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  • Writer's pictureJohn Cavender

What Brands Can Learn from the Evolution of Content, Engagement, and Community Building

It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly five years since that one autumn when we were all addicted to Serial. Following the 68 million downloads of season one within its first four months of its existence (all seasons reaching over 420 million downloads to date), podcasts have dominated headlines, conversations, and earbuds. And brands have noticed. If you are working on updating a brand’s content offerings, you know that developing a podcast is a hot topic. But, what might we lose as the medium continues expanding beyond journalists, comedians, critics, and commentators? Do we run the risk of hitting an oversaturation point where podcasts won’t be podcasts anymore, but audio advertising?

Discussions around joining the podcast community tend to focus on the audio-only format’s immense popularity and its clear value to listeners. You can listen while you walk, drive, use public transportation. Maybe you listen during a slow day at work — I won’t tell your boss! While these are the most obvious benefits of the medium, there are some intangible aspects that make podcasts sing. Brands need to consider the less visible traits of new content mediums that make them special and help to foster community.

Scarcity and Exclusive Access to Content Attract Relevant Audiences

One of the central ways that podcasts develop community is by offering content that isn’t available anywhere else. When material is only available through one content source, audiences are drawn in. While publications like the New York Times and NPR offer content in a variety of mediums, they are developing material that is solely available on podcasts. By making the content on podcasts exclusive, these publications encourage audiences that already engage with other owned content to listen in.

We can look to the early days of the blogosphere as an example of how content only available in one location helps form and foster communities. In 1998, the blog Television Without Pity (TWoP) helped establish the dominant community for television aficionados. The blog was the first to employ the episode recap that we now see on every entertainment website today. Back in the 90s and early aughts, Television Without Pity was often the only way to find out what happened on an episode that you missed. These were the days before you could record an episode with TiVo, or, for that matter, stream shows on Netflix. Additionally, the official websites of television shows were highly moderated, but TWoP allowed its readers to comment freely about their opinions of episodes. In fact, the Guardian reports that the site was the birthplace to many offline meetups, friendships, and even marriages.

Engage the Same Way You Would at a Dinner Party

Other sites in the aughts like the Atlantic, the Toast, and Jezebel successfully developed communities by engaging with their audiences and considering what their audiences wanted. The Toast and Jezebel readers developed names to identify community members: “Toasties” and “Jezzies,” respectively. Ta-Nehisi Coates at the Atlantic developed a remarkable comments section, where ideas were shared intelligently and respectfully. The mindset was that commenters should act like they had been invited to a dinner party: assume good will and don’t be unnecessarily antagonistic. If a user broke the rules, their comments were deleted. As a result, the comments section provoked honest, intelligent discussion. Additionally, Coates used material expressed in the comments section in new blogs, further engaging readers and developing the Atlantic community.

Readers reflect on what the Toast meant to them.

These learnings from early blogs and today’s successful podcasts suggest that brands can’t use any medium with highly engaged communities as just another home for their marketing materials. What exclusive stories or materials can your brand share on a podcast to foster a community? Also, for example, can your podcast foster conversation and digression? These allow speakers to explore aspects of your brand or industry that you haven’t yet delved into in other mediums. What aspects of the medium can brands utilize when producing podcast content?

While blogs are now ubiquitous and are no longer the focal point of communities that they once were (like with Television Without Pity), exclusive blog content will also help create communities for your content. In fact, the power of exclusive content applies to all platforms you may use. Think about how your content can provide valuable, exclusive information to audiences. Then work to build communities around those platforms.

Creating Communities on Social

Communities are an important way that brands connect with audiences. Facebook Groups have been around for a long time, but following the negative press that the social network received for its role in influencing the election, Groups became an important part of their comeback and their marketing efforts. Facebook launched a recent advertising campaign encouraging users to participate in Groups, and the company has been pushing messaging around fostering communities as a way of improving public perception and maintaining users. Twitter also has a history of allowing communities to form where people with shared interests flock. A study found that “tribes” of Twitter users were even forming their own languages.

Twitter, of course, has changed significantly over the course of its existence. Originally, a user’s Twitter feed was ordered by what was most recently posted. In its heyday, users made Twitter their go-to source for news. You got the latest updates from people on the ground at the Ferguson protests or the Boston Marathon bombing. But, in 2016, Twitter phased out the reverse-chronological format, shifting the platform from a breaking news site to a place more adept for commentary. Users now have the option to see their feed in reverse chronological order, but the default setting is a feed of curated, “top-ranked” tweets — a change to the feed that forever altered Twitter. Now, Twitter is a better place for a reflection of the news, rather than breaking news.

Know Your Tribe

Brands can use Twitter to develop communities of users with a shared set of interests. Speak up when you see that an aspect of your industry is not getting the coverage that you believe it deserves in traditional media. Highlight a facet of the fintech or cybersecurity space that a general audience is not aware of, and connect with the people who understand the issue.

Novelist Ingrid Rojas Contreras shares in a Twitter thread how fiction writers should approach writing from the point of view of someone with a different background than themselves

Brands can flex their expertise on Twitter to draw audiences to them for accurate takes on complex topics. Journalists frequently search Twitter for experts to use as sources for stories on complicated issues. For example, Patagonia pushed back on the Trump administration’s executive order eliminating protections for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument highlighting that the order was illegal.

Producing new content is an opportunity to share new exclusive information and develop communities of readers, listeners, or viewers that care about the industry or issues central to your brand. Consider the best aspects of different content mediums as you develop materials. Twitter is a good place for reflection on recent news, and a blog’s comments section could be a good place to engage with and respond to audiences. Additionally, exclusive content is key. If audiences can find the same marketing materials on your website, there is less of a draw for them to listen to your podcast highlighting those messages. The opportunities in content creation are infinite. Remember, it’s not just about what you say on a podcast or blog, but who you say it to. Build that community.


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