Over July 4th weekend, Audrey Reed-Granger, a Whirlpool Corp. (WHR ) marketing exec who lives in Stevensville, Mich., came home to find her husband listening to National Public Radio. A report on podcasting caught her attention, and she asked him to explain it. After he described how podcasts were basically radio shows that people download from the Internet and listen to whenever they want, she had an epiphany. "We should do that," she said. "You and I?" he asked. "No, Whirlpool," she said.
That Tuesday, Reed-Granger marched into her boss's office armed with a proposal. Whirlpool should do podcasts, she argued, but the shows shouldn't push washers, dryers, or any other product. Instead, they should feature interviews with real people -- moms balancing work and family, dads staying home to raise kids. "There was a pause," says Reed-Granger, who is director of consumer insight at Whirlpool Brand. "I said: 'Think about who uses our products. It's families.' We're all about helping them in their lives. This is about connecting." She got the green light that afternoon. Reed-Granger now puts out the show twice a week, producing it at home after her toddler goes to bed.
Whirlpool is one of a growing number of companies that are turning to podcasting as a way to connect with customers, investors, and employees. As befits a medium only a year old, there's loads of experimentation. Some podcasts are straightforward marketing. Others are more entertainment, with only passing reference to their corporate creators. In June pet food purveyor Purina decided to convert a call-in radio show it sponsors with vets in St. Louis into a podcast. "Our attitude was: It's early days," says Michael Moore, director of interactive marketing for Purina. "It may be successful or it may not be, but let's not wait around and end up being surprised."
There's little downside to such efforts. Any audio clip can be turned into a downloadable podcast with software available on the Web for free. That's one reason companies such as insurer Aflac Inc. (AFL ) can create podcasts of their quarterly earnings calls, even if only a few people listen.
Popularity requires a bit more than reciting gross margins, though. Audiences are gravitating to the kind of things that make compelling radio -- good entertainment and useful discussions about family or work issues. One of the hottest: The producer of Battlestar Galatica, on the Sci-Fi Channel, hosted a series of 14 podcasts that have been downloaded 1.3 million times. "Issue-oriented marketing will have a lot more success," says Charlene Li, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. (FORR ) "I don't know if I want to listen on a regular basis to what a company has to say about its products."
Of course, that depends on the product. In September, Simon & Schuster Inc. started producing a weekly half-hour show called SimonSays, featuring author interviews and other snippets. And podcasting helps companies feed consumers' appetite for information whenever and wherever they want it. Virgin Atlantic Airways Ltd. is creating travel guides for the 20 different destinations it flies to, from New York to Shanghai. Why? Simple, says Breda Bubear, head of advertising and communications at Virgin Atlantic: "We like to be a pioneer."
By Heather Green in New York