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InContext / An inside look at the business of digital content

Cutting through the noise: podcast marketing tactics from NPR, Vox Media and WaPo

October 29, 2020 | By Greg Dool – Independent Media Reporter@GregDool

Media companies continue to flood podcast platforms with new launches. The attraction is clear: a much-needed and potentially lucrative source of revenue. An additional venue in which to engage with core audiences. And, perhaps most vitally, publishers are capitalizing on the longer-term opportunity to introduce themselves to a massive and ever-growing pool of listeners.

But amid a glut of content, viral hits are rare. Rising above the noise to build audiences of scale is often a slow and arduous process. It’s far more involved than simply producing a compelling program and waiting for listeners to find it.

“I think a lot of people in media believe you can do it that way. We’re so used to a story succeeding or failing based on whether or not it’s good,” says Jessica Stahl, director of audio at The Washington Post. “Podcasting is such a crowded ecosystem. You really need to put as much might as you can behind letting people know that something is there.”

Dependence on platforms like Apple and Spotify makes it difficult for publishers to attribute success to individual marketing tactics. But it’s clear that the totality of these efforts has an impact. In their absence, the lack of engagement is noticeable.

“We try to do as much as we can with all of the levers that we have,” Stahl adds.

Leveraging existing capabilities

No stranger to audio, NPR has expanded aggressively into podcasts, complementing its radio programming with on-demand offerings for a generally younger cohort of listeners. The non-profit relies heavily on social media to boost its shows and tends to focus on promoting its podcasts during surges of traffic to its website.

“The question is, how do we take these people who are likely new to NPR and turn them into engaged users?” says senior director of brand marketing, Kristin Hume. “Podcasts are a great way to do that because they’re a really valuable engagement tool. You’re asking people to tune in week after week.”

On social media, NPR uses hashtags and affinity targeting to join conversations around specific topics relevant to its shows. Hume recommends posting individual episodes or clips rather than general marketing around the podcast itself. Facilitating shareability is key.

Vox Media also favors an omnichannel approach, leveraging websites, newsletters and social media channels from across its portfolio of 13 media brands. But building awareness is only the first step, according to Brandon Santos, Vox’s director of podcast marketing.

“The second step is converting people when they’re actually ready to listen,” says Santos. “We typically do that through audio promos on our existing podcasts, collaborations between shows, and occasionally through promotion on podcasts outside of our network. These tactics tend to drive more noticeable spikes in our downloads, but they work best when we’ve done the awareness-building work first.”

Pragmatic cross-promotion

All three companies cite the use of existing podcasts to plug new ones as one of the more immediate and effective ways of boosting downloads. “Our listeners really value these cross-promotions,” says NPR’s Hume. “They don’t see them as advertisements. They see them as a way to learn about new content from a brand they love.”

Typically, a new launch will enjoy four weeks of promotion across NPR’s entire podcast network. Hume says that this provides a solid foundation from which to engage additional listeners outside the core.

At Vox, these cross-promotions take several forms, including ads inserted into shows with similar audiences, content collaborations, guest appearances by hosts on other shows, or episode previews shared in another show’s feed.

“We’re fortunate to have producers and hosts who respect each other’s work and understand the value in supporting one another,” says Santos. “Listeners already have a lot of confidence in those brands and hosts, so they’re much more willing to give that show we’re promoting a chance.”

Like Vox, NPR is comfortable buying or bartering for ads with “like-minded podcasts” produced by other publishers without fear of cannibalizing audiences. “It doesn’t feel like people are peaking out yet in terms of the number of podcasts that they’re willing to listen to,” Hume says.

Gaming the platforms

Discovery remains an inherent problem in a world where the dominant platforms host an overwhelming surplus of content, Stahl says. But there are still ways to optimize.

“One simple way you can help drive discovery is to make sure that you’re very clear about what your show is about in your description copy, your episode titles, and your show notes for each episode,” notes Santos. “Both [Apple and Spotify] scrape those fields for their search results and their ‘related podcast’ algorithms.”

Hume says NPR has had success pitching Apple for featured spots within its podcast app, a formalized process open to anyone.  “We try to get in their curated collections as well, and the best way to do that is to make sure you’re publishing content that connects to the issues of the moment,” Hume says. “Apple does try to be pretty editorial and topical in what they’re promoting, so listing individual episodes in your pitches is really helpful.”

On Spotify, it’s more about getting different episodes of shows into the platform’s curated playlists. Examples include “Real People, Real Stories,” or “Your Daily Drive,” which offer a mix of music and news originally intended for morning commuters.

Monetization, in perspective

When it comes to actually making money, solutions are a mixed bag. All three companies promote their reach and the intimate, trusting relationships between listeners and hosts, but offerings vary.

Vox provides both host-read ads and branded segments produced for advertisers, both as standalone sponsorships or as part of integrated packages. NPR sells a plethora of options, from mid-roll ads to programmatic insertions.

Inserted ads are the dominant offering at The Washington Post. But while advertising is a big piece of monetization, Stahl says it’s worth remembering that a successful podcast can also benefit the business in more indirect ways.

“As we think of subscriptions at The Washington Post and the value of loyalty, podcasts stand out as a particularly loyalty-driven medium,” she explains. “The amount of time a podcast listener spends with us each week is astronomical. That idea of capturing and holding those audiences is really valuable in itself.”

Despite the fact that most podcasts are offered for free, that cost for entry—20 to 60 minutes of a listener’s day—is actually relatively high, says Santos. This constitutes a much larger commitment than reading an article or subscribing to a newsletter. “That means it’s even more important that you have a compelling reason to listen and that you’re communicating it very clearly. Collaborating with content teams to make sure you understand the unique strengths of a show and the benefit to the listener is extremely important.”

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