Latest in content marketing: brands make their own podcasts

Brands are getting so comfortable with the idea of podcasts that they’re starting to produce their own.

Prudential, Umpqua Bank, GE and Netflix are just a few of the big brands that have in the last few months launched large-scale podcast productions that people are actually listening to. Panoply, Slate’s podcast network, also recently launched a custom unit that works with brands to help make those podcasts a reality.

To date, the network has had plenty of publisher partners but said that only recently have brands become more comfortable creating branded podcast content. Panoply has so far worked with six brands, and chief revenue officer Matt Turck said interest from brands to produce podcasts is growing.

Podcasting is enjoying a boomlet: 46 million Americans listen to podcasts monthly, and the average listener listens to six a week, if you believe researcher Edison. The medium has plenty of advertisers — you can’t listen to certain podcasts without hearing spoken native ads for Stamps.com, Squarespace or Casper. But what is increasing is how many brands are now creating their own series.

Prudential, for example, created a four-episode series called “40/40 Vision,” hosted by public radio host and actor Faith Salie, that explores what it means to be 40 and older. The brand was drawn to the unedited, intimate style of podcasting, said vp of media Anna Papadopoulos. “Forty-year-olds are the generation that has been impacted the most and benefited the most from what is happening culturally, so we wanted to talk about that.”

Panoply’s team helps Prudential come up with ideas for the episodes. Papadopoulos said she likes it because Panoply treats the brand work the way they would treat editorial.

Another brand-turned-podcaster is Umpqua Bank, which in September launched “Open Account,” a podcast created by former MTV correspondent SuChin Pak that “gets honest” about money and why there is a culture of silence around finance and financial literacy. To date, the first three episodes have been downloaded 70,000 times, and Panoply said that’s the highest number of downloads of any other new podcasts — sponsored or not — launched at the same time.

“Podcasts are a private thing,” said Lani Hayward, evp creative strategies at Umpqua Bank. “It’s just like money, and there is a space here where you can build content and loyalty around the subject matter very quickly.”

The biggest success story in the space has been GE. The king of large-scale content marketing that looks nothing like advertising created “The Message,” an eight-episode sci-fi series that hit No. 1 on iTunes last week and had more than a million listeners. GE co-produced the podcast with Panoply — but since it was fiction, it wasn’t created by the sponsored-content unit.

New entrants
While Panoply has long enjoyed first-mover status in the space, there are other podcast companies making more inroads into content marketing: Gimlet Media, which produces the popular podcast StartUp,  said last week that it would also create its own branded-content division. The company chose to talk about the idea of a branded-content unit in a manner befitting its brand: on an episode of “Start Up” devoted to the idea of branded content — featuring a conversation between Gimlet and a potential client, real estate company Zillow.

The company said there has been a lot of interest from brands that wanted the company to create podcasts that would essentially be branded content. On the episode, Nazanin Rafsanjani, who is responsible for the ads in the company’s podcasts, said the idea would be Gimlet’s version of the New York Times’ T-Brand Studios — the publisher’s native-content arm. The idea is that it would take some pressure off the company and create a cash flow that would help fund the other podcasts the company wants to make. “It’s doing the work ad agencies used to do,” Gimlet head Alex Blumberg said.

A lack of metrics
But for all its popularity, a lack of data around podcasting frustrates brands and keeps some of them from going all-in, either on buying ads in existing podcasts or creating their own. (Apple drives the majority of podcast listening activity, but it doesn’t break out demographics on its audiences.)

Panoply’s Turck said that the primitive metrics tools definitely hurt. In August, Panoply acquired Audiometric, an Australian software platform that will provide brand partners with more in-depth data. The plan is to go beyond the download: break up listenership geographically, hear how far listeners got and so on. And the company is also working with the IAB to create standardized metrics around this.

As a result Prudential, has chosen to focus its ROI efforts around how its podcasting boosts the favorability of the brand. Still, Papadopoulos conceded that it would be good to have harder data. “It’s an area that could use better analytics,” she said. “We’re using old metrics to measure a new platform.”