Kandrac & Kole, an interior design firm in Atlanta, just recorded the hundredth episode of its branded podcast, “Inside Design.” In the episode, the firm’s founders chat with actress, activist and “consummate hostess” Marlo Thomas about her new line of tabletop and barware products for Williams-Sonoma — just three years after launching their podcast.
“That’s a really strong trajectory,” said Traci DeForge, founder of Produce Your Podcast, the agency of which Kandrac & Kole is a client. “From launch to episode 100, they’ve achieved sponsorship monetization, speaking opportunities [at furniture and design events], a strong brand partnership and a celebrity appearance.”
When Kadrac & Kole first partnered with DeForge’s consulting and production agency, it had a newsletter, blog and strong social media audience. Kandrac & Kole uses the audio medium to supplement its other marketing efforts, which are extremely visual: graphic tiles on Instagram, image-rich newsletters and a vibrant website. On the podcast, the firm’s founders deconstruct seasonal color trends, explain their current design projects and host “ask me anything” sessions with listeners. The audio channel is an extension of their brand; it doesn’t stand alone. And it works. The podcast has turned into an extremely profitable vehicle for Kandrac & Kole, with sponsors and advertisers on the show, and speaking engagements and guest appearances for its hosts.
Podcasting’s popularity as a marketing tactic has grown among entrepreneurs over the past couple of years. Today, Apple Podcasts hosts nearly 2 million podcasts, up from 550,000 podcasts in 2018. Forecasts suggest that by 2023, the number of U.S. podcast listeners will surpass 160 million — representing a massive audience of potential customers for your brand message.
Podcasts’ intimate nature makes them especially appealing to marketers. For a few minutes, it’s just you, your brand and your listener. A branded podcast is an opportunity to speak directly to potential customers who have voluntarily devoted time and brainwaves to your message. This can deliver high engagement: In 2019, the BBC — we should note it was the organization’s branded content arm — ran a study measuring listeners’ brain activity during branded podcasts. Within the podcasts, direct brand mentions really stood out: They yielded an average 16% higher engagement and 12% higher memory encoding — when information from sensory input becomes storable in the brain — than the podcast’s surrounding discussion.
A handful of elements must be in place before you start a company podcast.
The most important criteria to evaluate is your existing follower base (on social media) and database (of customers and prospects). You need an already-established group of subscribers and evangelists to support your podcast and help it grow.
If you’re already bringing content to your customer database through push marketing content like newsletters or are extremely engaged with an audience on social media, then you’ll expedite the success of your podcast, says DeForge, who also consults on podcasting through advice network wiseHer. For example, Kendrac & Kole’s follower base was discussing the firm’s content and connecting with one another prior to the podcast launch, providing a ready-made audience. Users were already chatting about color schemes, fabric patterns and furniture arrangement — the firm simply moved those conversations to the podcast, vs. starting them there outright.
“You can grow a podcast with a small but mighty audience,” says DeForge, “but they need to be consistently engaged so they can react, respond and take action on what you’re putting out there.”
Engagement is critical even before the podcast launches. You’ll evangelize the new show via your existing marketing channels, and only audience members who are engaged on those channels are likely to actually subscribe to your podcast. DeForge says that if you’re sitting on a list of email addresses that haven’t been activated — that is, those leads have never received messages from you — then you should engage them before sending them a direct communication about your podcast. For example, consistently update them on new developments in your business through a newsletter — and encourage these contacts to converse with both your brand and each other.
You need to have activity within your database within the last calendar year before sharing news of a podcast and expecting folks to subscribe. Ideally, you will have communicated with them monthly. The same goes for your social media followers: Consistent and frequent communication will create a strong foundation for your podcast strategy.
Listeners tune into podcasts to be educated, not sold to, so podcasts aren’t the medium for overtly pushing a product. You can release content that shows the value of your product, but avoid focusing only on your offering. Kandrac & Kole, for instance, wouldn’t blatantly push a new line of wallpaper on its podcast; it would talk about how to use color and pattern in wallpaper, how wallpaper makes a room look bigger or how wallpaper can anchor a design scheme.
Once you’ve provided your audience that educational content, it’s easier to direct them toward your product. At the end of the wallpaper episode, offer a promo code for online sales of the wallpaper stock or a link to a presentation on design trends. Ideally, listeners who take you up on that call to action (CTA) convert into a sale, but even if they don’t, you’ll have a new lead for your database.
“The point [of your podcast] is to create a trusting relationship between the host and the listener so that they come back and engage with you,” says DeForge. “As the relationship evolves, you can support a product launch or promotion with tactics like talking about the backstory of product development, the expertise that went into the product strategy or genesis of the idea, the manufacturing process — anything informative that enlightens the audience about aspects of the product they wouldn’t know just by visiting your website. Of course, the residual is to emphasize where to go to get the product.”
