How to Apply Inbound Marketing Principles to Networking

The beauty of inbound marketing is that if you execute well, you can truly build a lead generation machine. So, could you apply inbound marketing principles to networking and build a relationship generating machine? When you think about it, the parallels between inbound marketing and effective networking are quite strong.

The key there is “effective” networking. I don’t mean the process of showing up at a networking event, plastering the room with your business card, and aggressively pitching your skills and your company with an “Always be closing” mentality. Come to think if it, that reminds me a lot of traditional advertising.

When I talk about networking I mean steadily and strategically building mutually beneficial relationships with like-minded people.

Building a new relationship – not an acquaintance – takes time and energy which means you can’t cast a very wide net. You need to be strategic about where you devote your time. That relationship must be carefully nurtured from a first introduction so a rapport can be built. You need to show the person how you can be valuable to them without coming on so strong that you scare them off. And you need to tactfully develop a dynamic that is valuable to each of you.

Those truths apply to networking just as they do for inbound marketing. So how can we apply some of the time-tested principles of inbound marketing to strengthen our approach to networking?

In this post I’ll look at how the inbound marketing methodology - Attract, Convert, Close, Delight - can be harnessed to help develop a robust and valuable professional network.

Define Your Purpose

You need to develop concrete goals to drive your networking plans, just as you would in developing a marketing plan.

Those goals need to be long term and reasonably specific. Waiting until you’re in the midst of a job hunt or until your company is behind on revenue goals means you’ll be too focused on the short term to build real relationships. You’ll seem desperate – and desperation is remarkably reliable repellant.

In addition to planning ahead, you need to have an end goal in mind. Simply networking because it seems like you should will leave you untargeted and dispassionate.

Personally, I’m trying to accomplish a few specific things with my networking. First, I generally want to be a valuable resource to as many people as possible. The more times people think or say, “Sam could probably help with that,” the more I’ll be involved in interesting stuff – both personally and professionally. My own skills and knowledge are only so scalable, so for the times that I can’t be the expert, I want to make sure that I know somebody that is an expert. “I’m not sure if Sam knows about that but I’m sure he’ll know somebody that does.” I’ll take it!

Second, I want to be part of a support network of people with similar passions and goals. When I have a big failure or a big success I want to be able to go regroup or celebrate with peers that will understand. When I’m debating a decision I want to call on a mentor with more experience to help me think it through. And I also want to be a resource for other people – both because it’s good karma and because, selfishly, it makes me feel good.

Knowing what I’m after while networking allows me to filter and devote my energy to the relationships that will be most valuable.

Does this person have a valuable skill that is complementary to mine? Would this person benefit from my expertise? Does this person have similar passions and goals to me? If I can’t give a strong yes to any of those questions, it’s probably a waste of time for both of us.

Develop Target Personas

A tremendously important step of developing an inbound marketing plan is developing your buyer personas. You likely already have a vague sense of your target customers. But the exercise of defining detailed personas helps you better understand the subgroups and develop strategies to connect with each.

The same goes for networking. Once you’ve established your broader networking mission, put a semi-fictional face on the types of people you want in your network. Some personas will be in your industry and could be more senior, more junior, or at your level. Others will be in different industries but have complimentary skills, shared interests or shared experiences.

For instance, I’m on the agency side so one target persona of mine describes a marketing services professional at another agency. They perform similar services but for a different type of client. We have a lot in common with our day to day and can commiserate or share tactics.

At the same time, I’m also really interested in early stage technology startups. The folks there tend to be adventurous, tech savvy and always looking for the next big thing. Relationships like that help me stay on the front end of change. And I can be valuable to them because I spent years running an analyst group at a fast growing, mid-stage startup that was scaling rapidly and recently had an IPO. We aren’t working in the same professional sphere but there is a lot to be shared between us.

My approach and preparation for these two targets is quite different. Defining them carefully helps develop a plan to make connections with each.

Think About Your Funnel

Try thinking about the process of building relationships the same way you would think about your sales funnel.

The top of your funnel is the stage where you first making contact and catch the attention of a new acquaintance. Think of it as the Attract phase of the inbound methodology – Attract,  Convert, Close, Delight

In the middle of your funnel you’ll begin to develop a rapport and convert from being somebody they’ve met to somebody they know. This is where you begin to provide value to one another and a trusting relationship is just starting to begin.

