Why trade associations are launching their own podcasts

Blake Althen, co-founder of Human Factor Media

On a recent episode of Retail Gets Real, a podcast that covers the retail industry, the hosts brought on Anthony Lupo and Brian Schram, the owners of two DC restaurants. The duo were asked all sorts of questions about the business of being a restaurateur, from the reliability of Yelp reviews to the new “must-have” dish that every restaurant carries. “I think you’re starting to see more cauliflower,” said Lupo. “Now, it’s more about being simple. [Restaurants] are taking these simple ideas of fresh food and not doing too much with it. And I think that’s where people will succeed.”

Retail Gets Real, which is hosted by Bill Thorne and Susan Reda, isn’t an offshoot of a news organization or part of a podcast network. Instead, it’s produced and funded by the National Retail Federation, a trade association that represents everyone from the biggest retailers in America to the smallest mom and pop stores. Both Thorne and Reda are employees of NRF, and the podcast has been publishing weekly since May, when it debuted with an episode on how Walmart does business with China.

According to Sarah Rand, vice president of digital communications at NRF, the idea for Retail Gets Real came after several staff members discussed podcasts they were each listening to. “We realized that if we were listening to podcasts, then maybe our members were listening to podcasts,” she recalled. NRF already produces a number of publications ranging from a 99-year-old print magazine to various email newsletters that boast a combined 150,000 subscribers. “We listen to podcasts when we’re making dinner, when we’re commuting, when we’re doing something where we can’t be looking at a screen,” she said. “And it allows us to consume content at a time when we wouldn’t normally be able to consume content. For our industry, which consists of a bunch of busy people, we realized there might be an opportunity for people who want to consume content when they can’t be looking at our blog posts or at our magazine or at our newsletter.”

So NRF started out by producing five podcast episodes that it didn’t immediately distribute via podcast apps. Instead, the association sent the episodes to some of its most important and influential members in order to solicit feedback. To give these members a feeling of the podcast’s potential scope, those first five episode covered a wide range of issues. “We looked at small mom and pop stores, we interviewed an internal [NRF] employee who talked about research we’d conducted, and we talked about bigger retail trends as well,” said Rand.  

To help in the production of Retail Gets Real, NRF turned to Human Factor Media, an audio production company that has increasingly focused on helping trade associations plan, launch, and promote their own podcasts. Founded by Ernesto Gluecksmann and Blake Althen, Human Factor Media launched as an offshoot of a podcast the two hosted. Since 2002, Gluecksmann has been a partner at a DC website development firm, and a few years ago he began thinking about how he could get more facetime with potential clients. “I enjoy talking to people,” he told me. “But if you’re at a networking event, you get a few minutes here and there, and it’s really hard to follow up with a decent level of conversation.” But after becoming a regular listener of the This Week in Tech podcast, it suddenly hit him. “What if I just do a podcast? I could have conversations with people I might want to do work with.”

Gluecksmann brought up the idea to Althen, a friend and sound designer who rents studio space in an arts center owned by Arlington County. Althen showed some enthusiasm and, roughly three years ago, the two launched Through the Noise, a podcast where they interview (mostly local) communications professionals (I’ve appeared on the podcast twice).

After about a year of producing Through the Noise, Gluecksmann was starting to feel comfortable with the podcast format and began thinking about how he could branch out into podcasting consulting. “Before I can offer something to somebody as a service, I really have to know if it’s something we can deliver on a competent level,” he said. Given that he lives in the DC area, many of his web development clients are nonprofits and trade associations, and so these organizations seemed like a natural target for his potential podcasting business. Through the Noise often has on association employees as guests, and Gluecksmann began to think of the podcast as a potential gateway drug. “For many of them it’s the first time they’ve been on a podcast,” he said. After someone appears on Through the Noise, Gluecksmann could pitch that person on launching a podcast for their association.

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This strategy worked in enticing the Footwear Distributors and Retailers of America, an association that covers every aspect of the shoe supply chain from Nike to Foot Locker.  Andy Polk, a senior vice president at the organization, appeared on an episode of Through the Noise, and soon after he pitched FDRA CEO Matt Priest on launching a podcast. “We spend a lot of time at networking events, cocktail parties, and we’re just kind of constantly having these conversations about the industry,” Priest told me. “We just got to thinking about how we could capture those conversations in recorded format and then start sending them out.”

