Corporations podcast their marketing nets
(Baltimore Sun, The (KRT)) Dec. 11--Elizabeth Tracey and Rick Lange are chatting amiably over a microphone in a room that's a far cry from a recording studio. But in 24 hours or so, their conversation will be online for anyone to hear -- just like all the other productions in the do-it-yourself corner of mass communications known as podcasting.
Unlike all the other podcasts, though, this one's for Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Make room, early adopters. Businesses are finding their way to the latest domain of the high-tech counterculture, and this time it didn't take them long. In what amounts to a nationwide social experiment, corporate America is testing whether this cheap and quirky medium proves useful in the battle to reach the public, communicate meaningfully with employees and keep costs down.
"The question is, What's the longevity of this? and I don't have any idea," said Tracey, the Johns Hopkins Medicine director of electronic media, whose co-host for a weekly podcast on medical news is the chief of clinical cardiology. "But for right now, it's a lot of fun."
Podcasts are audio files that people can subscribe to for free and have automatically downloaded to computers or portable digital devices for on-demand listening. The name is a play on "broadcast" with a nod to Apple's popular iPod player, though you don't need one to tune in.
The concept began catching on with the technologically knowledgeable in September last year. Some large companies were jumping on within a few months -- compared with the roughly five-year lag for them to catch on to both Web sites and blogs (Web logs).
"I am surprised at just how far it's gone, how quickly," said Matt Haughey, founder of a community blog called MetaFilter.
He had to fight to get anyone interested in blogging, but companies haven't needed prodding to podcast.
"Maybe they saw blogs blindside them, and they said, 'Well, we're not going to let this one get out of hand,'" Haughey said.
General Motors Corp., credited as one of the first corporate podcasters when it dipped its toe into the waters in February, records talk-radio-style episodes about its vehicles that were downloaded 75,000 times in August. Disneyland celebrated its 50th anniversary in May with a series recorded inside the park. Verizon Wireless issued one a few days ago to promote a new cell phone that will, among other features, let you listen to podcasts.
IBM, which produces podcasts for investors about the future of trends, also set up a podcast-recording system for employee communication. And many media companies, from the BBC to ESPN to The Sun, have jumped on board for simple self-preservation.
"Companies are completely losing control of their messages, and the one way to get into the game is by blogging and podcasting," said Michael Wiley, GM's director of new media. "The companies that are early adopters stand tremendous opportunity to be the winners in the long run."
They join a gaggle of pod people: President Bush, whose radio addresses are available online. Astronaut Steve Robinson, the first podcaster from space. Aris Melissaratos of the state Department of Business and Economic Development, the first Maryland government agency to give it a try. Nine-year-old Rachel Patchett of California, one of a growing number of "Godcasters" who focus on faith. And "just a lot of people at home with microphones, rambling," Haughey said.
Some companies are sponsoring other people's podcasts. But one way or another, more and more businesses want in.
"They're looking at this as niche-market radio," said Alan A. Reiter, president of Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing, a Chevy Chase consulting firm.
No one seems to have good statistics on corporate podcasts or corporate-podcast listeners, but the potential market is growing daily. Bridge Ratings, a California company that conducts radio-audience research, estimated last month that 4.8 million people have downloaded at least one podcast this year compared with 820,000 last year. About a fifth listen regularly.
Though many are using computers to do it, the rapidly growing portable market also expands the potential podcast reach. About 35 million households have portable music devices such as the iPod, according to Jupiter Research, which analyzes Internet and new-technology trends. That's double the number last year, and it will double again by 2010, the company predicts.
"And there's going to be growth in the number of cell phones that have these [audio playing options]," said Julie Ask, a JupiterResearch analyst. "These are becoming fairly mainstream devices for folks."
Apple's iTunes Music Store, which began offering free podcasts along with its 99 cent music in June, has more than 25,000 available for download. Among those are the twice-weekly offerings about family matters from Whirlpool, which has had 15,000 downloads from its own Web site since it started in July and untold others from a dozen podcast directories.
The medium seems poised to alter the advertising, entertainment and media industries, but its ripples could extend further.
After IBM set up its internal podcast recording system two months ago, one of its executives discovered that he could use it to replace a weekly conference call with his globally scattered 7,000- employee team, said spokesman Christopher Barger. Now the team listens to the podcasts at individually convenient times, and IBM will save $700,000 a year on conference-calling costs.
Paul Tesluk, a professor at the University of Maryland, College Park's Robert H. Smith School of Business, said companies could put the technology to good use during times of large-scale organizational change, when it's important to give frequent updates. Others say firms could cut down on help-desk calls by producing how-to episodes answering common questions.
"I don't know what you couldn't do with a podcast," said Mark Wesker, chairman of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council and head of a software company.
Reiter loves that he can listen to them while walking the dog, mowing the lawn or doing anything else that would rule out reading. He's produced one, too -- on the value of podcasts for the wireless industry.
It was easy, he said: "You just click 'record,' press 'stop," listen and then up it goes."
