Here’s how Defacto Sound founder Dallas Taylor opens each episode of his podcast: “From Defacto Sound, you’re listening to Twenty Thousand Hertz.” But he’s afraid to talk much more about his company. Yes, he’d like to tell listeners about the sound design studio he owns, which has six employees and does work for the likes of Ford and Under Armour. “In a perfect world, I could say, ‘Hey, everyone, I’d like to be straight with you. If you know anyone in advertising, send them to Defacto Sound, because that’s what pays for the show,’” he says.
But he won’t, because he knows the catch: The best branded content isn’t about a brand. To successfully promote a business, a podcast must be nonpromotional. And his experience proves the point. He now averages nearly 200,000 listeners an episode and has cracked the top 10 on the iTunes charts.
Taylor initially wanted something to impress clients — to show them how carefully his studio thinks about story and sound — so he created Twenty Thousand Hertz as a highly produced series that explores the history of familiar sounds. It took 10 months to develop, now takes six weeks to make each episode (he produces multiples at a time and releases them biweekly) and costs real money. He spent $50,000 on it last year, mostly to pay his staff for their time working on it, and plans to spend $100,000 on it this year. But each episode is crafted to draw in a new audience far beyond his client base. His first was about the voice of Siri, to interest a general tech audience. The second, about the NBC chime, was for older listeners. The third, eight-bit sound, went younger. And so on.
The strategy is paying off. Audience size boomed immediately, thanks to an early endorsement from the popular podcast 99 percent Invisible. (That wasn’t luck. Taylor emailed the show’s host, Roman Mars, to say how much Mars inspired him.) Existing clients loved it, and potential new clients reached out. But Taylor says one of the biggest benefits has been internal: His staff is usually working on separate projects, but Twenty Thousand Hertz brings them all together to debate, laugh and improve the show. “We do it almost like a family around a dinner table,” he says.
Will the podcast create enough business to offset its cost? Taylor admits he doesn’t know. But an unexpected source of revenue might make it worthwhile. Brands are asking him to advertise on the show — which is to say, other brands want to pay to be inside his branded content. That’s the power of being nonpromotional.
You don’t need sponsors to make big bucks. Or big audiences! Podcast consultant Sachit Gupta says you’re better off making a show that connects with a niche group. “The more specific you are, the better you understand their problems,” he says. Then once you build that trust, you can create an online course, a book or consulting work they’ll pay for.
Make a show that matters
“Look at the competition and ask yourself, Is there other stuff out there with the same premise as what I’m doing?” says David Nadelberg, creator of Mortified. “Your show needs to have a really interesting way in.”
Keep it real
“Trying to chase audience interests sounds like a losing game,” says Joseph Fink, founder of Welcome to Night Vale. “We figure people were attracted to the show because we were telling stories that interested us, and so it’s best we just keep doing that.”
“So many shows sell spots to companies who have zero relevance to their audience,” says Aaron Mahnke, host of Lore. Listeners are turned off by that, and advertisers don’t see a return. Mahnke says ads must be approached as “an art, not an assembly line.”
— Andrew Parks
Illustrations by the Noun Project/Ema Dimitrova (thumbprint), Luis Prado (running man), Icon Fair (lightbulb)