We've all lived through more digital revolutions than we can remember. Today, around 71% of UK adults own a smartphone, and we're free to go about our lives snapping photos and videos, uploading them with accompanying punchy captions in seconds. In fairly recent memory, digital cameras were a novelty, the internet was a sort of weird, dial-up underworld, social media was MySpace, and Apps and filters were something different altogether.
There's a rough pattern to the evolution of this consumer tech:
First comes the innovation, then the early-adopting consumers and investors, then better tech, then the mainstream users and creators, then a mainstream race to cash in, then naturally the hike in overall standards.
But who thought the next revolution would be in audio? I wouldn't have put money on it, until now.
There are some 22.3 million people who listen to online audio in the UK, from on-demand music services to online radio and podcasts. 19% of those people listen exclusively online (even more so for younger demographics)
Now, 12 short human years (a ripe old age in digital terms) after it first appeared, the podcast has come of age commercially. And it's going to be powerful.
Imagine a digital marketing tool that rivals the depth of engagement and intimacy of reading a book and has all the convenience of an on-demand, multi-platform entertainment, but without the big production price tag.
This beautiful and simple media has blossomed quite organically from the timeless spoken word. Moreover, from storytelling and conversation. Yet it's different from traditional and even current radio. Radio has long been smart to brands that are built around listener lifestyles and demographics, choosing the commercial partners who are most appropriate to this, but within the confines of a broadcast platform. Podcasts, on the other hand, whilst still able to place content integrity first, can be brought to you directly by these companies, making those same companies no longer mere partners in delivering something a listener can be passionate about, but the providers of it. All this adds up to increased intimacy with the host brand and - if it's a good product - all the good feelings the listener associates with the programme.
PODCASTS FOR MARKETING
To state what is increasingly obvious to brands exploring podcasting - and I say brands, because this is still, predominantly a marketing exercise - the benefits of providing podcast content is that it allows them to build key strategic messages into an entertainment context. When Fresh Air Production worked with the National Trust to pilot their new podcast project last year, we took this simple commercial radio principle into how we designed our programmes, seeking out interviews and on-site stories that allowed our presenter to weave in little known facts about the Trust's wider remit, in a natural context.
The other benefit is the in-depth engagement that podcasts bring. Podcasts provide the panacea to a life of incessant motion and dwindling down time, particularly for metropolitan audiences. Engagement is hooked mainly around the narrative, storytelling format. Audiobooks may have long fed this busy audience's need for information or knowledge, but now they are seeking entertainment, amusement, exhilaration, relaxation and escape through a personal experience that mimics a social one. This is surely something that Audible are very aware of as they work to launch their 'Channels' programme platform in the UK. Through podcasts, we're able to engage in the conversations, stories, memories and emotions of others privately, without censorship. The average listening duration for podcasts is around 17-20 minutes, which allows people to fit listening in whilst they're relaxing or doing something like commuting, exercising or cooking; it's a way of supersizing their time by learning new stuff, or making tasks more enjoyable. That's long enough to plant some really strong emotive messages about your brand or product in the hearts and memories of a listener, provided you do it in the right way. Compare the cost of that 20 minute engagement to the cost for 18 seconds of dwell-time on a web page or video, and this is interesting indeed.
A NEW AUDIENCE
But podcasting as a commercial venture doesn't just have to be a brand or product-selling exercise. A recent brief Fresh Air Production took from the UK Houses of Parliament was to engage more people with the basics of how Parliament is run. With the help of presenter Meera Syal, we created a 6-part series that not only did the job and blasted into the iTunes top ten in its second week, but also became a useful learning resource for the public and new staff alike, helping them explore a brand new audience on this channel. I would argue that a company or organisation's podcast audience is not the same as its web audience, or social media audience. Granted, podcast consumers live in a digital space, so anything that helps them explore this in one finger tap is a coup for cross-promotional marketing, but in another sense, this is an entirely unique audience that we are only just starting to understand.
Another asset is the versatility of the medium. There's no standard format for a podcast, beyond what will be most appealing to your target listener. You can curate a fictional drama with your product at the heart of it, as GE did with 'The Message', a nail-biting story of a an "alien" coded message, or you can create indirectly related content, as ASOS did with smart, inspirational businesswomen in 'My Big Idea', or as fashion brand Mr Porter has done with their award-winning, candid series of brave and smart conversations 'Fathers and Sons'. Or, of course, you can stick to your core subjects, like a National Trust podcast about gardens, and develop your core existing audience's perceptions through that. Some hosting platforms are experimenting with hyperlinked images in situ for podcasts. Imagine hearing a URL mentioned on your listening device - a link to donate to a charity perhaps - and at the very moment you were moved by a story, it was possible to tap the image on your phone and go directly to the donation webpage.
