The Sledgehammer

How to Make It in Podcast Marketing

February 24, 2020

At any given time, there are 200+ actual sledgehammers present in the Heartbeat office. To celebrate their first year on the team, each HB’er receives their very own sledge—a nod to our daily pursuit of tearing down tiresome healthcare marketing. To determine what is built in its place, we often turn to outside industries, cultural forces, and personal experiences. We eagerly share them with one another, and now we’re sharing them with you. Clear the way—here comes The Sledgehammer.

Were you smitten with Sara Koenig and the true crime phenom Serial ?
Do you hang on every “mmmm” and “hmph” from Michael Barbaro on The Daily ?
Or are you more of a junkie for The Joe Rogan Experience ?

Chances are you’re one of the 51% of Americans who have ever listened to a podcast episode. And whether you’re a loyal listener or a casual dabbler, you have plenty of choices—there are over 800,000 active podcasts and 54 million episodes currently available worldwide. Within those choices, brands are spending hundreds of millions of advertising dollars and are even projected to surpass the billion-dollar mark in 2021. (That doesn’t even include the production of original podcast content.) And they’re seeing real results—from pioneers like MailChimp, to trendy brands like MackWeldon, to blue chips like HBO.

Despite its popularity and effectiveness, the podcast as a channel or tactic can easily get mangled when it comes to marketing brainstorms— “let’s do a podcast!” is the new “let’s do a VR experience!”

So that you can be truly discerning when deciding whether or not podcast marketing makes its way into your brand’s tactical plan, let’s take a look at the spectrum of engagement opportunities in the space. We’ll start with the dip-your-toes-in-the-podcasting-waters approach and work our way toward the full plunge.

1. Straight up advertising. If you have something short and catchy to say, you can probably find a place to say it where your audience is listening. But picking the right pod(s) is key—and choosing is a balance of art and science. Some brands do a bang-up job staying within their fields, since pods already within their respective genres have audiences voluntarily raising their hand to hear more about related subject matter. But also consider that if someone cares enough to listen to a niche podcast, they may already know about your brand. So, you should also step outside your subject matter as a way to get new eyeballs eardrums—doctors listen to true-crime podcasts, too!

2. Advertising… with the host’s spin. Okay, now we’re moving toward a higher risk/reward. Instead of just having a host read your (obviously brilliant) copy, you can have the host personalize it, riff, or respond. Listen to Pod Save America. Those guys read ads, but they also extemporaneously comment on them. Or the first season of Mogul, in which the host delivers a very personal ad for Sonos Sound Systems. This approach requires a different authenticity calculation—if you’re not careful, your brand could come across as stale or out of touch. But if you get your audience, your tone, and your host right, you can nail it.

3. Micro-partnerships. If you listen to Reply All, they have a fun campaign sponsored by Squarespace called Gopher Gripes. As part of the campaign, the hosts have a website—powered by Squarespace, of course—whose sole purpose is to collect people’s cranky complaints, the best of which are read on the show. It’s a small but pretty entertaining segment that blurs the line between advertising and content. Another interesting example is Adam Grant’s Work Life, which features snippets from and about advertisers, almost like a podcast-within-a-podcast, that are related to the content of that episode. One recent episode had 4-minute segment on J.P Morgan’s gender equity efforts. It was related to the overall topic of the podcast (improving life at work), so presumably relevant to the audience, but the advertiser rides entirely on the back of the podcast itself for an audience. And the creative burden is way lighter than a full podcast.

4. Show co-creation. Okay, now it’s getting juicy. We’re talking about creating an entirely new podcast, which means you’re competing for attention with the best there is: Serial, The Daily, Crime Junkie, WTF, and so many more. Half-baked ideas and boring content won’t cut it. But you’re not doing it alone—ideally, you’re doing it with someone who’s really, really good at it. GE did it with The Message (in partnership with the podcasting network Panoply and written by an actual playwright), ZipRecruiter did it with Rise and Grind (tapping Shark Tank’s Daymond John to co-create) and Casper did it with In Your Dreams (bringing in comedian Chris Gethard).

5. Show ownership. This is the full Monty. Total ownership. It’s entirely yours. Which is awesome, but it’s a huge responsibility. Because not only do you need a great concept; you’re also doing it alone. And we’re not talking about a few minutes of great content— to do this right, you need a season of great content. Interestingly, a great example actually comes from the world of pharma: Genentech’s Two Scientists Walk into a Bar. It’s an impressively good example of a company forging ahead and creating their own podcast from scratch. Does it compete with Trevor Noah or Conan O’Brien? Not in terms of broad appeal, but for an audience of science nerds (and investors), it might come close.

As you can see, podcasts aren’t monolithic. Working within the medium can mean a lot of things. And, like any good marketing tactic, it involves thoughtful & integrated collaboration between the core disciplines: strategy, creative, and media.

In this spirit, we polled Heartbeaters on their podcasting habits to see where our integrated team of strategists, creatives, and media marketers netted out on the medium: