Podcasting: An Enterprise Hit

By Stan Gibson  |  Posted 2006-10-01

Podcasting: An Enterprise Hit

Corporate podcasts from the likes of MassMutual Financial Group, General Motors, A.M. Best and IBM arent likely to bump workout music mixes from FitPod.com, comedy from Bill Maher and sports broadcasts from the most-popular list at Apple Computers iTunes store. But corporate podcasting has worked its way into the technology fabric of businesses.

The advantages of podcasts—produced audio delivered to a digital music player—are obvious: They are easy to create and are portable, and users can download them and listen at their leisure without office distractions. A message from the boss? Facts about a new product? Procedures for a new business process? Technology support tips? Download and listen.

Looking to get started in podcasting? Click here to read how.

"The next age of insanity is using iPods and cell phones," said industry veteran Max Hopper, president of Max D. Hopper Associates, in remarks at the Society for Information Managements recent SIMposium conference in Dallas. "People are used to using consumer technology. Customers will want to deal with their suppliers in the same vein, and someone will have to offer that way."

The issue: Podcasting presents a conundrum for technology executives, many of whom told eWeek they dont have a podcasting strategy or much to do with the practice. For now, business units—say, the marketing department or sales—are leading podcasting efforts. These units may create their own systems or acquire them without consulting the technology department.

Those practices may have to change as podcasting gains momentum. These relatively new technologies, such as wikis and RSS feeds, will appear in a series of stories in eWeek examining how consumer technologies are affecting corporate IT departments.

Simply put, the consumers are leading the suits in technology. Indeed, consumer fluency with podcasting, already strong, is growing rapidly. The Diffusion Group forecasts that the use of podcasting among U.S. consumers is growing at a compound annual rate of 101 percent. By 2010, 56.8 million Americans will be using "time-shifted digital audio files," or podcasts, TDG predicts.

Not all predictions are so rosy. One analyst voiced skepticism. "This is not something thats going to explode overnight, like IM [instant messaging]. Podcasting is far from being a mainstream product," said Forrester Researchs Charlene Li in Foster City, Calif.

Even so, as young, podcast-savvy workers enter the work force, IT professionals face a choice: Keep the encroachment at a distance or lead the parade, whether by ensuring sufficient bandwidth for the influx of MP3 files or by building and outfitting a studio.

As a technology thats being pulled into enterprises by users, podcasting has a lot in common with PCs and the Internet. As with those technologies, enterprises are launching podcast efforts without first calculating ROI (return on investment), but whether podcasting will have an impact of comparable magnitude remains to be seen.

"It evolved as a logical method for information delivery. Looking at the changing demographics of the people were recruiting, we looked at podcasting. [The] iPod is a way theyre looking at receiving information," said Denise Szczebak, director in the national center for professional development at insurance company MassMutual, in Springfield, Mass.

Broadcast aggregator FeedBurner says the number of podcasts it distributes now outstrips the number of radio stations on the planet. Click here to read more.

Some users download audio files and listen at their PC, while some burn a CD to play later, perhaps on the way home, Szczebak said.

At MassMutual, which has a long history of producing educational audio and video, it was a short step for Szczebak—who is charged with producing training aids for her companys 4,200 insurance agents—to output MP3 files. Content comes from MassMutuals online university, which helps agents educate themselves by accessing information and sales advice. Each podcast starts with about 3 minutes of news, followed by three educational segments of about 3 minutes each. A page on MassMutuals online university Web site contains a list of each podcasts high points.

A talent search didnt take long. Szczebak tapped one staffer, Dave Buchannon, who had commercial radio experience, to work with producer Karen McMahon. Buchannon writes the script and does the announcing; McMahon plans out the show content and lines up guests. Both have added their podcasting duties to their regular work in Szczebaks professional development department.

Next Page: Investment hurdle.

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With an audio and video recording setup already in place, MassMutual had a small investment hurdle. "We purchased inexpensive equipment to do quality interviews over the phone," said Szczebak. The company chose Pro Tools editing software from Avid Technology and DynaMetric telephone equipment.

With six months of podcasting completed, Szczebak said response has been strong. "Weve seen a dramatic increase in downloads," she said. "Weve gotten good feedback from our audience. Its quick, its timely." About 850 of MassMutuals 4,200 agents, or approximately 20 percent, have signed up to have podcasts e-mailed to them each Monday morning.

For the next act, Szczebak is looking at adding video programming and expanding to more channels—that is, producing programs that appeal to others in MassMutuals work force, such as field managers.

While MassMutual has focused mainly on podcasting internally, automaker General Motors has looked outside, using the technology as an adjunct to product marketing. Starting with its first podcast in February 2005, GM has completed more than 30 productions.

"Were trying to create a viral buzz, basically," said Michael Wiley, director of new media at GM, in Detroit. "We dont do it on a schedule; only when we have interesting content."

