How brands can add value to podcasts in a golden age of listening

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Podcasts are more popular than ever, but why now, and can brands really add value? Joe Koprowski takes a look.

Podcasts have been around for more than a decade. But recently, more than ever, I’m finding myself in conversations about shows I should be listening to.

Asking around the creative department here at Wieden + Kennedy London, folk are keen to share with you the podcast clan they belong to and the audio delights that await if I join them.

Episodes of The Football Ramble, South London Hardcore or Serial are spoken about with the sort of enthusiasm normally reserved for epic HBO shows or Tom Hiddleston’s bum in the Night Manager.

Perhaps some part of the 1977 DIY spirit of punk runs through the veins of all these productions. You don’t have a radio station supporting you? No worries – record it, self-publish it, put it out quickly and move on.

Questioning folk on why they enjoy podcasts, I get a similar answer each time: ‘they’re great, entertainment on demand, allowing me to escape looking at a screen’.

But what is a podcast? Well, according to my clever friend Siri, it’s digital media that consists of an episodic series, spoken word or music made available for download.

Serialising content isn’t a new thing. Radio has been serialising entertainment since the 1920s and if you need any reminders what serial dramas are, a small and unknown series called The Archers began broadcasting on the radio back on 1 January 1951, and is still today the UK’s most popular podcast.

According to Edison Research, half of all Americans are now listening to online radio and podcasts weekly, and the numbers are growing. Each month 17 to 20 per cent more podcasts are being downloaded.

But why now? Are more and more of us of all ages choosing to fill our ears with spoken word as a way of nourishing our souls?

Partly this is to do with the continual rise of smartphones and how they are increasingly finding their way into the hands of folk from all generations.

There are now numerous clever podcasting apps available too, such as Overview, which is integrating the very latest wearable technology into the navigation of its player. But the main reason podcasts are on the up is the ease with which users can discover them.

Apple leads the podcasting landscape, accounting for over 70 per cent of all podcast downloads. And if you’re interested, the five most popular subjects on US iTunes are News & Politics; Christianity; Professional Sports & Recreation; Philosophy & Self Help; and Comedy.

Along trot the marketers

Quality content often comes at a cost, and right now the podcasting landscape is morphing between a number of models, from 12-month subscription plans to Kickstarter-like donation appeals to media placement.

Limited marketing budgets have been dripping into productions for a number of years but because there is such tightly controlled data around downloads and privacy, mostly by Apple, many marketers don’t have the data to support investment.

The most famous podcasts, such as Serial, have managed to seek sponsorship from digital brands such as MailChimp and Audible. The messages often work by the host mentioning the brand name and talking for 30 to 60 seconds about the product benefit in a similar pattern to early broadcast advertising back in the 1950s.

That’s not to say brands aren’t up for creating content entirely by themselves. Last year for the launch of Halo 5: Guardians, Xbox created a hugely successful podcast series. It told the story of a journalist piecing together the Halo 5 narrative.

Having worked on another part of the Halo 5 campaign, the team faced huge challenges in creating the show. But, through tenacity, they created over six hours of entertainment, providing an already-hungry audience the opportunity to dive deeper and discover more about the franchise.

It drew an audience of over 6m, and it became the top one per cent of all iTunes podcasts. Debates about the podcasts broke out among fans, filling up Facebook and Twitter streams and generating even more conversation.

Ultimately, the successful podcast shows are like successful brands: they have an opinion on the world, they take up a position, tell you a story and transport you to another place.

Brands that want to genuinely add value to what might be a golden age of listening will have to be smart and nonintrusive. After all, much of what makes podcasts so great is that they allow you, as Timothy Leary put it, to ‘Turn on, tune in, drop out’.

Joe Koprowski is interactive creative at Wieden + Kennedy and a founder @1pixelwide, he tweets at ​@joekoprowski.

This piece was first published in The Drum's 20 April issue, guest-edited by BMB founder Trevor Beattie.

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