Way back in the heady days of 2008, podcasting was barely a blip on the radar. According to Edison Research, the total audience of podcast listeners was 9% of the U.S. population per month.

Yet, despite the looming global recession, it was also the year I realized my freelance business should become a content marketing and PR agency – and one of my first client projects was producing The Scoop, a weekly technology podcast for MIS Magazine, part of the Fairfax Media stable.

Bar graph depicting a steady increase in the percentage of the United States population to have listened to a podcast in the previous month, from 9% in 2008 to 30% in 2019.
Source: Edison Research The Infinite Dial 2019 (PDF)

Today, podcasts attract an estimated 90 million listeners per month, 32% of the total U.S. population 12+.

One of the biggest changes to podcasting over the past decade has been the emergence of brands as podcasters. It’s no longer a media channel dominated by entrepreneurial, solo podcasters bringing the world their big idea.

These brands all face something of an existential challenge. They have an overt sales and marketing agenda – yet podcasting is a very personal, intimate form of media. Put another way, podcasts challenge brands to be human.

Podcast marketing challenges brands to be human beyond the sales agenda, writes @markhjones. Share on X

My early podcasting lessons brought this dilemma into sharp focus. If you don’t have a genuine passion to connect with your audience, delivering an ROI on your podcast will be tough. It’s that simple, and that hard.

With that in mind, here are my top five podcasting tips for brands – presented in reverse order as a hat tip to David Letterman.

5. The audience isn’t listening, yet

This is the “if I build it, they will come” fallacy.

What typically happens is someone in the business, usually on the communications team, decides, “We need a podcast.” Sometimes it’s a strategic decision. Other times, it’s because someone in the team loves podcasts or saw a competitor doing a show and FOMO is doing its work.

Regardless, it leads to a leap of logic: “We’re a really big, successful brand. If we created a podcast, all our customers and future customers would listen.”

Let’s stop right there. No, they won’t. At least, not yet. I see this massive expectation gap time and again, partly because we’re used to the reach of advertising and earned media. We know how to make those channels work for us and assume the same rules apply to podcasting.

The real story:

  • According to podcast publisher Libsyn, the average number of downloads per episode is 1,622 (based on episodes published via Libsyn in September and October 2018). That might sound pretty solid, but averages can be deceiving. The median figure is only 140 downloads, meaning that 50% of podcast episodes resulted in fewer than 140 downloads.
  • Your show is one of thousands in a rapidly expanding universe.
  • You can’t just turn up and expect to win – unless of course you already have a global following like Bill Gates, Oprah, or Ellen.

The best approach:

  • Invest in podcasting for the long haul. In my experience, most shows build slowly before the word gets out and downloads start to spike upwards.
  • Amplify your show across every owned, earned, paid, and shared channel you have at your disposal. Newsletters typically offer the best ROI, and there’s real power in your host appearing on other podcasts as a guest.
  • Experiment with digital advertising to your target audience. Share tight, compelling audio clips that entice people to listen to the full show. As they say in the agency game: land and expand.

4. Find the host with the most

Just because your head of sales is a good talker with a great radio voice, it doesn’t mean he or she will be the best podcast host.

Your show will rise and fall on the strength, talent, and humility of your podcast host. How well can they get out of the way and let guests talk? How much genuine passion can they share that doesn’t sound like an obvious plug for the brand? Getting the balance right is hard and you don’t want to get it wrong.

The real story:

  • Someone in management decides they know what the ideal host should sound like. In fact, they strongly recommend [this person].
  • Worried about conflict, or keeping your job or agency contract, everyone down the chain plays along.
  • The new podcast host struggles to connect with the audience, and you’re stuck producing a show that sucks.

The best approach:

  • Add the suggested podcast host to a shortlist.
  • Treat the process like a job interview. Speak with each candidate and ask the best two or three to come in for a trial.
  • Coach your host. Set up expectations from the beginning that you’ll work with them as the show’s producer to build an emotional connection with the audience over time.

3. Podcasting is not just another channel

At a macro level, podcasts are a great box to tick within your marketing and communications team. But it’s not just one more channel to press-gang into serving the short-term priorities of one campaign after another.

A podcast is a valuable content brand, an owned media channel requiring a long-term commitment. Your show deserves focus and attention. Breathe life into it by amplifying the content, analyzing performance, and thinking about your audience.

The real story:

  • Your marketing team and its agency partners embark on an exciting new project. You’ve agreed on an umbrella message, messaging pillars, a bespoke landing page, and a suite of tactics across earned, paid, owned, and shared channels.
  • A podcast is bundled in with the other tactics to amplify the message and tell the story. All good so far.
  • The campaign kicks off and the new podcast starts building an audience, slowly. Trouble brews as the weeks pass by and it doesn’t deliver anything close to the reach of other earned, paid, and shared channels. Has the whole thing failed?

