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Podcasts and the next level of influence

There’s a podcast for everyone. From people who love pens and stationery, to Harry Potter devotees, to fans of video game music — whatever your passion or curiosity, there’s something for you to stream. “You can pick any topic and there’ll be a podcast for what you're interested in,” says Will Higham, behavioral futurist and author of The Next Big Thing. “And if there isn’t one, start one yourself.”

Those who have followed Higham’s advice have become key influencers in the streaming era. Podcast hosts and creators have developed loyal followings and intimate relationships with their fans. We’re breaking down what this next level of influence means for brands, and why it presents a unique opportunity to connect with hyper-engaged listeners in a space that feels personal.

Podcasts reflect passions

No matter the topic, people are turning to podcasts to discover their authentic passions and find their tribe. “Podcasts are built on niche audiences,” says Kathleen Moroney, Global Head of Content at production house Red Apple Creative. “That builds an incredible amount of loyalty.”

Thanks to the accessible format of streaming audio, podcast listeners can take the time to dive deeper into specific topics than they can via traditional media. Aspiring entrepreneurs can hear founders tell their origin stories on How I Built This while running on the treadmill. True-crime obsessives can get their fix of juicy tales by streaming My Favorite Murder on their commute. Political wonks can follow The Weeds for a lengthy policy conversation while they cook or clean.

And more often than not, the podcast host is the gateway to getting hooked. When people relate to a host, who likely shares their specific interest, they keep listening. Cole Cuchna, host of the popular podcast Dissect, saw this firsthand when he launched his show, well before it became a Spotify Original series. On Dissect, Cuchna breaks down classic albums — so far, from Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, Lauryn Hill, and Frank Ocean — song by song, one episode at a time. (Pretty sweet.)

“It was very clear, early on, that people were buying into me,” Cuchna says. “The show was me, whether I liked it or not. I learned that through social media and emails — people were contacting me, sharing very personal things about themselves.”

“It was confusing at first. I was like, ‘Why are they comfortable talking to me as if they know me?’” Then, he realized: “Well, they just listened to 13 hours of my voice, literally in their earbuds.”

Hosts are more authentic influencers

As listeners spend more time with their favorite shows, they get to know the hosts and start to feel a personal connection to them.

"You trust the host since you know what they believe in. I'd hold hosts to the same level of trust as my friends." Carolina, 36, Brazil

This holds true across all genres. Comedy shows like 2 Dope Queens, Las Culturistas, Fest & Flauschig, and My Dad Wrote A Porno develop inside jokes that only fans get. Hosts of pop culture shows like The Watch and Still Processing have defined points of view, and followers trust their taste. And sports shows like The Lowe Post and Sports? with Katie Nolan feature recurring guests and segments that listeners come to love.

“There is a very intimate connection between the podcaster and the listener,” Cuchna says. “If it’s a conversational podcast, it’s intimate because you feel like you’re in the room. If it’s a scripted show like mine, it still feels intimate because I write as if I’m talking to someone individually.”

Intimacy generates trust

In today’s influencer space, with widespread skepticism about authenticity, podcast hosts stand out. The intimacy of their connection with listeners leads to trust, as fans respect their opinions and value their recommendations. This gives marketers a chance to reach a tight community of streamers more authentically.

  • 52%

    of podcast listeners trust advertising more if the podcast host endorses the brand.

“It’s completely about trust,” says Moroney about the medium. “You won’t find another audience that has as much trust in the person they’re listening to.” Podcasts’ inherent trust and intimacy presents a massive opportunity for brands — but it’s not as simple as merely sponsoring a show or repurposing radio creative. To truly tap into a podcast audience, brands need to consider why that audience listens to the podcast in the first place.

3 ways brands can tap into podcasts

1. Make sure your ad matches the quality of the podcast.
Creators like Cuchna strongly believe that podcast advertising must live up to the show. “Every great creator considers their audience’s time as very valuable,” he says. “Anything they do, they want to make sure it’s of quality — because it’s ultimately a reflection of the show and the creator, not just the brand.”

For example, when Sonos sponsored Dissect, they had to do a tough thing for any brand: give up control. Cuchna “dissected” the Sonos product, breaking down features and explaining how they fit into his personal life, even bringing his daughter in to demonstrate how they listen to music together.

2. Trust the creator to deliver authentic host reads.
Host reads are a particularly effective way for brands to tap into the personal, intimate nature of the medium. In our research, we found that 81% of listeners took action after hearing host-read ads during a podcast — anything from looking up a product online, to connecting with a brand on social media, to talking about a product with someone.

"Since podcast hosts have already established trust via quality content, ads feel more believable than something you might hear on tv." Keone, 29, Australia

Unsurprisingly, many podcasts feature host reads that match the unique personalities of the hosts. On With Friends Like These, host Ana Marie Cox has shared personal stories about her experiences with bras to promote bra startup Third Love. On The Bill Simmons Podcast, Simmons often talks about how he uses SeatGeek to purchase tickets for big games, then offers a promo code to listeners. For brands, these real first-person accounts provide a remarkably effective way to connect with audiences. When listeners hear these hosts evangelizing products, they don’t feel like they’re being marketed to — the effect is more like hearing about a product or service from a trusted friend.

3. Consider telling your story with a branded podcast.
Advertising in an existing podcast is one way to get your message heard, but you can also tell your story by creating a podcast of your own. Purposeful, creative brands have been turning to producers to develop branded podcasts — speaking to their audience in an engaging, entertaining way. Lyft created the branded podcast Pick Me Up with Gimlet Media (now part of Spotify) to tell drivers’ backstories. Mastercard also teamed with Gimlet to develop Fortune Favors the Bold, about the changing role money plays in our lives.

“We’re completely invested in the show’s content, yet it’s not about Mastercard,” says the brand’s SVP of Digital & Creative Content, Marcy Cohen. “We were able to craft each episode about topics we care about, from purpose-driven brands to the changing nature of work and the benefits of a cashless society.”

“If a podcast can help elevate our brand by offering a new perspective on something a listener cares about, we see that as a win for the brand,” she adds.

Your brand can score podcast points, too. Start thinking about how you can tap into these passionate communities of listeners with contextual messages tied to the topics (and hosts) they love.

Click here for more insights about the podcast opportunity, and the medium’s unique sweet spot of attention.

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