As has often been the case on a number of different topics, I can’t help but read this story about how branded podcasts have taken off and really resonated with listeners and not think that the content industry continues to suffer from a terminal case of platform myopia.

Branded podcasts, it seems, are the new key to gaining audience attention. The benefits, as mentioned in the Fast Company piece, include but are not limited to:

  • They engage and entertain
  • They are advertising that doesn’t feel like advertising
  • They allow brands to engage in industry thought leadership
  • They reach an educated, affluent and influential audience
  • They create a tighter audience/brand connection

If you’re finding all of that to be very, very familiar there’s a reason: They’re largely the same reasons brand blogs were such a good idea 10-15 years ago and continue to be so.

All of those benefits have been part of the brand approach to self-publishing for over a decade. Blogs were seen as ways to offer deeper insights into a brand’s operations and persona than traditional advertising would allow. While no one (at least no one who wasn’t the marketing equivalent of an ambulance chasing charlatan) has ever recommended completely replacing media relations with blogging, the best executions utilize the advantages of both approaches: Traditional media gets some stories for X reason while the blog gets other stories for Y reason.

We shouldn’t be shocked by the rise of branded podcasts for just this reason: It’s just another content marketing execution. The best consultants and marketers (again, not the ones who go chasing after every shiny object) have long advised clients and executives that it’s not about having a “blog strategy” or “Twitter strategy.” It’s about having a “content strategy” whose framework, principles and goals can be adapted to any platform.

Those companies going all-in on a podcast strategy – and throwing serious money around while doing so – are hopefully approaching it with the mindset of building out long-term content workflows and principles that can be applied to the podcasts they’re involved with but are also able to be applied to whatever the next thing is. Without that kind of thinking, all that money has been spent with no long-term benefit.

Put it this way: I can either:

  1. Spend $100,000 of your money building out a workflow and program that might be focused on podcasts right now but whose ideas and systems can be applied to video, blogging, social media and other content forms and can be molded to meet the needs of whatever happens a year from now. While operating the program will require ongoing expenditures, you’ll see the benefits of that initial $100,000 for the next 10 years.
  2. Spend $75,000 getting you going on a podcast-specific program that will be awesome and the best in the industry, but that’s only going to get you through the next year and doesn’t account for new developments or content formats.

Option 2 might get you headlines, but Option 1 offers deeper value. It’s the difference between strip mining and organic farming. One is sustainable, the other very much not.

On top of that, there’s one issue where podcasting, as great as it is, continues to fall short of blogging and makes the investment in it questionable: Discovery. Here’s the one line from the FC story that addresses that.

Companies also have to pony up to buy ad space on other podcasts to ensure that they’re discovered, basically advertising their advertisements.

Say what you will about blogging, but at least it’s both much more friendly to discovery via search and easier to link to or reference in a way where the audience can take direct action.

If I’m an independent podcast host and I want to mention – organically, not because of an ad – that Brand X has launched a really interesting podcast you should check out, I will. But that’s it. My listeners can’t click on anything or take any other form of immediate action that’s traceable back to me. They might open up their podcast app and search for it, but what are the odds they’ll get distracted before converting? I’m guessing high.

When you have to pay for discovery, you’re playing someone else’s game. That’s been the realization everyone has awoken to regarding Facebook, which has stifled reach and encouraged publishers to buy ads if they want to reach the audience they thought they were building organically. And that’s the case with podcasts, where search and recommendation systems are less than optimal, usually focusing solely on the biggest and most high-profile brand names at the expense of smaller, independent producers.

There were certainly instances where companies with corporate blogs engaged in some search advertising to drive the audience from time to time. But those were very much supplemental efforts, not primary discovery mechanisms.

Coming at the same time as that was this Wired story about the recent rise of podcasting that makes an error that’s become all too common in the last couple years: It seems to use 2014’s “Serial” series as the creation point of the medium. While it certainly did get a great amount of mainstream attention, podcasts were common a decade prior to that and, one could argue, started gaining mass interest around 2005 when iTunes added native podcast support to its desktop app.

But making that admission would mean dismantling the idea that the podcast boom hasn’t been an overnight phenomenon, which apparently cannot be done. So those of us who have been exploring podcasts for years and years are just kind of…forgotten.

What’s being lost in the constant discussion of the podcast production powerhouses like Gimlet Media (which is heavily involved in the creation of several branded shows) is that podcasting, like blogging, is an open platform. Anyone can start a show with just a microphone and a few open source online tools.

Unlike social networks, you’re not dependent on someone else’s TOS to simply produce your show. There may be distribution roadblocks thrown at you when you fail to meet the standards of iTunes or some other platform, including Anchor, Soundcloud and others that have added easy podcast recording features. If you’re not concerned with that and want to take your message directly to the audience without that intermediary, you can.

The conversation then comes back to discovery. If, for whatever reason, you’re not welcome on the major distribution platforms or have decided you don’t want to be locked into one particular set of tools, that’s your right. But then you have to work harder to be found through web search, social media, word of mouth or other means because you won’t be included in the category directories of those platforms.

That, then, is the main advantage the brands working with Gimlet and other shops have, that they will be included in the listings found when someone clicks the big shiny button in Apple’s Podcasts app bearing the production company’s logo. They work with them partly because they’ve streamlined the recording and distribution process and have access to talent but also because they are the dominant force in discovery.

What will be interesting to see is what happens a couple years down the road. A recent story pointed out that more companies were bringing advertising and marketing creative in-house after farming that work out to agencies for years. The reason for that shift is that agencies were able to add expertise in niche fields faster than the companies could, making them valuable partners. As those niches became mainstream (programmatic advertising, video production etc), the economics of scaling in-house teams became more advantageous, leaving agencies hanging. It’s not unrealistic to think the same could happen with podcast production, which could leave Gimlet and others in a substantial financial lurch.

Which is why, to bring it back around to my initial point, it’s so important to spend the time and money now to establish and codify content workflows and standards. They will help you guide today’s program and, even if you’re outsourcing production now, provide the foundation for whatever is added tomorrow.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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