The Growth of Podcasting as a Marketing Tool

How can podcasting be taking off just as the iPod itself seems to be fading away? Its seems counterintuitive but a number of factors – timing, technology and luck among them - are coming together to move the podcast audio format into the mainstream.

The smart content marketer is recognizing the circumstances and attributes that make podcasting such a valuable tool in building customer relationships.


A Technology Before It’s Time

It was starting to look like podcasts were going the way of the CD, VCR and the 8-track.

One problem preventing podcasting from breaking out was that it sort of came too early. The technology has been viable for well over a decade but there was too much friction in the user experience. A listener first had to download the audio file to a computer and then upload it to their iPod. Not a big problem but definitely an impediment.

With the introduction of the iPhone that step was no longer necessary, but podcasting felt like old news. It was a term that many had heard but a format few had adopted.

There also wasn’t a breakout discovery tool to help people find the content that would speak to them. Music discovery tools were at the heart of the file sharing movement going back to Napster. Pandora offered to “map your music genome” but a successful equivalent for podcasts didn’t materialize until much later.

Now the technology is mature and discovery apps like Stitcher have been widely adopted. Further, in 2013 with the release of iOS 7, Apple began including a standalone podcasting app on every iPhone.

The user experience is no longer an impediment.


The smash hit that changed everything – The Serial effect

As recently 2014 only a select few programs, most notably This American Life, had managed to break through and gain mainstream notoriety.

But then podcasting had a breakthrough hit that changed everything. Serial launched in 2014 and took off in a way that no podcast had before.

Serial followed the dark, murky and intriguing case of Hae Min Lee, a Baltimore high school student murdered in 1999. Serial investigated the case and conducted exhaustive interviews with the victim’s ex-boyfriend, who was ultimately convicted of the crime. I won’t get deep into the detail or try to diagnose why it touched a nerve for so many listeners - but trust me, it was gripping.

The show spread faster than any podcast before it, reaching 5 million iTunes downloads in record time. Suddenly creator Sarah Koenig was a guest on Colbert and being parodied on Saturday Night Live.

The lasting effect of Serial was that it introduced many people to the format for the first time. It became clear that the technology was now easy and friction-free. Those listeners finished the series and found themselves asking, “What do I listen to now?”


Startup is a great show – An even better content strategy

Another hit podcast called Startup highlighted just how powerful a podcast can be as a marketing tool.

Startup followed the show’s host, Alex Blumberg, as he launched his own business, a podcasting content company called Gimlet Media. In the first episode, during a pitch to legendary startup investor Chris Sacca, they discuss “what is the unfair advantage” Alex has going for him. They seem to settle on his experience in the industry as the unfair advantage.

I’d argue the real advantage he had was that the first show they produced was about the business itself. Listeners spent hours empathizing with the founders and their families, understanding the unseen challenges of the business,  and learning about the collection of skills that made Gimlet unique.

As a listener you couldn’t help but root for them. I felt like I knew Alex and when I recommended the podcast it felt as though I were doing a favor for a close friend.

When they launched a second show, Reply All, its creators became a part of the storyline – thereby launching the next hit.

When it came time to raise additional funds they pitched the audience and hit their goals in a matter of days.

All this happened while entertaining the listeners. We sat there eagerly soaking up all the information that a marketing department might otherwise spend millions to communicate. But the information was invited – not pushed to us. It was fantastic content marketing.

That was the “unfair advantage!”


The elements that make podcasting special

There are a few elements that make podcasting stand out as a content tool. Let’s take a look at some of the reasons I think podcasting presents a unique opportunity to marketers.

1) Opportunity to connect with the audience

Podcasting offers a chance to connect with the audience on a human to human  level more easily than many other formats. Hearing the voice, inflection and emotion of the host makes the listener feel like they are really getting to know a person. It’s a difficult sensation to replicate with a written piece, infographic, or photo.

2) Long-form acceptance

Podcasting is a long-form format that people actually want to remain long-form. Trends in written and video seem to keep moving shorter and more concise. People are busy and it’s a big ask to require their attention for an extended period of time.

In contrast, people often consume podcasts when they are driving, exercising, walking, running errands, doing chores, etc. The multitasking element lends itself to long-form content. That extra time gives you the opportunity to build a deeper and more meaningful relationship.

3) Ability to reach a guest audience

Most podcasts don’t attempt the highly edited narrative format a of Startup, Serial or This American Life. It’s much more common to follow an interview format. This certainly cuts down on the time needed to put together a quality show. But the interview format also benefits through accessing the guest’s audience. A blog mention or tweet from a well-networked guest can have a big impact on your number of listeners.

4) Less content saturation

Though podcasting has been around for a while, it’s really just starting to take off toward its full potential. It’s an opportunity to get in on a growing format with less competition for attention. For people lamenting the fact that they didn’t start their blog in 2006 – this could be your chance to right that wrong.

5)  Low barriers to entry

Technology has made podcast production easily accessible to anyone. While some small equipment and software upgrades could improve the output – start with a directional microphone - you could produce a solid podcast with nothing more than an iPhone. Just be careful not to confuse the ease of creating a podcast with ease to master the channel – a great show takes work.

6) Multiple revenue sources

Podcasting also lends itself to generating multiple revenue streams. My interest in podcasting is primarily as a content marketing tool to engage the audience of your core business. However, a successful show with a large audience can also monetize with advertising. Affiliate marketers have also found Podcasting to be an effective tool to drive commission revenue by referring products to listeners.


  • Podcasting is becoming an increasingly powerful tool in content marketing
  • The format is hitting it’s stride in part due to recent technological advancements
  • Hit shows like Serial have helped bring podcasting to a larger audience
  • Startup represents an ingenious example of podcasting as a content marketing tool
  • Podcasting has unique attributes that make it a special content channel
    • Authentic person-to-person connection
    • It’s a welcomed long-form channel which is harder and harder to come by
    • Less competition for attention than some other content formats
    • Podcast interviews give you access to your guest’s audience
    • It’s easy to start – though difficult to perfect
    • Podcasts can be monetized in various ways