MARKETING AND SALES STRATEGIES

The Student Loan Network gains a competitive edge online with Financial Aid Podcast

Another inspiring case study that will appear in my upcoming book The New Rules of Marketing and PR.

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The Student Loan Network is an online student loan company that's been around since 1998. The company is a significant lender, with some $150 million to $200 million in loans produced each year. The Student Loan Network site excels as an online guide to student loans and financial aid, and it reaches students and parents directly with financial aid advice and student loan services. Particularly interesting is the company's Financial Aid Podcast a six-days-per-week podcast available on iTunes and other podcast distribution and subscription services.

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"We're always looking for a competitive edge online," says Christopher S. Penn, chief evangelist for The Student Loan Network and host of Financial Aid Podcast. His show helps students (and some parents, too) make college more affordable through shows on topics such as credit cards, international student issues, private student loans, and scholarships. But Penn also produces episodes dealing with other aspects of finance that interest young people. The podcast was the first and is by far the most popular show about financial aid for college-bound students. "So much of modern American society revolves around money in one way or another, and the more I learn about it, the more I see, the more I understand," Penn says on the bio page of his podcast's companion blog. "Money, economics, all that stuff is so important, so vital to understand, and it's what really drives me to crank out a podcast every single day. Each day, another piece gets added to the puzzle, and I know a little bit more about how to make the world work for me—and for my listeners.

"The audience for Financial Aid Podcast is primarily people who are looking to get into college, are currently in college, or have just graduated," Penn says. "The nice thing about the college aid demographic is that they all have iPods, which is ideal for the podcast as a marketing tool." Because Penn understands his buyer personas—young people—he can speak to them in an authentic, resonant way. Penn knows that for his demographic, a podcast is perfect, because so many people are already listening to audio and have iTunes accounts.

"Podcasting is great marketing because, like blogging, it is a human voice," Penn says. "Most podcasts don't have a PR stamp on them, so the shows come across as being human. The reason why this is interesting is that there is a big marketing shift going on right now. The older, traditional advertising model, like 1950s TV, is that we publish and you consume. However, today's marketing model is that we publish and you respond. It provides me real feedback from real people, and I have conversations. I can be interactive."

Penn sees a clear link between marketing and customer service at companies. He suggests that customer service needs to be real and authentic and have a human voice, just like great marketing. "There is no such thing as 'on message' anymore," Penn says. "[Customer service] is no longer about spin, but instead becoming a part of the conversation. Now I think that companies that do not make the jump to blogging and podcasting and interacting with customers look like dinosaurs. Some industries are tailor-made for this, but they do not get it. For example, I would think that real estate agents could do a great job with video podcasts, but it is very rare. If you have a customer services department, you need to be doing this kind of marketing."

Penn has conducted research about his audience and has adapted his show accordingly. "Podcasting is time-shifted," he says. "You can take it with you and listen to it at any time. My shows are all eighteen to twenty-four minutes, because twenty-four minutes is the average commute, and the average human attention span is eighteen minutes." Penn also has an interesting perspective on competition. He says that he competes with every other podcaster, because listeners only have twenty-four hours in a day.

Penn has learned that the best way to drive his listeners into The Student Loan Network sales process is to mention URLs on his show. But he is quick to point out that the show is not a sales pitch. "The podcast is not an immediate business generator. We are real and authentic. We want to help people. We want to be beneficial to people;" he says. However, based on promotions that the company has run, Penn knows that he’s generated over $10 million in loans directly from podcasts. "It’s way beyond beer money," he says.

David Meerman Scott

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