensure yours isn’t just good, but utterly addictive.

Define your audience and goals.

It may sound basic, but asking yourself why you’re launching a podcast -- and for whom -- is crucial to mapping out both a production and marketing strategy. Is it consumer-facing or business-to-business? A general interest podcast may require greater production costs for a noteworthy host, slicker production values and a marketing plan -- all of which have become de rigueur for podcasts. Podcasts focused on a singular industry or issue can get away with a more pared-down production, relying, for example, on an industry-recognized host versus an influencer.

Podcast audiences, like TV audiences, have no shortage of choice. They expect you to deliver on the subject matter promise. Disappoint them even once by straying from the intended focus of your podcast and risk losing them for good.

Focus on what makes your brand awesome.

This is where your internal research about why consumers choose your brand is especially helpful. Your podcast shouldn’t be an exercise in rebranding. On the contrary, it underscores your selling points and amplifies brand messaging to a broader group. Its primary dual goals are to deepen existing customer affinity while also proselytizing those same messages to the uninitiated. That’s it. You won’t be reinventing the wheel here.

For example, “Spit,” the 23andMe-branded podcast, produced by my company, focuses explicitly on the unique stories our DNA tells about us. The show features guests like Wyclef Jean and John Legend, who pore over their DNA test results and share intimate details of their family histories. Listeners get a rare window into the private life of a celebrity as well as a better understanding of what the DNA testing kits actually reveal and the conversations this information inspires.

Define your podcast voice.

The personality of your podcast should mirror the company’s. You wouldn’t expect a comedian to host a show about innovation, nor would you expect a scientist to host a comedy show (unless that was core to the show’s premise). Don’t think too wildly out of the box. More than anything else, your listeners prize authenticity. Your host should embrace the ethos of your show.

Take ZipRecruiter’s buzzy branded podcast “Rise and Grind,” hosted by serial entrepreneur and Shark Tank co-host Daymond John. The podcast is essentially a Q&A featuring successful business leaders. Who better to mine them for the hard truths about talent spotting than a fellow entrepreneur?

The tone of your brand should also be reflected in its subject matter. “Inside Trader Joe’s” is a great example of how to retain your brand’s voice. The show delves into the nuts and bolts of the brand -- how it finds new products, the methodology behind its hiring practices, even why items like bananas are priced the way they are. And while that could spell snoozefest for a more anodyne brand, the podcast, like the store, is unabashedly quirky, even homespun. (What’s with the Hawaiian shirts?)

Don’t pitch your listeners. Engage them.

The quickest way to alienate a podcast listener is to ply them with a sales pitch. Audiences are incredibly savvy to them and are quick to opt out. (Don’t you?) Subtlety reigns here. So focus on stories, rather than ads; expertise instead of a sale.

Take iHeartMedia’s recently launched “Math & Magic” podcast hosted by our CEO, Bob Pittman. Among the many things he’s learned throughout his storied career is that the most brilliant marketing campaigns are usually a collision of data and analytics (math) and the ineffable, unpredictable “aha” moments (magic). He interviews some of the biggest names in entertainment and media about those moments when math collided with magic to produce a singular, career-making idea. He could have made a podcast about marketing campaigns. You see the difference?

It’s no secret that finding audiences -- let alone engaging them -- is a Sisyphean task these days. Fewer people watch TV, and even social media usage is plateauing. But audio is as hot as it’s ever been, and podcasts are a smart way to reach potential customers wherever they are. Truly well-rounded marketing plans should consider branded podcasts to help deliver the best return on investment, especially if your brand has a winning story. Audiences love a winning story -- don’t you?

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