Why Corporate America Loves a Good Podcast

It’s probably over the top — or at least premature — to call 2016 the year of the podcast.

But with the medium’s surging popularity, it’s starting to seem like everybody has a podcast these days. And it’s not just comedians and radio hosts. Businesses, pundits, even Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, are jumping on board. It’s similar to the stampede into blogs a decade ago — with a key difference, as described late last month by AdWeek in a special section called “The New Golden Age of Audio”:

 [B]rands including eBay, GE, Netflix and State Farm are betting on audio shows as the next great opportunity for customer engagement.

And this time, wisely, they’re not doing it alone.

Instead, the story goes on to say, companies are partnering with organizations that bring content experience and expertise in audio production to the table.

That approach echoes our belief that content should be built around a clear strategy and shows that organizations are seeing the value of outside (and learned) guidance. Fortune, in an article listing top business podcasts, explained podcasts’ value.

The podcast is a form of communication that has really come into its own. Like a special-interest radio show that you can download and play at your convenience, a good podcast has a number of winning characteristics: engaging presentation, interesting ideas, variety while maintaining a theme and a length short enough to fit comfortably into your commute or travel plans.

This might be a lot to take in. But with some projections for hockey-stick-like growth for podcasting — and with a young, tech-savvy, affluent and increasingly diverse audience already fully on board — what should professional service organizations know about podcasting as they look for new ways to establish or burnish their expertise and reputations in an increasingly noisy marketplace?

There are no simple answers, but looking at how two professional service organizations have gone about podcasting is instructive. They show how an organization’s size, business model and history can lead to very different approaches.

Goldman Sachs (a 147-year-old global juggernaut of a company with 36,500 employees) launched its bi-weekly podcast Exchanges in late 2014. It features company representatives speaking with regular host Jake Siewert, Goldman’s global head of Corporate Communications and a former Clinton administration press secretary, about world issues. This tried-and-true interview format is both a common podcasting format and a classic thought-leadership tool, positioning Goldman’s bankers and analysts as leading experts on topics from Brexit to low carbon technologies to media disruption.

In 2015 Chicago technology company Basecamp launched a podcast called The Distance to tell stories about businesses that have endured for at least 25 years. Basecamp is just 17 years old but has long been a vocal advocate of building a lasting enterprise rather than chasing quick exits and of committing to a business plan rather than chasing “fads and trends.” They developed the podcast to reinforce their commitment to longevity, not by hitting listeners over the head with their point of view, but by telling stories of businesses that embody it. Former Chicago Tribune reporter Wailin Wong hosts; recent topics include a bike shop in operation for 50 years, a twopart series on a tofu maker and another two-parter on a junk-hauling business.

Both podcasts feature high production value and display a commitment, with more than a year of episodes already released. But as for blogs or any other publishing platform, content strategies for podcasts are at least as important as production quality or consistency. As Paul Feiner, marketing lead at the education-based content marketing platform The Big Know, told AdWeek, “any marketers doing podcasts just because others are doing them will simply add to the internet wasteland of short-sighted marketing tactics.”

The first step in developing that strategy should involve assessing whether podcasts are the right platform for achieving your business goals. Doing podcasts well requires an investment — probably more than in written content — which makes it especially important to think before you leap. “If you wanted to make a really high-end podcast and only needed to reach 10 people with it, or if your audience is CEOs of aerospace companies — maybe a podcast isn’t the right way to reach those people,” Steve Pratt, content director for podcast maker Pacific Content, told Nieman Labs earlier this year.

Podcasting does have distinct benefits and advantages, however. It’s a great way to showcase charismatic personalities, it’s cheaper than video (and works well if an organization has no great footage to show) and it lets you deliver valuable information and messaging to busy executives at times when they’re unable or unwilling to read — while they’re driving or walking, on long train rides or at the gym, for instance.

Could podcasting (or, perhaps, audio storytelling, generally) emerge as an important content platform for professional service organizations? Given the medium’s growth elsewhere, we’ll likely know soon enough.

Paul has a keen understanding of what media outlets want and what reporters deal with on a day-to-day basis.

When he’s not working or watching his beloved Chicago Cubs, he spends his time working on personal writing projects and reading non-fiction.