Jane Genova
Jane Genova

In April 2020, Apple Podcasts announced a milestone: Its catalogue featured one million podcasts. That might have reflected the COVID-triggered surge in podcasting last spring. With so many locked down at home, launching a podcast seemed like a good idea. Visions of stardom might have danced in their heads.

The other major presence in the podcast category, Spotify, went on an acquisition spree. That included the Joe Rogan podcast, with its 190 million downloads monthly. Forbes documents that the Rogan show made $30 million in 2019.

According to Podcast Insights, 155 million households in America have listened to podcasts. 45 percent of them have income over $75,000. The medium is mobile and smartphones drive usage.

More and more job applications in public relations and marketing demand: List the three podcasts you listen to and explain why they are favorites.

On their popular podcast Pivot, Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway predict Amazon could establish a podcasting platform. They debate how embedded Netflix could become in that territory. Pivot itself could become a lucrative franchise for the two tech influencers.

The prototype of what we know as podcasting today has existed since the 1980s. Around 2004, it began to catch on. Apple coined the term in 2005. But it took about 15 years for it to catch fire. Along with that explosive growth have come massive shifts in the category.

It might be said that the medium has bifurcated into BigPodcast and The Rest. The mission of this article is to guide public relations agencies and marketing firms and their clients on how to navigate this rapidly changing medium.

Those in BigPodcast include both the significant revenue producers and the influencers.

In addition to Rogan, the top money-makers are, reports PodcastAlarm:

  • Karen Kilgariff and George Hardstark – My Favorite Murder - $15 million in 2019
  • Dave Ramsey – The Dave Ramsay Show - $10 million in 2019
  • Dax Shepard – Armchair Expert - $9 million in 2019
  • Bill Simmons – The Bill Simmons Podcast - $7 million in 2019.

The podcasts with influence range from former first lady Michelle Obama’s Higher Ground to former prosecutor Preet Bharara’s Words Matter. They could evolve into top revenue producers. In fact, the latter is being sued because the producers allege they have not received their cut, as agreed, of the $1.75 million in past and future advertising revenue.

In addition to advertising, revenue currently primarily comes from subscriptions and sponsored content. That could expand, notes Pacific Content, to membership groups, various forms of online education, newsletters, merchandise and premium content.

Pacific Content also foresees the medium going through consolidation, fresh content approaches, tech developments in everything from advertising to distribution and diversity. Experimentation is already underway. For instance, in the spirit of TikTok short form, there are microcasts, broadcasted throughout the day. Those would be ideal for clients’ branding and cause-related messaging.

In a relatively short period of time, podcasting has become serious business. Essentially, it mutated from a fun sandbox amateurs could play in to a professional game. As a result, the bar is now high for production standards, hosting, scripting, guest selection and overall performance art. Part of that, of course, is also because of the glut of digital content in all mediums, not just audio. Way back in 2016, there was already noise about Peak Content, be it text, video, audio, or a combination of all three.

Experts such as Swisher and Galloway anticipate that in 2021 businesses like Apple and the Spotify will only contract with commercial-quality podcasts by personalities or those with large followings. Scale has become more important because of how competitive advertising has become.

Given what is now demanded, it is no surprise that almost half of podcasts fail. The term for that is “podfade.”

However, podcasting per se remains an open medium. Public relations agencies and marketing firms can still use this tool for themselves and for their clients. The objectives include persuasion, influence, branding, selling, fundraising and profit. Some of those podcasts might be “sleepers” which catapult into the big time. Many others could be the analogues of “indie” film-makers who took on the traditional Hollywood studios. All have a shot at achieving the needed results if aligned with what are best practices, at the time.

Right now, among the proven-out rules of the road to increase the probability for success are these eight:

  • Preparation is necessary, both for reconfiguring existing podcasts and launching new ones. The amateur phase is over. One focus must be recording space. Some podcasters have had a room in their homes brought up to studio standards. A second option is renting time in a recording studio. Another aspect of the planning is the willingness to invest—time, energy, creativity and funding. The “show” requires the same attention to macro and micro elements as radio programming. What will be the topic for the episode? What tone will the scripting or talking points have? Who will be invited as guests? How to brief guests without constricting their input?

  • Test test test before first going live or when doing course correction. Conduct informal focus groups for feedback.

  • As in blogging, concentrate on a niche. Within niches there is wiggle room. However, if the content bleeds beyond those boundaries, start another podcast for other kinds of subject matter.

  • Be an original. The killer of podcasts, just as happens in blogging, is the assumption that it is necessary to fit in with the herd. The result is what might be called The Giant Platitude. Both blogging and podcasting are personal mediums. The persona as well as the content has to be one-of-a-kind.

  • Research who the target audiences are or could be. As in all communications, it is all about the audience. If the audience changes, so might the tone and content of the podcast. Yes, follow the audience.

  • Have no expectations. Especially not of stardom. There is the old adage that expectations are platforms for resentments. That kind of negative mindset sets in play downward trajectories. Both launching and operating a podcast are experiments. There is no predicting what can happen. In addition, developing a show takes time.

  • Assess both quantitatively and intuitively how it is going. Leap in immediately and often with course corrections. Small changes can have big impacts.

  • Promotion is everything. No longer is there a notion of over-doing that. Exploit both digital social networks and traditional word of mouth. For the latter, ask family, friends, neighbors and clients to tune in. Yes, be imaginative and in-the-now with how you keep putting the podcast out there. For example, if an episode goes controversial, share that story afterward in all your usual promotional spots. Each episode could provide a story to tell.

Of course, there is an elephant in the room about podcasting. That is the question: Has a podcast become a must-do in 2021?

That same old question also had arisen and continues to emerge with establishing a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, TikTok, YouTube, blogging, e-books and even print publishing.

There is no absolute answer. The common-sense one is this: Usually an organization or an individual excels in a few of those but not all. When to add another medium and perhaps cut back involvement in others tends to be fairly obvious. Given the content glut, public relations agencies and marketers have to go with their own and their clients’ strengths. At least those at the time. Over time, they could change.

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Jane Genova is a ghostwriter, marcom expert and career coach with special expertise on future trends (janegenova374@gmail.com).