Why GE, eBay, and Other Brands Are Turning to Podcasts

By John Patrick Pullen

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There is a captivating magic in a story that's well told. The Odyssey. Snow White. Harry Potter. Game of Thrones. All these tales, written in different times for audiences of various ages, hold an indelible place in our collective imaginations because they imbue the reader (or listener, or watcher) with wonder — and wonder is a hard sensation to shake.

Storytelling in marketing is not new, but as audience size fractures into the emerging channels of a maturing digital landscape — one that includes streaming video, virtual reality, and other thoroughly modern media — advertisers are developing innovative ways to captivate audiences and reach consumers directly.

And right now there may be no more popular avenue for this kind of innovation than podcasts. According to a 2016 study by Edison Research and the Interactive Advertising Bureau, 36 percent of surveyed respondents (which extrapolates to approximately 98 million Americans) said they had listened to a podcast. Skewing younger than the general population (since seniors eschew downloads), more than half of these podcast listeners tune in to at least one digital audio show per month. And 60 percent of the respondents agreed that they preferred to buy products from companies that advertise on podcasts they regularly listen to.

But podcasts have been around for years — why are brand-produced podcasts becoming particularly popular now? Every year since 2014, the percent of people who have listened to a podcast has climbed. It began at 30 percent in 2014, jumped to 33 percent in 2015, and reached 36 percent last year. Not coincidentally, September 2014 was the date that Apple's Podcasts app first appeared on its iPhone operating system by default. (Prior to that, the app had been an optional download.) As of April 2016, that single app has accounted for 45 to 52 percent of the market share for podcast listening, according to the IAB Tech Lab.

There is another story behind these numbers — an actual story that captured the country's imagination — and that began in October 2014. Serial, a podcast from the producers of This American Life, cracked open the 1999 murder case of Hae Min Lee, the high school girlfriend of Adnan Syed, who was convicted of the crime.

Despite being built on a public radio budget, Serial's quality storytelling and production quickly made the show a weekly must-listen. Fans of Serial waited for new episodes to become available each week. It didn't only garner public attention; the podcast also opened marketers' eyes to a low-cost distribution channel that they had not yet leveraged, and harkened back to the golden age of radio, a time when brands dominated mindshare through sponsored programming and serials that emotionally bonded consumers to products.


Baiting the Message

In 2014 General Electric was looking to reach curious minds who were interested in the intersection of science and technology. "Serial had just gotten really popular," recalls Alexa Christon, head of media innovation for GE's global brand marketing team. The podcast's popularity gave her an idea.

"Years ago, in the '50s and the early '60s, we had done a series with Ronald Reagan and a lot of Hollywood stars to tell these stories on television and it was kind of a point of inspiration," says Christon, describing the television program GE Theater. That success, coupled with the popularity of Serial, got the company thinking: "How do we entertain and delight people and let science be the center point for that again?" Less than a year later, listeners began to download the answer to that question — a GE-produced sci-fi mystery podcast called The Message — at an unbelievable rate.

Of all the thousands of podcasts hosted by Apple, The Message debuted at No. 47. Reddit threads began popping up about the show. Listeners were posting cosplay photos based on its characters on Instagram. In a short time, The Message — and GE's message — had gone viral.

A month after its release The Message reached No. 1 on the iTunes charts. "It was beyond our wildest dreams or visions that it would go to No. 1," Christon says.


Podcasting a Line

You'd be forgiven if, prior to learning about GE, you thought podcasting was a young brand's game — after all, the companies producing the hottest shows are relatively new to the media landscape. Midroll Media, which was founded in 2010, and Gimlet Media and Panoply, founded in 2014 and 2015 respectively, are big players in the podcasting space, pairing their audio expertise cultivated over years of making addictive original programming with the unbeatable customer insights of their client brands.

"Our core product, just hosting a podcast ad, is already original and unique," says Lex Friedman, Midroll's chief revenue officer. "The added advantage of these brand-driven shows is that it's everything that advertisers want." That is, he says, they offer the ability to reel in consumers who are otherwise slippery fish because they're tech savvy enough to fast-forward through ads on television, run ad blockers on their web browsers, turn the dial on conventional radios, and click the skip button on YouTube video ads.

"The No. 1 thing every advertiser wants is for their message to be experienced and heard …. And folks don't pay attention to an infomercial."But listeners only take the bait with branded podcasts so long as the programs are of high quality. "It's really important to us that any show we make be one that we can win awards and can be entertaining to listeners," Friedman says. "We're looking for brands that get that and want to experiment with creating shows that will be entertaining to the listener first and foremost — and then have that great brand halo effect as a side effect."

Online marketplace eBay experienced the benefits of this creative-first approach while working with Gimlet to develop its popular podcast Open for Business.

According to Nazanin Rafsanjani, the creative director of Gimlet Creative at Gimlet Media, eBay originally approached the podcast company with an idea to reach entrepreneurs and small business owners who were making a living using the online auction marketplace's services. They also wanted the podcast to be full of useful, actionable tips for the audience.

After some back and forth, the idea for Open for Business came into focus: profiles of business owners — most of them not even eBay businesses. The link to the company's expertise comes in each episode when an eBay voice, anyone from someone who has run a business on the site to an experienced executive from the company, would weigh in. "It was a boot camp, basically, where business owners came to workshop various issues in whatever they were facing," Rafsanjani says. "It was a community-building thing for them." The podcast has been ranked the No. 1 business podcast on Apple's charts, and eBay and Gimlet have just finished a second season of the show.

