Skift Take

That podcasts are popular is undeniable. But will these hotel-produced and curated podcast playlists actually gain traction with listeners who eventually become paying guests? That's the tricky part and honestly, we're not so sure they will.

At a time when hotels, such as Marriott with its content studio, are already creating their own short films, why wouldn’t they start producing their own podcasts?

That’s exactly what’s happening with InterContinental Hotels, Marriott International, and a boutique property in Cambridge, Massachusetts called the Freepoint Hotel, which opened earlier this month.

Using podcasts as a content marketing vehicle isn’t necessarily new pursuit, but it is a fairly new one among hotel companies. Other organizations, such as Prudential, Umpqua Bank, GE, and Netflix have recently begun producing their own podcasts.

But up until last fall, there weren’t many hotel companies attempting to do so. The first to wade into the podcasting pool was InterContinental Hotels with its “Stories of the InterContinental Life” series in October, followed by Marriott Traveler’s “Behind the Design” and the Freepoint Hotel’s specially curated podcast playlists, both launched this spring.

Podcasts are becoming more popular with Americans. A Pew Research Center study found that in 2016, 21 percent of Americans age 12 or older had listened to podcast in the past month, and that figure jumps to 36 percent who had ever listened to a podcast previously.

“Out of the most common types of content (text, audio, video), audio is the most convenient to consume,” noted Tyler Basu, a content marketer, podcast host, and digital magazine publisher. “Therefore, any business that is publishing content on regular basis as part of their marketing efforts should definitely consider creating unique audio content, or at the very least, re-purposing already created text and/or video content in audio format. This will help to reach more people with your content and generate more exposure for your brand in the process.”

Three Different Podcast Approaches

Each of the three hotel entities is taking a different approach to their respective podcasts. While InterContinental Hotels’ podcast is rooted in the company’s historic properties as well as in current cultural milestones, Marriott’s podcast gives listeners a behind-the-scenes look into the making of a hotel through design.

InterContinental’s first podcast debuted in October in conjunction with a new global marketing campaign. So far, there are only three episodes available, each themed around concepts of “fascination,” “worldliness,” and “empathy.” The range of guests on the podcast is eclectic and just general enough to appeal to a wider range of listeners. The overall production value of each episode is high.

“We asked ourselves, ‘what’s a powerful way to tell these multisensory stories?'” said Jason Moskal, vice president of lifestyle brands at InterContinental Hotels Group. “There’s no better way than from an audio perspective. It was part of a multichannel, multisensory approach that we took with podcasts, digital, video and even animation.”

Marriott Traveler, the online consumer travel publication from Marriott International’s Content Studio, debuted its first podcast in February and has two episodes so far: one on how the hotel lobby has evolved and another on why hotel art has traditionally been so bad.

“We saw the podcast as an opportunity to really have a discussion with our internal design teams and also some of the people we work with externally when it comes to designing our hotels,” said Marc Graser, editorial director of Creative + Content Marketing at Marriott International, as well as the publisher and editor-in-chief of Marriot Traveler. “It’s about the overall experience. Why a room looks the way that it does. We’re delving into a part of the hotel world that a lot of people don’t necessarily know and providing these details in a conversational format that’s not a traditional article.”

While the Marriott Traveler podcast is certainly informative, it’s not as entertaining as InterContinental’s despite the appearance of executive chairman Bill Marriott in the inaugural episode. This is the kind of podcast that will probably only appeal to hotel nerds, not the general public.

The Freepoint Hotel is working with Radio Public to offer its guests — and anyone else who wants to listen — carefully edited lists of podcasts, all tied into Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the hotel is based. Originally, the hotel’s management company, HHM, had planned to use the podcasts as a sort of guest amenity, and the lobby itself features a “podcast nook” where people can listen to the podcasts.

The podcast playlists on Radio Public include: “Boston Like a Local,” “Freepoint’s What’s Cooking,” “Freepoint’s Wind Down,” and “Freepoint’s Work It Out.”

So far, none of the podcasts featured on the lists is purely originally-produced content, but HHM executive vice president David McCaslin said the hotel is planning to work with the Memory Palace podcast to do an episode specifically about the Fresh Pond neighborhood where the hotel is located. While the range of series and podcasts here is fairly comprehensive, it’s a challenge for listeners to access; you have to download the Radio Public app to listen.

Even so, McCaslin thinks having this added amenity or platform for reaching new audiences or possible guests will give them the impression that Freepoint is unique, and that it has a distinct viewpoint on what it means to be a part of the local community.

Can Podcasts Be Effectively Used for Content Marketing?

That’s a question every brand which ventures into the world of podcasts is asking themselves today. Because podcast metrics are notoriously difficult to gather, it’s a challenge for brands to know just whom they’re reaching outside of the podcast-subscription numbers.

“They can be, if done right,” said Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute, referring to the effectiveness of podcasts in content marketing. “What we see working in the industry is first building an audience online, generally through a blog or online content brand.