Late in your funnel, the stage that might be closing a first sale in an inbound marketing funnel, is where you turn that professional relationship into a professional friendship. You’ve established trust with one another and have proven the relationship is valuable to you both.

And in the final stages, you’ve each found the relationship so delightful that it no longer feels like just a work buddy – there is a friendship that is personal as well as professional.

Top of Funnel Networking

The top of the funnel is where you start your networking process but, unfortunately for many, it often stops here and never moves to a more meaningful stage.

Top of funnel networking activities are things like attending a networking event and introducing yourself to somebody. Friending someone or messaging them via social media. Shooting an email to someone you saw in an interview.

The first step is to establish whether there is a basis for a relationship at all. Do they meet some criteria in your target personas? If so, you then need to give them the information they need to decide the same thing.

If they’ve caught your attention in some way, tell them and give a compliment. “I read you’re blog post about x and I was totally sucked in” or “I’ve been following your company for a while. You seem like you’re onto something.”

Demonstrating your interest invites their attention and helps alleviate any reservations they may have about whether you’re interested in what they have to say.

Also, give a bit of information about yourself - but keep it brief. It’s not time for your 15 sentence elevator pitch because they haven’t demonstrated that they’re interested yet. “I help companies develop their web presence and develop content marketing strategy. I’m also kind of a startup junkie in my spare time.”

Look for signs that they are interested in hearing more. Are they asking follow up questions? Are they telling you something they think may be relevant to you? If so, share more about what you do and what you’re passionate about. Just make sure you’re also demonstrating that you are interested in them… provided you are.

If that interest level isn’t mutual, don’t continue to waste time. You need to focus on the people that share interests with you. Building relationships takes time so you can’t do it with everybody. Focus your attention on the interactions that seem most promising.

Transitioning to Mid-Funnel

The key to moving into the next stage of your funnel is to begin some sort of exchange.

In order for a relationship to be meaningful, the give and take needs to go both ways. So start thinking about some things you can give to and get from your contact.

In inbound marketing you might be offering premium content like a whitepaper in exchange for their contact information. In networking the exchange may be more subtle.

It should start really small. You don’t go from a first introduction to picking each other up at the airport or helping with an office move… Any Seinfeld fans out there?

A good thing to offer or ask for early on is a recommendation. “I just read a great book about that. I can text you the title if you’re interested.” “There is a new startup out of Boston that’s working on a tool for that. I’ll email you a link if you want.”

A simple recommendation is also small enough that you can ask for it from someone you don’t know well. If you’re at a conference you could ask “Are there any sessions you’re excited about and would recommend?” or “I’m really trying to figure out XYZ, is there anybody you can think of that I should try to speak with?”

Plus, if you take the advice, it’s a perfect follow up. “I read that book you recommended and it was awesome. I’m going to read X by that author next. Have you read that?”

Once you have begun an exchange, it’s easier to start ratcheting up the stakes. “I’d be happy to take a look at your new website and give you my impressions if you’re interested.” “If you had any time, I’d love to get your thoughts on a blog post I’m working on.”

Just try to always be giving more than you’re asking.

In many cases the progression will stall. In an inbound marketing campaign, not every contact with become a marketing qualified lead. That’s fine. But try to keep upping the stakes of a relationship that is progressing. Offer more and don’t be afraid to ask for a little bit more.

As the depth of what you’re giving each other grows, so will your relationship.

Closing – Solidifying the relationship

I think the best way to cement a networking relationship and move it into the realm of true professional friendship is to move it offline and into the real world.

The marketing funnel equivalent to solidifying the relationship might be closing the first sale. A potential customer can get a good sense of your company by the interactions they have before they become a customer. And those earlier interactions are a necessary step. But until a prospect has used your product or service in the real world, they can’t truly know or become an advocate for your company.

Once you’ve reached a level of familiarity that feels appropriate, invite your contact to do something in person.

One good option is to simply ask the person to lunch. But that can be a little bit awkward if the conversation gets slow. You also run the risk of the invitation being confused as something more than professional.

I suggest finding some sort of professional event that you both might enjoy and ask if they’d like to go with you. Maybe there is a good speaker presenting somewhere nearby. Or maybe you could ask them to be your wingman/woman at an upcoming networking event or conference.

