Three Things Content Marketers Can Learn From Successful Podcasts

I love listening to podcasts. To me, they’re one of the purest forms of content. They’re unscripted, uncensored and many times unedited. Podcasts are cheap to make, free to download and gain followers organically. Some of my favorite and most successful podcasts include those created by comedian Marc Maron (“WTF”), Scott Aukerman (“Comedy Bang! Bang!”) and Pete Holmes (“You Made it Weird”). But what can content marketers learn from the success of these offbeat, yet hilarious, broadcasters? As it turns out, quite a bit.

Commit to Authenticity

No one is more tired of the word “authentic” than I am. It’s one of those words marketing professionals use so much that it’s become inauthentic. But I’m using it here, well, authentically (I can’t seem to stop). The fact of the matter is that it gets used to death because authenticity is essential to earning trust.

Comedian Maron built “WTF” on his commitment to authenticity. I’ve been a listener since its beginnings in 2009 and can tell you firsthand that he has shared the good, bad and ugly about himself, and it’s paid off. He truly connects with his audience, which has earned him a huge fan base. Marc is an unscripted, soul-searching, neurotic recovering addict, and calling it a comedy podcast doesn’t do the show justice. But as he puts it, “Sometimes it’s not about the funny.” His show is as much about insights and catharsis as it is about entertainment. He airs grievances, gives real-time updates on his life and his cats, talks about his demons and famously quashes beefs with other comedians—many of whom weren’t aware there was a beef to quash in the first place. That’s just Marc.

As a result, his frankness has earned the trust of his listeners and guests, not to mention created some big career opportunities for him. His TV series on IFC, a barely fictional account of his life, is now filming its fourth season, and his podcast garners around 3 million downloads per month. His podcast guest list couldn’t get much bigger. Count the late Robin Williams, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards and President Barack Obama as visitors to the garage he records out of. You read that correctly. The president of the United States of America sat down in Marc’s garage and had a famously unedited conversation about issues ranging from gun control and race relations to what it’s like to be an aging president on the basketball court.

You might be thinking, “A comedian with an interesting story, zero filter and limitless comedy skills can grow great things from seeds of authenticity, but can a Fortune 500 company like mine do this?” Of course you can. I’m not suggesting you share all of your stumbles and shortcomings the way Marc does, but an honest conversation with your consumer base goes a long way toward building trust.

The Lesson for Brands

Remember a few years ago when Domino’s Pizza aired a TV spot that basically said, “Ummm, yeah, our pizza is not very … good. We should definitely make it taste better.” Who does that? I’ll tell you who does that: a company that wants to fix a problem and earn trust at the same time. And in the case of Domino’s, it paid off. CNN Money reported in October 2014 that the pizza chain experienced a 16% profit increase and added 160 more stores, boosting their stock to an all-time high.

Deliver a Consistent Brand Message

“Comedy Bang! Bang!” is a weird podcast, I’ll be honest. The show consists of fully improvised weekly episodes hosted by writer, producer and comedic performer Scott Aukerman. A founding father of the alternative comedy scene in LA, Aukerman is responsible for or was involved in a lot of hilarious productions you’ve probably heard of, like the “Between Two Ferns” series with Zach Galifianakis, and “Mr. Show” with Bob and David. He was also a writer for this year’s Oscar awards hosted by Chris Rock. Aukerman’s TV series, also called “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” has been picked up for its fifth season.

When his TV show dropped, fans were thrilled to see the weirdness they had been listening to and loving for years come to life visually. And for that matter, I would assert that Aukerman owes much of his success to his unwavering and self-aware comedic style that is both singularly hilarious and endearingly uncle-ish. He writes and performs what he thinks is funny, period. Staying true to his voice has helped expand his fan base and lead to more opportunities to work on the types of projects he loves. Delivering a consistent message throughout the years has allowed him to write his own story in the entertainment world.

The Lesson for Brands

A great brand example of this stay-the-course mentality is Progressive Insurance’s campaign and their affable spokeswoman, “Flo.” Since 2008, Flo has made Progressive a household name in insurance and increased quote starts by some 80%. With a unique, consistent voice, Progressive was able to cut through the clutter and maintain a prominent spot on the industry landscape.

Now in her eighth year as the company “mascot,” Flo is still making impressions across all media. Progressive’s CMO, Jeff Charney, understands the power of rolling out a successful campaign across a multitude of platforms. In a 2014 interview with Chief Marketer, Charney said, “People relate to Flo. Get the right content in the right context and you’ll make a connection—conversion will come. Making ads is what people did 20 years ago. We’re crafting a network of content.”

Stay Flexible and Evolve

When standup comedian Pete Holmes started “You Made It Weird” in 2011, the plan was to interview his comedian friends and ask them to share three weird things about themselves. This premise got the show rolling, but didn’t stick. However, the spirit of the idea did. Pete’s goal was to get to know his guests in a way that other shows didn’t. And even though his format changed, his flexibility as an interviewer made it possible to shift his plan and ultimately get the candid interviews he was after from the start.

The show evolved to a format where he would cover three topics: comedy, relationships and religion. This gave his listeners the chance to hear their favorite comedians respond to questions that encouraged them to open up on a personal level, while still giving them room to be funny. Holmes asks questions like, “Which parent did you favor when growing up?” and “Tell me about a time when you laughed the hardest.” These types of questions often spark conversations about childhood memories or private moments that the listeners wouldn’t have otherwise known about.

As the success of Pete’s show grew, he began to attract respected figures from outside the comedy world. Not only were the biggest names in comedy spending time with him, compelling personalities like Deepak Chopra, Henry Rollins, Bill Nye and theoretical physicist Brian Greene were on board, too. And because Pete’s interviewing style is so adaptable, his show continued to evolve beautifully while staying true to his style and concept.

The Lesson for Brands

Brands also have to be adaptable. They have to be prepared to change course and alter their message when sales stagnate. Old Spice is a great example of a brand that’s shown amazing flexibility without losing focus of their goal of keeping dudes smelling great (not an official company statement). They did it with a campaign that started in 2010 featuring a few hilarious, unique and, most important, memorable TV ads.

Perhaps the most brilliant aspect of the campaign began with a spot called The Man Your Man Could Smell Like (you may remember it as a viral phenomenon). It sold men’s body wash to a female audience. The challenge was to sell body wash to the woman of the household, but for the man of the household. Since women make most personal hygiene purchases and Old Spice makes products that don’t “smell like a lady,” they had to appeal to both audiences. Hence the hilarious “Smell Like a Man, Man” campaign and everything that followed.

Connect Through Content

Why does a podcast listener like me stay loyal to a podcaster? Why do I look forward to their next HBO comedy special, or care at all that they helped write Chris Rock’s Oscars monologue, or buy tickets to an event they’re attending? Why do I feel so connected to people that I’ll probably never meet?

The answer: because they consistently deliver lots of quality content that I want to consume. For brands to achieve this type of fan loyalty and connectedness, fans have to know, trust and enjoy a brand story to the extent that they feel like they have a relationship with it. Authenticity, consistency and the ability to evolve and mature are components of building these relationships. It’s really hard to make such a strong connection like this on a regular basis, which is why consistent content production and distribution are key.

Every brand has a story to tell, but no one will hear it or choose to listen if it’s not being told authentically, consistently and in a way that moves with the times. Gone are the days of polished-beyond-belief marketing campaigns that sell a new way of life in each bottle of kitchen cleaner. An effective brand doesn’t sell its soul to make a buck. It shares its spirit to earn a relationship.

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