Podcasts: Still a wild card, but a useful one to have in your deck

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about so many protocol changes and “new normals” that it’s hard to keep track of how many ways business models have changed for various industries. Necessity is the mother of invention — or, in some cases, substitution!

During the gear-shifting months of 2020, we at Imagine found that podcasts helped fill the gaps for a few clients. When book stores scuttled all promotional events, we helped one author make the rounds on a couple of suitably popular podcasts to get the word out about his new release. Podcasts with smaller audiences are worthwhile, too, if they cater to a niche industry, such as the engineering podcast we booked an expert on to discuss a white paper on certifications relevant to that field. Companies, schools and training programs also are finding that creating their own curriculum-focused podcast is a valuable tool to store lectures and content so employees, students or apprentices can easily access it.

Podcasts are not new, of course; this cousin of talk radio has been around in some form or another since the 1990s, but took off with a sharp trajectory a few years into the new millennium. Now, with free editing, hosting, and remote interviewing tools available to most anyone with an internet connection, podcasting has blossomed into a “wild, wild west” of content: As of this year, there are more than 1.8 million podcasts comprising more than 45 million episodes, according to Apple’s Podcast Industry Insights. And people are listening; 144 million Americans tune into podcasts regularly, and 50% of American homes identify as “podcast fans” as of January 2021.

However (and here’s where that “wild, wild west” metaphor comes in), there’s a lot of volatility and uncertainty to navigate before you toss a client into the podcast ring. Not all podcasts are created equal — well, actually, they are created equal, I suppose, but they don’t stay that way for long! Some podcasts have built up thousands of dedicated fans and an online community that eagerly wait for each regularly scheduled episode drop, while other podcasts sputter along getting 10 downloads per episode, nine of which are the host’s relatives. A few slick pay-for-play models have even popped up, offering airtime in return for thousands of dollars.

Podcasts differ from standard news coverage or print journalism in quite a few ways, and a good communications partner will educate each client on what to expect. A news appearance often means having a concise, well-crafted message to deliver quickly in hopes that some of the talking points make it into the 30 seconds that air. A podcast guest, however, is expected to provide a conversation that might last 15 minutes or even up to an hour. Depending on the format, it can be a friendly debate or a light-hearted educational talk, but the idea is to let listeners get to know the guest. Jokes, asides and tangents are typically welcome, as they make for a conversational tone, which is the heart of the podcast format.

The return from a podcast can be unpredictable, but it can also be long-lasting. The format differs from television or radio; episodes don’t run and then disappear. Podcasts all have backlogs, and it’s common for new listeners to go through older episodes as they discover a new show they enjoy. So, an interview done years ago will still have a trickle of new listens as time goes on.

Also, podcast hosts can provide a more open partnership with guests, as many do their own editing and will allow for some guidance at the direction of the guest — touching base beforehand to get an idea what each party expects is always a good idea. Many podcasts lie somewhere on the spectrum between grassroots journalism and entertainment, and it’s usually a friendly, cooperative landscape, a great way for an unseasoned spokesperson to get some experience before entering deeper, less friendly waters.

Though it will be interesting to see how the “wild west” of assorted podcasts organizes itself over the next few years, with cross-promotion and podcast networks already taking shape.  One thing is certain: podcasts aren’t going anywhere, as new listeners who developed the habit during quarantine are expected to continue listening to their favorite podcasts once they resume their commute. Definitely a card to keep in your deck.

PR Coordinator Celestia Ward is an avid podcast fan and is delighted when she can connect the right story with the right podcast platform. Imagine has two seasoned podcasters: Celestia Ward produces and cohosts Squaring the Strange, and Creative Director Alex Raffi is the creator and host of Creative Courage Chats.

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