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Podcasting: Ready for prime time?

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When General Motors Corp. launched the 2006 Corvette Z06 last June, it supplemented its marketing with an audio interview with Corvette chief engineer Dave Hill. Posted online in the popular MP3 audio format, the experiment took off faster than, well, a Corvette. More than 70,000 people have downloaded the clip, which is called a podcast. "Podcasting is just beginning to realize its potential," said Michael Wiley, director of new media at GM. "It's going to be huge."

Podcasting--the word comes from Apple Computer's iPod music player--is taking marketing by storm. A podcast is an audio file that people can download from the Internet and play on a portable audio device, like TiVo for radio. Podcasting turns commuting time into an educational experience. Apple sold 14 million iPods in the fourth quarter alone, and an estimated 25 million people own MP3 players. Half have listened to at least one podcast, research has shown.

B-to-c marketers are responding. Whirlpool USA launched The American Family podcast last summer. Host Audrey Reed-Granger, a Whirlpool publicist, says PR agencies now try to place clients on the show. "Last September, we became aware of a lot of online chatter about Whirlpool," she said. "We discovered it was mostly about American Family."

Acceptance of podcasting in the b-to-b market has dragged. While tech companies such as Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and Hewlett-Packard Co. run b-to-b podcasts, the broader market has done little outside of investor-oriented programming.

That's surprising. With a Web server and less than $2,000 worth of equipment, anyone can produce a podcast. A vast network of enthusiast sites spread the word about new programming, while Web giants such as Apple are consolidating podcasts into super directories. "We've never spent a dollar on podcast promotion," said GM's Wiley.

Businesses are using podcasting to experiment with new promotions. Johnson & Johnson's Acuvue division has Download With Heather and Jonelle, where two girls chat about music, school and, of course, boys. Walt Disney Co. has podcast tours of its theme parks. Accor North American's Motel 6 features plain-talking spokesman Tom Bodett.

Venture-funded startup Podshow Inc. tracks 13,000 podcasts, most with no more than a few hundred regular listeners. Podcasting is all about focused audiences with similar interests, said Adam Curry, whose Daily Source Code is the most popular podcast on the Internet.

"I don't think we'll have a Howard Stern of podcasting; we'll have 1,000 Howard Sterns, each with 10,000 listeners," Curry said.

For b-to-b marketers, the field is wide open. Wiley foresees specialized podcasts for mechanics, suppliers and dealers. Products like Apple's new video iPod can be used for advertising and training.

Marketers should get on board. With portable audio players quickly moving into the mainstream, it won't be long before they're a core platform for business marketing.

Paul Gillin is a consultant who specializes in community journalism and social media. His Web site is www.gillin.com.

 

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