Digital Media: Prick up your ears

Radio's evolution into a multi-platform medium has given listeners and brands alike more choice and broadened accessibility, with podcasts, in particular, providing advertisers with a unique connection to their audience.

The face, or perhaps that should be ear, of radio listening has changed beyond recognition over the past decade. In that time, radio has not only gone digital, offering a greater choice of stations, but has also evolved from a single-channel medium to one which is available on multiple platforms, including the internet, digital TV and mobile phones.

The advent of internet radio, in particular, has given broadcasters the opportunity to create tailored streams of programming to appeal to different audiences, while the emergence of podcasting has presented brands with the chance to create, in effect, their own programmes to promote their product and its values.

But what has been the impact of this change on consumers, and how have brands harnessed the communication potential of modern radio listening? 'New platforms have had a huge impact on listening behaviour and on the way brands connect with consumers,' says Helen Moore, editorial director at broadcast PR and marketing communications agency Markettiers4dc. 'Radio is still an extremely important medium and the new platforms offer more ways for consumers to listen, and more opportunities for brands to reach them.'

According to Rajar figures for the third quarter of this year, 44.9m listeners a week - representing 89% of the UK population - are tuning in to radio. There has not, however, been a growth in listeners in recent years. In the third quarter of 2004, when online radio was in its infancy, 48.9m people tuned in every week, representing a slightly higher reach of 90% of the population.

What the additional platforms have provided is greater choice and flexibility for listeners, and an opportunity for radio broadcasters to expand their offering and tap into additional revenue streams. 'A station such as Classic FM has a finite amount of airtime it can sell, so if you can create sub-brands online, you can add cash to the bottom line,' says John Hirst, head of creation at GCap Media.

Classic FM has extended its offering to podcasts, themed CD boxsets, a Sky TV channel, Classic FM TV, and an IPTV service via its website. Another GCap-owned station, Xfm, has developed a feature called Mi-Xfm, which enables listeners to personalise playlists online, specifying, for example, that while they want to listen to indie music, they would rather avoid tracks by Franz Ferdinand.

It is not just the traditional radio stations that have capitalised on the opportunities presented by the web. Another provider of personalised radio listening is Last.fm, which enables users to connect with other listeners with similar tastes to create their own customised 'stations'. The concept proved an attractive proposition for US media company CBS, which bought the company in May for £140m.

Meanwhile, the emergence of podcasting over the past three years has presented brands with a novel way to connect with consumers, in an approach that is more editorial than advertorial in nature. Podcasting did not catch the public's imagination immediately, but, thanks in part to the phenomenal sales success of Apple's iPod, the message gradually got through that, in effect, a podcast is a short piece of radio programming that users can download and listen to on a computer or MP3 player. Encouraged by the efforts of early podcasters such as Ricky Gervais via the Guardian Unlimited website, consumers started to embrace the idea.

Rajar began reporting download figures in the second quarter of 2006, when it was revealed that 1.9m listeners had tuned in to a podcast. The figure for the third quarter of this year represents a 47% increase, having risen to 2.8m listeners.

According to Steve Ackerman, managing director of cross-platform production company Somethin' Else, it was inevitable that brands would grasp the power of podcasting. 'Radio regulation has always meant that there is greater flexibility in what brands can do on radio compared with TV. But with podcasts, brands realised that they could become broadcasters,' he says.

To gain an idea of the popularity of the medium, one has only to visit Apple's iTunes store, where thousands of podcasts are organised into 16 categories, including Arts, Religion & Spirituality and Music. Brands from just about every sector, including FCUK, Bacardi, Air Miles and BMW, have turned to podcasts as a subtle way of communicating with their target audience.

Consumer engagement

Totaljobs Group, which is a recent convert to the format, produced its first series of podcasts in August to promote its website, Secretarialcareers.co.uk. Each podcast has a distinct theme: one is on the implications of body language in the workplace, for example, while another offers tips on creating an impressive CV.

'We turned to podcasting because we wanted to make the brand more three-dimensional in terms of engaging people,' says Totaljobs marketing manager Laurence Owen. 'It's a good way to position the brand as one that is in tune with jobseekers. This is a communications method that consumers would expect brands to use nowadays.'

While the Totaljobs podcasts deal with issues directly related to the company's core business of employment, brands often use the format to promote their values in a more diffuse way. A drinks brand, for instance, might sponsor a comedy podcast. Coke has a free monthly podcast called Coke New Music, which showcases new and unsigned bands and is presented by Xfm's Adam and Joe.

The Coke branding is understated and, according to Ackerman, this is the way it should be. 'There are no limits to how many times you can mention the brand, but our advice is to keep it subtle,' he says. 'People will only download a podcast because they want the content, so in a 15-minute piece, we would recommend maybe five mentions, including a strong bumper at the beginning and end, and jingles to break it up.'

With smaller devices such as iPod Nanos now able to play video, Ackerman says it makes sense to use some visual content, so the user can see still or moving branded images while listening to the podcast.

While it doesn't offer the reach of a TV commercial, a popular podcast can attract a wide audience. Guardian Unlimited's Ricky Gervais Show, for example, achieved 261,670 downloads in its first month.

Such numbers are interesting to advertisers. The opportunity for brands to create powerful ties and their own content is unarguably attractive. In conjunction with digital radio listening and access via the web, there is plenty for radio to shout about.

CASE STUDY - NSPCC

The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) started using podcasts in 2006, when it produced a series on abuse, aimed at 11- to 15-year-old girls. It also uses podcasts and videocasts on an ad hoc basis around relevant news, such as the January appointment of boxer Amir Khan as an ambassador for the charity.

'With the emergence of YouTube and user-generated content in general, it became clear to us that people now expect information to be delivered to them in an accessible and engaging manner,' says NSPCC new media communications manager Stephanie Hughes. 'Podcasts and videocasts give a very informal perspective on things because, when content is downloaded to a PC or MP3 player, it becomes a very personal, one-to-one communication.'

The format is a cost-effective one, too. The NSPCC has trained its staff on how to make their own podcasts and videocasts, enabling them to produce content at short notice and minimum cost.

According to Hughes, the NSPCC does not use podcasts for fundraising purposes, but rather as a way of informing the public about how the charity is spending donors' cash.

When a podcast is produced, it is uploaded to the NSPCC website, with the copy trailing the podcast optimised for search-engine marketing. The charity also recently launched a channel on YouTube, and plans to use this to promote its podcasts and videocasts in the future and it has a Facebook tool to help recruit supporters.

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