Why Bother With Branded Podcasts?

To paraphrase the great Ron Burgundy, podcasts are kind of a big deal. According to NPR’s recent Spoken Word Audio Report, 75% of all Americans listen to spoken word audio each month, its share of listening has increased by 30% over the last six years, and by 8% in the last year alone. Today a staggering 43% of Americans listen to spoken word content every day, for an average of two hours per day. That’s a lot of dwell time.

With these stellar levels of engagement, it is no surprise that smart brands are getting involved in the meteoric rise of podcasting, either through advertising in popular podcasts, or by commissioning their own, which are collectively referred to as branded podcasts. Fast Company called these shows produced on behalf of a company “the ads people actually want to listen to,” and the BBC suggested that branded podcasts are a more effective way to reach consumers than TV or radio ads. Branded podcasts are also reaching ad avoiders, and contributing to 89% higher brand awareness.

But why are branded podcasts so effective? Because at their best they are not ads, they are thoughtful, compelling stories. And, as we will examine, thoughtful, compelling stories are the balsam needed by our exhausted brains in these lockdown times.

Coming back to the NPR survey, the respondents revealed some fascinating motivations for listening to spoken word audio: the convenience of the format, the multitasking benefits, personal growth, and its ability to improve mental health. For over two-thirds of respondents, listening is a chance to improve or better themselves, while 67% are taking “a break from negativity.” Respondents viewed spoken word audio, by a significant margin, as a more positive way to engage their minds than watching TV or streaming video.

PFC = VFC

Positivity is a significant but often overlooked brand marketing factor in our pandemic times. It’s fundamentally important because of a tiny, almond-shaped clump of neurons deep in the center of the brains, the amygdala. Often called the “filter/fear center,” the amygdala is a built-in self-defense mechanism to filter and deal with alarming information.

When the mind is calm, information is smoothly delivered to the prefrontal cortex, or PFC, for processing. The PFC is commonly known as the “wise leader” due to its role in higher-order thinking; it regulates cognitive, emotional, and behavioral functioning, and processes information before passing it to the hippocampus for longer-term storage. However, when we are feeling negative or stressed, the amygdala springs into action like an overbearing nightclub bouncer, and deals with the information using a “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction. While this burly protector can be invaluable in emergency situations, it also means that brands who ignore the way it works will find themselves quickly redacted from any meaningful recall.

This is especially true in 2020, due to a phenomenon known as surge capacity. This is the short-term emergency capacity that our brains keep on hand to deal with alarming information or situations. At the moment, the airlock to our precious surge capacity has been jammed ajar by the open-ended nature of the pandemic, and this can lead to feelings of chronic exhaustion or burnout. What this can mean is that most of your audience is too fried to meaningfully engage with content which is in any way alarming or stress-inducing. We just don’t have the spare capacity for anything less than high quality, well-intentioned, empathetic content. For example, moments of joy like Nathan Apodaca’s “Dreams” challenge can sail into a long term relationship with our consciousness, while effortlessly sipping Ocean Spray on a longboard.

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♬ Dreams (2004 Remaster) – Fleetwood Mac

Four Imperatives

According to Forbes’ CX guru Adrian Swinscoe, four business imperatives are emerging from the pandemic, all of which are relevant to the utility of branded podcasts. The first is that the future of organizations will be defined by their ability to learn. For example, has your marketing changed its tone this year, what are you doing differently? The second is the concept of protection. With very few exceptions, companies will not be able to sell themselves out of the crisis, so organizations need to double down on protecting and nurturing their current client base, and use that as their growth engine. Swinscoe found that customers are responding more favorably to organizations that are helpful and providing value rather than those that are focused on just generating new sales.

The third imperative is to build resilience, not just in terms of operating models and the supply chain, but how resilient are your people and how resilient are the relationships that you have with your customers. The final imperative is to do with experience, and not just customer experience, but employee experience, stakeholder experience, and the experience of leaders and your c-suite.