It won’t always work but sometimes you’re just going to click with someone. Those times that you share laughs, talk about family, or save each other from an awkward networking moment are what will advance the relationships to a friendship.

Again, it won’t always work. But you probably don’t stand a chance of deepening the relationship without spending time in-person and out of the office.

Delight – Building Valuable Long Term Partnerships

A very small number of the relationships you develop have the potential to become career defining friendships that transcend a mere work friendship.

The inbound equivalent is the customer you make so happy that they try every new product you release, recommend it to their friends, write glowing reviews and retweet your every post.

In networking, these are the people that recruit you to come with them to a new company, ask you to be a part of their startup, send you customer after customer, or ask you to join their board.

They are the relationships that truly change the nature and level of your own success. And nobody manages to achieve great success without building some of these types of relationships.

To be honest, I can’t give you any specific advice for building relationships this deep. They form in all different ways for different people.

What I can tell you is that they all start with a first, seemingly minor interaction. Then they develop over time, built on a foundation of trust and sharing.

So focus on building relationships methodically, slowly and strategically. And if you’re lucky you’ll find lifelong friendships that are professionally and personally rewarding.

Summary

  • Inbound marketing and good networking have more in common than you think
  • Understand your why you are networking in the first place
  • Develop target personas for the relationships you would like to build
  • Use a sales funnel framework to think about the process of building professional relationships
  • Focus early stages on assessing whether a new contact is a good fit
  • Advance your relationships by looking for ways to initiate an exchange of some type
  • Cement professional friendships by moving offline – Go do something together
  • Your deepest relationships are the most valuable thing to your career and your life – So get started

Packaging Your Marketing Project for a Designer

People often think they are less creative than they really are - That, or they think they are more creative than they really are. That leads to some challenges when they work with professional designers on a project.

You may be interested in the creative process and have a vision for how the final product should come out. The danger there is giving too much direction and preventing the designer from taking ownership of the project. It will stifle their passion and creativity.

Or you can go the other way. You may underestimate your abilities and want to leave it all to the expert. But no design professional can do their best work without having all the information they need - that means you need to be involved. As with anything, weak inputs produce weak output.

When you’re working with a designer your goal should be to strike a balance. Give them any and all information they need to produce their best work without getting in the way of their creative process.

Here are my suggestions for how to stay very involved in the process and positively impact the result, without suffocating and frustrating your creatives.

Define Why, When and How the Design Will Be Used

Spend the time to really think through all the use cases for the design you’re discussing because it could really influence the design and requirements.

Let’s think about a logo project as an example. Some uses, like on the website or office sign, will be obvious. Others can become a troublesome afterthought if you’re not careful.

Does your logo need to look good when it’s shrunk down to a very small size for a business card? Will it appear in black and white - perhaps in your local newspaper?

Does it need to be incorporated into the design of your actual product? You might want your logo molded, stamped or etched into your product. If it needs to be worked into the manufacturing process you may need to think about how a particular design impacts your tooling requirements.

Do you need a variation that will work as a thumbnail for your social media profiles? Hint: The answer is yes.

What various background colors will the logo be placed on? You may need inverted variations where one version uses color A as the dominant color and another version that uses color B as the dominant color.

Are there any pieces of company swag you have your heart set on? Your logo may need to look good in a single color in order to be etched into the side of your company pint glasses just the way you want.

Spending the time to think through all the settings in which your design will be utilized will save time and result in a better final product.

Design for Your Target Audience

Hopefully you’ve already taken the time to develop detailed buyer personas that reflect the preferences and personality of your target audience. Sharing those personas can be a great starting point for your designer.

A successful design needs to be targeted to the audience you’re after. A particular look may resonate with midwestern, middle aged, female executives but do nothing for young, tech savvy, urban males.

A great designer is an expert on visual preferences of different types of people and how they will perceive design differences. But that designer can’t be expected to know exactly who your target audience is unless you help  them understand.

You may have developed your buyer personas as a means of focusing your internal marketing and sales teams but the usefulness doesn’t end there. Don’t deprive your designer of that same advantage.

Reflect the True Personality of Your People and Brand

Design decisions should of course be made with the preferences and tastes of your target audience in mind - but that shouldn’t be the only guide.

Every aspect of your business, especially design elements that will play a big role in first impressions, should accurately reflect your brand and your people.

