“Content is king,” or so the saying goes, but what sort of content exactly? Video, image and copy-led content have led the way for years now, with publishers using these forms to generate ad revenue and advertisers using them to generate awareness. But what about another content form, one that’s been largely overlooked due to its relative youth and association with amateurs and geeks? What about the podcast? Is it really just an arena for nerds, or does it represent a significant opportunity for brands to gain awareness?
What is Podcasting?
As the name suggests, podcasting was born out the success of the iPod. Essentially radio on the internet, podcasts are short audio shows that are pushed to the user’s chosen audio client (iTunes, for example) and then downloaded onto their device of choice. The medium started with fans of niche hobbies recording shows about their passions, but its ease of use and convenience has allowed it to grow to such an extent that radio stations package their broadcasts into podcast form. The BBC was among the first, and popular shows such as Mark Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Five Live Film Review are now known as podcasts as much as they are live radio broadcasts.
Such mainstream success has legitimised the form and taken it far beyond niche interests. Most major entertainment websites bolster their video and written content with a regular podcast, and celebrities including Alec Baldwin, Shaquille O’Neal and Kevin Smith have joined in too, starting their own podcasts so they can create content without the interference of traditionally risk-averse TV stations and radio networks. Now in 2017, even the likes of Vanity Fair write about podcasts with a sense of reverence, as the medium has successfully revived the heyday of radio, when serials ruled the airwaves and Americans gathered around the wireless for FDR’s famous fireside chats.
How Popular is Podcasting?
Podcasts rarely generate the same kind of trending topic traction as films and TV shows, but that doesn’t mean they’re less popular. In 2016, BI Intelligence estimated that over 20% of US adults between the ages of 18 and 49 listen to podcasts, up from just 9% in 2008. Meanwhile in 2014, the BBC reported that across its 10 years of podcast creation, its roster has been downloaded over 1.1 billion times in the UK alone. This growth has been driven by greater awareness - 55% of Americans over the age of 12 say they know what podcasts are - and the dependable regularity of the content – over 35 million Americans listen to a podcast weekly.
This last point was a key factor in the success of Serial, an investigative journalism podcast that was first released in October 2014. Recounting the murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the subsequent investigation of the crime, the first season became a huge viral success because of its compelling story, the long-form medium - which allowed host and producer Sarah Koenig to delve deeper into the story - and the episodic nature of the format - which meant that the story was teased out bit by bit. In other words, the success was in the title: the serial storytelling kept people hooked and by the first season’s close, it had been downloaded over 80 million times.
The inherent convenience and intimacy of podcasts played a part too. Podcasts can be listened to anywhere while you’re doing anything, and they provide a deeply personal and individual experience. So whether you’re washing up the dishes or curling up for some downtime, you can load up your favourite cast and enter a world where it’s just you and another human voice. “Audio is one of the most intimate forms of media because you are constantly building your own images of the story in your mind and you’re creating your own production,” Emma Rodero, communications professor at Pompeu Fabra University told The Atlantic. “And that of course, is something that you can never get with visual media.”
Is there an opportunity for brands?
Whether all this adds up to a real opportunity for brands is difficult to say as it depends on how a brand wants to get involved. There are two potential avenues here: running a podcast yourself or advertising with one. The first is the most difficult to crack. Podcasts are born out of enthusiasm and with enthusiasm comes authenticity. Brands running their own podcast may struggle to communicate that authenticity, especially if they have little to talk about but their product or service. So, brand podcasts should be done only by those who really have something to say or have a sponsorship they can leverage (for example, a brand involved in a football tournament can create a football podcast).
Advertising through a podcast is a much safer and more straightforward approach, and one that’s starting to gain traction. A number of companies designed specifically to put advertisers in touch with podcasters have started up, with Midroll and PodcastOne leading the way. “When it was only nerds who were listening to podcasts, [advertising] was all app developers and web-hosting companies,” Lex Friedman, chief revenue officer at Midroll, told Wired. “As nerd culture has gone from niche to increasingly mainstream, that’s benefited us too.” And it’s a benefit that’s coming in financial form. Bridge Ratings has estimated that podcasting generated $167 million in 2016, with $207 million expected to be generated in 2017.
There are, however, risks among the potential. Podcasting is still relatively young, and therefore unstable. While there are many high quality podcasts out there, there are also many poor quality ones. Moreover, without the regulation of traditional broadcasting, podcasters can say and do anything they like, creating controversies that may not reflect well on the brands engaged with them. Influencing the content is possible, but it could be poorly received by the creators and their audience. Again, authenticity is key. “There’s a tension about the sincerity of an endorsement,” Cynthia Meyers, associate professor of communication at the College of Mount Saint Vincent says. “The danger of integrating ads is that the audience gets cynical, and stops believing it.”
Podcasts represent a great opportunity for brands to engage with audiences who are fired up about the topics those podcasts cover. There are, however, significant risks, and any brands looking to get involved should tread carefully. Getting it wrong is unlikely to have disastrous consequences, but it could cut off one of the prominent, and beneficial, forms of content marketing the internet currently has to offer.
What’s your opinion on podcasting? Do you think it has real value for brands, or is it just a leisurely pursuit? Tweet us @FastWebMedia with your thoughts.