The best approach:

  • Think long-term customer engagement, not a short-term hit to brand awareness. Launch your show way before the brand’s big campaign hits the market so you have a ready-made platform.
  • Ask yourself, “How can this podcast amplify my brand’s master narrative?” For example, if you’re an electricity retailer focused on making life simpler, how will your content echo that narrative? A life hacks show that helps people declutter and find simple solutions is a nice alignment of brand and consumer narratives.
  • The editorial/advertising divide still matters. Keep your brand messaging to short advertising stings or live reads by the host. Let the calls to action do their magic. Research by Podcast One in 2018 in Australia revealed up to 63% of podcast listeners will take some type of action based on advertising or sponsorship. The finding is consistent with a study from Edison Research back in 2016, which showed 65% of podcast fans were willing to consider purchasing products they learned about during a show.
  • Make a hard decision: If you need quick results and massive reach for your campaign, buy advertising. If you want to build a long-term, engaging conversation with your customers that fosters advocates and drives referral business, build a podcast.
Think long term. Podcast marketing fosters advocates and attracts referral business, says @markhjones. Share on X

2. News flash: Podcasting isn’t quick and cheap

This is possibly the biggest expectation vs. reality gap in content marketing. Many brand marketers have minimized the time and money it takes to make a great show.

Certainly, recording a podcast takes less time and effort than recording a video. For example, you might record 120 minutes of footage to produce a two-minute customer case study video – a shooting ratio of 60-to-1. Meanwhile, we typically record 60 minutes of raw audio to produce a 30-minute podcast episode – a way more efficient recording ratio of 2-to-1.

However, such comparisons are misleading as there are other critical factors that should influence your budgeting and resourcing decisions. If you want a brilliant podcast you need to invest time and production in research, preparing the guests and host, intelligently editing the show, and marketing your polished product.

Drawing on my experience hosting and producing The CMO Show, our team invests 10 to 15 hours in pre- and post-production activities.

The real story:

  • Brands are often baffled when pricing quotes from podcast agencies are converted into high per-episode costs. The reality is, unless you’re going to do the work in-house, an agency needs to cover its hourly costs.
  • Some podcast agencies offer low rates to win the work, but struggle to stay profitable as the hours inevitably climb higher than expected. Brand publishing takes time.

The best approach:

  • Don’t think of podcasting as a media buy or even a set of content assets. You’re creating a content brand that will have a life and energy of its own. If you get it right, people will join your new podcast tribe and give you a new platform for business growth.
  • Ask your content marketing or podcast agency how to best share the load. For example, if you’re great at finding and inviting guests to the show, take it off the agency’s hands. Such tasks can be very time consuming, so that move could save you lots of money.

1. Think quality, not quantity

Accurate podcast statistics are notoriously difficult to find, partly because aggregators like Apple Podcast don’t release a lot of information and the industry hasn’t yet embraced universally accepted performance and reporting metrics.

That said, we know we’re closing in on 1 million podcasts available for your choosing.

Chartable tracks and monitors podcast apps such as Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher. As I write this, the Chartable website reports there are over 736,000 podcasts in its database, with a combined total of 35,375,500 episodes.

Side note: The average human lifespan is 700,000 hours so there’s more podcast content available than hours in our human existence.

There are 736,000+ podcasts in @ChartableDotCom’s database. @markhjones asks how will your podcast stand out Share on X

We’ve seen this supply-vs.-demand equation at work in content marketing before. In the early days of blogging and web content, it was a race to scale: More content, more often, on more channels. Today? It’s quality, not quantity.

The real story:

  • When it comes to brand publishing, we don’t typically have a quantity problem. The issue is a struggle to invest in long-term quality and value creation.
  • Brand marketers often struggle with defining what quality content sounds like; a highly subjective process.
  • Brands find it confusing when comparing themselves to independent podcasters, many of whom see podcasting as their primary occupation. In the independent world, some still chase quantity with a short, sharp daily show of just 10 minutes.

The best approach:

  • At the risk of repetition, put your customer first. What does quality sound like to them? Double down on great insights, entertainment, and adding real value. Then, when you’ve found the magic formula, it should become obvious why you’re a rare commodity in a sea of mediocrity.
  • Focus on attracting and maintaining audience attention. Like sales, it’s easier and cheaper to keep an existing podcast listener than find a new one. Experiment with different ways of incorporating audience feedback.
  • Manufacture demand for your unique difference. Use influencers and friends to spread the word, create interest via PR, targeted social posts, and events.

There’s no question brands will continue to invest in podcast creation and advertising. You might recall the buzz generated last year by The Daily from The New York Times reportedly asking $290,000 per month for sponsorship. Consider that a canary in the coal mine – ad spend is expected to keep climbing.

However, the savvy brand marketers will inevitably ask themselves, “Why spend that sort of money on sponsorship when we can make our own show?”

Anyone can make a podcast badly. You’re not anyone, so go find a story worth telling.

Listen to more from Mark Jones in this issue’s episode of Talking Points, co-produced with his content agency Filtered Media.