Branded podcasts helped spark a new craze for audio content marketing, but they're hardly alone in the space anymore.
Home digital assistants like Amazon Echo and Google Home, along with other IoT offerings including smart cars, are opening up new audio possibilities for brands. These artificial intelligence-powered devices operate via voice commands to help users do tasks ranging from adjusting the temperature to creating online shopping lists. Stemming from these interactions, they can generate a wealth of new marketing data, and Gartner recently forecast that 30% of web browsing sessions will happen without a screen by 2020, with "'voice-first' interactions" potentially taking over much of the legwork.
Facebook has also been pushing heavily into real-time content with Facebook Live streaming, and just last month the company rolled out an audio counterpart in Live Audio. Publishers including BBC World Service, LBC and Harper Collins are already tapping the new format to reach audiences where connectivity is an issue, live video isn’t feasible or to simply serve those hungry for more audio content on social.
These different pieces taken together mean that marketers now have a variety of audio content marketing options available to them. However, audio content pushed through nontraditional formats will require a more targeted strategy and remain a niche space to be approached with measured expectations for most marketers, at least for the immediate future.
"While podcasts have their place and have loyal followers, audio distributed via video channels such as YouTube [is] still growing rapidly," Irv Shapiro, CEO of DialogTech, told Marketing Dive. "And now with digital voice assistants increasing in popularity and becoming a place people search for content, marketers should think about how their content will be discovered and interacted with."
Beyond playing into trends, voice interactions with chatbots, virtual assistants and other IoT technologies have the potential to upend traditional search and display advertising models in the near future, even for giants in the space like Google. For marketers, the growth in audio content means adjusting strategy to make it easier for consumers to find exactly what they're looking for via voice.
"For example, in order to rank for voice search you should think in a more conversational way and target searches using questions, expressions and phrases instead of keywords," Shapiro said.
Considering how audio content is actually consumed, it stands as a unique marketing medium, compatible with busy lives by being largely hands-free and featuring minimal, if any, visual distractions. Audio content is best-suited for a target audience that lives an on-the-go lifestyle because it can be engaged while running, driving and walking down the street, which would all be unsafe spaces for watching videos, per Shapiro.
Audio also has the benefit of a built-in audience thanks to smartphones, which serve as high-quality listening devices ready in pockets, purses and backpacks.
But as intriguing as audio content might be, it’s still very much a niche content type, according to Andy Seibert, managing partner of custom content agency Imprint and chairman of The Content Council.
"Audio is certainly heating up, but its importance remains relatively cool in the overall marketing mix," he said. "With all the tools brand marketers have at their disposal, audio still falls pretty low on the list. If you were looking at the line items on a marketing budget, audio is, and should be, down at 5% to 10%."
Keeping those figures in mind as general advice, devising an approach still boils down to the needs of an individual brand. Marketers must clearly understand what channels their audience is on the most when determining a framework for audio content marketing.
If a customer base is largely women between 25- and 35-years-old, podcasts are still a worthwhile channel, per Seibert. If the target group is men between 18 and 35, audio might be less of a priority, with a focus on marketing within game consoles potentially making more sense.
"[I]t all depends on your audience," Seibert added. "If Amazon Echo’s partnerships division comes calling and says that 15% of your audience has an Alexa, then you’d be wise to test it out. But it’s still too new of a medium to go blowing your whole budget on audio channels."
For podcasts, long-term strategy is key
Just because traditional podcasts are no longer the only player in the space doesn't mean they're out of the race — not by a longshot. In fact, podcasts remain a good starting point for any conversation around audio content marketing, and Shapiro pointed to LinkedIn research that found 35% of users listen to podcasts.
Studies have shown podcasts ads are particularly effective with key demographic groups. IAB and Edison Research findings from last fall suggested almost two-thirds of podcast listeners are more inclined to consider purchasing products and services advertised via the format; furthermore, 60% of consumers surveyed said they prefer to purchase from brands that advertise on their favorite programs. Separate studies from comScore in June 2016 found that podcasts are the preferred medium for digital ads for consumers between ages 18 and 49.
But a standing challenge with branded podcasts is producing quality material that the audience is willing to engage with, per Shapiro. Seibert echoed the idea, stating that podcasts are only worthwhile if marketers have something to say and can say a lot about that topic or subject area.
An audio strategy should be similar to any other content marketing approach, according to Shapiro. It should be timely, relevant and professionally assembled.
"In today's tech world, there is little excuse for poor production quality," he noted.
Promoting the content itself can also be easily overlooked, experts say. If a podcast or even Facebook Live Audio broadcast isn’t properly marketed to the right target audience, the quality of the actual content doesn't matter — people simply won't tune in.
"[W]hen we launched our podcast, we were very careful to tie it into an integrated content marketing strategy with our blog, social channels, email newsletters and more," said Seibert. "[I]t’s been successful because we have audiences in each of those places that are already open and receiving our stories."
Driving the trend
A few brands to turn to when looking for effective ways to leverage audio content include UBS' "Top of the Morning" podcast because the program clearly knows its target audience, per Seibert.
"Everything is spot on, from the name, the topics, the publishing cadence and the length of each podcast," he said.
The "Slack Variety Pack" is another successful podcast because the subject — anything related to work, tying neatly into the Slack brand — leaves room for what Seibert described as "endless episodes" that can be regularly released, with digestible lengths well-suited to the medium.
Audio content marketing isn't necessarily limited to specific businesses, either: Patrón Tequila stands as an example of a beverage brand connecting with users via the unusual channel of Amazon Alexa, turning itself into a sort of personal "virtual bartender."
One of the biggest factors likely to further drive audio content marketing innovation is that the medium is inexpensive. The lack of heavy upfront costs allows brands to be nimble and also unfiltered, testing various strategies and responding to their results in a timely way, according to Seibert. However, just because the price tag can be comparatively low, the creative effort should be as considerable as any other medium.
"[I]n the excitement of this new trend, marketers should be disciplined enough to understand that launching a podcast is a significant investment," Seibert said. "You have to have a series, plan your content and keep it coming. It takes time to build an audience and you have to plan it out and be prepared."