It can be difficult for any marketer to know what to say, and how to say it, during a crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic and recent Black Lives Matter protests across the U.S. have presented marketers with one of the most challenging advertising environments in recent memory. During this tumultuous period, many companies have chosen to highlight the various ways in which they are supporting customers and protecting their employees.
But what exactly do customers want to hear from brands right now?
Some are looking for a distraction in the form of humor or entertainment. Many others are seeking information and support: 89 percent of participants in a recent Twitter survey said brands should provide reliable and accurate information during the pandemic, while 77 percent said they would feel more positively about brands making an effort to support society. Concern for others was reflected throughout the survey, including the 86 percent of respondents who said brand leaders should support vulnerable people within their communities.
Those are exactly the kind of empathetic messages that resonate with public radio listeners. National Public Radio (NPR) has attracted a highly desirable audience of well-educated and loyal followers that appreciate the unbiased, fact-based journalism and programming that NPR delivers. And that audience has been growing rapidly as more Americans are turning to trusted outlets like NPR for news and information about current events. NPR.org has been attracting about 100 million visitors per month, up from its usual 40 million monthly visitors, with 70 percent tuning in for COVID-19-related content.
A recent NPR Panel survey examined attitudes toward sponsorship messages during the pandemic and found that listeners were most interested in how companies are supporting employees (73 percent said they were somewhat or very interested), followed by how companies are helping customers (62 percent), how they are involved in their communities (60 percent) and how they are managing business operations (54 percent).
A deeply personal storytelling medium
Audio technology is reshaping how brands communicate with customers. With earbuds, for example, the experience is so intimate that marketers are literally inside a listener's head. So when brands are talking about something of substance in the audio environment, they have to be the real thing. No one knows this better than NPR. As the No. 1 podcast publisher and home to the Nos. 1 and 2 news/talk radio programs, NPR has been connecting with listeners over audio for over 50 years—and creating an environment where brands can share inspiring stories of their own.
One such solution is Brand Soundscapes, customizable audio vignettes developed in-house by NPR’s subsidiary National Public Media that is distributed across all of NPR’s digital platforms, which include NPR.org, podcasts and voice-activated devices. In recent months, the offering has been leveraged by brands in a range of categories looking to sponsor coronavirus-related content, including financial, healthcare, technology, grocery/CPG, publishing, consulting and streaming services.
This spoken-word environment allows marketers to tell a story or explain a company’s goals, often in the voices of employees or customers, in a conversational tone that can enhance a message’s authenticity. Many brands focus on the human aspects of technology to make complex ideas more relatable. Stories like these that feature the people behind a product do especially well with audiences: In 2020 so far, 21 percent of people who listened to Soundscapes clicked through to the sponsor website.
The segments can also highlight human stories in critical areas of the business. For instance, a recent Chipotle campaign featured the Kruse family, sixth-generation pork farmers in Iowa who supply the quick-serve chain. Chipotle supports young farmers like the Kruses by offering financial aid in the form of seed grants and scholarships. In the sample vignette below, siblings Kelsey and Dane Kruse explain their work as a family operation and the major financial obstacles to farming.
Meeting the marketer’s objectives
Marketers can set the stage for first-rate creative in the exploding audio medium. That includes the one-third of all Americans who listen to a podcast monthly and the one-quarter who own at least one smart speaker, according to Edison Research. In general, the average completion rate for Soundscape audio is very high, at 68.45 percent. But whether the work meets its specific engagement and response objectives (which it did for Chipotle, who saw 25 percent of Soundscape listeners in the NPR Player click through to their young farmers’ landing page during a four-month flight) depends on a multitude of factors.
Here are a few best practices to consider:
• Make sure the company walks the walk. A Comcast Soundscape, for example, features Senior EVP David Cohen explaining how the company is bridging the digital divide in the U.S. with a $10 per month internet service and low-cost computer equipment through Comcast’s Internet Essentials program.
• Collaborate with agency and brand partners in pre-production planning. Interviews are typically unscripted, so it’s critical that brands and their agencies have a clear understanding of what they hope to gain from the background process.
• Prioritize a fact-based approach to strengthen a brand’s authentic voice. Even with the flexibility of longer formats (full audio segments in Soundscapes can run up to three minutes), marketers will want to make sure that every word counts. Speakers should give an authentic, detailed account of the featured product, service or program and its outcomes.
As brands continue to head in this direction, they may discover how well original audio content pieces can complement their overall marketing portfolios. "The purpose of Chipotle is to bring about a better world," Brandt says in the above video about NPM's Soundscape campaign. "Bringing light to this issue was great for the company and the farmers, and the consumers really engaged with it. It reflected the core of what Chipotle is all about."