Telling your Story: The Rise of Podcasts, Part One

Think about the most memorable advertisements you’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s Apple’s “1984″ ad, or maybe it’s the one where a little boy shares a Coke with Mean Joe Green, or possibly it’s one of the many infamous Go-Daddy Super Bowl commercials. You may take a second to think about what they have in common, or specific things each of these advertisements do. But what’s just as important is what they don’t do. None of these commercials describe what the product does nor do they detail specs or features. These commercials tell stories. And while it may seem counterintuitive to use expensive TV advertising opportunities to tell a story rather than simply describe a product, there’s a reason you remember the commercials that you do.

In marketing, there is always talk about telling your story. Although the phrase in recent years has slowly come to creep into buzzword territory, it hits on something significant and profound that is at the core of all marketing. People don’t want to be sold things. People want shared connections, and we want to connect on a human level. We want brands that resonate with us and personify things with which we identify. This is obvious when it comes to decisions like which clothes to wear or what drink to order when at the bar, but it plays into more subtle decisions as well- like when you only use a certain cleaning solution because your family always used it growing up. Great minds like Seth Godin have been preaching this for years. People simply love stories.

When we buy products, we don’t simply buy them for their utility. Yes we buy a vacuum cleaner because we need a clean house and we buy a couch so we have something to sit on while we watch Game of Thrones, but we’re also buying more than that. We are buying things that align with not only our values, but how we want to perceive ourselves and how we want others to perceive us. When you pay more for a bag of brussel sprouts at Whole Foods, you’re not just paying for the organic label- you’re paying for how it contributes to your sense of self identity. Sure it sounds a little absurd, but it is absolutely true. Whole Foods is telling a story, and you’re buying the story they’re telling.

This idea of stories goes beyond shopping. It is the core of how we seek and digest information. It lays the groundwork for what we are drawn to online. It’s why TV shows such as Breaking Bad and True Detective are such pillars of cultural identity. We simply love stories.

 At the intersection of digital communication and our love for stories lies a relatively new, yet rapidly growing form of media- podcasts.

Podcasts, started by Apple in early 2005, are essentially subscribable channels that publish audio files that are streamable and downloadable. The files themselves are open to whatever the individual(s) feels like creating- discussions, educational programming, music, dramas, etc. but they are typically strictly audio.

One thing that has led to the more recent explosion of podcast popularity is the rise of smartphones. These allow listeners to have new episodes of their favorite shows appear immediately on their devices as soon as the episode is published. Right now there are over 1 billion podcast subscriptions on iTunes, and about ⅓ of Americans have listened to a podcast.

What is immediately interesting about the rise of podcasts is that it harkens back to a form of entertainment that has all but been forgotten- radio shows. Entertainment in the first half of the 20th century was based largely on gathering around to listen to the radio. Listening to a good podcast, much like listening to a great radio show, offers something that is simultaneously more intimate and more engaging to the imagination of the listener than visual mediums. But podcasts have benefits that separate them from both radio and visual media.

 Podcasts are portable, free, and also allow the listener to participate in other activities while listening. You can listen to a podcast while driving, while cleaning, even while running on the treadmill. The ease of listening to episodes on your phone also makes it by far the most convenient way to consume informative and entertaining programing. Plus, with well over 100,000 different podcast channels in existence, it is a guarantee that you’ll be able to find something of interest.

While there are podcasts ranging across nearly every topic imaginable, it should come as little surprise to find that the most popular ones are based around stories. Serial, the true-life crime documentary of a high school murder, became the fastest growing podcast ever. It reached the number one ranking on iTunes before the first episode even released, and it was a big first step in taking podcasts from niche to mainstream. This American Life, one of the earliest runaway podcast hits, chronicles true life stories from the mundane to the extraordinary and still has a large, loyal following to this day. Even science and business podcasts tend to favor this storytelling type approach to spreading information.

Additionally, one of the most interesting things about podcasts is the way advertisements are commonly handled. Many of the most successful podcasts actually treat advertisements as mini episodes-within-episodes with interviews and short anecdotes. While they don’t necessarily harp on features, prices, sales, or promotional information, they usually focus on fun quirks specific to the company or have lighthearted interviews with employees. While again, this may seem counterintuitive, I could probably name you every sponsor for every podcast I listen to. I’d be hard pressed to name more than one or two specific billboards or TV spots I’ve seen this week. People are drawn to stories, and podcasters understand this.

So how does this relate to marketing?

The obvious draw from this would be that your brand needs a podcast. But I would argue that this is not really the takeaway from our podcast discussion. The truth is, not every business really needs a podcast, and even fewer still would be able to successfully execute one. Rather, the real takeaway is to look at why podcasts are gaining so much momentum and try to apply these principles to marketing through other channels.

People want content when they want it. This shouldn’t be a shock to anybody, but it is worth repeating. From Netflix to Spotify to podcasting, options that let people choose when they want something are becoming more and more popular by the day.

People like free. This is perhaps the most obvious takeaway of all, but it’s worth unpacking a little bit. People are more than happy to be advertised to if they don’t have to pay. We see this trend growing nearly everywhere. Freemium mobile games are on the rise, where users don’t pay an initial cost to download the game but then either have to engage with advertisements or are given options to buy in-game purchases after the initial download. Only about ¼ of Spotify users pay for the premium service, while the other ¾ are perfectly content to listen to a barrage of ads if it means not having to pay. And you can rest assured that if Netflix had this option, people would sign up in droves. Podcasts are just one of the many ways we see this trend growing. And in reality, it may be more accurate to say people don’t really need free- they just need the illusion of free.

People like to multitask. Sure movies and TV will never go away (probably), but there is something to be said for entertainment that can be consumed alongside life’s daily chores and activities. You may not be able to carve out two hours after work to watch a movie, but if there’s a way to make that hour spent doing laundry more enjoyable, most people are going to be all about it. Successful marketing is going to start having to find better ways exist alongside the media people are consuming- not simply hope that people will divert their entire attention to advertisements.

Podcasts also illustrate a shift towards being successful by focusing on niche markets. Due to the relatively low costs of producing a podcast and the ease with which users can access them, there are opportunities to build an audience around practically any topic. This is a great example of the Long Tail at work. While obvious hits like BBC and NPR will always do well, the podcast landscape is dominated by smaller but loyal listener groups congregated around niche topics. From Liverpool FCto Harry Potter fanclubs- you can basically find a good podcast about anything. The same extends to marketing. You won’t be able to compete by trying to target everybody. The best way to reach an audience is to be specific about your target audience, and tailor content around that audience. You’ll see more success with strong support from a small number of people than you will with no support from a large number of people.

But above all, the main takeaway is obvious- people love stories. That’s why podcasting is growing, that’s why their advertisements are sticking, and that’s what more successful marketers are going to have to do if they want to cut through all the noise.