Earlier this year, Mastercard debuted a sonic logo, a unique melody customers hear whenever they make a purchase with their Mastercard or see the brand's ads. It was the company's latest move in a larger audio strategy, which also includes three podcasts -- two internal and one external.

When Mastercard launched the latter, "Fortune Favors the Bold," in partnership with Gilmet Creative last year, they knew the departure from more typical branded content creation would challenge their creative limits -- but they also knew it presented a valuable opportunity to connect with consumers in a new and meaningful way.

"Audio makes people feel things, and that's what makes it such a powerful medium for brands," Matt Lieber, Gimlet's co-founder and president said in a news release announcing the sonic logo. "With the explosion of podcasts, music streaming, and smart speakers, an audio strategy is no longer a 'nice-to-have' for brands - it's a necessity."

And it makes sense: An estimated 90 million Americans listen to at least one podcast each month, according to Edison Research -- so there's no question there's vast opportunity for reaching new customers through the medium. But it can also be overwhelming to even think about launching into this new, already crowded space­--which is why I was excited to chat with Marcy Cohen, Mastercard's SVP of Digital Content, and Brooke Capps-Yaroni, Mastercard's Editorial Content Director, about how they've gone about it.

Here are the three key takeaways from our conversation--and strategies for you to consider as you build your own audio strategy.

Prioritize compelling content over brand inclusion

"Fortune Favors the Bold" is a podcast about how we think about money; it's not a podcast about Mastercard -- and that's key. As you develop your series, consider topics you and your audience can be passionate about, even if it's only tangentially associated with the brand.

Think about it: Would you want to use your precious commute time listening to one, long-form brand promotion; or would you rather hear compelling, engaging content?

On "Fortune Favors the Bold," Mastercard mostly keeps its branding to show art and the midroll breaks, as if they were simply an advertiser on any other podcast. And it seems to be working. The show's downloads doubled in the "hiatus" between seasons one and two, when there was no ongoing promotion. "Seeing we doubled our listenership meant to me that we were creating content people actually wanted to listen to," Capps-Yaroni said. "People are sharing it; they're talking about it." 

Find a host who can reach new customers

Rather than choose a host within your company's community, look for someone who can not only get excited about the content you want to share but also reach an audience that you can't. Both of "Fortune Favors the Bold"'s hosts -- Ashley C. Ford for seasons one and the soon-to-be-released season three, and Mona Chalabi for season two -- check those boxes, and had strong followings that could be converted into listeners.

Choosing these hosts among a large field of potential options took "a tremendous amount of research," Cohen said, but putting in that work will be well worth it when your podcast becomes a success.

And because, as of now, there aren't many metrics for podcast success beyond downloads and listen-through rates, Mastercard has been able to leverage their hosts in gaining listener feedback -- both by looking at engagement on the hosts' social channels, and by the hosts encouraging listeners to send questions and comments to a dedicated email address. "The numbers are important, but you want to understand what people are actually saying and thinking," Capps-Yaroni said.

 Create tangential media as a promotional tool

"The great irony of audio is that, while it's immersive once you get in it, getting people to it is quite difficult," Capps-Yaroni said. Mastercard tapped into the power of video, creating short clips they could share on social media.

"We know that video is a really big deal on social channels," Capps-Yaroni said. "Nobody wants to see just texts and links anymore, so it's kind of funny that we created this audio experience, but we also ended up creating video trailers for each season." Mastercard also followed in the footsteps of other podcasts, like NPR's "This American Life," in creating "audiograms," or snippets of show audio with simple animations and text that people can view and understand even if their phones' speakers are off.

Beyond promoting the podcast itself, Mastercard further strengthens the brand connection to the content and topics with thoughtful midrolls (such as one featuring a Mastercard executive talking about a company-sponsored financial literacy initiative during an episode about financial literacy) and similar social media posts. "That's where we show why...Mastercard cares about this topic," Capps-Yaroni said.

While podcasts have been growing rapidly for a few years now, there's still a lot we don't know, so finding success in this realm can feel a bit daunting. But if you keep your focus on creating a truly engaging show, the listeners -- and brand advocates -- will likely follow.

MasterCard is currently producing Season 3 of Fortune Favors the Bold, this time created with Pineapple Street Media and again with Ashley C. Ford at the mic. The new season will launch in mid-January 2020.