“Then, once you establish an audience, the brand can start to diversify and build out extensions. The reason for this is a standalone podcast is very hard to get traction without a loyal audience already in place. For my podcast, ‘This Old Marketing,’ we were able to get 10,000 downloads an episode quicker than normal because we already had a large audience of email subscribers.”

For Marriott Traveler’s Graser, developing a podcast isn’t necessarily a numbers game or part of some larger content marketing scheme, however.

“We don’t know who is going to be tuning into it,” he said. “Podcasts are popular across the board and what we’re finding with this one is that it’s really all age groups who are listening, and that’s been nice to see. But we’re going to keep monitoring who’s listening to it and trying to make sure it’s on all platforms, too — not just one.

“Why not do it if you can? We’re just seeing how it works and we want to experiment with the content to see what takes off with our guests and create more of it.”

Graser wouldn’t reveal the number of downloads or subscribers to Marriott Traveler’s “Behind the Design” podcast but he said it was “outpacing our expectations.”

Likewise, HHM’s McCaslin said, “I think it’s still premature to use it as a content marketing tool. I think that as we learn, we’ll learn to see how it’s being used. It’s not so much about sales but about customer satisfaction and we only want to do it in ways that really resonate with our guests.”

IHG’s Moskal said, “We didn’t think of the storytelling as marketing, per se, but it does help us drive brand metrics.”

Instead, Moskal thinks the podcast functions as yet another way to “intersect” with guests or potential guests in their everyday lives.

“How do we put marketing out there that’s not traditional marketing, but that’s a way to get a rich or deep message across in a non-traditional way that intersects those travelers? If we can give them interesting content they would lean into it. They are looking for that pause or escape in their busy lives. It’s more storytelling for marketing’s sake, versus true content marketing.”

Moskal said the podcast was just one part of a multichannel marketing campaign, making it hard to measure exactly what kind of impact the podcasts alone are having in terms of driving brand awareness or conversion rates. IHG did note, however, that within the first five months of launching the podcast series, it accumulated more than 46,000 listens.

Graser said that the whole purpose of launching a podcast was simply seeing how another content platform could be used for storytelling. “If it doesn’t generate an audience, we may not continue with it. We’ll keep monitoring results. It’s not meant to be a moneymaking initiative. We just did it because we’re interested in it. If we do generate a large audience, we have some other podcast ideas we might pilot.”

Freepoint Hotel’s McCaslin said, “In 60 or 90 days if this falls off and nobody cares, very few people will do it. If we are successful in doing it and it affects customer retention and has content marketing capabilities, I’m sure others will follow.”

“For hotels, I think this could be a great way to build loyalty,” said Pulizzi. “Let’s say you are targeting platinum members who are always on business trips. Then maybe a productivity or hacks podcast could work. The key is to create a truly different story, and do so consistently over a long period of time. Most brands fail in three ways: the podcast is not valuable to the audience, it’s not truly different, or it’s not produced consistently.”

Best Practices

For other hoteliers thinking about launching their own podcasts, Moskal said the most important thing to keep in mind is to “let your story be your guide if the podcast is the right channel to use, versus deciding to do a podcast and then determining the content that needs to be developed.”

Certain elements play better via audio than they would in a film, for instance, or in a written story.

Moskal added, “The connection to an authentic story is one of the key things that makes it so intriguing for people. Don’t necessarily view it as traditional marketing.”

Graser also noted, “It’s [producing a podcast] very different — and way more time consuming. Finding the time to record these interviews can be challenging. And you have to be consistent; if you’re going to commit, you have to commit.”

“I’m not an expert on hotels, but what I can say for most large brands is that consistency is the killer,” said Pulizzi. “I’ve seen podcasts from brands publish so erratically you never know when it’s coming out. That kills a podcast before it even starts. Also, it takes time to build an audience, and most brands are impatient. The hotel should commit at least nine months to the effort and promise not to kill it before then.”

Graser also said that whatever end goal a company has for its podcast, there needs to be a very clear set of objectives for doing one.

“What do you want to say and why should people care?” Graser asked. “Why are you doing it? You need to have a voice. Podcasts let you talk about something that isn’t always talked about often, but we know there’s a big audience for it. You’re asking people to spend time with you and people have so many different options for content these days, so whatever you do, it has to be something that a certain community is interested in.”

Pulizzi’s advice for any brand, hotel or not, that wants to embark on launching its own podcast is as follows:

“Never pitch. Tell a different story than anyone else out there. Have a specific goal: what are you trying to do with it? What’s the ultimate way you are going to measure it? Can you do something different than the boring old interview format?

“Produce at the same time each week; weekly podcasts work best in my opinion. Integrate the podcast with all your other touchpoints to the audience you are targeting. And finally, target the podcast at a very specific audience persona to make it most relevant.”

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Tags: content marketing, intercontinental hotels group, marriott, podcast

Photo credit: From left: Cocktail master Derek Brown, Megan Nadolski, Marriott's Global Design Manager, and Marc Graser, Editorial Director, Marriott Global Creative + Content Marketing, recording the first episode of the Behind the Design podcast for Marriott Traveler. More hotels are now looking into launching podcasts to engage and connect with potential guests. Marriott International

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