Lend me your ears: why podcasts make great content

The growing popularity of on-demand audio offers companies a different way to connect with their audience – but only high-quality content will hold listeners’ attention

Podcasts are not new but they are suddenly hot – Spotify, the $23.7 billion music streaming company, recently bought two podcast businesses as part of a spending spree of approaching $500 million this year. CEO and founder Daniel Ek says podcasting has “incredible growth potential”, predicting non-music content will come to make up 20 per cent of all Spotify listening.

And you don’t have to take his word for it – in the UK, the number of podcast listeners almost doubled from 3.2 million to 5.9 million between 2013 and 2018, Ofcom figures show. In the US, an estimated 73 million people listened to a podcast within the last month, according to Edison Research and podcasting is also big business in China, where the industry brought in an estimated $7.3 billion (£5.6 billion) in ad revenue in 2017.

Part of the appeal for companies such as Spotify is that podcasts buck the trend for content to be delivered in ever-smaller chunks; they keep their listeners’ attention in one place. Ek says podcast listeners on Spotify spend almost twice as long on the platform as other users and also spend more time listening to music there. Research by Edison and Triton Digital, meanwhile, showed that 80 per cent of people listened to podcasts most or all of the way through. So how can companies make them work as an effective part of the content mix?

Get intimate

According to Guy Ruddle, former broadcaster, CEO of First Touch TV and podcast host, the first step is to understand what people like about them.

“Podcasts are different from words and video in the same way that radio is different from print and broadcast – radio is like your best friend, TV is like an acquaintance,” he says. “With radio, you don’t have to pay attention to it all the time, it’s not demanding. You can be commuting, driving, brushing your teeth or running and be listening to a podcast. TV and video, by contrast, demand you stop and watch. So there’s an intimacy that comes from that, but it also places certain demands on you.”

Number one is that “whatever you do, you’ve got to be good company for the listener,” he adds. That means a lack of formality and, in almost every case, having more than one person talking because “the best podcasts are like eavesdropping on a great conversation”.

Let it flow

Another element that companies must consider carefully when deciding if podcasting is a route they want to go down is that part of what makes a great conversation is “a certain electricity or chemistry – a sense of challenge”, says Ruddle. “It doesn’t need to be tense or confrontational, but you can’t have everyone agreeing with each other all the time.” Companies must therefore be willing to let the conversation flow naturally, rather than sticking to a scripted message.

So what subjects should company podcasts tackle? What constitutes great content of course varies greatly between industries, but offering customers and potential customers your candid and expert view of the market you operate in – how it is changing or growing, plus the obstacles you’re encountering – is a rich seam. Insights into the way you work and how you’re tackling problems or adapting to a changing market is a good way to let customers know what kind of company you are and what you value, something that is increasingly important to younger people in particular.

The podcast that Ruddle presents for estate agents Savills, for example, has recently covered the future of the London property market, the investment potential of retirement homes, the best city in which to locate a tech company and the outlook for UK farmland prices. The company’s aim is to “give people a sense of the breadth of knowledge and, crucially, the personality of Savills and its team,” he says. For an audience who may only know Savills as an estate agent selling homes in the UK, the podcast is also a way to show the range of markets and countries it now operates in.

“Broadcasting used to be about messages delivered, but now it’s more of an engagement,” says Ruddle. “If you listen to a company’s podcast, you build a different kind of relationship with them [compared to] practically anything else. It’s a fantastic ‘soft power’ way of reaching an audience.”

The role of the host

Other things to consider: to keep the discussion fresh, it’s a good idea to have at least one contributor from outside the company, and having an experienced broadcaster as the host also helps to keep the podcast moving along at the right pace to hold listeners’ attention. Professional hosts won’t dominate, but they know when to interrupt if the debate is flagging and when to let the conversation take an interesting detour. They also know how to guide the listener, letting them know when a new topic or new person is joining the discussion, which is important because podcast listeners are often multi-tasking.

Who does it well? Dell Technologies’ ‘Trailblazers’ podcast is hosted by media heavyweight Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and former CEO of CNN. The podcasts examine breakthrough moments in technology and their enduring influence, such as Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone or the impact of broadcast and now social media on American politics. They follow the format of a traditional radio documentary, with a range of expert contributors and archive audio clips, linked by an overarching narrative delivered by Isaacson.

Exchanges at Goldman Sachs is another highly-polished corporate podcast (not to be confused with the irreverent Things heard in the Goldman Sachs elevators Twitter account). The company’s head of corporate communications Jake Siewert, a former press secretary to President Clinton, talks to the firm’s senior bankers about pressing market issues – such as what’s happening to commodity prices and how many tech IPOs are expected in 2019 – as well as interviewing entrepreneurs and examining social issues such as the gender pay gap.

While this podcast generally lacks an outside voice, the bank has the luxury of knowing that there’s a ready-made audience for the opinions of its executives, and Siewert is an engaging and well-informed host.

Keep it simple… but professional

Of course, both Dell and Goldman Sachs have tremendous financial resources to draw on, but podcasting does not need to be a big-budget affair.

“It’s much more natural than a traditional corporate video with sweeping music and voiceovers,” says Ruddle. Using professional recording and editing equipment is non-negotiable, however: “The podcast has to reflect the kind of company you are, and you can’t do that in an amateurish way,” he adds.

With all these elements in mind, companies should be able to answer the following practical questions before heading into the recording booth:

  • What are the marketing goals of the podcast – who are you trying to reach and what kind of stories do you want to tell? Bear in mind that podcast listeners disproportionately come from the younger, higher-earning part of the population.
  • How long do I have their attention for (20 minutes is a good rule of thumb, says Ruddle) and what are they likely to be doing while listening?
  • What formats do I want to use? Interview, round-table discussion or documentary – podcasting is flexible. How much do I have to spend?
  • What response do I want to achieve? Because podcasts are not live, they don’t generate an instant social-media response – but that is part of the appeal. When people are listening, they’re in ‘receive’ mode, with no pressure to react. In addition, podcasts may be more effective in cementing the relationship with their existing audience rather than finding a new one.

For listeners, letting a company into their precious time away from screens and meetings – during their commute or while cooking or exercising – shows a considerable degree of good faith. To live up to that, companies must ensure listeners feel the podcast is time well spent in informative and entertaining company.