GMs podcasts go hand in hand with the companys Fastlane blog site, another effort to create product buzz by encouraging consumers and experts to write about products they care about.

Only 33 percent of employees are satisfied with the quantity and quality of communications from their employers, according to a new study. Click here to read more.

"What were after is a kind of informal presentation—to find out what the expert thinks in terms of their passion for the product—for example, how the race team prepared for and won another of the Le Mans series with the Corvette," said Wiley, one of two anchors for the 10- to 15-minute podcasts.

Insurance-industry publisher A.M. Best, of Oldwick, N.J., has been producing a daily podcast called "Best Day" since February. As a media company, A.M. Best is striving for high quality and is interested in selling advertising for its podcasts, said CIO Paul Tinnirello.

Tinnirello called on Brian Cohen, a former Wall Street Journal editor, to produce the programs, write copy and edit audio. He also hired professional voice talent Dan Kelly to do the podcasts openings and closings. A.M. Best has built a studio that includes microphones, a PC, Audacity and Sound Forge software, and a phone hookup. The total cost so far is well below $10,000, said Tinnirello.

Even so, Tinnirello hasnt lost sight of one of podcastings main draws—informality. "People seem to respond more to real conversations than to prepared items. Ten minutes of conversation beats headlines and short items," said Tinnirello, who handles regular on-air duties with A.M. Best Vice President of Communications Lee McDonald and Terrie Piell, director of marketing.

A.M. Best is readying video podcasts, an initiative that is costing "tens of thousands" of dollars more but is not yet ready for launch, Tinnirello said. The setup includes a studio, three video cameras and lights and will include the ability to use sophisticated video techniques such as green screens, said Tinnirello.

Next Page: Internal and external communications.

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For its part, IBM is using podcasts for both internal and external communications. The company publishes some podcasts on its investor relations Web site, but, internally, podcasting is growing like kudzu.

"Its a tool thats accessible and usable by anyone within the firewall—IBMers, contractors and partners," said Ben Edwards, manager of new-media communications at IBM, in Armonk, N.Y. IBM launched its podcasting initiative in October 2005 and now sees 30,000 to 40,000 downloads per week, Edwards said. Mainly audio at present, some IBM podcasts contain video and PowerPoint presentations, he said.

IBM uses its own software, called Podcast Publishing Pilot, which was built by the companys so-called Web-ahead development team in the IBM CIOs office. "Its a publishing tool for data, audio and video," said Edwards. IBM has more than 2,000 podcasting episodes available in a searchable directory and available as RSS feeds. "Users can rate the content with from one to five stars and can post comments," said Edwards.

One popular method is to use podcasts as a tool for communication among global teams. Attaching a podcast to a blog and then using the feedback feature to communicate is one way of having global teams interact without getting members up at 3 a.m. to join a teleconference call, said Edwards. IBMs several-thousand-strong worldwide supply chain staff also is using podcasts and blogs to do the work of conference calls, which are impractical for so many workers to dial in to, Edwards said.

Companies that produce podcasts will find they must come to grips with issues of control over content. IBM takes a hands-off approach to podcasts within its firewall but exerts tight control over what goes outside.

"There are laws governing truth in advertising. Content published by IBM.com is vetted for truth in advertising," said Edwards, explaining that corporate counsel and human resources, marketing and communications officials all pass judgment. In addition to legal issues, corporate image is highly important. "There is the issue of brand—exerting control over content to give it consistency and give it a particular flavor that conveys a particular experience," said Edwards.

Internally, as with blogging, IBM is giving employees considerable freedom and asking them to take on responsibility. Theres not much difference between podcasting and other forms of internal communication. "We already have e-mail and IM. We already have those potential liabilities, and they generally seem to work OK," Edwards said. "[For example,] people generally seem to understand that forward-looking statements violate SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] regulations, so people are careful about that."

MassMutual, in the highly regulated insurance field, must ensure that content sent out to salespeople meshes with all pertinent laws. Every Thursday, Buchannon and McMahon produce the weekly podcast after the script has been reviewed by MassMutuals compliance department. "Lawyers read it, as with all of our marketing material," Szczebak said. "They review the script before its recorded. They sometimes make minor changes, such as adding disclosure language."

At IBM, the reverberations of podcasting go deep—it is being used to advance a new way of thinking about the corporation that comes straight from Chairman and CEO Sam Palmisano, who, said Edwards, talks to IBM staff about "lowering the center of gravity."

"IBM has a history of hierarchy and bureaucracy. But we want to break that down," Edwards said. "[Palmisano] wants IBM to be a horizontal—not a vertical—organization, to push out authority and decision making to the people in the field. New media can play an important and catalytic role. Im promoting self-publishing. Its desirable because people increasingly trust individual voices over institutional and corporate voices."

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