Australian companies are waking to the potential of branded podcasts to reach valuable audiences.
Podcasts are everywhere, it seems. Thousands of the critters are released every day, looking for an ear to nestle in. Many podcasts are supported by companies because they have found them to be a great way to tell stories, be authentic and relevant, raise awareness and find new customers.
All of this is true somewhere, but not in Australia. Beyond academic circles and specialist agencies, it’s difficult to find great examples of home-grown, branded podcasting.
“I still think people are waking up to it,” says James Lush of Perth-based content agency Lush Digital. “We’re not at the stage where people fully understand what’s in store – what the potential of it is. I think it’ll come from them waking up and going: ‘we should be doing this’.”
Since 2014, Lush Digital has produced podcasts for clients and its own successful weekly broadcast, Brand Newsroom. Lush and co-hosts Sarah Mitchell and Nic Hayes talk for 20 minutes about content, marketing, PR, advertising and publishing. Other successful branded podcasters are Valerie Khoo, from the Australian Writers’ Centre, and Newsmodo’s Rakhal Ebeli, who interviews content specialists from around the world for Brand Storytelling.
Australian universities – especially the University of Melbourne – have long created valuable podcasts that educate audiences, promote the search for knowledge and raise the profile of their courses, lecturers and researchers. Modern Babies, an advisory podcast for aspiring parents produced by Nova Entertainment for fertility clinic Genea, won Best Podcast at the 2017 Mumbrella Publish Awards.
ANZ BlueNotes has a podcast that covers financial matters in the Asia-Pacific and CMC Markets has just started one called The Artful Trader. Victoria Opera produces an irregular podcast series called The Art of Opera and The Sydney Opera House produces It’s a Long Story as part of its Talks and Ideas program.
Most podcasts created in Australia are generated by publishers and broadcasters (the ABC, The Guardian, Mamamia and Buzzfeed) or passionate individuals. Interviews, health and wellbeing, comedy, food and music are popular categories. On the back of the success of the US podcasts Serial and S-Town by This American Life, true crime is an emerging category in Australia. Michel Laurie’s Australian True Crime and True Crime Sisters have tapped into this. Victoria Police recently produced a six-episode series called Unspeakable, which offers insights into real-life cases of sexual assault.
The biggest investment so far in Australian branded podcasting has been GE Australia’s series Decoding Genius, produced with Fairfax Media. It ran for over just six 30-minute parts and ended in 2016.
That there’s a relatively small body of podcasts created by companies, big or small, seems to run contrary to the opportunity presented by audience surveys. In the US, 67 million people say they listen to at least one every month. But survey results show that Australians love podcasts just as much as Americans.
In the Edison “The Infinite Dial” survey, 72 per cent of Australians said they were familiar with podcasting (compared with 60 per cent in the US). It also found that 29 per cent of Australians had listened to at least one podcast, 17 per cent had listened to one in the previous month and the biggest podcast consumers were 25 to 54 year olds. Tellingly, it found that weekly listeners consume an average of six podcasts.
An ABC online survey showed even more positive results for the local podcast industry. About nine in 10 (89 per cent) Australian respondents said they were aware of podcasts; 16 per cent of these said they had listened to at least one sometime over the previous week. More than one in four podcast listeners were aged 18 to 24 and one in three lived in NSW. Almost three in five (58 per cent) were female.
Ralph van Dijk, who is the founder of Sydney content agency Eardrum, says audio is the most intimate form of storytelling. “The listener is the co-author; we create the ideal images to accompany what we’re listening to,” he told Mahlab. “To do that, we have to physically let the sound in our heads to process it. As for the branded side, advertisers benefit from minimal ad avoidance in a podcast environment and a very high level of engagement. But the message needs to be sympathetic to that environment.”
“Podcasting is effective, affordable and growing in popularity,” writes US marketing expert Douglas Karr in Forbes. “Just as blogging transformed the way companies could communicate to their prospects and customers a decade ago, podcasting is now transforming the way we can speak to them.”
The search for authority
BE Media Production’s Chris Ashmore isn’t sure if podcasting is the new blogging (“It takes a lot more effort to do a podcast than it does to blog”), but he’s certain it’s an effective way to reach and educate an engaged audience. “Podcasts provide a voice to our clients,” Ashmore says. “It allows the audience to get to know the company or organisation and give it authority.”
BE Media Production is an audio content agency. For 33 years it has produced the Business Essentials podcast, which is more accurately described as an audio magazine available by subscription. Every month, Business Essentials has eight-minute interviews with business leaders, covering a range of issues, including leadership, tax and legal issues and innovation. BE Media Production also produces free podcasts for businesses and organisations, including the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons (RACS).