A design that feels fast paced, sleek and powerful is great for some businesses. But if your business is more accurately characterized as friendly, generous with time, and charmingly dorky then it’s a bad design for you. You’ll disappoint the people you do attract and scare off the folks that would have loved you.

Make sure your designer gets a feel for who the company and key people really are. A design that reflects your personality is going to feel authentic. That will accomplish much more than something beautiful but misleading.

Know What Your Competitors Are Doing

Provide a list of your competitors and the designs they use in similar settings.

You’re competitors shouldn’t be a place of inspiration - you don’t want to mimic them. But design presents an additional opportunity for differentiation.

You want to be sure your look isn’t too similar to your competitors. You likely already fill a particular niche or cater to a certain personality type. Your designs can and should reflect that positioning.

Provide Examples to Illustrate Your Design Preferences

Spend some time refining your own tastes by finding examples of other designs you like.

Use Evernote or create a Pinterest board so you can capture images you like and easily share them with your designer.

Don’t try to find the perfect example or two. You’ll either end up with a design that feels like a knockoff or you’ll be disappointed that it isn’t close enough. Find lots of examples where you like some particular element. Try to find and share at least a dozen or so.

As you find more and more examples of designs you like, it will make it easier to identify the common elements that define your tastes.

Be sure to include notes about what you like about each one - and be detailed. “I like how these two utilize negative space.” “I like how the soft colors in this one feel friendly and inviting.” “I think the clean lines here give a sense of expertise and organization.”

Just don’t expect your designer to replicate the examples you provide. The examples should merely be a way to facilitate a conversation about your tastes.

Understand How Color Impacts Perception

If you’re working with a well established brand your color decisions were probably made long ago. However, if it’s a new brand or complete overhaul then color choices are a major element of the design.

We’ve all had ideas about what our “favorite colors” are since we were kids. Our feelings about color are heavily influenced by our subconscious and we rarely give it much concrete thought. But when you’re embarking on a design project intended to influence others, it’s important to more precisely understand the ways that color can impact people’s feelings.

The slightest shifts in tone, texture or opacity can have a big impact on first impressions and associations. The emotional response to a color can also be influenced by the viewer’s cultural or geography.

Spend some time researching general color associations so you’re at least in a position to have an informed conversation. Learning the basics can help you discuss the topic, better understand your own preferences, and articulate why you love or hate a particular color scheme.

But remember not to be too rigid. A good designer likely has a better handle on the psychology of color choices than you. So don’t go in with a list of exact colors. Give your expert the opportunity to find the perfect combination based on what they know about you, your customers and your business.

Get Your Artists on the Same Canvas

Take steps to ensure that your various creative and artistic elements will work well together.

None of those elements will live in a vacuum and they must be cohesive. Your copy lives along with your UX which lives with your graphic design which lives with your photography and video. But those pieces are often created by different people.

It may make sense to get those people working together directly - or you may need to serve as the hub. Just remember that each will influence the other and they’ll all need to be aligned on message, brand personality, customer personality, space limitations, color, use case and more.

Talk to your creatives about how they like to work with the others and do your best meet those needs.

 

Summary

  • Strike a balance - Empower you designer with information but let them do the designing
  • Take the time to define exactly how the finished product will be used - It’ll come out better
  • Introduce your designer to your customers with buyer personas
  • Help your designer understand actual personality of your people and brand
  • Watch what your competitors are doing and go another way
  • Provide examples of designs you love and why - But don’t expect a knocked-off version
  • Understand the psychological undertones of color
  • Make sure all your creatives are working in the same direction

How Technology Has Democratized Content Marketing

Have we reached a point of content saturation on articles about content saturation? It’s true that there is a lot more content and a lot more noise competing for attention. For bigger brands this may not be a welcome development. After all, they always had the resources, content and access to distribution that made content marketing effective.

But for smaller businesses on tighter budgets, changes in the content marketing landscape have been decidedly positive. Laments about content saturation from that crowd just seem like hollow complaints.

The fact is that the technological advancements that have increased content output are the same factors that have allowed smaller brands into the game in the first place. Would you rather have access to a content marketing toolkit in a competitive landscape or not have access at all?

In this post we’ll take a look at the technological innovations that have democratized content creation and distribution and allowed small businesses to benefit.