It's ironic for eBay that Open for Business was not about selling something, but Friedman and Rafsanjani argue that branded podcasts shouldn't be making a hard sell anyway. "I totally understand the impulse," Rafsanjani says. "It just works against the ultimate goal of the podcast, which is to get listeners to engage, listen, think of a brand a different way, or maybe just consider a brand in a way that they haven't before."

"I get why folks would want to do an infomercial," Friedman says. "But the No. 1 thing every advertiser wants is for their message to be experienced and heard …. And folks don't pay attention to an infomercial."


Reeling in New Customers

While marketers producing podcasts must swallow the instinct to go for the hard sell,they are still under pressure to show real results. And to that end, podcasting is still lacking. At the moment, download charts are almost all the space has to go on — a shockingly shallow metric for digital media.

Some savvy marketers have found other ways to measure their efforts. "Measurement is slightly different for custom content or content integration than it is for strictly sponsorships," says Terri Rockovich, VP of marketing at online mattress company Casper, which puts out a branded podcast with Midroll called In Your Dreams. Casper uses surveys to help measure listener engagement.

"I would say that from a brand-awareness and recall perspective, we are definitely hitting target and we're really happy with some of those favorability metrics that we've seen," she says.

Despite not explicitly discussing their mattresses in the podcast (instead, a host takes listeners' calls and interprets their dreams), Rockovich says the bulk of listeners know what Casper does, can describe some of its products' attributes, and about half of the audience is either in the market for or has considered buying a sleep product from the company. "We start really top funnel, recognizing that a lot of people have their first point of exposure through this audio format," she says.

The reality, says Midroll's Friedman, is that people don't buy many mattresses and Casper knows that listeners are not going to necessarily buy one the first day they hear an ad. "But the question for them is can they be top of mind and positively respond when the time comes? I think in that respect the show was hugely successful because the people who listened to it really liked it," he adds.

As these podcasts move beyond the novelty stage, that may not be enough. Already, when asked about the competition, Rockovich doesn't mention fellow mattress companies like Sleep Number or Tuft & Needle. Instead she talks about how aggressive audio entertainment company Audible has gotten in the podcast space — a slip that demonstrates how media strategies like podcasting can open up a company to competition on multiple fronts.

To that end, new tools may soon land. At Apple's most recent Worldwide Developers Conference in June, the iPhone-maker revealed it will make in-episode analytics available to podcasters beginning this fall. This will provide episode information such as subscriber numbers (broken out by country), average minutes listened per user, average abandonment point, and average completion rate.

Of course those analytics aren't demographic profiles, but they're better than the scant data that existed for advertisers previously. Or, as Gimlet co-founder Matthew Lieber tweeted upon hearing the news: "It may look obscure, but this is the biggest thing to happen to the podcast business since Serial first went nuclear."

When marketers have the data to prove not just popularity, but also the value that comes from investing in podcasting and why capturing consumers' imaginations can be a lucrative endeavor, one can only wonder at the possibilities.




Perfect Podcast Playlist

Queue up these 10 branded podcasts to see what online audio can do for your marketing.

  • Color Full Lives, State Farm: Teaming up with hosts Angela Yee, Francheska, and Tatiana King-Jones, State Farm and Loud Speakers Studios bring the perspectives of women and entrepreneurs of color to the forefront in this limited run series.
  • DogSmarts, Purina: Mixing stories and interviews, canine expert Dr. Brian Hare uses human cognition to examine what's going on inside dogs' brains. Covering topics from memory to therapy, the Panoply podcast is a great look at the relationship between man and his best friend.
  • DTR, Tinder: Standing for "define the relationship," DTR looks at technology's impact on relationships in the modern world. More than just about swiping right, Gimlet's podcast is about how people actually meet in the internet age's increasing disconnectedness.
  • .future, Microsoft: From Minecraft to cyber warfare, the world is increasingly digital. In this podcast, Gimlet teams up with Microsoft to examine everything from personal online attacks to the way digital tech can make you healthier.
  • In Your Dreams, Casper: Chris Gethard, host of Beautiful Stories from Anonymous People, sets his sights and mics on dream analysis for this entertaining Midroll and Casper collaboration.
  • LifeAfter, GE: A 10-episode serial from the producers of The Message, this fictional thriller follows Ross, a low-level FBI employee, who spends his days listening to online audio recordings of his late wife, until one day he hears something that leads to a strange discovery.
  • Open for Business, eBay: Featuring real stories from real entrepreneurs, eBay teams up with Gimlet to provide some practical magic for small businesses. Covering everything from financing to failing, it's a must-listen for anyone in it to make a buck.
  • The Secret to Victory, Gatorade: Sometimes losing can be even more valuable than winning. This Gimlet podcast interviews some of the world's best athletes, like Serena Williams and Peyton Manning, to see how they use defeat as motivation.
  • The Venture, Virgin Atlantic: "Here's to the crazy ones," as the famous Apple ad said. This Gimlet podcast looks at the big leaps made by artists and innovators who eventually founded trailblazing businesses.
  • Work in Progress, Slack: A podcast about the meaning and identity we find in work, from the messaging platform Slack, profiles freshwater ecologists and freelance writers alike to see how what we do helps define who we are.
    — J.P.P.



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