It’s been quite a week for the British government. The prime minister lost a major vote with serious constitutional implications by a historically large margin, and it’s still very unclear whether anyone will be able to figure out what Brexit really entails by the March deadline. And while all of that was going on, the Department for International Trade (DIT) dropped its very own podcast, Local to Global. It’s part of the official “Exporting is GREAT” campaign (their capitalisation, not mine, I assure you) and is presented by erstwhile UK Apprentice appearee, Nick Hewer.
A small note on the timing of this launch before I get into the details of the podcast itself. I cannot get over how deeply ironic it is that the government has chosen to launch a podcast as part of a business engagement strategy about the benefits of international trade and export at a time when politicians can’t agree on if or how we’ll ever make a trade deal with another nation again. Also, one of the biggest business lobby groups, the Confederation of British Industry, is one of the loudest voices currently warning about the economic dangers of Brexit. Every time I think about all of this I feel like cartoon question marks start circling above my head. I cannot properly comprehend it.
Anyway, that aside, this show is an interesting extension of an existing relationship between the UK government and podcasting. Way back in November 2016, long before I started writing for Hot Pod, I actually contributed some thoughts to an item Nick was running about government sponsor reads, as I’d had them booked on one of the podcasts I was producing at the time. In that case there were two different campaigns, both sold via Acast: one was this same initiative about exporting, and the other was an information campaign for small business owners from the Department of Work and Pensions about pensions enrollment.
Now, the DIT has chosen to expand their involvement with podcasting into a standalone branded show, which seems like a different prospect to me. Whereas the sponsor reads made sense as a way of publicising a government campaign to an existing podcast’s audience, this new show will need to find its own listeners in order to convey the message. Local to Global is primarily aimed at business owners, I think, rather than the public at large. Each of the six episodes in the first series (the first one came out on Monday, and it will publish weekly) profiles a different business with a positive ‘exporting story’, including the company behind the first self-test HIV diagnosis kit and a clean tech startup with a product that turns footsteps into power.
I asked Umair Ahmad, DIT’s head of UK marketing and campaigns, via email about the decision to move from placing spots in existing podcasts to creating a standalone show. “While sponsorship and ads continue to play an important part in the campaign, podcasts are unique in their ability to hold a listener’s attention for a whole half-hour episode,” he said. “We therefore decided to create our own standalone show in order to really do justice to the stories of the businesses that we work with.”
The show was made by London-based production company Pixiu, which has also produced series for organisations like the National Trust, the Royal Horticultural Society and BT Sport. Because the previous sponsors and ad spots for the exporting campaign had been sold through Acast, Ahmad said “we were confident that they’d deliver some great results when they were chosen to manage this series.”
Acast’s UK country manager Joe Copeman also told me via email that the desire for a standalone sponsored shows is something that they’re seeing more and more from their clients. “It allows brands to engage even more deeply with listeners, around subjects that interest them,” he said. This is a development that I think is going to be key to levelling up the UK podcast industry (see my five tests from the start of the year for more on this).
Neither side wanted to divulge any details about the size of the budget for this show, but Ahmad did suggest that getting good value would be important, given that the podcast is made with public money. “Spending on government communications is always closely analysed to ensure value for money,” he said. “When looking into producing this series, we determined that it would represent good value and was a good use of public money.”
I’m not sure how easy that value will be to ascertain, since the podcast is aimed at increasing awareness among business owners of the benefits of exporting. Looking for an uptick in exports as a result might not be hugely productive, since I’m guessing there are reasons other than a mere knowledge gap that are putting companies off going global at the moment. Still, Ahmad pointed out that the DIT has a resources pack for businesses and they’ll be checking to see how many people the podcast sends towards that. “Our online hub, great.gov.uk, contains so much information on exporting and the campaign aims to drive businesses to it,” he said.
This isn’t the first standalone podcast the UK government has funded — Ahmad says that other departments have used audio in the past, but not for a specific campaign like this. “The Government Digital Service, for instance, has an interesting podcast that looks at innovation and digital transformation across the public sector. However, it’s not integrated into a marketing campaign in the same way that Local to Global is,” he said.
At such a fraught political time, it seems the government is viewing branded podcasts as a way to remind people that there are things going on that aren’t Brexit. We’ll see if that works out for them.