Audio’s intimacy effect

At a time when consumers are physically disconnected, the co-founders of audio content company Novel believe that branded podcasting could come of age.

Nicola Kemp

Managing Editor, BITE


“The key is the intimacy the medium affords.” It is day one of lockdown in the UK, and the award-winning documentary maker Sean Glynn is explaining what makes podcasting unique and why this is the opportunity for brands to capitalise on the golden age of audio. 

“It’s very rare that brands can communicate in an intimate way,” he explains, noting that with podcasting, that sense of being spoken to on a one-on-one basis can deliver a sense of loyalty and trust. Yet it is an opportunity that the Novel team believe is all too rarely being capitalised on by brands. A trend that is particularly relevant for brands and businesses at a time when both employees and consumers are physically disconnected. 

Sean Glynn and Max O’Brien are award-winning documentary makers, whose work has appeared on the BBC, Audible and Spotify. They are bringing their storytelling skills to brands through audio content company Novel. With the backing of Dentsu Executive Director of creative, entertainment & sport and former Stink Global CEO, James Morris, and Beano Chief Commercial Officer and former VICE UK CEO, Matt O’Mara the team spans a diverse industry skillset. The duo believe that branded storytelling is the next frontier in audio and have already worked on branded projects for the likes of the Premier League and the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity.

When a brand looks to do something in audio, they need to be looking at how to create relationships that grow.

Max O'Brien

The humanity of voice

In a world in which many individuals find themselves starved of touch and drowning in screen time, the intimacy offered by podcasting is particularly compelling. The enforced isolation being endured by millions of consumers across the globe has led to a veritable explosion of binge listening and watching. What you are listening to and the podcasts you recommend to peers has become a key form of social validation; connected consumers want to be ‘well-listened’ alongside being ‘well-read’.

In the battle for consumers’ attention podcasting also benefits from a solid track record in long-form content and Glynn points to the fact that 80% completion rates are often achieved with long form content. A listening pattern which he believes means that more long-form content should be created. He explains, “The opportunity is there to do more storytelling; long-form, high-quality podcasts are a proven model. People very rarely unsubscribe.” 

Yet despite the exponential growth of podcasting as a medium, brand investment lags behind and is all too often focused on one off projects. O’Brien explains, “If you build the right sort of channel, brands can create long-term relationships with consumers through audio. But to do this, when a brand looks to do something in audio, they need to be looking at how to create relationships that grow.”

Beware of short-term thinking

The Novel team believes that they have an opportunity to create change in the marketplace because there is not enough long-term thinking when it comes to brands investing in audio. “Currently people are thinking too much in terms of a single branded series centred around an individual product or service,” says O’Brien. An investment which sees brands create standalone series that simply die after the initial burst, as opposed to building a long-term base of subscribers.

The team believes this short-term approach can also lead to the launch of podcasts which lack editorial credibility or substance. “Branded podcasts need to compete with non-branded podcasts,” adds O’Brien. 

We need to bring a strong narrative core to audio advertising. We can do a lot of storytelling in 30 minutes.

Sean Glynn

Moving beyond the traditional sponsorship model

The team is clear that for brands to capitalise on the golden age of audio they need to move beyond traditional, old school advertising and sponsorship formats. “Advertising is all too often an afterthought,” warns O’Brien, who believes that the audio industry can deliver far more than simply selling space. “We want to build authentic brand stories in a compelling way, because that is how you build real connections” he adds.

Glynn believes that now is the time for brands to shift their approach away from the legacy of radio advertising of the past. “That ad that worked brilliantly on Capital Radio in the nineties isn’t necessarily right for today,” he explains, adding that ‘old school’ style of audio doesn't match the needs of listeners today.

The same is also true of branded podcasts. “Standard sponsorships of established podcasts often have no real relationship with the brand,” explains O’Brien. “Dry presenter-led introductions featuring the latest mattress brand or website designing platform can sound disingenuous,” he warns. 

Glynn warns that traditional audio advertising is not keeping pace with change across the industry at large. “We need to bring a strong narrative core to audio advertising. We can do a lot of storytelling in 30 minutes,” He continues: “The opportunity for brands is to sound as genuine and authentic as possible; you can deliver in a human way. It is a massive opportunity for brands as you can deliver in a more personal and less top down way, which enables you to connect on a human level.”

Alone together

The opportunity for audio connection is particularly acute during lockdown. Glynn points to the number of brands who have conferences coming up which they can no longer hold face-to-face. The alternative may not be yet another Zoom meeting. He explains, “Brands need to think about what it is they can add that is genuinely useful. From a podcasting perspective there are real opportunities to create something new.” The barriers to entry are remarkably low. “It is amazing what we can do now anyone with a smartphone has a broadcast quality microphone they can access,” adds Glynn.

The key is the intimacy the medium affords. “It is very rare that brands can communicate in such a one-on-one way,” explains Glynn. He also points to the plethora of research showing that long-form content works on podcasts. “It is a medium that can really deliver in terms of long-form storytelling.”

It is an intimate connection that could potentially help to fill some of the numerous emotional and economic voids that lockdown has created. Particularly as employees and consumers alike tire of staring at screens all day. As brands look towards new forms of employee engagement as teams are separated, we could well see a new era of business-to-employee communication. A break from the top down communication we have seen in the past, which could lend itself to the intimacy of audio.

It is clear that brands are only just scratching the surface with the potential of audio. While the current climate brings with it a multitude of constraints, when it comes to audio these constraints could in fact turn out to be a fuel for growth and innovation. As podcast audiences continue to grow Novel’s proposition to brands is a compelling one. 

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