DIRECT RESPONSE vs 'UPSELL'
But the confusion I am surprised to meet in many a conversation with new clients is this: In spite of the fact that content is now the driver for a thriving, multi-million dollar industry, the idea of creating something that doesn't directly and explicitly tell people your brand does "X", can be hard to sell-in. The challenge is that many of them are still looking for a direct response. They want to walk away with a number or a measurable action to quantify their investment, and so the challenge for podcast creators or production companies is to either change this point of view, or promise to deliver these numbers.
The funny thing is that commercial radio programming has been doing this for years! I'm not talking about ads or even sponsorship - I'm talking about integrated programming: client messages woven into entertaining content that people will engage with, enjoy listening to and react to. Clients will pay a premium for this over promotions and sponsorships too. Of course, they do have numbers to back it all up, but RAJAR aside, the soft sell is that radio brands have an emotional closeness and trust with their audience that a brand can piggy-back on. Surely this power is only more pronounced in the personal, self-curated entertainment podcast audiences search out?
And this is the other big change we're starting to see in podcasting. In spite of all that lovely, soft brand messaging and emotive power, investors still want cold, hard data.
A TURNING POINT FOR DATA
iTunes don't release their data to just anyone (although they're about to get better at this), but the hunger for this information has driven a wealth of innovation with apps, services and hosting platforms springing up all over the place, offering insights on demographics, listening behaviour, numbers and interests. Surveys are another old-fashioned but powerful way to find out what your most engaged listeners are like.
Research into podcast listeners is swallowed up like water in a drought. We know these audiences are intelligent, curious and well-educated. They don't want information that's crammed into their ears en-masse, but curate their own playlists and, I would suggest, seek out an emotional experience that they will remember, as well as new information they can share. They're self-educating, generally a little more affluent and predominantly (although by no means exclusively) aged between 18 and 34. A large percentage of them get to make decisions in their business too, which makes this a very exciting arena for products and services to explore commercial partnerships in.
But we don't yet win podcast business from brands by proclaiming that almost every smartphone owner has the option to listen. Lifestyle habits and preferences like this develop organically over time, as long as the experience gets easier and more strongly represented in the cultural zeitgeist. Nor do we trade off the fact that nearly 5 million people (calculated from midas stats) regularly listen to podcasts in the UK. We are asked for the number of people who download these programmes, or the number of people who listen. It is a digital tool. Marketers prefer to be able to measure how old those people are, where they live, perhaps their income, work, social or family background. Sadly, information that isn't readily volunteered in this liberal new medium.
RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE
This is where the rise of programmatic advertising aligns with the podcasting story, and although podcast platforms tell us little about the socio-economic status of their listeners, they can give us a strong idea about the mutual interests and passion points of their consumers in the selection of programmes they choose to listen to. Where the likes of Contently have found solutions by collecting 'story' content, repackaging and serving it to multiple diverse and localised audiences, brands themselves, sitting on small goldmines of first-class content, seem reluctant to release their property into the new and unexplored platform of podcasting. The ones that do so may well win big.
So in short, I think there are very exciting things to come from podcasting, very soon, and the brands who are exploring this now are placing themselves streets ahead of the flock that will follow.
So how best to prepare? It may feel premature to think about what comes next, when the struggle to make cash and data out of this has barely begun in earnest, but my bet is that the next era will be that of a more discerning ear.
QUALITY CONTENT FIRST
Podcasting is a beautiful, liberal platform which harnesses new technology and easy software to put content creation in the hands of the public at relatively low cost. Most mobile phones have an in-built microphone after all. But what previous content platform explosions have taught us is that a quality product and finish will also speak volumes about the company that's paying for it. So whilst self-styled podcast producers and tech whizzes are falling over themselves to make things quickly, Fresh Air's plan is to be concentrating hard on doing what we've always done: providing premium, well-targeted content of the highest standard, lovingly-crafted mixes and detailed, immersive soundscapes, all recorded on the best kit we can get, as per our radio broadcast training and backgrounds.
From a content perspective, the BBC were early pioneers of the podcast, of course, their main selling point being that their content is second to none in quality, creativity and innovation. The mistake would be to compromise this standard with weak commercial integration. In 2010, when changes to the OFCOM codes around undue prominence led to a sudden mad panic for some commercial radio stations to sell everything from their bread and butter to grandma's knickers, what the industry quickly learned was that this very bread and butter was one of highest value assets their businesses possessed. "Just because we can, doesn't mean we will" was the unofficial mantra of the Global Commercial Programming department at the time, a company that has continued to increase its reach and share of UK listening audiences with a strong brand ethic and nose for well-aligned partnerships - plus a healthy eye for its audiences.
In this way, Apple may have led the charge to put technology in the hands of many once again, but radio has paved the way for consumer expectations. It is radio standards, principles and talent that will win biggest when brands stop asking if podcasts can work for them and start asking how well