When the founders of the St. Louis-based design firm Need/Want decided to start a podcast two years ago, they turned on the mike and began yapping. "We talked a lot about stuff on the internet, things we were reading," explains co-founder Jon Wheatley. But the three partners quickly realized if they wanted to get Need/Want's "superfans"--the design nerds who read blogs like Product Hunt--to actually tune into its Hatching podcast, they'd have to provide more than just cocktail-party banter.

Podfading--and other podcasting trivia
89 million
The number of people who had listened to a podcast by 2015, a near doubling since 2008.
7 out of 10
Of the top-rated business podcasts on iTunes utilize an interview format.
The average number of downloads per episode of all podcasts.
93 percent
of podcast listeners are active on social media, and 58% engage with brands online.
Just 1 percent
of programs podfade--industry speak for "stop existing"--each month.
Sources: Edison Research, Libsyn

So they changed conversational gears to bring listeners behind the scenes of their design journey. In one episode, they chronicled a recent trip to China to visit the factory that produces the firm's Smart Bedding. They dished on how they survived the endless flight (hint: Nintendo 3DS and multiplayer Zelda) and navigated the language barrier (Google Translate). This kind of fodder isn't going to make Hatching the next Serial, but it is a way to strengthen the company's relationship with its customers. "The next time we come out with a product, they'll be more likely to buy it, share it," says co-founder David Myers.

The podcast--a radio show that lives online rather than in the airwaves--is a thriving medium that can be either a potent marketing vehicle for your company or a massive waste of time. The barriers to entry are low, but finding people to tune in to your show is another story, considering you'll be competing with the more than 320,000 podcasts that already exist on iTunes. If you're willing to put in the sweat, yours might not just cultivate a following, but also attract future customers, or even an investor, to your business. Take it from a few companies whose podcasts are more than just vanity projects.

Assemble a DIY studio.

Aside from purchasing a $200 mic, Need/Want barely had to spend a dime on production tools: Adobe Premiere, for recording and sound editing, was already in the office; and third-party hosting service SoundCloud is free, and it generates the RSS feed necessary to get on iTunes. (Apple also requires artwork for the show.) To maximize Hatching's reach--it releases an episode every six weeks--the founders also make a video of their session, then post it on YouTube.

Lean on experts.

Last year, Slack CMO Bill Macaitis was approached by Pacific Content, a branded-podcast company whose team is made up of former radio producers. They conceived of Slack Variety Pack, a magazine-style show that emulates the human feel of Slack's software. After some 20 episodes, Variety Pack--which covers workplace topics such as rethinking the idea of a full-time job and how to deal with conflict at the office--has tallied more than four million downloads.

Find your voice.

When Joshua Dorkin, CEO of online real estate investing platform BiggerPockets, first imagined The BiggerPockets Podcast, he saw Howard Stern as its host--minus the crassness. Pairing Stern's freewheeling style with investing fodder felt natural to Dorkin and VP Brandon Turner, who in three years have interviewed 170 guests. "We'll do a show with one of the biggest names in personal finance, and follow it up with a Joe Nobody who just did his first flip," says Dorkin.

Cut through the clutter.

Building an audience is the most difficult--and amorphous--aspect of creating a successful podcast, but getting ranked on iTunes is key. "Apple has never come out to reveal what really affects the chart rankings," says Dorkin, "but I suspect it's some combination of listens, reviews, and other factors." Seed your podcast with fans of your company--email subscribers, Twitter and Facebook followers--asking them to spread the word and even to write a review on iTunes.

Be honest about expectations.

ROI can be hard to quantify, so set clear goals from the start. Dorkin spends up to 20 hours working on a single episode. He now averages more than 82,000 listeners per show, which has even drawn paying advertisers. While Need/Want has built a much smaller audience--a few thousand per episode--you never know who might be listening. "One of our investors found us through the podcast," says Myers. "He listened and, after connecting with us, put in $25,000."


Podcasting from a pro


No one has been hazed more publicly as a podcaster turned entrepreneur than Alex Blumberg. In 2014, the business journalist and host of NPR's Planet Money launched the StartUp podcast, which in its first season chronicled the creation of his podcasting company, Gimlet Media. Blumberg, who now produces five shows with his co-founder Matt Lieber, offers his advice for first-time podcasters.

  1. Make yourself vulnerable -- "The most anxiety-producing topics are going to be the best, but as a human being, that's the stuff you most want to keep private," Blumberg says. "For the first four or five episodes, we were always wondering: 'Are people going to hate this?' You're constantly running at the pit in your stomach. It requires a lot of emotional stamina."

  2. Know your strengths -- If your company is not a journalistic enterprise, don't pretend you have the chops to act like one. "Narrative podcasts [like StartUp] can be so labor intensive, taking hours and hours to produce," says Blumberg. "It would be an incredible time suck unless you're a media company. That'd be like advising a fintech company to also make Game of Thrones."

  3. Don't expect instant gratification -- "People are like, 'Why don't podcasts go viral?' They do­--it just happens more slowly," he says. Because listening to an episode is a time investment, the discovery cycle is significantly longer than that of a YouTube video. "People still tweet at me every day to say they just discovered StartUp, and it first aired over a year ago," he notes.