Hackable? – the making of a popular branded podcast

Is Hackable? the benchmark quality of a branded podcast?

Hackable? is a branded podcast for software security company, McAfee. With three seasons under its belt, it is in the top 1% of all downloaded podcasts on Apple Podcasts. It has more than 100,000 subscribers, and more than 2 million downloads.

It’s won a slew of awards, including The Shorty Award‘s Best Branded Podcast and AdAge‘s Digital Campaign of the Year.

Most people these days are cynical of marketing and advertising, and most are turned off by advertisements, which are interrupting and intruding. So, imagine creating content that millions of people actively seek out and want to hear? And how good is that if they choose content that’s associated with your brand?

And if Hackable? is indeed the benchmark of a successful branded podcast, what lessons can a brand learn from it?

Back in 2015, marketing guru, Carolyn Walker, CEO of Response Agency, approached her client, McAfee, with a novel idea of creating a branded podcast.

It came from an ‘aha’ moment on a plane flight while she read an article on the growth of podcasting. Together, with her own love of listening to podcasts, she had a feeling it could work for McAfee, if they were open and innovative enough to share her instincts.

They were.

The importance of storytelling

Carolyn tells me one of the challenges for marketing security software is that it’s not really a topic that people care to talk about. It’s not terribly sexy.

“The only time people … really care about security software is when something goes wrong – right? – when they are hacked, when they become a victim of identity theft,” she insists. “And so it doesn’t give you that many opportunities to engage in a conversation.”

But with creative storytelling, podcasting can be a unique opportunity to engage an audience. And that’s the idea she presented to McAfee when she landed in Silicon Valley for a meeting.

Carolyn was crazy-brave, because at that time there was very little research into the benefits of branded podcasting. Would McAfee be willing to put money into a form of content marketing for an unknown return?

What Carolyn and McAfee knew though was that “from all of the research that McAfee has and just intuition alone too is that the best line of defence in protecting yourself online and protecting your computer is education.”

Also, McAfee’s market includes the kinds of people who are listening to podcasts.

“We know now that the audience is very loyal,” Carolyn says. “They’re a little more affluent, they’re a bit younger, they’re educated.”

As Carolyn and McAfee looked into the concept of creating a podcast, the feasibility was looking more and more certain.

“We immediately started doing lots of research about how, not just brands, but how are other podcasts doing it? Right? What are the distribution methods? What’s the production like? How do we know if it’s working or not? So what are the analytics like?”

That’s when Carolyn’s Response Agency teamed up with Pacific Content, a podcast production company based in Vancouver, Canada.

Steve Pratt, Pacific Content’s co-founder and partner, says a successful branded podcast is about teaching the audience something or entertaining them. If you can combine both, you have a powerful podcast.

And, it’s what Hackable? demonstrates in spades.

Podcasting is a gift for your market

Steve says a podcast is a free offering without expectations of anything in return: there’s no hard sell.

“If you can think of your show as a gift or really creating a lot of value for a listener, and they know that it’s you that’s doing that, that’s where the big win is,” insists Steve.

The audience, he says, will “develop a relationship with you and they change the way they think about you, and they like you for making their favourite show.”

It took a year or so to plan the whole podcast: the concept, the name of the show, creating a pilot episode, testing and launching the series.

Carolyn says there were several goals with the podcast, one of which was positioning McAfee as a thought leader in cybersecurity. Another was that it was a gift to their existing customer base.

“There was this goal of getting their current customers to listen to it, and to help their current customers have a good impression of McAfee,” Carolyn says.

So, with all those ideas in mind they came up with a unique and intriguing concept. Hackable? is a bit like the television shows Mythbusters crossed with Punk’d (or Candid Camera). Each episode of Hackable? exposes the “hackability” of everyday electronic devices – smart TVs, drones, mobile phones – often with hilarious results.

Steve Pratt underlines the fact that a branded podcast, ultimately, is not about you and your brand. People don’t want to listen to an advertisement.

You can be a part of the show without being in the show.

“You have to make a fantastic show that people would genuinely not just listen to once,” says Steve. “It has to be so good that they listen to it once and want to keep coming back over and over and over again.

“If you can have an amazing brand experience over and over and over with people, you win compared to your competitors. And whenever they’re going to make a buying decision, if they have spent hours with your brand in their ears and it makes them happy and they like you, they’re always going to choose you. That’s one way of looking at a KPI.”

Indeed, Carolyn Walker is overwhelmed by the continuing popularity of the series.

“We are in the top 1% of all podcasts ever produced based on the number of downloads we get each episode in the first 30 days of release,” says Carolyn. “And we have a huge subscriber base, which is wonderful.”

Levels of engagement are through the roof

Branded podcasting is a long-form of engagement through a storytelling combination of education and entertainment. The level of engagement consumers get from audio is much, much deeper than 60-second videos or inane posts on Facebook and Twitter.

Branded podcasts produced by Pacific Content, Steve Says, are achieving an incredible 85 to 98 percent completion rates.

“Our 30-minute podcasts are better completion rates than a one-minute video does in one of the benchmarks we looked at. So, if a brand is looking to put content out there, there’s a pretty strong argument to be made that audio has very unique strengths for long engagement and is really well-suited to longer-form storytelling,” says Steve.

To do storytelling well, though, takes time, commitment, skills, and experience.

“The most valuable thing for anyone who is making content or marketing is people’s time and attention, and they’re going to be picky,” insists Steve. “No one’s going to choose low-quality stuff, and nobody’s going to choose mediocrity. If you’re going to do it, make it awesome. Do something that people are really going to love or don’t bother doing it.

Carolyn says she had to pinch herself with the results of brand-recall.

“McAfee is very lightly branded,” she says. “It’s only mentioned once or twice in each episode. The sentiment scores were through the roof, and to me, that was just a massive indication that we had something incredibly special and tremendously brand-building for McAfee.”

Carolyn’s top 3 tips for brands looking to podcast

1. Be strategic and purposeful.
“Don’t just jump on the bandwagon because that’s what you see other brands doing. It really isn’t for everybody. If the podcast or the idea of a branded podcast supports your business strategy, then great. If it doesn’t, then don’t try it. It’s probably not the right thing for you to is.”

2. Storytelling is important.
“Listeners will tune out if you treat your podcast like a 30-minute sales pitch. There’s no way it’s going to work. Figure out what the story-telling angle is around subject matter that relates to your brand, and tell those great stories.”

3. Act like an entertainment company.
“The production value and quality really matter. The story, the host, the sound effects, the editing are all critical to embellishing that story and entertaining your listeners.”

Chris Ashmore spoke with Carolyn Walker and Steve Pratt on Podcasting Essentials.