5 Things I Think I Think About Podcasting

As many of you may know, I’ve been immersed in the podcasting production process for the NextView Ventures show, Traction (iTunes, SoundCloud). And while I love this project perhaps more than any in my career now or ever, podcasting tools and strategies are still very raw, and many businesses haven’t adopted the medium just yet. I find myself staring into the abyss a lot, wondering what the hell comes next.

So, based on this recent obsession, I wanted to share five things I think about podcasting for content marketers -- or at least, I think I think these things. It's the abyss for a reason. Who the heck really knows?

Let's begin...

1. I think podcasting is here to stay.

Hopefully you can follow this coffee-fueled logic:

  • We want intimate relationships with customers through our marketing today.
  • Intimate relationships are hard to come by through channels that feel one-to-many.
  • But technology hasn't enabled true one-to-one marketing just yet.

Everyone in the marketing world today loves to applaud this idea of being human. If you recall, the early social media craze started out as a bunch of random people shouting random things like, “Hug your customers!” and, “People want to ENGAGE with the brand!” (And, by the way, some of these people are still somehow considered experts today. Sadly, I’ve lost many a good fork due to their thinking, having repeatedly buried them into my temples after encountering their "thought leadership." Let's move on before I turn to the spoons next...)

Because we all love this idea of intimate, authentic marketing today, we search for ways to make marketing feel one-to-one. We like stories. We like contextually-driven marketing. We like nurture tracks. We like dynamically changing webpages depending on the audience. But the holy grail eludes us -- these things feel acceptable at best, but magical and intimate? Not so much. 

Podcasting comes darn close to those feelings. It might not be dynamically customized to one listener, but it sure as hell feels like an intimate relationship. Best of all, it allows that feeling to actually scale. You can reach listeners wherever they are, no matter what they’re doing -- washing dishes, commuting, running, working, etc. -- and do so in a way that feels personal and private. As a listener, I feel like I have a group of friends in my pocket to access on my way to work every day. And when I drive to see my family in Connecticut and share my favorite show with my wife, we sit engrossed in the audio, feeling connected to each other around a given story and to the hosts who guide us through it.

Show me another medium that triggers that!

Then there's the advertiser side of the equation. What once was the domain of a few tech companies reaching fellow techies (Squarespace, MailChimp/Kimp, etc.) is quickly becoming a popular advertising channel. Brands like Ford and Universal Studios are now sponsoring shows. And the huge rush to create native ads perfectly funnel at least some experimental dollars towards podcasts, as each host typically reads them in an authentic way.

For all these reasons and more (some of which I'll outline below), podcasting is here to stay.

Or at least ... I think it is.

2. I think you can predict podcasting's evolution with reasonable accuracy by looking at the rise of blogging before it.

This is worth its own essay, but suffice to say that everything from audience and business adoption to new technology feels vaguely familiar. You can almost extrapolate the future of podcasting by simply outlining the general trends in blogging from its earlier days.

For instance, both blogging and podcasting began mainly as an outlet for random thoughts from amateurs. Remember LiveJournal? Remember when Blogger was a HUGE deal? Who didn’t own a .blogspot URL at some point? (Oh, people who had friends and played outside? Oh, okay, well, aren’t you just so popular and beautiful then...)

Over time, a few influential individuals and/or organizations became early adopters of this "web log" thing. In podcasting, NPR is of course the gold standard and early mover, but you can also point to individuals like Marc Maron, a comedian, whose show WTF has caused his audience and career to explode. He even recently interviewed Barack Obama in-studio!

You can line up a few more evolutionary steps that are either already happening in podcasting or will certainly happen soon:

  • It will tip into the mainstream audience, causing many more individuals and brands to produce or sponsor shows. The ubiquity of smartphones and in-car players, coupled with a few outlier shows like Serial, will help the medium cross the chasm into the majority, though we aren't there just yet.
  • Actual marketing strategies will emerge as well. At first, they'll unfortunately focus on volume of output. (I’ve read more than a dozen disappointing posts promising good strategies for building a podcast audience, all of which inevitably instruct you to produce a lot of shows really quickly. Please pass me that fork...) Over time, these strategies will start getting more sophisticated and tie to actual business results, just as with blogging.
  • Technologies will also emerge across all parts of the process: production (recording), post-production (adding effects like narration, music, and other sounds), editing (cropping or tweaking the audio), hosting (where the files live), distribution (where they get found), and measurement. I currently can't click a button to tweet a great quote in a podcast. Ans for metrics? It feels like I'm wandering through a room with the lights off. I've been in this "content" room enough times that I'm pretty confident I know what I'm doing and where to go, but it's still pretty dark in here.
  • More podcast networks will emerge too, just like blog networks and the few audio networks that have already emerged. These offer the promise of more audience and the muscle of a sales team to create sponsorship opportunities. And, just like in blogging, these will consolidate and/or sunset, leaving only a few remaining. By and large, the hosts will get squeezed when it comes to revenue, wisen up, and jump ship.
  • Many new creative approaches to audio will emerge. Both mediums started as something traditional that gets ported online — blogging is like print and podcasting is like radio, both to varying degrees. But over time, you saw people play with what blogs could be in a way that print couldn't mimic. Similarly, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg for podcasts. (I’ll propose some ideas below.)
  • Along those lines, micro-podcasting will become a thing, just like micro-blogging did for a time. This is now pretty much just tweeting and social updates. But we're in this rare moment in time today where people are willing to spend 20+ minutes with a single show. But when shows are as popular as blogs, or when you want to share something quickly and audio has become the natural medium over writing for many people, what then? Micro-pods. 
  • As nearly everyone adopts podcasting and signal gets lost among increasing noise, search engines will start to index and surface more shows and/or new, searchable directories of shows will emerge.
  • And right when we feel we've all had enough, like there's simply too much noise about it all, a few benevolent entrepreneurs will launch mission-driven businesses to bring quality and integrity back to the medium (like, well, Medium).
  • Finally, if I survive all my self-inflicted fork wounds by working in marketing for too many years, I'll probably launch Sorry for Podcasting. (Seriously, you guys. We have a real shot at making podcasting a beautiful thing. Let's not do the blogging thing and first ruin it before we salvage it, mmkay? Quality, people! It's a thing!)

