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Feb. 9, 2016, 11:27 a.m.
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Pacific Content’s podcasts are all sponsored by companies — but at least there aren’t any ads

Branded podcasts want to break out of the traditional intrusive model of advertising: “There are no interruptions for two or three minutes in the middle of a story. There are no top and tail ad breaks. There are no coupon codes.”

To Steve Pratt, one of the biggest benefits of branded podcasts is that they don’t contain advertising.

Of course, branded podcasts are, by definition, a form of advertising in and of themselves. But Pratt, who leads what he believes is the only company dedicated solely to producing podcasts for other companies, says the hallmark of a good branded podcast is that the marketing is subtle.

The biggest project that Pratt’s Vancouver-based company, Pacific Content, has worked on so far is Slack’s podcast, The Slack Variety Pack. Now the company is adding more clients. On Monday, it launched a podcast with e-commerce software company Shopify. In the coming weeks, it will add offerings from visitor registration software company Envoy and education company Hobsons.

If e-commerce and visitor registration software don’t sound like particularly interesting topics to you, rest assured that that isn’t what the podcasts are about. One thing all of Pacific Content’s clients have in common, Pratt said, is that they “understand this is something where you want to build a long-term relationship with people. It’s not about short-term conversions, or anything like that, but about having an amazing first experience with a brand.”

So Shopify’s podcast, TGIM, will focus on entrepreneurship. “It’s a general, broad show meant to be valuable for any entrepreneur who is running a business of their own or is thinking about running a business on their own at some point,” said Shopify content marketing manager Mark Macdonald. It’s part of Shopify’s larger plan to launch an entire network of podcasts; it launched one last year called Shopify Masters, with the jargon-filled tagline “Actionable Strategies for Ambitious Ecommerce Entrepreneurs. “The audience is hopefully going to be much wider” for the Pacific Content podcast, Macdonald said. The first episode is entitled “What they DON’T teach you in business school and what they DO teach you in prison.”

Pacific Content director Pratt worked as the director of digital music at the CBC for 10 years; in 2004, he launched one of the station’s first music podcasts. But in that pre-smartphone era, podcasts “kind of dipped and went away as something that people cared about or talked about much,” he noted. In mid-2014, he left the CBC to cofound Pacific Content as a branded content company that did strategy work and consulting for companies like Telus and CBC.

At the very start, podcasts weren’t part of the picture. But, like plenty of others, Pratt pointed to the launch of Serial in fall 2014 as a turning point, “when podcasting felt like it was back and there was an appetite to do really high-quality programming that wasn’t there before. And absolutely nobody was doing it with brands.” At that point, he and partner Jennifer Ouano decided to turn the company’s focus completely to branded podcasts.

Today, Pacific Content has 10 employees, eight of whom are full-time (the site also recently put out a call for freelancers around the world). Many team members previously worked at the CBC, and the company just announced the hiring of Chris Boyce, the former executive director of CBC Radio.

Slack was the first company that Pacific Content pitched. “They’d been sponsoring and putting ads in podcasts. They are a really nontraditional company that’s pretty imaginative in the way they solve problems. They felt like exactly the right fit to say, here’s a brand-new idea,” Pratt recalled. Slack “got it right away,” and the first episode of Slack Variety Pack launched in May 2015. By the end of the year, there were 17 episodes and more than 3 million listens.

Pacific Content has developed a “program development process” that it goes through with each of its clients to help ensure that their podcasts will be “audience-first, terrific shows” through which listeners will “understand what the company is all about, without any heavy-handed messaging.” In these meetings, which take place in the clients’ offices over a few days, Pacific Content also seeks to learn the company’s culture, “their brand voice and their brand values, who they’d like to reach, and marrying those two.”

So Shopify’s podcast will be “a mix of stories about entrepreneurs and small business owners: Their journey to figuring out either how to leave their existing career and build their own business, or how they’ve overcome challenges to find success with their business.” That podcast will be about 30 minutes long. Registration software company Envoy’s podcast, meanwhile, will be much shorter, consisting of three- to five-minute episodes about office hacks. “We’re going to go around and profile businesses that are doing really cool things with their offices — Astroturf as carpeting, a wall made of Lego,” Pratt explained. “Again, it’s not about [their product] at all, it’s more about what they stand for.”

I asked Pratt if there are companies that shouldn’t make branded podcasts. Sure, Pacific Content’s fairly new, but has it met with companies that just don’t get it, or have ideas that are too boring? One of the reasons for these process workshops, Pratt said, is to make sure podcasts and clients are a good fit. “It depends on the audience you’re trying to reach: Is this the right medium for reaching them, and is the cost of doing that effective compared to other channels?” he said. “If you wanted to make a really high-end podcast and only needed to reach 10 people with it, or if your audience is CEOs of aerospace companies — maybe a podcast isn’t the right way to reach those people. But I think we’re only at the beginning of figuring out all the different kinds of formats and storytelling techniques that are going to be fits for different brands’ needs.”

In the case of Slack Variety Pack, Pacific Content has seen a lot of success in dividing each 30-minute episode up into four to six chunks that are all released as individual stories (in addition to being released as full-length episodes). The company plans to do the same with each 30-minute Shopify episode. Chunking-up optimizes the podcasts for sharing on SoundCloud, Facebook, and Twitter, and some of Slack’s “single servings” have gotten between 70 and 100,000 listens.

Pratt is also bullish on…the lack of advertising in Pacific Content’s podcasts. The podcasts are sponsored by companies, clearly. But “it’s a much better listening experience for an audience. There are no interruptions for two or three minutes in the middle of a story. There are no top and tail ad breaks. There are no coupon codes.”

To be fair, lack of ads isn’t the only reason you’d listen to something. I’d still choose to listen to one of my favorite ad-supported podcasts over a company-sponsored podcast with no ads. But maybe that’s in part because there still aren’t that many branded podcasts out there; a lot of the companies that I like or identify with aren’t doing podcasts. (I definitely enjoyed listening to the ad-free The Message, sponsored by GE. And if, down the line, a company like Amazon decided to start releasing ad-free podcasts on a variety of topics, as it’s done with Prime Instant Video, I’d listen for sure. That’s more similar to Earwolf’s paywall approach with its premium Howl membership offering.) For now, it’s not that inconvenient to skip ahead 30 seconds when an ad break comes on. Down the line, though, it’s easy to imagine some kind of podcasting technology that doesn’t allow users to skip ads, just the way it’s not possible on a lot of streaming TV sites.

“Part of the reason I left traditional media is that the traditional advertising model is broken,” Pratt said. “The technology allows everybody to skip the things that they don’t want. The more people are skipping through the ways [a company] makes money, the worse the model is from a brand perspective. It doesn’t make sense to insert the things that people don’t like into the things that people do like. Our whole business model is that companies need to become the media companies themselves, make things that people like, and build their own audiences.”

For each company, that will mean something different — and Pratt cited this lack of a one-size-fits-all model as a justification for skirting my question about how much Pacific Content’s offerings cost.

“We’re not the least expensive solution out there,” he said. “But, man. Compared to other mediums, like video and that sort of thing, audio is a terrific, terrific choice to reach a lot of people at a good price point.”

Photo by Faruk Ates used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 9, 2016, 11:27 a.m.
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