Tyler Litchenberger shares how Toyota’s corporate communications team developed the Toyota Untold podcast and promoted it across the company’s social channels to engage with its growing audience

What surprised us most is that people were interested in a corporate podcast at all. Tyler Litchenberger
Last summer, Toyota Motor North America Social Media Manager Tyler Litchenberger and her colleagues in corporate communications noticed an opportunity to round out their communications outreach by adding an audio storytelling tool: a podcast.

During the course of their daily work telling the Toyota story, the team heard many customer and dealer stories that could best be told through interviews and conversations. A podcast would also bring these stories into Toyota and Lexus vehicles, where the brand is naturally top of mind.

A core team formed and the group began to brainstorm episodes and put together their pitch for upper management.

In August of 2018, they rolled out their plan to leadership for an initial pilot first season.

It was immediately clear to the executives that a podcast would fill a gap in the overall communications strategy and was a relatively low-risk innovation.

By the end of September 2018, the podcast team had full leadership buy-in and Toyota Untold was on its way. Through those initial conversations, Tyler became one of the podcast’s hosts, adding to her role in social media. Each member of the team brings a special skill to the production, and Tyler’s expertise in social promotion gave the project something of a secret weapon.

The inspiration for Toyota Untold was an internal podcast, TFS Talks, produced by the communications team at Toyota Financial Services.

We got over 30,000 downloads with an 11-episode pilot season, and some of our episodes reached into the top 10% of all-time podcasts. Tyler Litchenberger
Through TFS Talks, Toyota Untold was guided towards its production vendor, Crate Media. TFS had also created an in-house studio, which Toyota Untold was able to use from the start.

“We originally wanted to plan for a launch in early 2019,” says Tyler. “But, Crate Media told us the biggest times people listen to podcasts are around the holidays and advised us to launch in time for Christmas, which accelerated our launch timeline drastically.”

Then, they got to work crafting stories to include in the pilot season.

“We got a list together of people from across the company who had good stories to tell and set up pre-meetings and talk to them. Then we’d go to the studio and record,” says Tyler.

Through that initial effort, the team found that much of the best material came out of the discovery interview and the original freshness and details couldn’t be recreated in the recorded session, so the decision was made to go straight to the real interview.

“We had a few episode ideas that were firm, such as a Supra episode tied to its Detroit auto show reveal and a series of motorsports episodes to run at the end of NASCAR season,” says Tyler. “But we then had some big consumer stories that fell into our laps, like the narrative by Allyn Pierce, a nurse in Northern California who used this Tundra to save people during the catastrophic wildfire in Paradise, California.” His episode is Toyota Untold’s most popular to date.

While Tyler said the podcast was fortunate to enjoy a built-in following as a brand, the team worked hard to promote their episodes across their social channels.

The team conducted some early experiments with paid media, initially promoting the series on Facebook when it launched.

We also want season two to be more personal and for the audience to connect with us as more than just a faceless car company. Tyler Litchenberger
But the effort needed more creative solutions to help the team get the numbers and engagement it felt the podcast could reach. One successful strategy was to create unique artwork for each episode especially for use on social media. The artwork was fed to Toyota’s influencer network of racecar drivers, Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and celebrity ambassadors to promote the podcast on their channels.

“We sent them an email with the artwork, a call to action, and copy and the link they could use,” says Tyler. “We had so many people share that initially, and it really helped our numbers for the pilot season.”

Tyler explains that they also found success tapping into their influencer audiences on social by directly involving them in the podcast episodes.

For example, last January for CES, they connected with one of their regular technology and innovation influencers, Austin Evans, for a special episode.

“We worked with him and had him co-host the podcast so he could draw interest from his followers,” says Tyler. “Getting Austin and his audience engaged was critical to our success there.”

So far, Tyler says the pilot season has received a positive response, with higher engagement than any of the team expected.

Says Tyler, “What surprised us most is that people were interested in a corporate podcast at all. We got over 30,000 downloads with an 11-episode pilot season, and some of our episodes reached into the top 10% of all-time podcasts.”

With those results, the Toyota Untold podcast team is taking their learnings and working to make season two even stronger.

She says one of their key learnings is that the episodes need to come in at about 30 minutes or less, rather than the 50-plus minutes they ran in season one.

We made the conscious decision to keep it at two female hosts because most of the people that we interview in the industry are men. Tyler Litchenberger
“We also want season two to be more personal and for the audience to connect with us as more than just a faceless car company,” says Tyler. “We need to be more vulnerable as hosts.”

For the Toyota Untold team, that also meant focusing more on the storytelling aspect, which also means telling more consumer stories. And, logistically, they worked to streamline the process and find more clarity for each person’s role in creating the episodes. “We went from three hosts in season one to two hosts, so it wasn’t as confusing,” Tyler said. “But we made the conscious decision to keep it at two female hosts because most of the people that we interview in the industry are men.”

According to Tyler, part of how they’re working to improve season two of Toyota Untold is by making it more visible on their social channels and increasing audience engagement.

Over the course of the pilot season, which ran from December 2018 through April 2019, two episodes dropped monthly, which were supported via social posts predominantly focused on the cover art.

I'm most excited about the Reddit partnership and the results we expect from it. Tyler Litchenberger
For season two, which kicked off in July, cover images have been updated to offer more whitespace, which will facilitate calls to action. so they can include different calls to actions, not only in the copy, but also on the artwork itself.

Episodes that feature Team Toyota athletes, such as the upcoming three-part Olympics and Paralympics series, Tyler and her team post featured images for the influencers and tag for resharing.

Tyler can attest to the success of reposting. Engagement rates have spiked thanks to reposting images in their Instagram Stories and using the swipe up feature to link to the episode.

In the coming months, the team is planning to run more experiments on social media to expose the podcast to a new audience.

“We’re taking all of the season-one episodes and creating a Toyota Untold playlist so that people can listen to the podcast on YouTube,” says Tyler.

I'm in a unique position because I'm the social media expert, and I'm a host. Tyler Litchenberger
The team is also working on a paid media approach with Reddit to target certain subreddits with specific episodes related by topic. “For example, for our Olympic episodes, we’re going to be targeting the Olympic subreddit,” explains Tyler. “I’m most excited about the Reddit partnership and the results we expect from it.”

To create more visual assets from the podcasts to share on social, the podcast team has started filming recording sessions for season two and will utilize those videos across social channels.

Ultimately, the success of the new venture and its integration into a holistic communications environment depends on pressing on established boundaries, what Toyota calls internally “challenging the status quo.”

“I’m in a unique position because I’m the social media expert and I’m a host,” she said. “But, we continued to push the limits and find new ways to engage the listeners and our social following.”

Tyler also advises pushing the limits of the copy and content too. “It took us a while to even think about recording our sessions for behind-the-scenes videos to share on our channels or developing our YouTube playlist,” she says. “But we’re excited to see the engagement we can get through these new avenues. The most important thing we’ve learned so far is to find the people that can help tell those interesting stories and be strategic about the channels and the visual assets you need to promote and support them.”

Tyler Litchenberger has been a member of SocialMedia.org since 2017. You can follow her on LinkedIn.