Make podcasting take off for you

podcastThere’s an intriguing article on the BBC Click website that says the term “podcasting” has largely disappeared from view as attention has increasingly turned to social media, and asks: why has such a popular technology received such a small amount of attention?

It’s a good article, describing how podcasting started and looking at the medium primarily from the perspective of how it competes with mainstream radio. The article is clear in one point it emphasises – podcasting doesn’t seem to offer much that’s different to what you get on the radio:

[…] The common perception is that a podcast is just a download of something that has already been made available elsewhere. Rather than changing the traditional media landscape, many believe that it is just replicating it.

“Half of podcasting is about just another medium to deliver the same content,” says radio futurologist James Cridland.

“The other half is the real democratisation of creating new interesting audio content.

“Is it something different to normal radio? Not really. I look at quite a lot of the podcasts and the fact they are on a downloadable medium that you can listen to whenever you like doesn’t necessarily change a lot of the content.”

As a podcaster myself who started in the early days (2004/2005), I think that’s a good point, one that certainly applies in the UK but not so much in the USA where podcasting began and immediately offered attractive alternatives to “homogenized” radio.

While such comparisons with mainstream media like radio are credible, that’s not the complete picture especially when you look at how the barriers to entry are so low that anyone can create and publish a podcast, not just the mainstream media. You don’t need expensive studios nor voice talent; indeed, you can get started with podcasting for much less than £100; even next to nothing if you take advantage of the instant broadcasting services now available.

So my question would be – why hasn’t podcasting really taken off in the UK outside the mainstream, so to speak? It’s a question I asked in April 2008, focused on the business aspects, which attracted some compelling discussion. Three years on, little has really changed from what I can see.

Consider three distinct areas that comprise the origins of podcasting:

  1. Technological innovations that made podcasting possible.
  2. Cultural demands that made listening to podcasts desirable.
  3. The desire of individuals to create and share audio and video content.

The first one clearly has been a powerful driver thanks mostly to two individuals (Dave Winer who invented the RSS enclosure that enabled the subscription aspect of podcasting and auto-delivery of the MP3 audio files; and Adam Curry who popularized the medium and created the first podcatcher that lets you listen to those audio files and automatically manages your subscriptions) and one company (Apple when they launched iTunes with podcasting support) in 2004.

What of the other two areas, though – cultural demands and individual desire? Those two links look like the missing ones especially when you consider that podcasting has become even easier than it already was with the advent of “tap-talk-publish” tools and services such as Audioboo and iPadio. With instant broadcasting tools like these, no longer do you even need to have a computer with a microphone and recording software. Instead, with just an iPhone or Android smartphone – and, in the case of iPadio, even an ordinary landline phone – you can record your words and publish that audio content online instantly, shareable with the world.

Yet audio podcasting still hasn’t found its tipping point. Could it also be lack of quality content as James Cridland argues?

[…] The hard part is finding the quality. There are some really good podcasts but there are a load of terrible ones as well

Very true – just trawl through the thousands of podcast episodes in the iTunes podcast library or a directory like Podcast Alley and you’ll likely agree. But isn’t beauty in the (ear) of the beholder?

Still, unless you’re looking for big audiences to compete with radio, does a tipping point really matter? Isn’t this more about niche publishing where it’s economically feasible to be able to create content for ten people as it is for 10,000? Isn’t it more about developing a community and getting close to people who genuinely want your content?

What could you use a podcast for in a business context? Here are some ideas of what’s easily possible:

  • Employee Engagement: A weekly 15-minute business update for employees delivered by the CEO or other leader; employees worldwide can subscribe to the podcast via the company intranet or listen directly from the CEO’s blog.
  • General news of interest to everyone: The HR department produces a monthly 30-minute podcast that is a round-up of news and information on issues of interest and relevance to every employee including, for example, news about changes in employee health benefits, updates on training courses, expansion at the factory in a particular city, and a summary of company-wide job openings and where to get more information; the podcast is made available for subscription from the HR site on the company intranet and is referenced/linked to in the multiple channels used for internal communication, traditional and digital.
  • Training and Education: A series of short 5-minute podcasts produced by the marketing department on key aspects about a new product that’s being launched, to help employees understand the features and benefits of that new product; the podcast series supports and complements other communication channels. Depending on communication objectives and specific content, the series could also be used in external communication and published to a service like Audioboo.
  • Skills-Sharing and Team Building: The sales director records an occasional 10-minute podcast for her geographically-dispersed sales team with tips and tricks on, say, how to close deals with certain types of customers; her podcast is available from the sales intranet as a complement to formal sales materials and as one of the means through which she builds a sense of community and engagement with her team.