FDRA hired Human Factor Media, and the two parties immediately went about defining the audience for the show, crafting its format, and, perhaps most important, brainstorming a name for the podcast. They ultimately settled on calling it Shoe-In, and the show would focus on exploring the ins-and-outs of the footwear industry by interviewing its top executives. One of Human Factor Media’s initial tasks whenever it takes on a new client is helping the association choose hosts for the show. “Who in the organization is willing to be the host and willing to put themselves out there in this matter?” said Gluecksmann. “Who’s a good talker? Who has that spark that allows the conversation to flow?”

The group decided that Priest and Polk would host. “I’ve known [Andy] for 15 years,” said Priest. “We have a really good rapport, so we just air that out.” Once that was settled, they then began brainstorming potential guests. Because audio quality plays such a major role in a podcast’s success. Human Factor Media recommends to all its clients that they conduct as many interviews in the studio as humanly possible. The way it often works is that the team will designate one day a month for recording and will try to schedule out multiple interviews that will supply content for the next several episodes. “If in the next week we’re doing a podcast, we need to start reaching out to people,” explained Priest. “Or people will reach out to us and say, hey, I wouldn’t mind coming on.” Most associations regularly host and attend sometimes multiple trade shows a year, and so lately Human Factor Media has been sending an audio tech to these shows so their clients can interview attendees.  “If I have a hard date where I’m going to be at a trade show and I know people are going to be there, I start planning that a month in advance by just emailing people I’d like to get on the show,” said Priest.

How do association promote their podcasts? Most have their own communications teams and already-existing marketing platforms, so it’s simply a matter of plugging the podcast into their industry newsletter or on their Facebook page. They also benefit from inviting industry influencers on as guests. Jeff Lenard, who hosts a podcast for the National Association of Convenience Stores, said that his interview with Sheetz CEO Joe Sheetz brought in twice the number of downloads as any other episode. And those downloads are resulting in real brand awareness within the convenience store industry. “I was at some meeting and I’m talking to someone for a couple seconds, and she’s like, ‘oh my god, you’re the podcast guy!’” recalled Lenard. His association is even adding in a requirement for speakers at its conferences that, in addition to their talks, they also must sit down for a podcast interview. “For instance, at our trade show this year we have William Shatner speaking,” he said. “Right after his speech we’re going to do a podcast with him.”

But why are associations investing significant time and resources into podcasts? What direct benefits do they see? Nearly all the sources I talked to for this article noted that associations, as part of their value proposition to members, serve as an information resource. It’s not uncommon for them to publish trade magazines, put on conferences, or even fund academic research. Podcasting is an extension of that. “Ultimately, what I think we’re looking for is to provide content that our members want from us,” said Rand. “We’re looking to share with them information or access to people that they wouldn’t be able to have access to in their everyday life. If what we’re talking about resonates with them, if it helps them do their jobs better, then we consider it a win.”

Associations are also looking to monetize their podcasts through sponsorships. It’s very common for industry vendors to sponsor trade conferences and publications, and so associations are leveraging those contacts in trying to sell podcast advertising. “The challenge though is comparing podcast numbers to publication numbers,” said Lenard. “They don’t align. If you have a magazine you might have 50,000 subscribers. If you have a podcast you might only have hundreds of listeners.  And to explain to an advertiser the value proposition can be a challenge.” He said they get around this by positioning the podcast as part of a life cycle of media consumption; people listen to the podcast when they’re unable to consume other types of media, often when they’re doing chores or commuting, so a podcast ad can reach them when they’re otherwise unreachable.

Unlike mainstream podcasts like Radiolab and This American Life, which boast listeners in the millions, most of the association podcasters I interviewed only have a few hundred downloads per episode. But because their topics are so niche and they’re mainly trying to reach the influencers in their respective industries, those audience numbers are considered a success. For his part, Gluecksmann said he focuses less on achieving massive download numbers and instead works his hardest to ensure that the podcasts are actually engaging. “Because if it doesn’t sound good and you don’t have both educational and interesting content, then they’ll opt out to listen to something more entertaining.”

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com