Podcraft: Goldman Sachs, TED and General Electric on how to create the perfect podcast

By Gabrielle Lane

Less than 24 hours after Jake Siewert joined Goldman Sachs as its global head of corporate communications in 2012, a letter appeared in The New York Times written by a disgruntled former employee. In it, investment banker Greg Smith shared his reasons for leaving the firm, in 1,200 uncensored words. More than three million people read Smith’s diatribe and a book deal followed six months later.

In an industry such as finance, the global, often unfathomable nature of the work can cause curiosity and speculation. And not all of it is positive.

Siewert knows this all too well. “For people who don’t regularly interact with Goldman Sachs because we’re not a retail bank, there’s a lot of mystery about what the bank does and how it operates,” he says.

So the bank’s strategy for the past few years has been to provide to the broader public the insight that it offers to its clients on a regular basis. One of the ways it does this is with a podcast.

In 2014, the bank launched Exchanges at Goldman Sachs, a podcast series in which experts from across the bank discuss the developments that are shaping the global economy. Topics can range from the future of medicine to the US political climate and space tourism (an area in which Goldman has a significant investment interest). Today, each episode receives more than 250,000 downloads from an audience predominantly aged between 18 and 50. Not bad for a product that Siewert says is based on “research the communications team has to read anyway” and produced in a studio “already built for videoconferencing”.

So, is it time you created your own podcast?

What’s in it for me?
“A podcast is an active listening experience – you have to go to the podcast, you have to subscribe to it and then you have to listen to it,” explains Guy Raz, presenter and editorial director of TED Radio Hour, a spin-off of ideas-sharing organisation TED, and one of the most popular podcasts online.

“It essentially eliminates the passive listener from the experience and means you end up with a targeted, concentrated audience who are committed to what you are doing. That’s the difference between podcasting and almost any other kind of broadcast medium,” he says.

Most people are listening through their headphones at a time that suits them. This deepens the connection between audience and podcaster. In the UK, Radio Joint Audience Research (RAJAR), the official body for monitoring radio audiences, puts the proportion of podcasts listened to through smartphones at 66%. “With a podcast, you’re in people’s heads for 30 minutes to an hour,” says Raz.

As a result – take note, comms pros – producer NPR has found that 76% of listeners have a more positive impression of a company when it supports a podcast.

How creative with content can I be?
Very. In 2015, 125-year-old manufacturing company General Electric (GE) created an eight-part sci-fi drama that doesn’t mention its brand name once.
Now flexing its muscles as a ‘digital industrial software’ firm, GE wanted to create a buzz around its technology and innovations. In its podcast mini-series, The Message, it tells the story of a team of decoders working on an extraterrestrial communication.

“We started thinking about using episodic content for meaningful storytelling. We wanted to reflect that GE is smart and curious. That’s what sci-fi is – the objective and fantasy coming together,” explains Alexa Christon, head of media innovation for the brand.

The company weaved its proprietary expertise into the storyline. In the first episode, a sleuth declares that “open-source is the future” in a nod to the modifiable nature of GE software; later listeners discover that a virus is embedded in the alien audio transmission, at a time when GE is promoting sound-based medical treatment.

“My mind immediately jumped to: if a sound can cure a person, maybe it can also make them sick? And just like that I knew I had my monster,” says writer Mac Rogers.

In the one subtle nod to brand-building, the production is listed as coming from GE Podcast Theater.

How can a podcast boost internal comms?
Many listeners to Exchanges at Goldman Sachs are drawn from the bank’s 34,000-strong workforce, as well as graduates who aspire to work there. Siewert says “it has become a learning tool” in an organisation in which colleagues can sometimes end up working in silos and not get to hear about the research of other divisions.

At the last count, nearly 70% of Goldmans’ workforce were millennials (aged under 35), who are familiar with podcast technology and have time to kill on their commute. Siewert has also found that when employees participate in the podcast “they become ambassadors – you get a referral system”.

How do podcast contributors get selected?
Siewert and his team start by recruiting the authors of research that has been well received on other media channels, assuming that those who speak to clients regularly are able to tell a story about what they’ve been working on. Siewert conducts the interviews himself, to keep the show on topic.

What’s the gold standard of production?
TED Radio Hour is the slickest podcast around. TED’s overarching theme is human behaviour and experience, so each planning session starts with this question: ‘Does this topic apply to all of humankind?’

Having earmarked a theme – altruism, say – the production team works with the in-house experts at TED to identify talks from its famous conferences. Speakers are re-interviewed and then all content is transcribed so the best bits can be cut and pasted together. The narration by Guy Raz is recorded separately.

The operation needs a senior producer to keep the project on track: five or six shows are being worked on at any one time over a three-month period. Before the show airs, the senior team at TED meets with the producers each week to hear a draft and check it reflects the organisation’s identity.

How do I edit a podcast?
Whatever you do, make it sound natural. The light and chatty narration of TED Radio Hour is, in fact, scripted and re-recorded several times. According to Raz, it’s easy to slip into “voice of God” mode, but the intimacy of a podcast calls for a friendly tone. Make sure you avoid lapsing into your telephone voice.

At Goldman Sachs, Siewert wrestles any written answers from contributors for the same reason, insisting: “I’m there to make the speakers relax.” The interviews are not live, however, meaning a draft can also go to your compliance team if you’re tackling sensitive topics. Once you’ve nailed the tone, sound effects can be added, too. Four producers work on TED Radio Hour to make sure each bit is as sharp as it can be. They add sounds that complement the topic but have learned to leave silence in. It adds atmosphere and can reflect the tension between contributors.

How do I get a podcast out there?
Many organisations partner with podcast networks to produce their content. TED Radio Hour relies on the broadcasting prowess of NPR, while GE formed a partnership with Panoply, a studio that has created more than 100 custom podcasts. The advantage is one-click publishing to listening platforms such as iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify and Google, so your content is discoverable.

In addition, networked podcasts benefit from cross-promotion. Panoply’s own research shows that the typical podcast subscriber listens to seven others, so it inserts audio tasters and adverts into similar podcasts and drops video teasers on its social media accounts to drive interest in new shows.

“Podcast networks have legitimacy and a built-in audience through some of their break-out content, so for us it was the right way to go,” says Christon at GE.

How do I measure success?
Apple is notoriously guarded with its demographic data, and historically has only shared download numbers for podcasts. This doesn’t tell the full story because, according to RAJAR, only 65% of downloaded podcasts are listened to.

Therefore, it’s recommended you embed your podcast on your own website, and upload it to platforms like Stitcher to access metrics such as completion rates. These will tell you at what point a user stops listening so you can shape content for the future.

However, you don’t need to chase audience numbers, says Raz. “When it comes to creating any kind of podcast, the key is to focus it in a narrow way. Having an audience of 5,000 people listening to your podcast every week is worth it because a niche audience is a powerful, loyal audience.” Siewert agrees: “We started with low expectations, but it’s been a highly successful avenue for us.”

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