How do podcasts propagate?

If you listen* to podcasts, think about how you came to listen to them. I suspect that the most popular answers, based on my own experience and discussions with others, are in roughly this order:

  1. I knew someone working on the podcast
  2. Someone I knew recommended the podcast because they listen to it.
  3. I heard a promo played on a podcast I already listen to.
  4. The podcast is attached to some other media product (TV series, movie, book series, video game, music, etc.) that I already consume.
  5. I did a web search for specific keywords.
  6. The podcast was recommended by iTunes.
  7. I looked in a podcast directory at the most popular podcasts (possibly within a specific category).
  8. I searched through a podcast directory.

Any others? (I suspect there are; please leave your additions in the comments.)

Now, look at the list again. The order is admittedly somewhat slanted to make a point, but I think it still accurately reflects the sentiment that I’ve heard from the people I’ve talked to, with a bit of reflection on my part.

Let’s simplify the list a bit, to make my point more clear:

  1. Social networking
  2. Commercial enterprises, advertising and prominent search results
  3. Directories

Are podcast directories dead?

It is not without good reason that the terms “new media” and “social networking” are often interchanged or even merged into “social media” . That is how they propagate the most successfully. Now that we have fairly robust social networks and incredible penetration of social networking tools (Twitter/Facebook), it should be no surprise that there is a media that takes advantage of it.

Oh, there have always been “word of mouth” spreading of products as varied as comic books to truck parts, but never has it been as strong as today.

But notice where directories lie on that list?

Podcast directories are a derivative product of the podcasting phenomena: they wouldn’t exist without podcasting. However, they are not a direct by-product of it, and aren’t directly supported by the production of podcasts.

I’ve been wondering and worrying over the state of podcast directories for a while now. I’m sad to say, they are in really bad shape. The two formerly go-to directories, Podcast Alley and Podcast Pickle, are mere ghosts of their previous ambition, unsustained and buried in weeds. iTunes is an automated behemoth, a minimal (if stylish) representation of a directory, but is a walled garden (and continues to not dissuade the erroneous association between podcasts and the iPod). Canada Podcasts listings associated with The Canadian Podcast Buffet are kept current and culled every year, but the information is sparse and the target subject limited.

(I’d like to mention Podiobooks.com in passing as a very successful directory because it has a self-sustaining model and is frequently updated. However, it has timeless content and a very narrow focus, so I’m not sure if it qualifies as a directory. Perhaps it is really a “store”, in a semi-non-traditional sense, as it is a directory of products it has (indirectly) produced.)

Podcast directories just aren’t cutting it..

But in retrospect, is there any surprise? It takes extra effort to organize, maintain, validate and discover podcast information, and if the effort is centralized (and not delivered by the podcasters themselves), then it is significant extra work that needs to be balanced somehow.

Advertising was the obvious balancing method that was tried. For numerous and often unfathomable reasons, podcasting and advertising has not managed to reach a stable relationship yet, either relying on a dwindling number of ad products — which, as an avid podcast listener, sounds oversaturating — or on a direct patronage model, which works best when there is a by-product to sell, whether direct (as in a novel) or indirect (merchendise like t-shirts, mugs, etc).

He Said You May Also Like XYZ.. and Other Mysteries

In contrast, the social networking aspect of podcast spreading has remained solid, in part because it is capitalizing on the combination of cognitive surplus, ease of communication on established social connections, and in part because of its inherent decentralized nature.

But what does this mean to a podcaster? How does a podcaster reach their audience?

The centralized directories, with all their flaws, at least gave a target to aim at, somewhere a podcaster could update. Podcasts attached to bigger media properties get a bit of a break here, as at least the second discovery method — where listeners are self-motivated to find the program — are natural and likely in the modern Web world.

But social networking revitalizes (to some degree) an ancient saying: “it’s who you know”. Seeding your podcast in the collective consciousness means bending the ears of influential people, even if indirectly through distant peers; to wit: “it’s not really who you know, but who the people you know, know”.

Fortunately, it’s not as hard as it seems, due to the very community-oriented and micrcosmic nature of podcasting. Sure, you may not be able to catch the attention of the biggest names in podcasting, but you are likely to find that the next tier down is more accessible — and more numerous.

In some cases, all it takes is the involvement of other members of the community. This is not only a good way to involve the entire network of people who follow those members, but also usually produces a better product, and establishes connections to the community that often turn into friendships, mentorships and future collaborations.

