This is adapted from an article by Donna Papacosta that appeared in the Journal of Employee Communications Management in 2007.
Once the domain of self-described techies and audio geeks, podcasting has graduated into the business mainstream. Here’s a quick Q&A guide to podcasting, geared toward savvy internal communicators.
What’s a podcast?
A podcast is a multimedia file that’s distributed by subscription over the Internet using syndication feeds and played back on a personal computer or mobile device. A podcast can be an audio or video file. For this article, let’s stick to audio. Think of it as “TIVO for your ears.”
What’s all the fuss? Hasn’t downloadable audio been around for eons?
The concept of downloading audio is indeed not new. However, a technology called RSS (Really Simple Syndication) has fueled the phenomena of blogging and podcasting by allowing publishers to distribute content automatically. Listeners don’t have to remember to check the publisher’s Web site regularly to see if a fresh podcast has appeared.
Owners of iPods and other portable devices are hungry for content, which podcasters are eager to provide. At the same time, the ubiquity of portable MP3 players and the availability of low-cost recording gear and audio-editing software have made podcasting very accessible to most of us.
Do I need an iPod? And what’s iTunes?
Despite the name podcasting, you do not need an Apple iPod. You can listen to a podcast on your desktop or laptop computer or by using any portable MP3 player. You can “tune in” while exercising, folding laundry or commuting to work. Increasingly, podcast listeners are using iTunes to subscribe to podcasts and to manage their subscriptions. iTunes is a free application from Apple that runs on Windows machines or Macs.
Why should communicators care?
The human touch of audio makes podcasting an engaging communications tool that can be used to augment traditional face-to-face, print and online media—for company news, investor relations, marketing, product announcements, employee recruitment, training and more. That’s why such organizations as Disney, IBM, GM, Ford and Whirlpool are producing podcasts that inform employees, educate the public and reinforce their brands.
How can you use a podcast internally?
Many organizations are producing podcasts to reach external audiences. But they’re also creating podcasts for training and other internal communications. Podcasts can complement your employee newsletter, intranet and other communications vehicles. At Sedgwick Claims Management in Memphis, Tenn., internal communications manager Jonathan Mast and communications specialist Aidan Hagood started podcasting to employees in the fall of 2005. According to Mast, many employees have made listening to the weekly show part of their Monday morning routine.
Mast and Hagood have produced shows about new business, the employee assistance program, and human-interest topics (about an employee who survived breast cancer and another who rode in the junior Tour de France, for example). Each quarter, the CEO records a talk for employees. “Every employee can find six or seven minutes to listen to the Quick Cast,” says Mast. Hagood adds: “Do all 6,000 employees listen? No. But we have a core group who tune in every week, plus many colleagues who listen when it’s a topic of particular interest. All in all, our podcast has been a positive experience.”
Nycomed (formerly ALTANA Pharma), a specialty pharmaceutical company in Oakville, Ontario, started podcasting around the same time that Sedgwick jumped into the pod pool. When a new VP of sales, Ron Clark, came on board, Nycomed’s agency suggested that audio might be an effective way for him to speak with the company’s 130 sales reps, who are dispersed around the country and spend a lot of time in their cars. According to Bob Tam, director of Government & External Affairs at Nycomed, listenership has spread. “When we started out, the podcast was designed around the needs of the sales force. Through Ron’s podcast they were hearing from people in Scientific Affairs, Clinical Development, Government Relations, HR and so on. Now anyone in the company can access the podcasts. After all, Finance people want to know what’s happening in Sales or Scientific Affairs, too. People really want to listen. It helps them stay connected.”
At the University of Michigan Health System in Ann Arbor, Mich., Associate PR Rep Jessica Soulliere says they’re already producing external podcasts about health and research news (which employees listen to and enjoy) and are planning to introduce an internal podcast soon. “We are going to redesign our intranet to incorporate podcasts that will contain leadership messages, speeches and information on topics such as planning for disasters like a pandemic.”
How does an organization benefit from an internal podcast?
At Sedgwick, employees have been inspired by the company podcast. “One colleague said she quit smoking after hearing our Great American Smoke-out interview with a representative from the American Cancer Society,” says Hagood. “Overall, we get very good feedback from employees. Some comment on almost every show.” Mast adds: “People are very busy here. A podcast is a good way to reach them.”
Perhaps Nycomed’s podcast – and the employee engagement it encourages – has contributed to that company’s inclusion on the list of “Canada’s Top 100 Employers” in Maclean’s magazine.
Podcasts are cost-effective too. An internal communications initiative at one global high-tech firm – switching from conference calls to podcasts –saved the company more than $200,000 per year on its phone bill. In addition, staff in Asia no longer have rise at an ungodly hour to dial in. Instead, thousands of employees across the world can time-shift and even place-shift
their listening to an hour and location that’s convenient for them.
How do you measure success?
You can track the number of downloads of your MP3 file and visits to your podcast page. More importantly, you may recognize increased employee engagement and better rapport between management and staff. At Sedgwick, Mast says: “We’ll keep podcasting until someone tells us to stop. Both employees and leadership consider the podcast a success.”
Tam at Nycomed is equally delighted: “People now know more about what’s happening in the company. We receive emails from employees asking questions that I know they wouldn’t have asked before we started the podcast.”
How is a podcast made?
You can create a basic podcast with an inexpensive headset microphone, free audio-editing software (such as Audacity) and your computer. You’ll also need a server on which to store the MP3 files, plus a feed to distribute the podcast. The easiest way to create a feed is a blog. Serious podcasters often invest in higher-end equipment, but the technique for creating a podcast is the same. Some organizations handle their own recording and editing; others outsource this job.
Overall, the technology is secondary. Podcasters like to say, “Content is king,” and it’s true. When planning your podcast, you have to decide how to best meet the needs of your audience. Should you try a talk-show format, a more casual conversation between two co-hosts, a comment-driven show or a simple audio address from the CEO? You also need to decide on a publication frequency. Weekly? Monthly? Perhaps you can produce a series of five or 10 episodes. It’s up to you.
So what are you waiting for?
Here’s some advice before you start your podcast:
- Take a workshop, read a podcasting book or hire an expert to introduce you to the podcasting
- techniques and technologies you’ll need to learn.
- Map out a strategy; define your goal and your audience.
- Plan the topics of your first 10 shows.
- Be sure to invite listener comments – and pay heed to them.
- Make friends with the IT department and be sure they understand what you’re doing.
- Keep podcasting. You’ll get better each time.
A few ideas for internal podcast topics and techniques
- Peers interviewing peers
- Interviews with leaders
- Communicating benefits information
- Replacing the conference call and old-school audio tapes
- Education and training
- Recordings during or before conferences and symposia
- Helping geographically dispersed employees keep in touch with head office