Tell Me a Story: What Podcast Format Works Best for Brands?

Comparing the effectiveness of Narrative vs. Non-narrative podcasts for brands


. 5 min read

tell me a story - branded podcasts 3

There’s this thing I’ve been hearing a lot lately.

“Our CEO’s going to host a show like Smartless.”

I get it– really, I do. Smartless is a hugely popular podcast right now (it’s even overtaken the references to Joe Rogan that I used to often hear). The brand managers I speak to are not just marketers– they’re also podcast fans. And overwhelmingly, they seem to be consuming Smartless. So, I understand why they’d be keen to recreate the success of a show they love so much.

I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve spoken to new potential brand partners who have told me they’re going to make a podcast with “raw” and “unedited” interviews from their CEO. And again, I get it– it seems obvious to try to replicate the success of the podcasts you’re loving and listening to, and many of those seem like raw and unedited interview shows. But when this has come up in the past, I’ve found myself walking a very fine line. On the one hand, I want to compliment my new friend here who has probably spent a good amount of time already researching the power of podcasts and the potential to reach their target audience. And on the other hand, I want to gently push them to consider other approaches to the podcast format.

This isn’t because of some personal vendetta against chat shows. Admittedly my feed is full of mostly doc-style or fiction shows, but I do understand the companionship and entertainment that long-form interview or chat-style shows provide. No, the reason Pacific Content is not known for producing chat shows is because we’ve had an inkling about their effectiveness for brands– or lack thereof.

Now, thanks to Signal Hill Insights, we have the data to back this up.

When tested for brand favorability, brands that took a narrative approach to their podcast saw an average lift in favorability ten percentage points higher than those using a conversation or interview format.

Ten percentage points!

So, what’s happening here? The conversation or interview format seems to be working for non-brands (see: Smartless, Joe Rogan, Armchair Expert, etc). Why are narrative shows superceding in the branded world?

I think there are a few things going on here.

Quality Control

I want to address one big factor that I think might be at play here. At the beginning of the “podcast boom,” roughly around 2014, there was a narrative perpetuated about podcasts that still hasn’t entirely gone away: Podcasts are cheap and easy to produce.

All you’ve got to do is talk into a microphone! Anyone can do it!

I think that one of the big reasons why we see such a stark difference in the reception between narrative and non-narrative shows is that the “non-narrative” category encompasses all of the shows from brands who fell into the trap of thinking that making a podcast would be cheap and easy.

So really, is it a fair comparison? By their nature, narrative podcasts require significant time and care. One single interview might be spliced a million ways, pulled apart, analyzed, and put back together again to tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end. In comparison, if a brand has chosen to produce an interview-style podcast because they believed their investment would be minimal, then the work involved is really just recording the interview and clicking publish. But if you don’t put in the work, you don’t get the reward.

Is it possible to make an interview-style show that will absolutely attract your target audience and raise brand favorability amongst listeners? Of course, yes. But is it easy to make that show? No. You have to put the same amount of work into host training, pre-production, question writing, research– and yes, even editing– to achieve results.

Celebrity Factor

We also need to look at what makes those non-branded interview podcasts so successful. One major factor? Celebrities. Yes, these actors and influencers come to the podcast with some experience being on air, so they might have a leg-up on hosting compared to your CEO. But on top of that, part of the draw to these podcasts in the first place is the potential to get a glimpse into who these actors really are. This is what we get in those small “raw” and “unedited” moments these podcasts provide.

Frankly, your CEO probably just doesn’t provide this kind of draw to potential listeners (unless they also just happen to have Jason-Bateman-Will-Arnett-Sean-Hayes-level fame). Listeners just don’t care.

It’s also worth mentioning that there may be a bit of “survivor bias” happening here. We focus on the hugely successful chat shows that rise to the top of the charts, and forget about the many many shows that have been abandoned. While writing this post, Matt Hird of Signal Hill Insights reminded me of the ill-fated foray into podcasting by former president Barack Obama– someone who is clearly an amazing speaker, with that “celebrity factor” – and even his podcast only lasted a mere three months. Even Barack Obama couldn’t pull off the interview-style show!

Let Us Entertain You

When embarking on making a podcast, there are a lot of things brands need to consider: What topics will you cover? What information do you want to share? Which guests will you reach out to? In the middle of making all of these decisions, I think sometimes brands lose sight of the most important question: What is the listener going to get out of the show?

Even if you perfectly represent your brand and share super valuable information in the podcast, the show will be useless if no one listens to it.

And what do listeners want out of their podcasts?

Primarily, they want to be entertained.

(Also interesting to see that the second most important reason for listening is to hear interesting stories.)

Of course, it’s possible to make an entertaining non-narrative podcast. But are the brands producing non-narrative podcasts keeping this principle top-of-mind? This is something I think B2B marketers need to especially remember (specifically because the B2B crowd has seemingly overtaken the branded podcasts market recently). While the target audience for B2B marketers is typically defined by their jobs, those listeners are more than just employees– they’re also people, who are still choosing which podcast to listen to for the same reasons as everyone else. They want stories and they want entertainment. It’s not enough to just sit across from each other and discuss industry-specific topics. Listeners will choose another show, one that prioritizes their entertainment.

When you make a show your listeners like, you also make them like your brand.

And if you want to make a show your listeners like, tell them a story.

Sign up for the newsletter for the latest brand storytelling and podcast inspiration, insights, right in your inbox, every two weeks. We promise to never spam you.

Related Posts