I came up with this concise list in 2005 when I was talking up podcasting for business with evangelical zeal (take a look at this presentation I gave at PodcastCon UK in London in September 2005). With just a bit of update-tweaking, I think they’re still valid today.

Hearing the voice of a trusted leader, or a subject-matter expert, or the sales director adds a human and informal touch to what’s too often the starched formalness of organizational communication. This can be a powerful emotional influencer on internal and external audiences alike. And emotional influence is a key factor in people engagement.

And I’ll point to the example of For Immediate Release, the weekly business podcast my friend Shel Holtz and I started in January 2005 and which is still going strong.

While the content is great (as listeners tell us!), that wasn’t the primary driver of listenership from the start. And listenership isn’t really what’s made FIR notable in the communication profession.

FIR is about community. While the two presenters are the foundation, it’s a network of regular reporters (in the USA and South-East Asia) and comment contributors that has given the show a sense of genuine community, and on a global level. So today, the content of a typical FIR episode is made up of at least 33 percent listener contributions and reports, and listener suggestions and recommendations drive much of the direction of the show, focused around a private community on Friendfeed. The influential listener community is one of the reasons why the show has attracted sponsors (Ragan Communications, CustomScoop and Pollstream), as is the fact that we survey listeners to find out who they are, what they like and what they want from FIR in the future, and share that information publicly (the last survey was published in May 2009; a new one is in development).

Today, FIR has grown into a series comprising six distinct podcasts including interviews, book reviews and an irregular live panel discussion on topical business communication issues.

The barriers to entry for podcasting as a tactical and complementary tool in your communication toolbox have never been lower, and the benefits never more obvious.

So what’s stopping you?

  • A resource you might find useful: How To Do Everything With Podcasting, the book Shel and I produced and which was published by McGraw-Hill in the summer of 2007. The blurb says, “[…] walks you, step by step, through the process of creating, broadcasting, and promoting your own podcast. You’ll get tips for targeting your audience, refining your content, integrating various technologies, and profiting from your podcast. You’ll also discover how businesses can use podcasting as a fresh, inexpensive way to communicate with customers, investors, and employees.” There’s a Kindle edition so you can get it right now.

Update: In the comments, Dave Thackeray asked if there’s an audio version of this blog post. There is now, which I recorded at Audioboo via the website recorder not the smartphone app. Instant podcast!

If you don’t see the embedded player, listen at Audioboo.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.

  1. Steve Lubetkin

    Neville, as you know, I also recognized the power of podcasting as a business communications channel around 2005 and began my consulting practice to help businesses use the tool more effectively. I’ve also been a very loyal listener — and occasional contributor — to FIR.

    As you have rightly noted, much of what is produced in podcasting is highly self-referential, monologous (one host droning on about personal activities), and not terribly useful.

    Because of this — and also a significant amount of ignorance about how to actually produce podcasts — it’s no surprise that many of the self-styled social media consultants advising businesses fail to include podcasting (audio OR video) in their checklist of social media “things to do.”

    They don’t understand it, and they also don’t recognize the significant value podcasts can add to a search optimization strategy.

    So here is the message one more time: It is simply far more effective to create a regular, high quality series of podcast programs than to try to game the Google system (which buys Ph.D. mathematicians by the boatload) with harebrained SEO link-farm schemes that don’t work.

    Nothing improves a company’s visibility in search better than regular posting of audio and video content, and even regular posting of digital photos. Properly metatagged video and audio files show up very high in Google searches.

    We discovered this when we started posting video news reports we produced for Walmart Stores depicting community activities and grand opening ceremonies at stores around New Jersey. We found that Walmart customers were Googling the store locations, and when they found my contact information in the video metatags, they were calling me thinking it was the store number.

    Once we began inserting store address and phone numbers in the metadata, the calls virtually stopped.

    It’s also surprising to me when social media consultants advise people (as part of that “checklist”) to create a “YouTube Channel.” The very act of creating a regular series of YouTube videos creates a “channel” of disconnected videos that may or may not be topically linked. But deliberately driving people away from the company’s website to see videos seems to me to be a mistaken strategy — again probably because the so-called consultants don’t know how to help their clients embed video players in the relevant pages.

    If you produce a YouTube video about HR policies, why wouldn’t you simply embed that in your HR policies page, instead of making people click somewhere else? Content should go where it is relevant, and should not be placed in silos according to the medium in which it was created. That’s why there shouldn’t be a “videos” tab on your website. Videos should simply appear in your site next to the specific content they relate to. Why make your customers and employees work that hard to find relevant content of any type?

    Thanks for continuing to beat the drums in support of podcasting, Neville! Keep up the good work!

