Podcast Innovators

If you haven’t fired up your digital music player and tuned in to a podcast lately, it’s time to familiarize yourself with this technology. Because podcasting is going to be very big very soon and marketers should understand the phenomenon and its potential.

You can find a good definition of podcasting at Whatis.com and my column in February’s BtoB Magazine introduces the topic. So I won’t go into a detailed explanation here. There are some very innovative applications of podcasting I’ve seen recently that marketers should become familiar with. This is a story of two of them.

General Motors launched a podcasting initiative about a year ago to complement its GM FastLane Blogs. Most people don’t think of GM as an early adopter but the company has been fast and innovative in experimenting with community media.

Maybe that’s because it’s put much of the responsibility in the hands of one person and let him go to work. Michael Wiley, director of new media and a longtime public relations professional, said the decision to launch blogs two years ago and podcasts in 2005 took less than a day. GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz loved the idea and has been an active contributor to both forums.

The podcasts have been a home run for GM at very low cost. They spotlight different vehicles, often in conjunctions with re-designs or launches, and usually interview executives who are responsible for them. The short segments are nothing flashy, but they’re clean, well-paced and informative.

“You need to have a strong ethical policy and write in a clear, conversational style,” Wiley says of GM’s blogging efforts. “No one wants to read marketing copy or press release type writing.”

And do they perform. Last summer’s podcast interview with Corvette chief architect Dave Hill was downloaded more than 70,000 times. Some FastLane blog entries get more than 500 comments. Market research like that would cost a fortune. GM’s cost? “We’ve never spent a dollar on a podcast,” Wiley says. In fact, GM isn’t spending on promotion, either. “We want [the podcasts] to stay grass roots and for people to find out through word of mouth,” he says.

What’s got some people at GM really excited about podcasting, though, is its potential inside the firewall. The company has a vast network of dealers, service outlets and suppliers and all of them need constant communication. Distributing catalogs and videotapes is expensive and wasteful. Digital distribution is so much more efficient.

“It’s low- to no-cost,” Wiley says. “It’s an opportunity to give people extreme detail, if necessary. It can be used for so many different things – tutorials, help desk, service professionals. The opportunities are unlimited.”

And wait till Apple’s rumored new full-sized video iPod comes out. Bye-bye VHS tapes.

Over at Whirlpool USA, the appliance maker launched a podcast series last summer that embodies the spirit of social media. The Whirlpool American Family podcasts are updated about once a week.

There’s nothing about home appliances in these programs. They’re about child-rearing, schooling, health, work/family issues, nutrition and a host of other family concerns. They’re the brainchild of Audrey Reed-Granger, a Whirlpool publicist who admits that she didn’t even know what a podcast was until a few weeks before she suggested the idea to Whirlpool management.

“I listened to a few podcasts and it struck me that this was the reason I got into journalism,” she says. “It was very earnest, just average people reporting on things that go on in normal life. I wanted to capture that.”

Her bosses liked the idea and the nominal cost. The first podcast launched in late July. By September, the online buzz became apparent.

“There was a lot of blogosphere chatter about Whirlpool,” Reed-Granger says. “We figured out that it was about American Family. People were endorsing the podcasts in their blogs and other bloggers were tuning in. I started getting e-mail from people suggesting speakers.”

What started as interviews with friends and contacts has become a mainstream radio program. Book publishers and PR agencies pitch their clients as guests on American Family Podcasts. Whirlpool had logged more than 30,000 downloads when I spoke to Reed-Granger in January but the series is also carried on more than a dozen independent podcast sites that don’t release statistics.

The benefit to Whirlpool? It’s hard to say. Both GM’s Wiley and Whirlpool’s Reed-Granger acknowledge that ROI is a tough call in the blogosphere. You have to think about these media experiments as a branding play, like public relations.

“It gave us a fresh image,” Wiley said. “It’s humanized us.”

Adds Reed-Granger, “It’s less about the brand than the essence of the people that market the products. It’s made us more likeable.”

Both podcast series deliver the goods on usefulness. GM’s is the more marketing-oriented of the two efforts, but it’s essentially an information play to enthusiasts. Whirlpool doesn’t even pretend to pitch its products in the audio program. It’s strictly a valuable information service to potential purchasers of its appliances. This is what social media marketing is all about. You need to be transparent, honest and helpful.

In a future issue, I’ll look at some of my favorite podcasts and talk about best practices for content producers.

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