Content distribution on your terms

The barriers and middlemen between you and your audience have dramatically and consistently melted away over the last decade or so.

Consider the options you had to distribute any content you created in the past. Your options basically included books, magazines, newspapers, direct mail, billboards, television or radio… and let’s not forget skywriting.

As a business owner you don’t control any of these channels. Your content must be accepted by an editor or you must pay for the privilege of communicating with your audience.

Contrast that with similar channels today that offer far more control. You can easily self-publish written content with a blog, eBook, whitepaper, or slideshare deck rather than going through a publisher. Television can be substituted with video hosting and sharing tools like YouTube, Vimeo or Wistia. Podcasts can replace radio, be distributed for free with iTunes or Stitcher, and consumed on demand. Direct mail becomes email…  and I guess Twitter is the new skywriting. Haha

Content can be shared on a much larger scale without the marketing budget that would have been required in the past. Social media and SEO have become key methods for reaching a new audience. And you can maintain that audience like never before with owned channels like your website or email list.

Even when a major channel like Facebook drastically reduces organic access to your audience, there are dozens of other social channels with fewer barriers able to pick up the slack.

So yes, while content saturation is real and there is more competition for attention than ever, small businesses and organizations with tight budgets have more direct access to their audience than ever before.

Inexpensive devices to capture amazing audio and video

Advancements in hardware technology have opened up content formats that would have been unapproachable for many small businesses in the past.

The cost of cameras, video equipment and microphones continues to fall as quality and usability improve. Even the capabilities of a smartphone make amazing content achievable for any business. For just a few hundred dollars – which you probably already spent – and you have the tools to create striking visual content.

The camera quality on the latest phones is better than most high end cameras were not long ago. With each iteration new features like improved panoramic capability and slow motion get better and  better.

The sound capture on phone microphones is pretty amazing too - especially if you are able to keep the phone close to the sound source. Picking up a few other tricks - like using one phone to film and another to capture audio - will improve the output even further. For more suggestions, Wistia has a piece on creating great video with only an iPhone.

There are also some very affordable shotgun microphone attachments that enhance audio even further. An inexpensive lighting setup can provide even more polish with a minimal investment.

The increasing affordability of drones offers new opportunities as well. Check out this video featuring the Lily Drone. It promises the ability to capture aerial video all by yourself that would have required a helicopter and camera crew in the past.

Your ability to create something amazing is limited only by your own creatively and knowledge of your audience.

Software to design and edit content like never before

The job of editing, enhancing, designing, and packaging your content used to require an entire team and tens of thousands of dollars (or more) in equipment.

Today, an inspired creator can put out a remarkable product with nothing more than a laptop, a smartphone and some enthusiasm.

An out-of-the-box MacBook basically serves as a fully equipped creative studio. The Pages application allows you to mix text and imagery to create magazine quality documents. The Photos application offers basic photo editing, retouching and organizaton. iMovie serves as a very capable mobile video studio. GarageBand enables musicians or a podcast creators to generate amazing audio content. And Keynote provides  a great tool for giving compelling presentations.

If your budget is even tighter, many of the primary capabilities of those applications can be performed directly on an iPhone with standard or inexpensive mobile apps.

Design help is even easier to get. Freelance job sites make finding and working with a professional designer more convenient and affordable than ever. Other platforms like 99designs are innovating on the process further by providing a platform for small business owners to setup design competitions and choose their favorite result.

The ease and low costs of today’s tools make it possible to produce content that many small brands would never have been able to attempt just five or ten years ago.

Summary

  • Technology has made great content marketing more achievable for SMBs that ever before
  • Today’s distribution channels put far more control in the hands of low-budget marketers
  • A smartphone in the hands of a creative person is a content generation wonder-tool
  • Standard creative apps make polishing content cheaper & easier than ever
  • “Content saturation” is merely a symptom of a golden age of small business content marketing

How PPC Can Benefit Your Inbound Marketing Strategy

Suggest PPC advertising to some inbound marketing strategists and they may spit on the floor and cry “blasphemy!” Many people consider PPC to be antithetical to inbound marketing. Afterall, PPC is a paid channel with no lasting effect on traffic. The “content” of the ads consists of 95 characters – maybe a little more if you take full advantage of your display URL. At first glance it doesn’t resemble most channels that comprise an inbound strategy.

