The digital age created a paradox for companies. Technology made brand discoverability easier. Yet connecting with consumers today has become increasingly challenging. In the recently published podcast revenue study by IAB and PWC, host-read ads dominated other categories, representing more than two-thirds of podcast ads in 2017. “The key here is that I vet the sponsors very carefully and personally use them,” says Tim Ferriss, New York Times best-selling author and host of top-rated business podcast ‘The Tim Ferriss Show’. While a nascent medium, podcasting is making its case as a vehicle for businesses to convey authenticity and, ultimately, affect customer perception of why their brand matters.
There are approximately 550,000 active podcasts in 100 languages. In the US alone, nearly 33 million listeners make more than $75,000 annually. Largely, the podcast demographic is affluent, educated and ethnically diverse. But these factors alone can’t substantiate a hefty investment in a well-produced show, which could go upwards of six figures. What makes the medium desirable is its ability to amplify affective resonance, or what some researchers would call emotional contagion, within a brand community.
A good story, in whatever format, can leave us with a range of emotions. For this, brain scientists credit the release of oxytocin, a hormone generally responsible for enhancing empathy and trust amongst humans. As stories we hear resonate with us, we experience affective resonance or being “affectively aroused by others’ emotions”. Through tone and emotion, podcasts are able to humanize brands for their audience.
If we were to trace the origins of podcasts that combine journalistic and entertainment value like ‘Serial’ and ‘This American Life’, we might find ourselves exploring radio ballads. In 1957, British folksinger Ewan MacColl and BBC radio producer Charles Parker recorded 40 hours of tape to create a dramatic reconstruction of the heroic death of steam locomotive driver John Axon. The account would eventually be performed by actors and musicians. While listening to the material, MacColl realized:
“It wasn’t merely that the speech had the ring of authenticity: there was something else — the excitement of an experience re-lived and communicated without additive and without dilution. … At its best, the actuality had something of the quality of the traditional ballads— it moved with the same deliberation, combined words into phrases which had the familiar ring of clichés, but which, at the same time, demanded all of one’s attention(.)”
Similarly, if one needed to identify parallels of audio storytelling with music, the closest would arguably be that of a narrative folksong. It’s a genre that tells all kinds of stories — from everyday heroes and outlaws to the tragedies of the working class.
In the case of podcasts with an engaging narrative, the spontaneous sharing of affect or empathy between individuals can build a self-selected, non-geographical brand community. Two academics Albert Muniz, Jr. and Thomas C. O’Guinn formally introduced the concept in a 2001 article that studied consumer behavior in face-to-face and computer-mediated environments. Muniz and O’Guinn observed factors that influence consumers to become attached to a brand in a collective setting. Their research shows the importance of storytelling as a way to create and maintain communities where, “stories based on common experiences with the brand serve to invest the brand with meaning, and meaningfully link community member to community member.” Other studies on this phenomenon treat strong brand communities as breeding grounds developing customer loyalty and commitment.
When the sci-fi podcast ‘The Message’ launched in 2015, the collaboration between Panoply Media and GE, a century old industrial and digital conglomerate, seemed obscure — much like the show’s genre. But nearly five million downloads later, the project became one of GE’s recent triumphs in brand repositioning and reaching new audiences. ‘The Message’ brought listeners into the world of Nicky Tomalin, a podcaster working with cryptologists to decode a message sent by aliens from 70 years ago. In the end, the gripping storyline was just a logical and emotional driver for consumers. What GE ingeniously accomplished was build a marketing funnel to its innovation, sonic healing technology, without turning the podcast into one big ad.
Treading behind The Message’s astronomical success, ‘Open for Business’, is eBay’s attempt at signaling brand authenticity. The show encourages introspection as it follows the lives of real entrepreneurs who share lessons in growing their small business. There is a fair share of doubt from listeners who think they’re just being sold eBay’s business, but some reviews are more positive than others. “Relatable” is a word often used. One listener shares that hearing these stories makes them “feel less alone”. Based on memory or experience, character identification can invite empathy. In the context of light-hearted topics like dating in the modern age (example, ‘Tinder’s DTR podcast’), relatable storylines cause listeners to emotionally respond to what’s happening with specific characters. Subliminally, the company is able to share brand values to its audience.
Other shows like ‘Inside Trader Joe’s’ are more overt with marketing. The podcast shares coveted secrets about products in supermarket chain. One ‘Inside Trader Joe’ listener, already a regular purveyor of the grocery store, confessed that she tried two new items “Mandarin orange chicken and sticky rice and mango wraps” after an episode.
Contrary to the opinion of naysayers, the podcast renaissance is not comparative to blogging in the mid-2000s. Virality is foreign to the medium and production standards, more prominently in audio storytelling, are high. NPR calls this the “audio truth killer”. It’s when intonation, emotional tone, accents and other types of inflection fail to transport the listener into a state of connectedness. Combined with dialogue and transitions that are not clear and believable, bad audio quality can weaken any editorial message.
Building a loyal podcast audience also takes time, relatively longer than platforms like YouTube, Instagram and other online channels. Unlike social media, podcast analytics are still rudimentary and there are no automated growth tools available to boost listenership.
These challenges are admitted. But until influential media takes shape in another form, perhaps within the realm of robot voices demonstrating affective qualities, brands and institutions can bet on podcasts to convey some truth and authentic messaging in a society that tends to dilute it.
 Ewan MacColl, “The Radio Ballads: How They Were Made, When and by Whom.” Retrieved 18 June 2018 from http://www.peggyseeger.com/ballads/how-the-radio-ballads-were-made