A branded podcast isn’t a direct sales or marketing vehicle, so marketing or sales leaders may not be the best choices of host. A founder, on the other hand, started the company because of a passion — and listeners can hear that passion. (If someone is reciting marketing jargon or sales slicks, listeners can hear that, too.) You want a host with true enthusiasm and deep subject-matter expertise offering audiences thought leadership.
But don’t force it. If the company founder is truly uncomfortable in the spotlight, they run the risk of coming across stilted. Maybe the head of marketing is filled with passion, knowledge and energy and would be a better choice. Remember, however, that marketing or sales creativity doesn’t always translate to true subject-matter expertise.
In the beginning, the point of the podcast isn’t to drive sales but to grow share of voice and brand awareness. When gauging its early success, you want to know if the podcast catapults you as an expert in your industry. Does it get your business recognized in association with its content?
To measure the return on investment (ROI) of your podcast, look at metrics like the ones below. Your podcast hosting provider should be able to provide your podcast-specific metrics, and your marketing chief should already be monitoring the metrics associated with your social media and website.
The number of unique downloads is indicative of your podcast’s audience size. However, don’t mistake this number for the number of listeners who are actually engaged with your content. It’s only suggestive of how many people’s attention you snagged enough to get them to download the episode to listen to someday.
This metric points to engagement. It shows how long you’re keeping your audience’s attention and where you’re losing them in the broadcast. Over time, you’ll fine-tune your podcast’s format — adjusting where you place brand mentions, where you bring in guest speakers and at which timestamp you issue your CTA — based on trends in average listening time.
At this point, someone has downloaded your podcast, listened for long enough to determine it’s something they want to hear on a regular basis and subscribed to your RSS feed. You can safely consider a subscriber a follower of your brand.
Monitor comments, likes and shares for your podcast-related social media posts, as well as activity on your social media accounts in general, in the day or so after an episode drops. If social media activity increases in those 24 hours, then you know your podcast is doing its job of creating brand awareness.
Increased brand awareness typically means an increase in web traffic, too. Watch site traffic and conversions both before and after an episode launch. Measure traffic to individual podcast episode pages too, to determine which content is resonating most with your audience. Also continually track traffic for any URL to which you’ve directed listeners during an episode.
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There are a few main missteps entrepreneurs make when trying to build a branded podcast, DeForge says. If you avoid these, then you’re already doing better than much of your competition.
“With this level of competition in the space, the quality of your audio is incredibly important and worth the investment,” says DeForge. “No matter how good your content is, if it literally hurts your ears to listen, you’re going to turn it off.”
It doesn’t take loads of money to get it right. DeForge says you can get an inexpensive microphone for under $100 to achieve studio-level sound quality.
Just like any marketing tactic, branded podcasts must be part of a deliberate, integrated marketing strategy — and that involves a financial investment.
“I see so many entrepreneurs that don’t fully invest in the development of a marketing strategy around their show because podcasting is such a new medium,” says DeForge. “They’ll spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on logos, collateral and other materials they use to market the business but don’t put the same level of investment behind the podcast.”
Podcasting is like any other part of your marketing strategy: You get out of it as much as you put into it. That means you’ll need visual branding, a robust website for the podcast and active promotion on all of your social media channels. The podcast should be considered just as important of a marketing investment as any other initiative you choose to pursue.
“This may scare people, but the truth is that so many entrepreneurs underestimate what it takes to create and distribute a quality podcast on a consistent basis,” says DeForge.
Podcasting can be extremely time-consuming. Before starting, identify to whom you can delegate some of those tasks so you can focus on creating your best content.
Let’s put this in context. There are about 31 million bloggers in the U.S. and about 31 million YouTube channels worldwide. Compare those to the 2 million shows that Apple Podcasts currently hosts. For entrepreneurs willing to put in the time, effort and patience, there’s a real opportunity to get in on the ground floor of a marketing trend.
However, podcasting isn’t for every brand. It can be difficult to pin down the exact ROI or forecast returns. There are few industry standards or standout automation tools. And while there are fewer podcasters than YouTube channels, that doesn’t mean it’s easy to make your voice stand out. It takes time and experimentation to land on a winning formula, and even when you do, it can take months or years to see a payoff.
In other words, it’s an awful lot like being an entrepreneur.
Traci DeForge is a podcasting consultant and an expert on wiseHer, an advice network for entrepreneurs to help accelerate their business and career growth.