But paid search has other attributes that do align more closely with the ideals of inbound. Afterall, you are only showing ads to people that are actively looking for something related to you topic. Very few other advertising channels can make that claim.

So what is the role of PPC in inbound marketing?

I firmly believe that PPC can work hand in hand with a content-driven inbound strategy. I also believe that embracing inbound will produce better paid search results.

Here are my thoughts why the two can live harmoniously together.

Paid search traffic is more pull than push

The problem with most outbound advertising channels is that they attempt to push a message at users whether they want it or not. It’s generally just an attempt to distract people with whatever you want to say.

But paid search is fundamentally different. The users you are targeting have displayed a clear buying intent. The simple fact that they are searching tells you they are likely interested in making a purchase and that they are interested in addressing that need right now.

At it’s core, inbound marketing is about giving potential customers the information they need at the time they ask for it. Just because PPC is a paid channel doesn’t change the fact that it meets that criteria.

Content strengthens PPC results

Having a robust content and inbound strategy is only going to help improve the long term ROI of your paid search.

The sad fact marketers must accept is that most visitors aren’t ready to make a purchase. In many industries a conversion rate between 1 -2% is strong. But just because a visitor isn’t ready to buy doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start providing value.

Content resources give your potential customers another reason to stay engaged with you. Some portion of your PPC traffic will be ready to buy but many others can be drawn into the earlier stages of your sales funnel. Use your content to engage them, make an impression and maybe collect an email address.

You’ll be getting and giving much more value with the 98+% of visitors that aren’t yet ready to buy.

Shared elements of measurability

One of the core benefits of a well executed inbound strategy is the measurability. With tracking and automation tools like Hubspot you can track users very closely all the way through your sales funnel. There is no mystery about which activities are effective and which are not.

There is a troubling lack of transparency in many advertising channels – billboards, TV, radio, display. It’s very difficult to see the impact each is having.

But paid search is extremely measurable and you can pinpoint the portions of your campaign that are producing results. Paid search can’t be lumped in with other paid channels that are more of black box.

Paid search is fast in a way that inbound just isn’t

Great content and a well executed inbound strategy can produce amazing and lasting results – but you probably can’t accomplish that quickly.

Generating great content – making progress in organic search results – building relationships via social media – organically building an engaged email audience… These all take time. But paid search offers an opportunity to dramatically increase site traffic very quickly.

Other channels will likely provide more value and a better ROI in the long run. But if you need to begin generating results quickly then PPC is a good option.

Paid search can inform your keyword research

Because paid search is so measurable, the data you capture there can be very useful to other channels.

Google provides very little keyword level data for organic search traffic. Every digital marketer that has been in the business for more than a few years misses the days before “not provided” showed up in Google Analytics.

You can gather information on search volume but it’s difficult to know which keywords generate traffic that tends to convert better. With paid search that information is readily available.

I certainly wouldn’t recommend implementing paid search solely as a keyword research tool - that would be a crazy expensive way to get information. But when you’re evaluating the benefits of paid search, don’t discount the value of information that can be repurposed to make other channels more successful.

As content ramps up PPC can back off – Or not

Speed of results and the access to valuable keyword data make paid search a great tool in the early stages of an inbound campaign – but that doesn’t mean you have to maintain that level of investment indefinitely.

Let’s face it, paid search is a relatively expensive traffic source. Only a portion of the keywords you experiment with will be able to provide both volume and strong ROI.

As your longer term content initiatives begin to gain traction and drive results, you can slowly and strategically back off your paid search spend. As time goes on you won’t need to lean on paid traffic. Begin reducing spend on keywords that are producing less return. As time passes you can get stricter and stricter about what ROI you demand from your campaigns.

You’re likely to find a handful of campaigns that produce fantastic results and you’ll never choose to pause. But much of your other spend can be eliminated as better ROI channels begin to perform.

Summary

  • Paid search and inbound are not opposing forces – They can and should work together
  • PPC is more of an inbound tactic than it gets credit for
  • Good content assets will improve the performance of your paid search campaigns
  • PPC and Inbound both offer a premier level of measurability
  • Adwords data can inform other portions of your inbound strategy
  • PPC spend can be dialed back as content-driven initiatives take hold

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.

Summary

  • 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