“Podcasting is broadcasting. Unless it’s good, why bother?”James Lush
Ashmore says some businesses, such as those in technology, lend themselves to podcasts because they can explain their products and humanise their employees. Member organisations are also good candidates. “They can use a podcast to talk to their members about what’s happening within their profession,” he says. “The RACS has surgeons dotted all around the country and New Zealand, allows them to provide information on the latest surgery techniques or whatever. Not everyone can attend a seminar so it’s a good way to capture those stories.”
He says podcasts also allow less public-facing businesses the opportunity to explain the world in which they operate. One example is the podcast produced by US investment bank Goldman Sachs, Exchanges at Goldman Sachs. The host is the company’s global communications head, Jake Siewert.
“He interviews the C suite at Goldman Sachs,” Ashmore says. “Now when many people think of Goldman Sachs, they think of this big, bad, impersonal bank other large organisations use. We don’t use it for our personal banking.
“The podcast is about the markets in Europe, for example, if it’s a good time to set up a factory in Germany, the latest trends in technology, the innovative things happening with the banking system. These are the kinds of stories from over the world that are interesting to, say, the country manager of a manufacturing firm in Tokyo or the CFO of a retail company in Shanghai. They’re targeting their particular audience but they’re making it personal – there’s a personality to the podcast that you would otherwise never get.”
The Business Essentials podcast has given Ashmore and his colleagues a good idea of what works for them in a podcast format. He’s a fan of a straight interview style over a “solocast” or panel discussion. “For years we’ve done surveys with our audience and what they like and what they prefer,” he says. “Ours is very much a magazine-style program so each interview is eight minutes long. We prefer interviews just like any current affair or newsy program on television or radio. Interviews work best because they’re kind of off-the-cuff but with a journalist you can channel the flow of the conversation in a particular way so it doesn’t go off topic. You make it more succinct.”
Business Essentials has sponsors that are able to get their messages inserted into each episode. A survey by US company Midroll found that 61 per cent of podcast listeners reported buying something they heard about on a podcast ad. “I think Mamamia claims 80 per cent product recall after a podcast,” Ashmore says. “That doesn’t mean that people will buy that product but 80 per cent recall for products advertised on their podcasts is pretty incredible.”
Approach with caution
James Lush says podcasts should be good pathways for Australian businesses to reach quality audiences. They just need to know what they’re getting into before they start. “I think [a podcast] has got to be done for the right reasons,” he says. “The problem I have with it, like anything to do with content, is there’s no shortage out there. So if you’re going to do anything, you’re going to have to really define what you’re doing.
“Just doing another podcast worries me because it takes time to build a following. Quite frankly, why would I go and listen to a podcast that I could probably find something else?”
Lush says businesses that benefit most from a podcasting project are those with an established audience. “The things I’d be recommending for a brand would be to essentially push its non ‘work’ stuff,” he says. “Talk about what [the brand] stands for and why it exists. If you’re going to do it, it would be great to do something the audience would find really useful and valuable connected with what they do. Just say, for example, a car manufacturer. Its podcast should be about great places you go – weekend getaway drives. It’s about the connection rather than about the product itself.”
Lush’s biggest fear for small businesses looking at podcasting is they aren’t able to do it well enough to sustain an audience’s interest. “Just because podcasts are relatively easy to put together doesn’t mean to say everyone can do them,” he says. “There’s a certain skill from having just done something repeatedly. Just because a brand thinks podcasts are the next big thing and say ‘Sally from marketing’s pretty useful, she can do it’ … yeah, it might work but I don’t think it’s necessarily going to make a great listen. At the end of the day, podcasting is broadcasting. Unless it’s good, why bother?”
Lush says it’s important for brands to think like publishers but be aware that this comes at a cost – mainly in time and inspiration. “Sure, you can do one [podcast] but can you do 101? Can you see a pathway? Can you see the audience building if you do it well? Like anything, it’s all very well doing the first one – you get excited and you say ‘let’s do it’ – but actually when you’re doing the 10th one it becomes a job. By the time you’re doing that week in and week out, it becomes a commitment and that’s when most of them fall aside.
“You have to get in a really strict routine. The reason it works for us is because we have a time every single week when we do it regardless – it’s religiously in the calendar. We also have a producer who puts things together and does the research. That’s quite a dedication. I don’t think most businesses necessarily understand that.”
That’s why companies looking to do podcasts should look for expert assistance, Lush says. “Our [Lush Digital’s] economies of scale, for example, in creating podcasts is terrific,” he says. “We have the studio, the equipment and the ability to do it relatively easily. By the time the companies have faffed about, they will have spent five times the cost and produced something five times less good.”
Links & references
Discovery marketing: article on the University of Melbourne’s Up Close podcast
Brand Tales’ review of the Brand Newsroom podcast