Putting the fun into funnels

The truth about podcasting’s place in the customer journey

I think that your approach to the funnel says a lot about your perspective on marketing. Whether you place your focus on the top or the bottom tells me if you’re a ‘grand strategy’ type of thinker with many layers of plans at play, or if you spend your time bouncing from one creative idea to the next. The funnel, in many ways, is a metaphor for life itself, where we’re all sliding inexorably towards our ultimate destination.

Before we go any further, I should probably take a brief moment to explain what in the blinking crikey I’m on about with all this talk of funnels. In simple terms, ‘the funnel’ is a concept within sales and marketing that refers to the journey an individual goes through, from being totally unaware of a company’s products or services to being a satisfied customer. 

This process starts with letting a prospective customer know about a company’s offering in the first place, then moves on to building their interest in it, and then finally progresses to actually driving them to make a purchase. Different marketing strategies will be used for each stage, and the pool of prospective customers gets smaller with each one as uninterested parties drop off: hence, the funnel.

Over the last year or so, I’ve had a lot of conversations with marketers about where exactly podcasting fits into this funnel. Some are firmly convinced that it’s most useful as a top-of-funnel tool, while others are equally adamant that it’s best suited to driving conversion at the bottom of the funnel.

The top of the funnel is all about driving awareness, and is typically the domain of brand marketing campaigns: think stuff like HSBC’s partnership with The News Agents, with lots of run-of-show ads. You’re probably more familiar with bottom-of-funnel podcast campaigns, however. This falls more into the realm of performance marketing, and is highly results-focused, with much of the activity being driven by direct-to-consumer brands. Squarespace, BetterHelp and HelloFresh are all great examples of this - if you’ve ever heard an ad which includes a discount code, that’s a bottom-funnel campaign.

So, which camp is correct? Is podcast advertising most effective at the top or the bottom of the funnel?

The easy and somewhat trite answer is that they’re both right: podcasting can be effectively used for both brand and performance marketing, depending on the kind of campaign strategy you deploy and your target goals. 

The real answer, however, is that neither is right. If we’re talking about the best way to leverage podcasts as an advertising channel, it’s the oft-overlooked middle part of the funnel where the medium has the greatest potential. 

Commonly referred to as the ‘interest’, ‘desire’ or ‘consideration’ stages in general marketing parlance, this part of the customer journey is arguably the least sexy from an advertising perspective - it lacks the flash and splash of attention-grabbing awareness campaigns, and doesn’t have the comforting foundation of conversion metrics that underpins performance marketing. However, I’d argue that it’s the most impactful stage of the whole process in terms of delivering meaningful results for a company’s bottom line.

After all, it’s often a long journey from a consumer becoming aware of your product to actually becoming a customer, and turning awareness into interest is a mystical art that’s not always easy to crack. Podcasts are a fantastic tool for this, because they’re built on sustained active engagement with an interested audience, and I’m a firm believer that deeply-integrated podcast partnerships are the best tool for building that consideration.

I’m talking particularly about campaigns which involve sponsored segments, or fully-sponsored episodes, which live alongside organic content and offer advertisers the chance to spend sustained contact time with listeners. They’re not obtrusive or interruptive in the way that even the best spot ads can sometimes be, and when they’re done right, they’re just as engaging as a podcast’s normal, non-sponsored content - with the added advantage that listeners are associating those positive feelings they get from listening with your brand.

These campaigns work best when run over an extended period, so that the sponsor and its content become part of the podcast’s furniture. Ideally, your audience will become familiar with your products and their selling points organically, so when you do want to move them further down the funnel, they’re already primed on the benefits and will be that much more likely to convert.

Full-on branded podcasts also work in the same way, and have the advantage of delivering a fully-owned audience, but they can be a lot of work to maintain, and don’t allow brands to leverage an existing audience. For my money, sponsored segments are where it’s at. As an example of what I mean, BrewDog is for me now inextricably linked with That Peter Crouch Podcast, not just because they ran some host reads and spot ads, but because they did a long-running, tightly-integrated creative partnership with a lot of fun ideas. Now every time I see Crouchy, I think of BrewDog - and I’m not even a regular listener to the podcast!

If brands want to capitalise on the deep connection podcasters enjoy with their audience, they need to meet them on their own terms and authentically engage with the content - but that shouldn’t be scary. If anything, it’s an opportunity for brands to identify podcasts that they really align with, and then relax and enjoy themselves. Take the time to explore fun, creative ideas together, safe in the knowledge that it’s all driving that familiarity with the audience.

Most podcast campaigns will be part of a wider media mix - Lloyd’s Bank spends up to 25% of its audio marketing budget on podcasts, according to brand communications lead Vicky Handley - but for too many companies, podcasts are often relegated to a purely functional role driving top or bottom-funnel activities.

Podcasts are a fantastic tool to help marketers meet their goals, whatever stage of the customer journey they’re focused on - but for my money, they work best when brands remember that you can’t spell funnel without a bit of fun.