    Steve Lubetkin, APR, Fellow, PRSA
    Senior Fellow, Society for New Communications Research
    Managing Partner, Professional Podcasts LLC
    @PodcastSteve on Twitter

    • neville

      Steve, I think you’re right when you say there’s ignorance about how to actually produce podcasts. I hear it when I discuss podcasting in businesses. Yet even when people see how easy it is, that realization doesn’t usually convert into action. So there’s something else holding them back. I reckon it’s mindset more than anything else.

      Many thanks for your comments, I appreciate your adding context and value to this topic.

  2. Dave Thackeray

    Hey Neville!

    As a long-time follower I was delighted to talk to you recently about the future of podcasting.

    When I first watched the BBC Click video over the weekend I was a little confused about the message the Corporation was trying to get over to us. Especially when I later read an accompanying article which told me podcasting is ‘bigger than Twitter’.

    I think all of this chatter about podcasting can only be beneficial. I’ve seen – and been part of – many reports about the art form in recent weeks and it gives me great delight to see any kind of publicity generated about the potential for audio to change the way we live.

    The facts are simple: People want to hear from people, not pixels. There are 165 million blogs out there, and a pithy fraction number-wise of podcasts. The opportunities within a new world of near-ubiquitous internet for us to share our message in personable and passion-filled listenable prose are endless.

    Thanks to people like yourself, Neville, podcasting is very much alive and well. Alongside, the European Podcast Award celebrates regional efforts in the podcasting sphere, and I’m delighted to say more shows have been nominated to date for the 2011 round of awards than ever before.

    Keep up the excellent work and thanks for this thought-provoking post. Is it available in spoken word format? ;-)

  3. Stuart Bruce

    Great post Neville. I’d just starting writing my own about the BBC Click piece, but you cover it in far more detail than I was going to. Although you don’t really tackle the second of your three areas which is about listening. That to me is the real barrier and one of the reasons that I don’t always include audio in recommendations to clients. It is time-consuming to listen to podcasts, that’s why I don’t listen to more. I try and listen to FIR, because I think it’s great. But I don’t catch enough episodes as I don’t have enough times when I can listen. I subscribe to about four times as many podcasts as I ever manage to listen to – mainly a mix of ‘independent’ like yours and BBC Radio 4 shows that I miss in real-time.

    • neville

      Thanks Stuart. Hmm, listening. What you’ve highlighted is, I think, one of the common objections to podcasting. Yet isn’t this a bit of a red herring? For every person who says a podcast is too long, I’ll introduce you to another who says it’s about right or would like it longer!

      What your comment does touch on are points like these that we face when considering every kind of communication tool:

      1. Is the tool appropriate for the measurable objective we’re trying to achieve?
      2. Does the content lend itself well to this medium?
      3. Is our audience (for want of a better term) inclined to use this kind of medium?

      Undoubtedly there are other questions but these are the primary ones.

      If you can’t answer “Yes” to all of those, then a podcast probably isn’t the right tool to use.

      • Stuart Bruce

        One tactic to make both audio and video far more effective is to ensure that there is still a proper written summary of what it contains. If you’ve got a good description of what to expect then you’re far more likely to listen to it. That means a proper prose description, not just tags, although both are great for improving the search visibility of the audio/video.

  4. James Cridland

    As I said to the reporter, I think part of the problem is that podcasting is not seen as “new” or “sexy” any more.

    As I said in the number of listeners that podcasting has is massive. Yet podcasting lacks any big news story or new features to make the tech press write about it. As such, even though figures continue to go up (if more slowly), discussion and talk about podcasting is almost totally absent from the tech press. This lack of coverage is seen by some as “nobody’s listening any more”, even though that’s simply not the case.

    Of course, there’s another medium that lacks big news stories and new features, and one that over 90% of people use every week. Similarly, the tech press derides it as old-fashioned, and regularly claims that nobody uses it any more. It’s called “the radio”.

    • neville

      Thanks James, appreciate your adding to this theme.

      I see your points entirely. Yet I think this ought be about podcasting as a medium for anyone to do rather than a big-numbers focus and where it slots into the mainstream media mix. As you see from my post, that’s the angle I’ve approached.

      That’s why I’ve come to a conclusion that numbers don’t matter at all. Neither, really, does it matter that there isn’t a perception of any huge take-up in podcasting, or even that there is such a take-up judging by the vast numbers of podcasts in iTunes and elsewhere and what you say in your post.

      What does matter is that people see the benefit to them of podcasting about a topic that lets them connect to the people important to them, whether that’s ten people or 10,000. Podcasting is one way to do that, and do it easily and at very low or no cost.

      I agree with you re radio. We’re lucky in the UK (far more so than our friends across the Atlantic) in that, generally, we have really good radio here. I listen to radio a lot for the content that I like – and most of my listening is online not via the airwaves – and don’t see that behaviour changing any time soon.