Whew. Anyways. Due to all this and more, you can predict this medium’s evolution with reasonable accuracy by looking at the rise of blogging before it.

I mean ... I think?

3. I think we’re about to see dozens of new, creative approaches to shows.

As I hinted at above, we're at the tip of the iceberg right now, but it's about to get interesting. The standard podcast today tends to be one or two hosts debating a subject (or, worse, no subject at all — like we care what you had for breakfast, Hosts?). Most other shows are standard interviews. Some, like NPR, Gimlet Media, and [space bar, space bar, space bar, space bar] my show Traction are attempting to add a level of production value to the show and tell a consistent story through an episode or across them.

And in almost all cases, episodes run anywhere from 15 minutes to 90 minutes.

But we can play with the length of the show. Why not shorter? Why not longer, provided technology catches up and allows for more skim-able, skippable episodes? 

We can play with any number of other things aside from length too: music, sound effects, how we incorporate guests and other audio clips, gamifying the show, inserting more segments throughout the show (think SportsCenter or PTI on ESPN), connecting each show to another in a choose-your-own-experience kind of way, and so on.

We can even play with what we push through one podcast feed. Who says that subscribing to Traction means you get the same flavor of show each and every time? Maybe we stick to the regular type of story-driven startup episode every other week as the backbone, but then we add a once-monthly analysis of our recent shows. We could overtly label these as different and speak to the difference in the first few seconds of the show to set expectations. 

Or, why can't we periodically create a mini-series that analyzes a certain trend about startups trying to gain traction, like paid social or content marketing? Five episodes, each very short, each releasing in between the regular programming?

We could also do a brief Q&A -- call it "Traction-Packed" or something more plain like "Ask a VC" -- in which we answer crowdsourced questions about past shows or their general themes. 

All of it would relate to the idea of startups gaining traction, and all of it would funnel to the same audience -- but it starts to behave like a media site or blog does, with rich, varied content.

The possibilities are endless and exciting, but one thing's for sure: We’re about to see dozens of new, creative approaches to shows.

I think.

4. I think you should get in while the gettin’s good because it’s easier to stand out.

Just like blogging early on, podcasting offers a ton of white space to occupy and own outright. It’s always a good idea to own your niche with content, but given the saturation of blogs across almost every topic today, it’s increasingly difficult to identify what that niche might be as a writer — or what angle you might take on your niche to stand out.

But with podcasts, given that they're far fewer across most industries, this opportunity still exists. You can more easily pick a topic you and your audience care about, launch your show, and (if you create a good show and stay consistent with it) you might be able to OWN that topic.

Think of the go-to blogs in your industry and how you admire their traffic, their brand, their readership, and their place at the top. Many of them started awhile ago, before it got noisy in the blogosphere. Podcasting still allows for that possibility. That’s a massive opportunity! You should get in while the gettin's good because it's easier to stand out.

I think.

5. I think gaming this system will be incredibly hard for marketers, so quality work will get its moment in the sun and trump all else right from the beginning.

Let's just be honest: Marketers ruin stuff. 

We too often jump on a new trend or channel without any strategy, blast audiences with crap they don’t want, and find ways to game these systems. Rather than authentically use and master them, we want minimal-effort, shortcut-driven approaches. (Hello, black hat SEO! Hello, clickbait headlines! Hello, click-to-tweet links! Don't be worthy of getting found, clicked, or tweeted in the first place -- just game the system and try really hard to trick people into doing it! Wear them down like an annoying dude picking up a disinterested girl. "Can I have your number? Can I have it? Can I have your number? Can I have it?" Again ... forks, meet my temple.)

As a medium, podcasting and audio is really hard to fake or game. In video, for instance, you can dress up a poor thought with flashy design and effects. In blogging, you can (sometimes, and sadly) fake your way to some traffic by over-optimizing for search and using clickbait.

But on your podcast, you're basically naked. You need to be authentic, and your thoughts or storytelling abilities are laid bare for the audience to judge. It’s the medium we’ve wanted for a long time if we're honestly seeking that human connection with our audiences. And marketers are about to find out really fast if they really did want that in the first place -- this stuff is hard!

Through all of this, I think the cream will rise much more quickly, leaving those who mail in their creative efforts or prefer gaming systems to struggle. I think podcasting will reward those who truly give a damn about great storytelling, helpful teaching, creative audio, and above all, serving their audiences. I think gaming the system will be incredibly hard, so quality work will get its moment in the sun and trump all else right from the beginning.

I hope.

Posted on June 25, 2015 .