“(Podcasts) are so easy and cheap, and because there’s an infrastructure that’s been built by other third parties, I can just be a free-rider. I can make my content for very little cost as an experiment, distribute it freely and easily and see if it works.” – Stephan Dubner, author of Freakonomics
Podcasting has a low-barrier-to-entry, has proven distribution channels, and is increasing in popularity. For example, the true-crime podcast Serial was downloaded 68 million times and was popular enough to be parodied on Saturday Night Live. That’s huge consumption for any medium, and exemplifies the attainable reach in this channel.
As evidence of the popularity of podcasts, consider these facts:
- There are over 115,000 podcasts in existence.
- 32 million people listen to podcasts monthly.
- The average podcast lasts about 30 minutes.
- Users listen to about 22 minutes per podcast.
- Users prefer podcasts that last less than 16 minutes.
- The average commute time in the U.S. is 25 minutes
- The most popular podcasts have a disproportionate number of listeners / viewers
The podcast medium is unduly given a lot of credit for this popularity, however. For every Serial, or Nerdist, or Manager Tools, or Norm McDonald Live (a personal favorite), there are literally thousands of podcasts that are far less entertaining to listen to or to watch. People don’t listen to podcasts because they are podcasts, they listen to great content that is delivered via the podcast medium. It follows then that….
Content planning matters.
Recording a conversation between two or three people isn’t difficult. Making that content consistent and compelling enough for a listener to forego an episode of This American Life or Serial to listen to you during their finite listening periods is very difficult. That’s what we’ll seek to optimize with these best practices.
1. Respect people’s time.
The odds are stacked against you as a podcaster. The most popular podcasts are long-form, and have an overwhelming majority of listeners / viewers (podcasts can be audio or video). One way to increase the likelihood that people will listen is to shorten them (listen to a few random podcasts and you’ll understand exactly why I say this). Some popular examples of shorter podcast content:
- The Moth podcast is a popular podcast that lasts between 10-15 minutes.
- Rand Fishkin’s Whiteboard Friday runs a little short of ten minutes every (note: this isn’t technically termed a podcast, although for all intents and purposes it is)
- Christopher Penn and John Wall’s Marketing Over Coffee clocks in at around 20 minutes per episode.
- Science Friday podcasts 8-10 minute segments as evidenced by the embedded podcast:
2. Plan podcast content.
If you listen to most lesser-known podcasts and compare them to the most popular podcasts, there is a qualitative difference. When Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig discuss the hours of planning and preparation necessary to plan and produce their content (Koenig spent a year researching the Serial story before recording the podcasts), many people ignore their preparation. They see that success, attribute it to podcasting, and try to emulate it with (semi) freeform conversation.
Podcasts are another means to deliver content, so the same process for planning and developing a blog post or paid content would be appropriate for a podcast. Chris Moritz of Lowe Campbell Ewald, recommends doing a “gap analysis” between the content that you have and the content that your audience needs.
A neat aspect of podcasting is that you can redeliver content that you already have via a different medium. For PR practitioners, this means that you can reinforce key aspects of your message without redundancy.
Ira Glass discusses preparation:
3. Augment your audio with text.
Text is paramount for podcasts. Search engines don’t listen to and deduce context from audio (at least not as of this writing). iTunes and YouTube don’t deduce context from audio alone.
So text is important for three elements
- text (blog post / article)
Tags serve to categorize your content.
Look at podcasts on YouTube, Soundcloud and other popular hosts, and you’ll see that tags help to add appropriate context to the file. For example Serial tags its Soundcloud posts as “#podcast,” where “Shane and Friends” tags its podcast posts as “#comedy.”
Descriptions serve to explain the content to potential listeners.
Akin to the “meta description” of a post, it is a synopsis of a podcast, or of each episode. A great example would be the popular podcast, Invisibilia, which describes the podcast as this:
“Invisibilia (Latin for all the invisible things) is about the invisible forces that control human behavior – ideas, beliefs, assumptions and emotions. Co-hosted by Lulu Miller and Alix Spiegel, Invisibilia interweaves narrative storytelling with scientific research that will ultimately make you see your own life differently.”
And here is a description for one of their episodes:
“Are computers changing human character? Is our closeness with computers changing us as a species? Alix and Lulu look at the ways technology affects us.”
Text is a complete transcription of a podcast and serves two purposes:
- Search engines can understand the entirety of the podcast content
- People can save time and read the content (or can reference back to parts of it without having to skim the audio)
Of course, you can’t do this for many of the distribution methods (such as iTunes, Stitcher, et cetera) – but since you will likely host the file, you can transcribe in to a post or to another resource.