Even so, there's a cottage industry of firms that will help companies produce them.
Greg Cangialosi, president of Blue Sky Factory Inc. in Baltimore, an online marketing firm, got into podcasting as a hobby in February. Soon after he had been recruited to work on Disneyland's anniversary celebration with self-described "podcast entrepreneur" Michael W. Geoghegan of California. Since then Cangialosi has done an event-coverage podcast for GM and the product launch for Verizon Wireless.
"We haven't even begun an active push of it yet," Cangialosi said of the service. "One thing we do know for sure is that clients are demanding it."
SNP Communications Inc. in San Francisco just launched a service for companies to outsource podcasting needs.
"There's a novelty factor to it right now, and there's a cache associated with it too," said Scott Sigler, SNP's marketing director. "So a lot of companies are like, 'Great, we want a podcast.' But eventually it comes down to content. If it's just some marketing spin that you would put out in a typical press release, [people] are not going to keep listening."
With that in mind, some businesses podcast news-you-can-use -- not necessarily with a direct relation to the products or services they're selling. Take Whirlpool, whose "American Family" program covers topics such as stay-at-home fathers and first-home purchases because the company believes that's what their core consumers are most interested in.
"People know what we make; that's not the issue," said Audrey Reed-Granger, who moderates the podcast, about 30 minutes of unedited conversations. "Our ultimate objective is to create more of an emotional bond and connection with either existing consumers or potential customers. This really is like sitting on your front porch, sipping lemonade, talking to a neighbor."
On the flip side, bloggers were quick to criticize GM's first podcast for sounding like an audio news release. To test the technology, GM recorded a Chicago Auto Show news conference about two luxury sedans, which meant the podcast came complete with background applause.
"Five minutes of corporate dronology," wrote Christopher Carfi, who runs a company providing sales-force information services.
"Kinda looks like the time when ol' Dad put on the gangsta wear and hoodie, and tried to bust a rhyme," software developer Dave Ritter commented on Carfi's blog. "You had to give him points for trying, but no matter how hard he tried to be hip, it just wasn't going to fly."
Wiley, GM's director of new media, hit the blogs to assure people that subsequent attempts would be different. Now a host interviews insiders such as vehicle designers about products and trends -- "Sales of big trucks are slowing, correct?" she asks on one episode. GM doesn't have to spend a cent because it owned a studio (not that a studio was strictly necessary).
"FastLane radio brings you conversations you can't get anywhere else," an announcer intones at the start.
Tracey, the director of electronic media for Johns Hopkins Medicine, a nonprofit that is one of the state's largest employers, saw podcasting as a natural after years of producing daily 60-second features on health issues for radio stations. Both her daughters have iPods, and she wanted to capitalize on this new way to connect the public with Hopkins expertise.
Now she and Lange meet Thursdays for their foray into new tech -- usually in Lange's office at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in East Baltimore, though they've podcasted at his house.
Last week, with her microphone plugged into a tiny recorder between them, they took one last look at the medical studies they wanted to discuss. Then: "Welcome to this week's look at the medical headlines from Johns Hopkins," Tracey said by way of introduction, and they were off.
They talked about infections, chemotherapy, rising hospital noise levels -- "it's frustrating to the patient, it's distracting to the staff," Lange said of the cacophony. An Institute of Medicine report linking the growing childhood obesity problem to junk-food ads brought a "surprise, surprise" from Tracey.
"Why is it important for something like the Institute of Medicine to weigh in -- no pun intended -- on something like this?" she asked. Lange had to call a timeout so he could stop chuckling. (He retaliated with: "Their recommendations add weight to what we've had in the past.")
They typically chat, unscripted, for more than 10 minutes, though Tracey edits each episode to half that. Hundreds of people are listening, which she thinks is good for zero marketing. She's preparing to try out the next big pod permutation.
Vodcasting. As in video.
Because communication innovations -- like time -- stop for no man or business.
"It's all changing," Tracey said.
PODCAST ON DEMAND: Podcasts are audio files that people can subscribe to free and have automatically downloaded to computers or portable digital devices. It's audio on demand: They're prerecorded, and you can listen to them whenever you want. The main difference between podcasts and other audio clips online is the subscription service.
You can find a free RSS reader, which handles the subscription, at sites such as blogspace.com/rss/readers or odeo.com. But many sites also allow you to listen from your Web browser.
A few corporate podcasting examples (the Web sites, not the RSS address):
--General Motors Corp.: fastlane.gmblogs.com/archives/podcasts
--Johns Hopkins Medicine: www.hopkinsmedicine.org/mediaII/Podcastsinstructions.html
--Nestle Purina PetCare: purina.com/downloads
--The Sun: baltimoresun.com/podcasts
--The Walt Disney Co.: disney.go.com/music/podcasts/today/index.html
--Whirlpool: www.whirlpool.com/custserv/promo.jsp?sectionId [equals] 563
--Verizon Wireless: news.vzw.com/podcast