Last year, Pew Research counted more than 6 million podcast users. Bloggers and others criticized that number as too high. At around the same time, Forrester Research predicted the number of podcast users by the end of 2006 will be around 700,000, a number criticized as too low.
Forrester analyst Charlene Li, in a blog post announcing the market estimate, took a more measured tone: "Podcasting will get easier and the content will get better," she said, "but it will all take time."
This week, b-to-b white paper/research and distribution vendor KnowledgeStorm and ad agency Universal McCann will unveil results of an online survey of more than 4,000 b-to-b buyers that indicate podcasts are beginning to have an impact on this hard-to-reach audience. The survey involved registered KnowedgeStorm users who represent IT and business professionals in a wide variety of jobs, industries and company sizes.
"We haven't seen much research or analysis work on the impact that Web 2.0 technologies-things like podcasts, blogs, RSS feeds, wikis and more-have had on a b-to-b audience," said Matt Lohman, director of market research at Knowledge-Storm. "A lot of the research you see is focused on consumer audiences." Knowledge Storm plans to conduct a series of surveys on b-to-b adoption of new technologies, he said.
While podcasting among b-to-b marketers is still in its infancy, it is becoming more popular. Advertisers such as General Motors Corp., IBM Corp., Microsoft Corp. and Whirl- pool Corp. have tested podcasts, as well as audio advertisements for podcasts produced by business publishers such as CMP Technology, ESPN.com, Forbes.com and IDG.
According to the KnowlegeStorm/Universal McCann survey, which was conducted in June, 32% of the respondents said their usage of podcasts has "increased" or "significantly increased" in the last six months. Overall, 41% of respondents said they had listened to podcasts on more than one occasion, while 13% said they "frequently" downloaded them. Yet there are still many b-to-b users unfamiliar with podcasts: 34% said they have "never used" one.
Because marketing materials such as white papers and research reports all have an important role to play in the b-to-b buying process, the survey asked how respondents would react to these items being made available as podcasts. The survey found a podcast presentation of such traditional marketing materials would be appealing to some users, Lohman said.
"Someone may have the opportunity to read a few things at their desk but also take a podcast and listen to it away from the desk," he said. "It's another alternative."
Going deeper into the survey results, 69% of b-to-b respondents said they listened to podcasts at their computer rather than away from their desk using a portable device such as an iPod. That seems to go against the podcast grain and may reflect a real behavioral difference among b-to-b podcast users. Podcast length also didn't seem to make a difference to b-to-b users. Only 14% preferred short (less than five minute) podcasts. The largest percentage (32%) said a podcast could have no limit if it was interesting.
Even more revealing, 58% of respondents said if information on business or technology topics they currently receive as a white paper or analyst report were delivered as a podcast, they would expect it to be "more interesting," while 55% said they would be more likely to consume such information as a podcast rather than in white paper format.
Not surprisingly, podcasts today seem to have limited impact on b-to-b buying decisions: Only 26% of respondents said podcasts had an influence on work-related IT buying decisions.
B-to-b podcast potential
But the potential for b-to-b marketing influence is there, said Stacy Malone, VP-interactive media director at Universal McCann.
"It appears that podcast adoption is occurring [in the b-to-b area], but a lot of people haven't used it yet or aren't entirely comfortable with it," Malone said. "Now's a good time for marketers to get a feel for it by getting out and doing some testing."
Universal McCann has worked with a number of clients, including Microsoft, to develop podcast advertising programs and create their own original podcast program content. "I don't think anyone has totally landed on the podcast marketing model that works quite yet," Malone said. "There's an opportunity for an ad-supported model with third-party publishers, and there's an opportunity for marketers to create their own podcasting content."
As always, content is king, Malone said. "The tricky part is making the content something of interest to the audience versus something that the advertiser just wants to get out there. It's not expensive to do a podcast, and it's yet another way to engage with an audience online."