A couple of examples of people doing this are Michael Auzenne and Mark Horstman of Manager Tools who offer podcast transcriptions to their paid premium members and Moz’s Whiteboard Fridays, which are always transcribed at the bottom of their posts.
4. Don’t use listens to measure success.
“The (podcasting) format really lends itself to advertisers. When you watch TV, you check out during the commercials. In a podcast, you’re there…. can stop midway through and say ‘I want to mention quickly blah blah blah’ and then I’m back to the interview. It’s not like people are going to say ‘Ah, I gotta speed up [and skip the ad].’” – Bill Simmons
You can probably find listener or download stats from different avenues (Google Analytics if you’re hosting the media file yourself), but understanding how many people are listening is a pretty superficial measure of the effectiveness of podcasts.
The point Bill Simmons above makes is astute: once a person listens to a podcast they are (more or less) a captive audience. This doesn’t mean that you have to sell your audience anything, but you can leverage the same tactics that a sponsor might use to attribute referrals to measure the effectiveness of your podcasts. For example, you might encourage people to subscribe to a newsletter using a unique url, or give listeners a discount using a unique promotion code.
Podcasts easily allow you to engineer meaningful metrics (if you care to).
5. Distribute. Promote. Embed.
As Stephan Dubner alluded to (in the first quote of the piece), podcast distribution channels are well-established. The most prominent of these is iTunes, but there are also sites like Stitcher, Google’s BeyondPod, Zune, Miro and others that aggregate podcasts for discovery. So long as you reliably host your media and have a unique RSS feed for your podcast, you should be able to register your podcast with quite a few directories.
Since you’re in the PR/marketing realm, (hopefully) you understand that distribution doesn’t follow just because you’ve been prominently placed on a list. You need to promote your podcast in the same manner that you would amplify content that’s written or visual. Social media, paid (yikes) media, email, et cetera. If you’re devoting resources to a podcast, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to release episodes without proper promotion.
From a promotional standpoint, one cool thing that you can do with tools like Soundcloud (and native WordPress) is to embed your podcasts (I’ve tried to demonstrate this throughout this post). Amy Porterfield has a really interesting process where she combines an embedded podcast with a post around the ideas in the podcast (NOT a transcription). The “Ready, Set, Podcast” crew does a pretty great job of this as well. The audio file can serve as a conversation piece (for you or someone else), without serving as the conversation.
6. Benchmark appropriately.
There are a lot of really poorly-conceived podcasts. Listening to an hour of a bad podcast can invoke a hubris that you can do the same thing better. It’s important to benchmark against the people who are doing things that you want to do, and not against people that are creating bad content.
If you find yourself strategizing a way to do an off-the cuff talk show rather than trying to emulate the storytelling elements that Sarah Koenig used to make Serial so compelling, you’re probably benchmarking against the wrong people. Self-awareness and self-criticism are important aspects of any content creation, and podcasting is no different.
7. Master some audio tools.
To be a podcaster you should sound pleasant. I don’t mean the tonality of your voice, but your production needs to be decent. I listened to one of the tinniest podcasts the other day, and the poor production spoiled the entire cast. Which is unfortunate but entirely preventable.
There are so many best practices and digital tools that you can use, that I can’t do them all justice, but here’s a sample of my audio setup as an example:
- Condenser microphone – I use a cheap condenser microphone. Condenser microphones are powered (versus dynamic microphones which are not). Most professional podcasts use condenser microphones of some sort.
- Preamp – This is a device that plugs into my USB port and that provides phantom power to the condenser microphone (I use a Focusrite Scarlett)
- Reaper – This is an inexpensive multitrack recording program for your computer. It’s ideal for podcasting, as you can carry on a conversation, process the audio, normalize it, compress it, and put effects on it, all very easily.
- Landr (optional) – This is cheap, cloud-based software that does normalization and EQ mastering for an audio track. It ensures that your podcast isn’t too quiet or too loud relative to other audio files. It also gives an audio track a finished sound. Auphonic is a similar service that does 2 hours of mastering for free.
Here’s an example audio file that I recorded only with these tools:
These don’t even scratch the surface of the available tools that you can use. Point being that you don’t have to know a lot or spend a lot to make competent, listenable audio.
What I wanted to do in this post was to show that a few small things can mean the difference between a well-trafficked podcast and a vanity project. Podcasting is a pretty remarkable way to repurpose content and to tell a visual or auditory story to a (potentially) large group of listeners. Planning thoroughly, recording competently, and promoting your podcast can go a long way towards making podcasting a viable content tool in your arsenal.
Here’s the complete interview with Stephen Dubner about how the Freakonomics podcast fits in with the promotion of his writing: