LISTEN AND LEARN
The history of radio programming goes back decades, but corporate podcasts, its upstart young offspring is the one making waves in the business world. Amy Sandys and Brittany Golob report on the value of audio content in a corporate context
Towards the end of August, long-time Radio 1 presenter Greg James stepped up to present the breakfast show after 11 years at the station. Coveted as the pinnacle of a radio career, the 6.30am-10am slot has seen a host of household names take to the airwaves to play music, cover the news and interact with legions of listeners who welcome the host into their lives. James said on air, as his new show began, “I love radio more than anything else in the world. It is the best thing. It’s there when you’re happy, it’s there when you’re sad.”
This potential for emotion and close listener interaction, says Richard Lancaster, managing director and founder of corporate podcast producer Brand Conversation, is why radio has long been considered the most trusted media format. Yet it isn’t confined just to live broadcast over the airways. The same feeling of familiarity, authenticity and trust is why podcasts, both corporate and consumer, have enjoyed a continual growth in popularity over the past decade. Their similarities, says Lancaster, shows that while the format has developed, the end result remains the same. “I used to be a radio presenter, so [for Brand Conversation] I went right back to that,” says Lancaster. “It’s the quality of the medium, it’s how people see you as their best friend. Radio has always been this most trusted medium, and because of that conversational aspect you can’t fake it very easily.”
Although relatively newer than radio, being a decade, rather than a century, old, podcasts emulate the feeling of trust forged through hearing a familiar voice. Arguably, podcasts are by their nature even more intimate.
Subscribers typically carve out time during the day to be alone and listen to a programme with personal interest, or wait until a typically solo activity such as driving or cleaning to indulge. “There is a growing thirst for podcast content now as people listen on their commute, out walking or running, or in the gym, as well as at their desks,” says Russell Goldsmith, founder and presenter of csuitepodcast, a platform for senior in-house executives to discuss issues from marketing to communications.
“Like radio, [podcasting] is a medium that we don’t have to look at our screens to consume, it’s portable and the ease of access and amount of new content available to listen to is helping to increase its popularity.” When corporations develop podcasts as a way to communicate with employees, the ‘one-on-one’ feeling is invaluable in creating a more intimate connection with the workforce. Whether as the first foray into digital communications, or to complement a multi-channel approach, podcasts are becoming an integral way for many employers to communicate with staff.
For Lancaster, the foray into corporate podcasts presented an opportunity to bridge the gap between employees wanting to trust employers and better understand company decisions, and the desire to be included as part of a wider workforce conversation. Podcasts, says Lancaster, are an excellent solution in a multimedia oriented world. Loading faster and taking less space than a video, but not requiring the time commitment of a written piece, podcasts offer a digital solution to integrating a disparate workforce. Podcasts are also more of a two-way conversation than written or video content, because they can include guests – and generate feedback – from across the business landscape. Lancaster says, “Part of the challenge is making it so that people will listen to it and keep listening to it. It’s about the quality; it’s as simple as that.” Key behind involvement and accessibility for Brand Conversation is its format, which ensures interest for its a global audience.
“Generally they are magazine format radio shows, typically we won’t try and cover too many topics,” Lancaster says. “If we do it just loses the edge so we try and hone in on one or two key issues. We have the regular in the studio with the host, and you buy into the relationship. Guests sit in the studio with them, and then we send reporters out and about as well.” Securing a good presenter-guest relationship is imperative, but engaging the audience is about more than just the promise of interesting voices. Quality, says Lancaster, is the most important factor in ensuring listeners return to a podcast again. Irrespective of the guest’s eminence, the sound transmitted is core to ensuring listeners buy into the message being conveyed.
“Like radio, [podcasting] is a medium that we don’t have to look at our screens to consume, it’s portable and the ease of access and amount of new content available to listen to is helping to increase its popularity”
Adele Pickerill, former director of internal communications at BT, says length and accessibility of broadcast are both fundamental to securing a loyal audience for its monthly podcast. Like any internal communication strategy, clarity of expression is key – when connecting with an employee is purely aural, it has to be interesting enough, and easy enough to find, to ensure they don’t favour another podcast instead. “When you’ve got a large organisation like BT and its very diverse and in multiple countries, you need a vehicle to access quite easily,” says Pickerill. “Unlike video, podcasts are remarkably easy, so from a technical point of view you can get quite a lot of content with a lot of impact that can be accessed from wherever. And the trick is to make them quite short but include a lot of information to get that two-way dialogue going.”
Creating a two-way dialogue is analogous to the typical relationship between radio presenter and listener. While no different for corporate podcasts, somehow this intimate connection is even more important – take away the device, and a podcast is essentially a conversation between employer and employee. This lack of barrier means asking more difficult questions, too. “To get BT’s people involved, we’d pick a topic as part of our strategy and ask them for their questions, their ideas and their thoughts around what that meant for them, or what they didn’t understand about it or had we thought about certain ideas,” says Pickerill. “These guys are on the front line and they’ve got fantastic ideas we want to tap into, because if you’re sat in a certain part of it you don’t necessarily see the wider picture.”
That connection is also relevant for companies trying to build closer relationships between leaders and employees. Pickerell adds that BT’s CEO was brought closer to employees, particularly those in offices around the world, who may not often have the opportunity to interact with the CEO. Not only does it create a sense of intimacy – much like the radio shows of old that would have families gather around a wireless set – but podcasts use trust as a way to engage listeners. Former radio presenter Lancaster says, “People saw you as their best friend. Radio has always been the most trusted medium.”
Those producing corporate podcasts employ that element of trust to tell stories. Whether it’s through a reportage style, a conversation with a CEO or other leader, or a roundtable of several experts, podcasts must be entertaining first and foremost. At BT, the way Pickerell managed that was to ensure a variety of guests, but to also avoid pre-prepared questions for leaders. “It doesn’t sound authentic,” she says, when answers are almost scripted.
Authenticity then breeds trust, which encourages people to share.
Goldsmith agrees, saying most often successful podcasts are shared through word of mouth or recommended by a friend or colleague. He says, “The podcast host can build trust with their listeners over time and, so long as the content is not just an extended ad format, but instead is relevant, engaging, entertaining and informative, listeners will continue to download future episodes.”
Within a business that might mean the podcast is pushed out by internal comms teams, but it gains a following by encouraging interesting programmes, featuring a variety of job roles and being accessible.
In general, listening is up, across the UK. Ofcom’s 2018 research shows that 11% of UK-based adults, or six million people, listen to a podcast a week, up from 7% in 2013. The regulator’s annual Communications Market Report states, “In the last few years, podcast consumption has surged in the UK, with a growing number of providers of audio content.”
That increase has helped facilitate the accessibility of podcasts for the corporate audience. By using existing apps and a multichannel approach – to which podcasts naturally lend themselves – to disseminate podcast content, producers can tap into an existing outside of work behaviour, thereby encouraging employees to engage. Unlike other media – particularly social and traditional – podcast content can be wholly owned by the business. Goldsmith says this direct relationship not only helps content creators to drive the conversation, but to adapt the format. “You can respond to feedback immediately,” he says, “by adapting your content accordingly to what your audience wants to hear.” That kind of instantaneous feedback-response mechanism is not possible when communicating through a third party like Instagram or the Guardian. They can become, as Pickerell says, “the heartbeat for communication.”
Much as radio programming can become the heartbeat of the week for a particular audience, so too can corporate podcasts transform a remote relationship between employee and employer into a relatable one, all while communicating key messages in an illustrative, narrative format.