Tom Webster, writing and speaking

What Will Kill Podcasting

Added on by Tom Webster.

Last Thursday at Blogworld, I had the honor of kicking off the conference with a Super Session on our new research study, The Social Habit. I was also asked to present some new podcasting research at a panel called "The Current State of Podcasting," which, to be honest, was a slightly frustrating experience to me, mostly because of what I perceived to be a misplaced pessimism about the format. First of all, my friend Chris Penn attended the panel and said this better than I will, so do read his post, "The Golden Age of Podcasting is Now." I agree with every word. It's hard to look at this graph, for instance, and say podcasting is dead, or dying--if anything, the discontinuous rise in smartphone adoption has given on-demand podcast consumption a bit of a goose:

But what I heard from this session was how we'd lost "the spirit" of podcasting; that sense of excitement from those early, heady days. There was even one podcaster who noted that the "golden age of podcasting was dead." The evidence cited: their inability to grow audience over the past four years. Where I'm from, we call that "inductive reasoning." Needless to say, I disagree. I have been presenting podcast research to the podcasting community since the first Podcast and New Media Expo back in Ontario, California back in 2006--and I can say this unreservedly: the best days for podcasting lie ahead.

Yes, gone are the days of needing "podcatching" software, and the panoply of startups who used to sponsor podcasting events with industry-specific products and services has now faded to a trickle. And yes, podcasting has become more "corporate," with entities like ESPN, BBC and NPR dominating the download charts. But rather than lament the "lost" days of independent podcasting, we should be thanking mass media for making the term "podcasting" familiar to nearly half of Americans 12+. And rather than excoriate Apple for dominating the distribution of podcasts with a portal that is not necessarily conducive to getting independent podcasts known or showcased, we should celebrate the fact that iTunes is a giant content vending machine in the majority of American homes, and independent podcasters get their content dispensed right next to Coke and Pepsi.

There's never been a time of greater opportunity for podcasters. Today, your shows are accessible on hundreds of devices--with no RSS feeds or "podcatching" required. Your content is now available on my Apple TV, on a Roku, or on-demand on millions of Android, Apple and Windows mobile devices. There's a catch, though--your content is now on display and competing with everybody else's on these platforms. If I'm scrolling through content on my Roku looking for your podcast on "House Improvement," it's sitting there right next to "House M.D." Yes, the opportunity is immense, but now you've got to work harder. What got you here, won't get you there. And it's this sense--the belief that just doing a great show is enough--that will kill podcasting for independent podcasters quicker than anything.

I was pleased to hear Todd Cochrane, CEO of RawVoice, note that he has a spreadsheet of all the podcasters on his network, and tracks 11 different categories of marketing outreach and content creation for each of them. What he discovered is this: for the podcasters who consistently do at least 9 or 10 of those things (like write a separate blog, and engage on various social platforms), their audiences grew. For those who don't--in other words, those who think just putting out a great show and tweeting links to it will suffice--there is no growth.

The bottom line is this--the tide is rising. But so are the demands on your prospective audience's time and attention. The people who produce RadioLab and The Bill Simmons Show and Fresh Air are great content producers--but they also work with great marketers. If you aren't a great marketer, you need to go meet one and make friends. Find great content marketers who aren't podcasting (or are doing it poorly) and join forces. No one is great at everything.

It's harder than ever to succeed with an independent podcast, but the rewards are commensurate with the effort. Smartphones have completely changed the game for content consumption, and you may need to rethink the very format of your show to keep pace with the paradigm shift that on-demand mobile broadband has created. I know some of you have been podcasting for years--some for over a decade. But experience isn't everything. There were hundreds of 17th century astronomers with 20, 30 even 40 of years experience who believed the Earth was the center of the universe. History has not been kind to them.

It's time to think about your show in a brand new light, and reimagine the content formats that will help you succeed in the future. It's time to think like a rookie again.