In 2019, the The New York Times’s T Brand Studio debuted its first-ever branded custom podcast, a six-part series called The Special, which was created for its advertising partner BMW. In the three years since, they’ve launched many more—including Accenture’s Built for Change and Why Women Kill for CBS , the latter of which made Spotify’s best-of short list in the true crime category. More than a dozen years after its first editorial podcast, The New York Times Book Review, launched in 2006, podcasts sold as branded content have become big business—and audiences seem to be eager for more.
“If you create ads or branded content and custom podcasts that deliver on compelling narrative, a great interview, or some super-helpful tips—if you deliver on that well, consumers have told us, they don’t mind [advertising],” says Lisa Howard, global head of advertising and marketing solutions at New York Times Advertising.
It’s not just media ad partners who are getting into long-form audio—plenty of companies, large and small, have launched in-house podcast production operations, hoping to capture the attention of audiences old and new. There’s Inside Trader Joe’s, Bank of America’s That Made All the Difference, Around the Barrel with Jack Daniels, and Pretty Little Thing’s Behind Closed Doors—just to name a few. This interest in audio is no surprise: Data shows that more than half of Americans have listened to podcasts, and that the 25% who listen to podcasts in a given week listen, on average, to more than six-and-a-half hours of programming that week. The opportunity to speak about your brand or product with a captive audience one on one for such extensive periods of time seems almost irresistible to marketers.
“This space is rich on both sides—both the conversion side and the deep engagement side,” Howard says. And the consumer journey rarely stops at the end of each episode. “Beyond branded podcasts, we think about full funnel impact—everything from conversion to consideration to brand affinity.”
So, should your company invest in launching a podcast? Here are some things to consider.
Does your audience listen to podcasts?
Take a look at your existing and target demographics: if they’re highly engaged in the audio space, it may be worth wading in.
“As a marketer, you’re always looking for the eyeballs: Who is my audience? Who are my customers? Who are my prospects? In this case, those earbuds are in podcasts,” says Clayton Ruebensaal, executive vice president of global business-to-business marketing at American Express. “Sixty percent of our small business owners that we target listen to podcasts—and over half of the 60% are listening to business podcasts.”
How would a podcast fit into your brand’s larger content strategy?
For American Express, scaling its content strategy to include audio programming was a natural next step during the pandemic. Starting with a newsletter, the business-to-business team built an Instagram following, which led to increased audience engagement, an educational web platform called Business Class, the Business Class: Build It Braver podcast in Canada, Built to Last, a video podcast celebrating Black-owned small businesses, and, now, a global podcast due to premiere this summer.
“The last two and a half years have been an incredible experience in creating a content ecosystem,” Ruebensaal says. “During the pandemic, we found that small businesses had so many questions. We could see it in the data—people didn’t know what to do, whether their employees should come to work, what to do about travel policies, what to do about government loans, how to change their businesses from retail to e-comm.”
How will the podcast serve your audience?
While popular podcasts may wind up converting and recruiting broad swathes of new consumers, the most successful programming will usually not center on a sales pitch.
“There’s that moment you have to decide: We’re going to be in this for our viewers or listeners, and we’re not just going to pile in a bunch of ad banks and make it really annoying,” Howard says. “We make it quite exclusive—most of our shows don’t even have a post-roll—we have one ad, there’s a pre-roll and a mid-roll, and there might be an internal message promoting our journalism on the back side of the ad, but that’s it, it goes right back into the programming.”
Will a podcast align with and amplify your brand’s mission and goals?
Last year, Avocado Green Brands launched A Little Green, a seven-part podcast series created to help listeners find actionable ways to reduce their own environmental impact and become climate leaders in their own communities.
“We’re still a young brand, so one of the things we want to do is to create an identity around the brand,” says podcast host and executive producer Christina Thompson. “Some of the stuff we create isn’t measurable work, per se, like a brand film. We do some of that in commercials and social initiatives. This [the podcast] fell into the category of bolstering what we care about.”
Do you have a podcast idea that is timely, relevant, and informative?
As businesses began grappling with the realities of a post-pandemic economic and consumer landscape, American Express called on leading theorists and thought leaders to dissect and predict what comes next. Partnering on production with The New York Times’ T Brand Studio, Amex will launch a new podcast this summer featuring interviews with some of the world’s best-known business authors—including Angela Duckworth, author of Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance—and posing the question: If you could write the next chapter of your most influential book now, what would it be about?
“We all just went through this life-changing experience—it was an economic scare, it was a health scare, our relationship between work and personal life, our relationship to the office, big things have changed,” Ruebensaal says. “We needed a podcast that could go across geographies, something we felt would survive with those great business-related podcasts out there, like How I Built This and Master of Scale.
“The cornerstone of this new podcast is going to be take very famous business books, talk to these authors that we all know and love, with a twist: Now that we’ve lived through this, what would your next chapter be?”
Producing a podcast can be expensive—or not
For the Avocado Green Brands team, launching long form audio content was a passion project—and the startup looked for low-cost solutions and kept production in-house.
“We learn by doing, so it was me doing all the legwork in my own apartment,” Thompson says. “There wasn’t a ton we had to spend to try it—we didn’t pay guests and it was a lot of calling on friends for favors for music and things. It’s not a typical approach [we take] to something.”
Meanwhile, at The New York Times, while podcasts are free to listeners, it’s the company’s large subscriber base that, along with advertising, helps bolster production budgets.
“To produce great, exclusive, high-quality content, it’s expensive, so you need multiple revenue streams,” Howard says. “But if you do [advertising] right, it’s a complement; it’s additive rather than being disruptive.”
Think of a new podcast as a new product
Just because you build it, doesn’t mean they’ll come. Publishing a podcast is only the beginning—acquiring listeners, as well as distributing and promoting each episode, requires strategy and a marketing plan all its own.
“[Brands] have to have an appetite for the distribution side of it,” Howard says. “You create this great podcast, but you have to be really committed to doing the hard work around great storytelling—requiring this longer time commitment from listeners, and, because it’s personal and intimate, it has to be thoughtful and nuanced.”
But while “it’s less about selling a product, and more about a great story or an interesting interview or helpful insight,” the ROI on podcasts can be well worth the effort, Howard says. “If you can nail the deliverable for somebody, they’ll listen for a very long time, and they’ll listen again and again.”
To benchmark podcast KPIs, consider both qualitative and quantitative measures
For brands and companies looking for ready-made production infrastructure and a content ecosystem with built-in cross-promotional opportunities, partnering up with an established studio could be the best way to go.
“We’re looking for scale: How do we get this to be something that any small business owner in the U.S., in Canada, in Australia, and the U.K. would listen to?” Ruebensaal says. “What’s really important to me is: What’s the total listenership? Are people passing it along to other people? Are they loyal to it? And, most importantly, are they entering into the rest of our content ecosystem? Am I seeing people go from our podcast to our website? Are they going from the podcast to subscribing to our newsletter? Are they entering into an American Express event? That’s what I’ll be looking for, deeper engagement: a loyal audience that keeps going deeper into the ecosystem with us.”
Podcasts are a great way to build long-term relationships with your audience
That is, if you’re in it for the long haul.
“You need to be able to make the investment on the storytelling side and the distribution and promotion side,” Howard says. “You don’t want to create a great podcast and have it sit and not have it be discovered. Promoting podcasts through our own New York Times distribution network has been really critical. [Brands] have to be curious about it—and [podcasts] have to be for the love of the story and not necessarily to sell a product. It’s nuanced, it has to be thoughtful. It’s a really intimate thing, being in someone’s ear like that. Not every brand has the patience to do this.”