Have you gotten into podcasts yet?

 

I write yet, because although it’s still a niche format here in the UK, as far as I am concerned it’s only a matter of time before it takes over the world.

 

An exaggeration? Well, yes. A bit. But podcasts are a format that forward thinking marketing departments should have an eye on. The US has, as often happens in advertising, led the way, with the nascent format being utterly entwined with ad campaigns from the get-go.

 

Take Serial, the first superstar of the new podcasting age. After debuting in October 2014, various episodes have been downloaded over 100 million times worldwide. Think about that for a second: a non-fiction series with slow burn, long form investigative journalism didn’t just become a successful podcast. As per the late, great David Carr of the New York Times: “To call something the most popular podcast might seem a little like identifying the tallest leprechaun, but the numbers are impressive for any media platform.”

 

What interests most about the success of Serial isn’t the content of the show itself (although if you haven’t listened yet it’s time to re-prioritise your life to make room for it), but rather what it did for the format. It was the breakout hit. The one that turned a previous niche into something approaching water-cooler mainstream, cracking open the door for countless other shows and creating a vast amount of hungry consumers in the process.

 

While Serial showed the strengths of podcasting in both delivering content and as a model of distribution, it also did a fantastic job of transporting MailChimp (the longest running sponsor of the show) into our headphones too. Throughout the record breaking first season, host Sarah Koenig, whom the listeners quickly came to know and trust, delivered a short paen to MailChimp followed by this now famous ad.

 

 

The ad itself became famous, delivering huge spikes in interest on social media (and it’s own spontaneous hashtag: #mailkimp). Very few brand and media relationships get it as right as this. As a result of this success, Squarespace and Amazon (via Audible) came onboard halfway through the first series.

 

The idea behind the standard podcast ad isn’t dissimilar from best practise in radio advertising; the show builds a relationship with the listener, fostering a sense of trust and routine. 99% Invisible, a brilliantly varied show about design, doesn’t start with a message from a sponsor, it ends with one. But the (trusted and super laid back) host who delivers it has such an excellent delivery that you want to hang around for it. That’s right. You hang around for the ads.

 

Serial marked the beginning of something big in the US. The sheer reach of the format is such that advertisers can’t not pay attention. While ad models are still being worked out, a survey carried out by Westwood One (a large media company) last year found that four in ten of advertisers surveyed had discussed podcast advertising, with 15% currently advertising through the medium.

 

The equivalent numbers in the UK would be paltry by comparison. While taking into account the much smaller potential audience, commercial podcasting is (the BBC and the Ricky Gervais Show aside) generally behind. Talking radio is dominated by the BBC – at time of writing five of the most popular podcasts on iTunes in the UK were BBC produced – while there has been less demand and less of an understanding here of the potential for brand-podcast relationships.

 

When podcasters in the UK catch up with the professionalism of those in the states, audiences and brands will follow. Until then the format is getting polished, with the likes of Acast looking to do for podcasting what Netflix and Spotify have done for films and music.

 

The (desirable, tech-savvy) audience is there, primed and the cost of entry for brands is low. It is safe to say that the smart brands are listening too.

 

By Oliver Brown