Meeting those four business imperatives might seem like a tall order in such a pressurized and rapidly changing world, but branded podcasts can help on all counts.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Personas, Podcasts and Purpose

There are some superbly researched guides and free courses on everything from the technical aspects of how to produce high-quality webinars and podcasts to the art of Digital Audio Storytelling, and you will find some invaluable Facebook communities full of free advice. It is also worth taking the time to map out the goals of a branded podcast from a user experience (UX) perspective before you embark on the production.

Keeping in mind Adrian Swinscoe’s imperatives, we can create a list of UX “personas” for whom your content needs to be meaningful, entertaining, and relevant. For example: customers, employees, partners, board members, senior leadership, prospects, press, and analysts. With this in mind, one can start to map out the arc of each podcast series to convey the right story with the right content and tone, over time, and with each persona taken into account. For example, one episode could involve addressing a hot topic for your industry by leveraging a high performing employee, board member or c-suite star alongside an industry partner, analyst, or subject matter expert from academia.

Humans have a fundamental, primal connection with the spoken word, so this needs to be respected by keeping the storylines tight, the production values high, and when it’s needed, condensing as judiciously as a newspaper editor. One needs to be mindful of the immense value of your audience’s time and attention, and be respectful of not overloading their surge capacity with extraneous content.

If you design your branded podcast experience from the viewpoints of your key UX personas, with empathy and compassion, and a focus on always providing value for the listener, you can ensure that the end result will resonate. When you get it right, the engagement can be phenomenal, generating long-term loyalty, advocacy and genuine gratitude. In these pandemic times, a branded podcast is one of the best ways to build and protect the most important relationships that can sustain your business for the future.

Oisin’s top ten tips for recording a great branded podcast

  1. If you are moderating, invite your guests to contribute talking points, but also research their professional backgrounds to help draft more of the right questions and steer the conversation in directions that they will appreciate.
  2. Respect your guests with some personal research. What have they done recently? Do you need to wish them a happy birthday? Do they have an interesting name? Check how it’s pronounced before you speak to them. These little points matter, and you can avoid unintentionally disrespecting your guests by being well-informed before the recording starts.
  3. Always send your guests the questions in advance, but feel free to let the conversation breathe and evolve when you do the live recording, spontaneity can be golden.
  4. Use a platform like Zencastr to capture your guests’ voices on separate tracks, but advise guests to also record on-site if possible. The on-site recording of just their voice can also be used as a backup in case anyone’s Wi-Fi ducks out. Feel free to have a muted video call running in parallel for a visual connection.
  5. Professional recording studios are acoustically treated to absorb vocal reflections, so you and your guests should dampen acoustically reflective surfaces when recording for more of a professional feel. This can be as simple as propping a duvet on a door near to where you are seated or placing cushions around the recording space. Something soft to take away the “bright” room characteristics will always help.
  6. Use as good a microphone and headphone combo as possible, ditto for all of your guests. I use the AKG Podcaster Essentials kit, the Lyra mic is just superb while the K371 headphones are lightweight, have good isolation, and provide great quality for mixdowns.
  7. If you are regularly hosting or appearing on podcasts, invest in a boom arm and a pop filter for your mic to ensure consistency and to help optimize your workspace.
  8. Use a pro audio solution like Logic Pro X to edit and process the separate audio tracks, enabling you to apply separate EQ, dynamics, and additional processing to bring out the best in everyone’s vocal characteristics.
  9. When editing audio, keep the conversational flow sounding natural and the production values high quality by using techniques such as subtle fades and crossfades when there are edits and joins.
  10. Make sure you give your guests the right social media tools to help promote their appearance on your podcast, for example you can select audio clips, quotes, and takeaways from each episode to help with promotion and marketing. This is a nice touch and emphasises the high value you rightly place on their time and contribution.

Originally published on Irish Tech News.

Headline image courtesy of AKG by Theo Jemison.

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