• June 30, 2015

Serial Puts Podcasts on Marketers’ Maps

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The podcast is by no means a new medium, and it has largely flown under the radar as a marketing channel. But a 2014 podcast called Serial is changing that.

Produced by WBEZ, a Chicago public radio station, as part of its This American Life program, Serial capitalized on the storytelling potential of the medium by reinvestigating the 1999 conviction of Adnan Syed, who is serving a life sentence for murdering his ex-girlfriend, Maryland high school student Hae Min Lee.

Guided by host Sarah Koenig, Serial became the fastest podcast to reach 5 million streams and downloads in iTunes history. Since then, the momentum behind podcasts has been hard to miss.

Pew Research has been tracking podcast penetration into mainstream media since 2008, and the channel has been fairly stagnant, growing less than a percentage point in most years. Between 2014 and 2015, however, adoption increased by 2 percent, meaning that 17 percent of consumers are now listening to podcasts on a fairly regular basis. "When you’re talking about a channel that has historically been this small, that's pretty significant," Jesse Holcomb, a senior researcher at Pew, says. There are other important areas of growth to note as well, according to Holcomb. For example, overall podcast awareness is growing; roughly 49 percent of Americans now know what a podcast is.

Though Serial played a key role in boosting awareness and driving downloads, a number of other factors contributed to the uptick as well. "We've been tracking digital device and technology usage centers, and concurrent with the rise of podcasts, Internet, social, and mobile are all growing. And when you see smartphone rates go up, it stands to reason that other forms of digital audio experiences also rise with that," Holcomb says.

Of the 2.6 billion podcasts downloaded in 2014, 63 percent were downloaded to mobile devices, up from 43 percent in 2012.

For marketers, it presents a unique opportunity to reach a highly targeted, attentive, and active audience. Because podcast listeners still make up a relatively small percentage of overall media consumers, marketing to them is straightforward and effective. "Most podcasts are hyperfocused, so you know exactly who the audience is," says David Erikson, host of the Beyond Social Media Show podcast and vice president of online marketing at Karwoski & Courage, a Minneapolis communications firm.

Podcasts can't yet compete with traditional radio, so to stay relevant, programs have to zero in on a niche topic that would appeal to a niche audience. Serial, for example, was centered on a single story and primarily targeted This American Life listeners who were fans of the storytelling components of the show. That's already a niche crowd that makes the job of advertisers easier, Erikson points out.

But podcasts aren't a compelling marketing channel simply because of their segmented audience. The medium itself, Erikson says, is an effective way to advertise. Through podcasts, advertisers can give their products a voice, and typically, it's the voice of a well-respected, well-liked host. Because of this, podcast advertisements can be hard to distinguish from regular content in tone and format. Though podcasters are deliberate in informing listeners that what they’re about to hear is an ad, the content feels native to the broadcast, which pays off for advertisers. "When listeners hear an endorsement from a personality they trust, it's powerful," Erikson says.

Some shows blend ad content with original content, which allows ads to really stick with consumers without interrupting the flow of the podcast. This is not only a good exercise in maintaining transparency, Erikson points out—since you have to be really clear on distinguishing the two—but also a solid effort to leverage the success of the storytelling format that's brought so much success to Serial. A podcast called StartUp, which was launched by This American Life’s Alex Blumberg to chronicle his attempt at starting a podcasting company, turns ads into interviews.

Throughout the show, Blumberg interviews a number of investors, potential partners, and friends, and when it comes time to inject advertising content, he doesn't stray from the interview format. He interviews his advertisers, which include companies such as MailChimp, about their products and what start-ups can gain by using them. "Niche audiences; niche ads," Erikson reiterates.

As podcast adoption continues to grow, Holcomb urges marketers to pay attention. "If marketers are trying to be competitive, they're going to need to keep track of where audiences are going and how they're spending their leisure time. Podcasting represents one more opportunity for marketers to reach the right ears," he says.

Serial was a key moment for the awareness and evolution of the podcast platform, he adds, but the full potential of podcasts has yet to be reached. "Keep an eye on them," Holcomb urges. —Maria Minsker

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