Recently, I presented an update to last year’s Podcasting study to the Corporate Podcasting Summit in London, with data from the yet-to-be-released Arbitron/Edison Internet and Multimedia 2007 study–big thanks to Arbitron for making this early release possible. The most accurate thing one can say about the state of Podcast consumption in 2007, now that we have some trending under our belts, is that podcasters face some challenges ahead, but the rewards for success are great. Of course, the challenge with statistics is that people like favorable numbers to back up positions they agree with, and tend to discard the rest. One company might note that 40% of all sick days are taken on Fridays and Mondays, and assume that they need to clamp down on slackardly workers taking ad hoc long weekends. Another company might note that 40% is just another way of saying two out of five, and that workers are no more likely to call in sick on Monday than on Wednesday. Such is the joy of numbers–both statistics are correct, but the stories told differ considerably.
So, what are we to make of these two statistics, pulled from this year’s study? First, awareness of the term “podcast” has grown considerably:
That’s good news for Podcasters. Now, the “mixed” news:
Certainly, given the impressive growth in awareness of the term “podcast,” one might have expected more than a two percentage point increase in the behavior. On the other hand, this is 13% of America we are talking about–and while I am not…yet…at liberty to release the percentage of Americans this year who subscribe to Satellite Radio, it is pretty close. So, on the one hand, growth is relatively small, but on the other, podcasting has acheived a similar penetration to Satellite Radio, without the benefit of a honkin’ big marketing campaign, Howard Stern, or Oprah.
Still, if you make your living from podcasting, or from covering the industry, you are likely to cover the increase in awareness, and if you are not a believer, you might focus on the half-empty bit. I quite like MarketWatch blogger Frank Barnako’s take on it (though I might quibble with “anemic”–not my term) that there is simply work to be done, which is the right answer.
One thing that Podcasters simply have to come to grips with is the difficulty in introducing a new technology or a new medium to the mainstream population. Though long-time podcasters are tired of hearing this, and probably rejected it two years ago, there is no question that a good chunk of people who might otherwise be interested in podcasts believe that an MP3 player (and, specifically, an iPod) is required to listen. The obvious problem is that far, far more people are interested in podcasting’s central propositions (timeshifting and ad-skipping audio content) than own an iPod–or indeed, will ever own an iPod. Most would contend that the train has already left the station on the name “Podcasting,” and I am not sure I disagree with that, but clearly there is significant work to be done to make it easier and more digestible for the average citizen. For those of you that wonder why a couple hundred million Americans just don’t “get” podcasting, I would humbly counter-propose that you just don’t “get” hundreds of millions of people.
Look at TiVo. How long did that take to work its way into the parlance of mainstream America? It was several years before all but a few early adopters could even explain what it did, let alone why you needed one. Even today, though “everyone you know” may own a DVR, the reality is most people don’t. Podcasting is in a similar boat, and even though you don’t need to buy a “black box” like a DVR to make it work, you still need to choose from a bewildering array of software and hardware combinations, many of which just don’t work as well as they should. Certainly, the mobile phone may be to podcasting what cars are to radio–when it comes installed, standard, on every phone you buy, folks will start to “get it”. Better yet, when all of our radios are equipped with wifi access and RSS readers, few may even realize that they are listening to time-shifted content instead of live radio. That will not happen overnight, this year or even next. But it will happen.
Consumer-controlled content is clearly the future for both audio and video, and podcasting, by whatever name you choose to call it, is the precursor to that vision of the future. But realizing that vision takes vision–and persistence. If you think podcasting isn’t “broken,” think on these graphs again. Millions of Americans learned about podcasting this year, and the vast majority responded…”meh.” You can grouse about the numbers, you can grumble about mainstream America’s apparent inability to grasp how great podcasting is, and you can blog about “the end of podcasting.” Somewhere, though, somebody will see this data for what it is–a challenge to work harder, to claim the greater prize. Some of you reading this will do the work to make podcasting different, and better, than it is today–and those people have the opportunity to reap great rewards.
In my presentation, I gave “three things to think about” at the end, and I’ll touch on them again briefly here in the context of working harder.
Concentrate on Podcasting’s Benefits, Not “Features”
Aside from being a marketing truism, this bit is especially useful to a technology that enables a behavior that more and more people want to engage in–timeshifting content–but obscures it in a sea of confusing jargon and internal debates over what constitutes a true “podcast.”
Partner with Mass Media Outlets to Share Strengths
Podcasting’s biggest early successes are for existing commercial properties like Rush Limbaugh and Coast to Coast AM, along with NPR’s ever-growing library of original content. Rush’s audience is starting to embrace podcasting because Rush embraces podcasting–and podcasters need to think about what they have to offer broadcast radio. If you can put together podcasts that excite and engage listeners and drive web traffic, they’ll listen–and provide you with valuable assets you don’t have: great production and strong local sales functions. Note to broadcasters: you will, won’t you?
Start thinking about what makes Podcasting different from radio and play to the platform’s unique strengths
No sooner did I say that then I heard the speaker after me disagree that no, it is just radio. Maybe, but metadata changes everything. Perhaps one day radio broadcasts will be imbued with the same rich metadata that podcasts currently are, but until then, if all you are doing is providing audio downloads of types of content more easily obtained on the radio, most people will take the easy option.
And on that topic, one popular debate amongst podcasters is the appropriate length of a podcast. I don’t really have a dog in that fight, but I will say that in a format that enables you to tag pretty much everything, why worry about length at all? Let’s work to develop 30 minute podcasts that give me a table of contents and let me listen to only the three minutes I care about, and you’ll have a better chance of getting your podcast onto my player. Instead of worrying about how long to make uninterrupted chunks of audio, podcasters should work on creating the Netvibes or Pageflakes of audio–simple search and aggregation of ONLY the content I want. I don’t read every blog post from the blogs I read in my newsreader everyday, but I wouldn’t read any of them if I couldn’t quickly scan them and pick out the bits I want. It isn’t about length–look at the numbers of people who actually power-watched the whole Season 1 DVD box set of “Lost” in the days leading up to the premiere of the second season. People will devote enormous amounts of time to great content–if they know it won’t waste that time. Metadata=work=success.
The ultimate use of podcasting, to me, is to remove the urge to be a “maximizer” instead of a “satisficer” by reassuring me that whatever time I devote to consuming audio content will be time well spent. The greatest podcast in the world would be one that downloads to my player each morning and becomes my audio homepage–imagine getting a podcast everyday that starts off like this: “Take an umbrella, The Northern Line is delayed, The escalators at King’s Cross are broken again. Also, the Mets won on the strength of Pedro Martinez’s return to action. Coming up after I read your email is the latest audio blog post from John Edwards, followed by your personal stock ticker.”
Podcasting now teeters at the edge of the chasm on the consumer adoption curve, with mainstream adoption across the other side. The numbers make that clear. Yet, all is possible with hard work.
Download the full presentation here
Download last year’s podcasting study