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Companies catch on to podcasts' marketing power

SANTA ANA, Calif. -- At Disneyland's 50th anniversary celebration in July, Newport Beach, Calif., resident Michael Geoghegan was one of the first people inside the gate.

He wasn't there to enjoy himself but to capture the sounds and secrets of the Magic Kingdom's special event for Disney fans.

Geoghegan treated his audience to a tour of Walt Disney's private apartment above the fire station on Main Street, interviews with ''Mary Poppins" star Julie Andrews and Disney chairman Michael Eisner, and reminiscences from some of that day's park visitors.

Geoghegan's shows didn't go out over the radio, but as podcasts over the Internet to personal computers and MP3 players.

Podcasting, which gets its name from the most popular personal media player, Apple's iPod, just turned a year old in September and has already evolved from the playground of hobbyists to a tool of Fortune 500 companies.

Still to be seen is whether Disneyland's recent podcasts will turn out to be part of a short-lived fad or will help lead the way to increasing corporate forays into a new technology for reaching customers, investors, and employees.

Podcasts are MP3 audio files -- everything from music to informative programming -- that individuals can download and listen to when and where they want.

Geoghegan was one of the first to develop a nonmusic podcast, ''Reel Reviews." He has since coauthored a book on the subject, ''Podcast Solutions," and formed a corporation, Willnick Productions, to make money in the new medium.

Along with tens of thousands of individuals, a few corporations have jumped on the podcasting bandwagon. In addition to Disneyland: Pontiac podcast its party that introduced its new car, Solstice, June 21 in New York's Times Square.

IBM disclosed in August that it will post podcasts on its investor relations website.

Virgin Atlantic Airlines podcasts audio tours of New York City.

TV Guide magazine dishes entertainment dirt on its weekly podcasts.

''Podcasting is still in the Wild West stage -- people figuring out what they can do with it," said Greg Cangialosi, a Baltimore podcaster who helped Geoghegan with the first Disneyland podcasts in May and did the Pontiac podcast from Times Square. ''But it's viable enough that you have corporations coming in."

The trick for corporations is to avoid being boring, adds Mike Spataro of Weber Shandwick, the public relations firm for Pontiac.

''The content has to be interesting to have people want to subscribe," he said. In that way, they are like infomercials, he suggests -- a company with a new diet product can't simply release audio infomercials about the product; they have to be informative and entertaining shows about battling obesity.

Some early corporate podcasts were read straight from marketing brochures, Geoghegan said.

''Disney stood out because it was the first corporation to do content produced specifically for a podcast," he said.

Even though Disney is a media company, it contracted with an experienced podcaster and didn't tell him what to do, said Duncan Wardle, vice president of publicity at Disneyland. ''We chose Michael because he's a father with two kids, and there's instant credibility in that. He produced interesting, informative programming. It didn't come across as a slick marketing piece; it was genuine." Disney considers its podcasts to be a part of a broad marketing package, not a stand-alone effort, Wardle said.

Pontiac adopted a strategy like Disney's. Its Solstice podcast built on General Motors' collection of interviews with in-house engineers discussing design, something car buffs love, Spataro said.

''They brought in an outside podcaster, relinquishing marketing control to get unfiltered content," he said.

Cangialosi podcast music from the event, person-on-the-street interviews about the car, and descriptions that made listeners feel as if they were standing at his side at the intersection of 46th Street and Broadway.

''Podcasting is a way for companies to create buzz relatively inexpensively," he said.

Podcasts reach very narrow audiences, so for a company to use the technology for marketing, it must figure out the demographics of its customers and what information they want, said Tim Bourquin of Laguna Niguel, Calif., producer of the Portable Media Expo and Podcasting Conference, which took place in November in Ontario, Calif.

''You have to get your message out in a way that your audience won't fast-forward through," he said. ''It's more effective if you teach them something. It can't be press releases."

Individual podcasters accept donations at their websites, charge for subscriptions, or sell merchandise and ads on their sites. Corporations use podcasting differently -- so far, it's an indirect marketing tool rather than a source of revenue.

But venture capitalists are betting that podcasting is much more.

Podshow, a company founded by former MTV host and podcast pioneer Adam Curry, recently received $8.85 million from Sequoia Capital and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, among others. The company aims to make podcasts easier to create and download.

Odeo, a company that will match advertisers to podcasts, received an undisclosed investment from Charles River Ventures and Amicus Ventures.

Free-access podcasts are just the beginning of corporate involvement, Geoghegan said, predicting that ''privatecasting" -- private events streamed over the Internet to a specific audience -- will be the next big use.

Geoghegan worked with a computer science class at Duke University that this month is starting to distribute the professor's lectures, homework assignments, and multimedia handouts to students enrolled in the class.

Companies can distribute information by podcasts that only specific employees can access by password, he said.

Videocasting -- podcasting with pictures -- will be coming soon, he predicts.

''People will create their own TV channels and that will probably surpass podcasting," he said.

Jan Norman is a columnist for the Orange County Register.

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