      • Steve Lubetkin

        I agree, Neville. Numbers don’t matter. This is not about going viral, it’s about getting the RIGHT audience. One of our clients is a global insurance company, they are not interested in millions of downloads, just the right several thousand who need to understand complex business risks and how best to manage them.

        Podcasting doesn’t replace radio, but it does replace mainstream broadcasting for companies and organizations that have the wherewithal to cover themselves, as our friend Tom Foremski puts it, to “Be the media.”

  5. Colin Kelly

    good article Neville and it’s a subject I often wonder about. I reckon the answer’s pretty simple. A lot of people don’t realise what’s out there and it’s too hard for them to wade through it all and find the good stuff. The term podcasting doesn’t help either. Some people think you need an iPod to listen to them, they don’t realise you can just sit at your computer too. There’s confusion about how to subscribe and RSS feeds and further confusion about whether they’re free. It needs a mainstream media personality – like Ricky Gervais who had huge success with his podcasts, to keep doing them and promote them. And “free audio download” is a much better description..but nowhere near as catchy!

    • neville

      Good points all, Colin, thanks. I agree – most people I know couldn’t care less what it’s called or how they get hold of it. What they want is the content.

    • Steve Lubetkin

      I never really liked “podcast” because I think it ties the identity of the channel too closely to Apple and its iPod in peoples’ minds. As Colin has noted, it confuses people just as the term “subscribe to the feed” makes them think that you have to pay for content.

      I always preferred to call it “Internet broadcasting” and I now have renewed hope that this term might catch on!

  6. Donna Papacosta

    Excellent post and interesting comments, Neville. I too am surprised when social media “gurus” fail to mention podcasts as possible tools for clients. And yet, I see many organizations interested in podcasting, especially for internal comms.

    As for producing one’s own podcast for an external audience, having a million listeners may not be the goal. For my podcast, I’m happy when colleagues, clients and prospects listen, and then contact me to talk about communications.

    As you know, I’m a huge fan of FIR. I’m sure your sponsors are well aware of the niche audience that you “narrowcast” to so successfully. You don’t need to reach the whole world; you need to reach those of us who care about communications, PR and technology.

    • neville

      Thanks, Donna, appreciate your perspectives. You illustrate a simple point, one that I am now very clear is key – the numbers don’t really matter at all. It is indeed about narrowcasting.

      • Dave Thackeray

        I want to echo Neville and Donna. Narrowcasting is precisely where we’re at with podcasting unless you’ve got a tailor-made audience from the outset to bring along with you for the ride.

        Having said that there seems to have been an unparalleled volume of editorial from all corners about podcasting in recent weeks. Mashable on the potential of podcasting for small business, Hubspot on How Do You Build a Successful Podcast? Treat it Like a Business, even Entertainment Weekly in its June 24th issue referencing the success of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast.

        There seems to be something undocumented about podcasting, however. It’s not about finding listeners (encore narrowcasting) – it’s about finding the podcaster’s passion. If you got passion, you got game. That’s why business podcasting has often been hindered – we haven’t had the passionate producers capable of inspiring audiences to take action.

        Thanks to folks like yourselves, Neville and Donna, we’re taking great strides towards overcoming that challenge!

  7. Steve Lubetkin

    The one advance in podcasting I would love to see, but which I also recognize from my own experience in trying to get there, is the idea of approaching the editing style of the long-form radio reports we hear from BBC or NPR in the US, where the reporter weaves tale that incorporates live sound from various locations, various voices, all editors together into tapestry of sound, rather than just the one on one or one on many interview pnels. As informative as they are, and as useful as they can be for businesses to have their subject matter experts explaining things, I’d love to have the time and bandwidth to go back to my own radio production roots more often and create those kinds of sound essays.

    • Steve Lubetkin

      Please excuse the typos in the above post, inserted by the spelling-assumer in my iPad (doesn’t CHECK the spelling, just ASSUMES it knows better than you what you meant to type.)

    • Dave Thackeray

      Steve, I concur precisely on what you’re proposing. Listening to Night Air takes me into a parallel universe where I feel like I’m under a hypnotic trance and compelled to do act, based on the incredible atmosphere concocted by the programme’s editors and producers.

      With production values from the big guys podcasting could take a leap forward. Maybe someone should help us demystify how it’s done so we can spread the word to all podcasting practitioners and raise the quality bar for us all.

      I’ve already expressed widely my feelings that we’re in the third era of podcasting (realisation > engagement > commercial opportunity) and matching where we are now with a hike in creative audio execution would speak volumes for the passion of us all.

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