Promos Are Hyperlinks

Another aspect of this involvement is in the cross-promotion of podcasts with promos. This is the “retweet” of the podcasting world, really: it works because it capitalizes on the shared interests between the podcaster, the other podcast, and the audience. I’ve seen some decline in this practice recently, mostly in terms of podcasts not having new promos, and I think I attribute that more to the fact that the podcasters are busy and don’t really appreciate how powerful a podcast promo is.

(I should point out that I, too, fall into that category. However, I was also on the verge of podfade due to time commitments. Both of these are being remedied due to returning interest.)

Promos are to podcasts what links are to Web pages. They are the potential crossing-over point of audiences, the glue that binds the social network around podcasts together.

Unconventional Conventions

Some fantastic work is being done in the podcasting community. These thoughts all spring to mind after attending what may be one of the most prominent podcasting-related conferences in North America, perhaps even the world: a science-fiction convention on the Eastern side of the United States called Balticon. Having just returned from my third trip to this fun convention, I reflect on the nature of this relatively tight-night group of podcasters, who range the entire spectrum of podcasting, including some of the most successful podcast authors and producers.

As it was put to me several times, the best description was “come to Balticon, because here you will have the family reunion of the family that you never knew you had”.

I recognize that my experience is somewhat limited, but from hearing discussions and talks from others, there aren’t many other conferences with such a strong focus on podcasting (and particularly podcast fiction) — or at least not many that are as much fun. The next most prominent example is Dragon*Con in Atlanta, Georgia (which I have attended twice). Of equal prominence is Canada’s own PAB (Podcasters Across Borders) conference in Ottawa (which I have not yet attended, but is currently underway). Smaller, regional “un-conferences” exist in the form of PodCamps (I’ve attended one held in Halifax in 2009).

The New Media Expo was once a promising podcasting-related conference, but seems to have not grown successfully in the wake of its absorption into BlogWorld.

Do you know of other examples? Include them in the comments, please.

I think one of the reasons that PodCamps and smaller attachments to science-fiction conventions work better than industry-focused events is simply because they are less serious, more relaxed and intended to have fun as much as to conduct business. In the next week, I’ll be attending NCRC in Halifax, Nova Scotia, which is a conference specifically meant to gather representatives from campus/community radio stations from across Canada. I’m interested to contrast that experience with the podcasting tracks of Balticon and Dragon*Con. In particular, I’m curious to see if the social and community aspects that I’ve seen so successfully employed in podcasting are already present to be exploited in campus/community radio — and if not, to see if they can be encouraged.

To some degree, the notion that physically getting together for a convention or conference is antiquated when faced with the rising cost of travel, the concerns over wasted energy, and the simply fantastic alternative communications methods offered by the Internet today. But just as an audio podcast is often a much more intimate, personal and moving experience than is simply reading a blog, these short physical co-habitations inject tremendous momentum into the online collaborations, and re-inforce the bonds that will allow future media structures to be elevated.

As an aside: I’m looking forward to returning to the practice of regular Understanding Podcasting updates, both as a blog and as a podcast. If you have any comments, questions or ideas that I should consider, by all means leave a comment, send an email or call the feedback line. If you would like to discuss the matter over Skype, especially for an episode of the UP! podcast, let me know and we’ll set it up.

Questions

  • Is the podcast directory dead, as a concept? Is there a way to reinvigorate it, or give it a self-sustaining model?
  • What can be added to podcasts and podcast feeds to make automatic harvesting into directories more useful/accurate?
  • Where do you find out about new podcasts? Do you find collective ratings (such as iTunes or Podcast Alley) to be useful? What other podcast directories do you consider?
  • Not every podcasts comes out regularly — at what point should it be removed from a directory, or at least marked as “inactive”?
  • What other venues besides Balticon, Dragon*Con, PAB and various PodCamps do you see as good crossing-over points between podcasters and the audience? I know there are various video-podcast/video-blogger awards ceremonies and gatherings, but I’ve never heard of them as more than viewing festivals. Feel free to show me I’m wrong.
  • Social media is distributed, by its nature: true or false? Why do you say that?
  • The injection of commercially-backed “professional podcasts” into the podcasting world has had an impact, both on the widespread acceptance of the notion of a podcast in the mainstream audience, and to challenge the quality level of existing podcasts. But, similar to the bevy of media tie-in novels that crowd out smaller titles in bookstores, are the “big boys” crowding out the “little guys”?

(* I come from primarily the audio podcasting world, and while I could use the terms “audience” or “consumers” or even “customers” more generically to refer to the people on the other end of the podcasting pipe, I tend to consider “listeners” as the most intimately expressive term for the close community around a podcast.)

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