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How retailers retooled podcasts to connect with customers and staff during the coronavirus pandemic

April 26, 2020, 3:00 PM UTC

As Walmart employees handle a tsunami of coronavirus-related demands for food, cleaning products, and medical supplies, their employer is using an unlikely source to rally them: the Walmart Radio Podcast. The folksy company podcast has been recast as both a morale booster and information clearinghouse for employees. In recent episodes, CEO Doug McMillon and the company’s chief medical officer, Dr. Tom Van Gilder, took guest turns on the show to review COVID-19 safety basics and thank workers.

“What are you seeing out in our stores?” the show’s co-host, Bo Woloszyn, asked Van Gilder.

“Absolutely heroic efforts on the parts of the associates to keep the stores open, to keep those essential goods coming to our communities,” Van Gilder replied. 

Walmart is not alone in turning to podcasts to connect with employees and customers during the coronavirus pandemic. With retailers’ budgets strained, many have started to realize that podcasts are a cost-effective way for brands to connect with people and dispel misinformation. Unlike a TV spot, podcasts can be produced quickly and cheaply without a lot of equipment or large creative team. And with social distancing a must, podcasts can even be recorded at employees’ homes, a blanket or closet standing in as a recording studio.

Trader Joe’s is also using its popular podcast, Inside Trader Joe’s, for straight talk about the COVID-19 crisis.

“Nobody signed up for this when they applied for their job at a neighborhood grocery store,” said Trader Joe’s president of stores Jon Basalone on the April 9th episode. Basalone talked about sanitizing procedures and, when discussing employee efforts during the crisis, was clearly emotional. 

Tara Miller, Trader Joe’s marketing director and the podcast’s co-host, got right to it in discussing employee needs during the pandemic. “In times of crisis, information gets weird and misconstrued. There’s been talk in public about how Trader Joe’s employees are not being compensated fairly for what they’re doing right now. I want to talk about that,” she asked of Basalone.

His answer: each crew member is receiving $2 more per hour, a wage increase he said has no end date. Basalone said sales rose significantly in late February, but have dipped below normal recently as more people are staying home.

Miller and Basalone weren’t just throwing their voices into the wind. The show has a significant audience, boasting a five-star rating on more than three thousand reviews. In comparison, most other company podcasts have fewer than 50 reviews on Apple Podcasts.

Keeping customers connected at home

But one company podcast runs circles around most others: Nike’s Trained, and they’re putting it to work to connect with customers and keep them moving forward with fitness goals old and new. In January alone, more than 600,000 people downloaded Trained and a Nike spokesperson said they’ve surpassed 3 million downloads total. The show, which sounds like TED Talks for athletes, has featured motivational speaker Simon Sinek, Julie Ertz of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, and the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James.

Ryan Flaherty, Nike’s senior director of performance and the host of Trained, hinted he’s recording new episodes from his closet. “For the next few weeks I’ll be talking with a range of experts about how we can live our best lives even when we’re hunkered down,” Flaherty said in a trailer preview, promising new episodes that will feature tips on working out with little or no equipment, healthy eating and sleep habits, and how to “stay mentally strong during a difficult situation.”

Things are a bit more relaxed over on the Callaway Golf Podcast. When the employees of the Carlsbad, Calif. company came under mandatory “shelter in place” orders, podcast host Jeff Neubarth grabbed his recording equipment before leaving the office. A recent episode of the podcast featured a remote interview with pro golfer Xander Schauffele, who discussed Netflix binges and golf tips to try at home. Neubarth has been producing two episodes each week, creating community at a time when tournaments are cancelled. “Friendly banter about the game and [pro golfers’] lives off the course can be a fun distraction for golf fans, the player and certainly [for me],” Neubarth said. Reviewers have praised it as a refuge from news.

Company podcasts aren’t a new thing, of course. Long before COVID-19 upended daily life, retailers and consumer brands had already been experimenting with podcasts. Audio content has exploded in recent years, buoyed by smart home devices, media-syncing cars, ear pods, and long commutes. About half of all Americans have listened to a podcast; more than a third— roughly 104 million people— listen regularly, according to Sommerville, N.J. consumer research firm Edison Research. 

Target, Sephora, Gucci, Coach, Hermes, and Avon, to name a few, have produced podcasts. Even though most of these efforts have attracted only a niche audience, they’re still meaningful. 

“We are slicing the media market thinner and thinner—any way you can connect with consumers and be more relevant without interrupting them is key,” said Allen Adamson, marketing professor at NYU’s Stern School of Business in an interview with Fortune before COVID-19 took hold of the world. “Given that the barriers to entry are relatively low, if 10 people are listening, that’s valuable. That’s 10 people completely absorbed.”

Trader Joe’s has used its podcast for the last two years to “be more in control of the narrative,” said Matt Sloan, the podcast’s co-host and the retailer’s vice president of product marketing. Earlier episodes addressed sustainability, the product development pipeline, fan favorites, and employee culture in a witty, smart, and unabashedly nerdy way.

Historically, Sloan noted, the retailer has “played its card close to its chest,” focusing more on customers than speaking to the media. But in its podcast, the notoriously frugal retailer found an efficient and cost-effective way to deliver a lot more information—and deeper engagement—than they could with a 30-second television spot or banner ad. “Words matter to us and being clear is important,” Sloan said. That’s become even more vital when in the face of addressing sanitation procedures or what happens at a store after an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

“Simple things like going to the grocery store aren’t so very simple anymore and we appreciate your kindness and patience so very much,” Sloan said, concluding the April 9th podcast.

“I’ve had a ton of people reach out through social media and email to say they’re so surprised we’re doing this—sharing information and giving access to these people,” said Nike’s Flaherty. “They like that it’s not a marketing campaign and that we’re not asking for anything in return.” 

Sounds like a perfect fit for a customer base that’s sheltering in place.

More must-read retail coverage from Fortune:

—Retailers that are smartest about shopping tech will finish on top after the coronavirus
Target’s April e-commerce has nearly quadrupled as crowd controls slam in-store sales
—How Home Depot and Lowe’s are preparing for their busy season during coronavirus uncertainty
The comfort economy gains momentum during the coronavirus pandemic
—Listen to Leadership Next, a Fortune podcast examining the evolving role of CEO
—WATCH: The greatest designs of modern times

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