True crime stories have a unique way of capturing the public’s interest. Over the years, countless books, movies, television shows, documentaries, and media outlets have exposed the victims, murderers, and alleged murderers to the public through basic storytelling ingredients: orientation and context, crisis and conflict, and—eventually—resolution.

It’s no wonder that when the murder mystery of Hae Min Lee was brought to podcasting, it sparked interest in the medium overall. In 2014, the investigative podcast series Serial launched its first season. Hosted by journalist Sarah Koenig, Serial was quickly ranked number one on iTunes and remained in the position for several weeks, later winning a Peabody Award in 2015.

While Serial became many listeners’ first introduction to podcasts, it certainly wasn’t the only one with an audience. Since its inception in 2004, podcasting’s popularity has steadily grown. But Serial did signal a trend. At the time of Serial’s peak, Apple predicted that users would listen to 7 billion podcasts in 2014 alone, compared with 1 billion subscribers in 2013. Indeed, there was a boost in the percentage of Americans who listen to monthly podcasts, jumping to 17% by the end of 2015 from 12% mid-2013.

As content marketers scramble to enhance their offering, many brands have also seen the branding potential of podcasting and some—both business and consumer brands—are already doing it successfully.

But the challenge for many brands lies in defining and communicating their message, while avoiding the tendency to sell (or oversell) products or services. While there are various factors to consider for creating a sound strategy (no pun intended), these five lenses can help brands develop clear objectives for producing a podcast channel.

1. The Audience: Engaging the Listener

Identifying which audience to engage and developing personas are great starting points for any type of content production from whitepaper to social media post. When podcasting, consider if the brand’s target audience is niche or broad.

eBay’s Open For Business, for example, explores different aspects of building a business from the genetics behind entrepreneurship to tips for navigating failure. While sponsored by eBay, the podcast doesn’t only share how a person can build their own storefront on eBay’s marketplace, but also offers insight on building a business for self-starters who might want to start a side business or already have one up and running. It’s relevant for eBay as a brand because they are demonstrating that they understand why sellers use their marketplace and what kind of core skills are necessary to become an entrepreneur.

In contrast, General Electric’s podcast The Message holds the interest of a more general audience. The eight-episode series explores how a message from outer space, received 70 years ago, is deciphered and decoded. GE has since published a second series, a fictional thriller entitled Life After, that explores an afterlife where the deceased are digitally preserved. The podcasts use storytelling to engage a broader audience while sharing themes that reflect GE’s work in science and technology.

2. The Theme: Establishing the Conversation

It’s important to provide themes to help manage the expectations of the audience when they tune-in to the podcast; no one watches Game of Thrones and expects to see Carrie Bradshaw sporting a tutu. Similar to a television series, a newspaper column, or a blog, the podcast should have a cohesive theme—a general concept or a distinct subject—that speaks to your target audience.

For brands, the theme should hold relevance for the target audience. Mattress startup Casper uses comedy to uncover what happens when your head hits the pillow during In Your Dreams. Virgin Atlantic’s The Venture, meanwhile, follows the journeys of entrepreneurs who have made waves in their industries, tapping into a traveler’s sense of adventure.

3. The Value: Delivering an Experience

If defining a podcast’s audience and theme are intrinsically linked and essential to a successful launch, providing value to the listener—whether skewed towards entertaining, storytelling, or practical application—is what keeps them coming back for future episodes. One listener might not glean the same value from one podcast as the next, so when it comes to brand building, ask how the value offered in the podcast reflects the value provided by the brand.

Take Tinder’s podcast DTR, which is all about defining relationships and, more specifically dating, in the digital age. Although it offers an entertaining experience to just about anyone who tunes in, the value for the listener likely depends on one’s relationship status. Single? There could be some nuggets of helpful information that can help navigate conversations with matched users. Already hitched? Listen and live vicariously through others’ stories.

4. The Style: Expressing the Brand

Style can make or break a podcast. This includes everything from the host, participants, and discussion format to the language and tone, show length, and even the timbre of the host. These decisions impact the experience for the user and, like any branded experience, connects directly back to the brand. For branded podcasts, consider how outside voices can help build the brand’s authenticity—allowing others to speak on your behalf brings a humanizing element to the experience.

Exchanges by Goldman Sachs features a dedicated host, a Goldman Sachs employee, and the occasional outside guest discussing a specific trend that might be influencing markets. The discussion brings various perspectives to light, creating an industry exposition that helps the listener understand that specific sector. The polished presentation and insightful information reflect Goldman’s determination to make “Progress Everyone’s Business.”

Another example is McAfee’s podcast Hackable, which shares information on information technology (IT), the Internet of Things, and hacking. Throughout the panel’s discussion-style episodes, conversational snippets from guests help tell stories about cybercrime. For many listeners, the simplified language helps illustrate complex IT scenarios and leaves an impression that the brand is approachable, supporting their brand message that “Together is Power.”

5. The Architecture: Models for Podcast Structure

Since users can only subscribe at the main channel or feed level of the podcast, the architecture becomes especially relevant if there are several topics or themes to explore. Podcasts typically fall into one of three architecture models:

  1. Single Channel
  2. Single Channel with Multiple Series
  3. Multiple Channels

One way to determine channel architecture is to revisit the audience and thematic needs. Is the audience for the themes the same or different? Is there specific information that is relevant for one group, but not another? If the brand typically appeals to one target audience, then Model 1 or 2 might make the most sense. But what if you have audiences of multiple demographics and interests? Would Model 3 be most logical? This is when having a deep understanding of the brand’s personas is important.

Even if the right format seems elusive at first, remember that there’s also room for growth and evolution within these structures. GE followed a single-channel model when it first published The Message, but once its second podcast Life After was introduced, that channel developed into one subscription base for two different series. NPR’s top-ranked podcast This American Life started with its own channel and subsequently created a second channel with Serial. After two seasons of Serial, S-Town debuted as a co-production by Serial and This American Life, which transformed the architecture into Model 3.

Whichever model works best, when it comes to producing a branded podcast, true crime, slice of life, business-oriented, or otherwise, there are many ways to approach a strategy that successfully reflects the voice of the brand while meeting business objectives. With careful consideration for the fundamental elements of target audience, theme, value, style, and architecture can help launch a brand into the world of podcasting.

Cover image source: NeONBRAND