FEATURE 

Adding value with podcasts

As a key component of new internet capabilities, podcasting offers huge potential to publishers of all sizes. Alex Manchester explains why you should be looking to start.

By Alex Manchester

Podcasts, together with blogs, wikis and even virtual worlds, are one of many new technologies now smashing in to the business world. It took off among individuals some three years ago because of the minimal barriers to getting involved and the great buzz that can be generated in return. Now, businesses and corporations are trying podcasting and in many cases achieving some great results.

Originally defined as an audio file that was delivered to you automatically via really simple syndication (RSS), the term "podcasting" has now come to embody many different facets of audio on the web. A quick way of explaining them is to call them mini radio shows that you can listen to when and where you choose – be that at your computer during lunch, on the commute to work or walking your dog. You also don’t need an iPod to listen to a podcast. As simple MP3 files they play on most digital audio players and desktop media players (although with 88 million iPods sold to date this is rapidly becoming a moot point).

Opportunities

For publishers, podcasting presents myriad opportunities both to repackage existing content, but more interestingly, to produce new material and add another dimension to your existing products, giving more value to your customers. With podcasting, you can do things that just aren’t viable or suitable in a print or online format.

Getting started

To get off the mark at Melcrum – and six months in, I consider us to still be at the very early inclines of a learning curve that goes off the chart – we created our first podcast last summer. We emailed some of our customers with the link and, within hours, received feedback from a customer at a leading financial services firm: "Love the podcast and would love to hear more like this."

This was quickly followed by another email from a customer at a telecoms firm: "Love the podcast, this is a great idea." Following this initial success, we got to work on more podcasts until we were averaging one a week, discussing new issues of our individual journals, dissecting key chapters of our reports, interviewing speakers across the world who were presenting at our conferences and so on.

Now, as the new year takes hold, plans are afoot to take our podcasts to the next stage. We’re ditching our individual topic format and restructuring the podcasts to be more of a "show". Every week, we’ll do one recording on a mix of our core topics, along with – hopefully – a dose or two of humour.

Enthusiasm for this project is prevalent throughout all levels of the company, which brings me neatly to a vital point. Once you get over your initial fears, podcasting is great fun and it’s exciting, whether serious, light-hearted or a mixture of both.

It’s safe to say that our overwhelmingly positive experience with podcasting so far isn’t unique. From small to large organizations – be they publishers or not - there are many examples of podcast initiatives being piloted and going on to become raging successes. There aren’t too many examples of failure, although you can go wrong with them as Starbucks found out to their cost (Google "Starbucks Podcast").

Publisher podcasts

Some great examples of big publishers and titles already using podcasts include BusinessWeek, New Scientist, Haymarket Publishing (UK) and Lonely Planet – the publishers of the best selling travel books.

At the Podcastcon UK conference in November 2006, Tom Hall of Lonely Planet discussed the company’s "travelcast", saying that podcasting had been a refreshing change which required them to put their training wheels back and turn out content rapidly, rather than waiting the months to publish that’s usually associated with their books. Tom also went on to say that podcasts on the Lonely Planet website have also proved a great way to anchor people to the site, with each visitor spending an average of 17 minutes looking and listening.

One of the best examples of podcasting on a large scale comes from the Guardian. One of the UK’s most popular dailies – with arguably the best newspaper website going – Guardian Unlimited started podcasting well ahead of the pack and it was actually a Guardian hack who coined the term "podcast" in 2004.

Neil McIntosh, head of editorial development for the site, had this to say about podcasts: "We think it makes sense to have the Guardian wherever our users want it, be it in print, online, iPod, PDA, mobile phone, whatever."

"We were the first British paper to podcast and we ramped up our investment in it this year (2006) because there was clear demand from users and advertisers. Our podcasting activity has been very profitable so far, and most of the shows are sponsored at the moment. We do around 210,000 downloads a week, not including the occasional Ricky Gervais podcasts which are huge."

"We're investing further, and hope to launch some new, much more innovative audio in the first quarter of 2007 - I'm very keen we explore what different, very non-radio things we can do with the medium, given our resources and the lack of broadcast-style regulation."

210,000 downloads a week? That’s remarkable, and even if you scale that down to your own readership, the potential is clear. Featuring advertising or sponsorship is also not the rule but a matter of choice. Lot’s of independent podcasts that have a sizeable audience do attract sponsors. As a publisher, it likely depends on whether your products already feature external advertising as to whether you will in your podcasts.

Money worries

Incidentally, the issue of cost shouldn’t cause too many headaches when you’re getting started – we spent a little under £100 on building our "studio". Using free (PC and Mac compatible) audio recording software called Audacity, two microphones and a pre-amplifier bought from an electronics store, and a laptop we already had, we were up and running very quickly.

Content-wise, we knew what it was we wanted to talk about and who would be presenting (myself and another colleague – neither of us having any more than basic experience with "broadcasting" in any shape or form) and having run through the conversation a couple of times, we recorded our podcast and got to work editing it. In the end it ran to about eight minutes.

Total time from start to finish, including discussing what it was we were aiming to do, researching and buying the equipment and recording, was little more than an afternoon’s work. As we’ve progressed and gained more experience with the content and knowledge of the software, turnaround time has been reduced to around an hour for each podcast. With our new format, this is expected to climb somewhat because the shows will be around 20-30 minutes rather than 5-10 minutes, but there’s no doubt in the long run it will be time well invested.

Recommendations

So, what’s the best way to get started? We found the best inspiration was simply listening to some of what’s out there already. Apple’s iTunes podcast directory has a staggering range of podcasts as does Podcast.net, and the Guardian Unlimited, FT.com and BBC websites are great examples of big media outlets that are podcasting.

The next step in the development phase has to be strategy. What exactly do you want to talk about and will anyone want to listen? Nobody wants to be another Starbucks. At Melcrum, we considered podcasts because we had audio from webinars that we’d run, that we wanted to make more of. Also, one of our customers expressed a desire to hear more from our reports that wouldn’t require a concentrated, sustained period of reading. 200 people listened in the first week our first podcast was available.

Another great bit of advice we’ve taken on board recently – and the point that has really fuelled our change of gear – is that of looking to build an audience. You already have a subscriber base, but they won’t repeatedly listen to your shiny new podcast just because of that. As a technology falling under the "social media" umbrella, it makes sense to involve as many people on all sorts of different levels. Look to open up communication channels with your "listeners." Ask for their questions, contributions and ideas for content. Read out emails you might receive or play messages that people have sent in – consider anything interactive that you can to make your podcast come alive.

One important consideration is that of people. Who will you find to work on podcasting? Aim to uncover people in your organization that have some relevant experience and willingness to get involved – both from technical and presenting perspectives. Experience is useful as it will inevitably speed up the learning process, but motivation and willingness to try is essential. It’s no good asking someone to present if they’re not with the idea.

Having said that, don’t overly fret about production values and technology. A podcast that sounds like you’re in a fishbowl or one that’s so fuzzy you could be broadcasting from the moon are no good, but, equally, they don’t necessarily need to sound like the Today programme. This is about trying something new, and learning and developing what you’re doing at the same time. Start small, see how you get on and scale it up or down accordingly. The chances are you’ll find – like many have already – that it’s actually something you want to dedicate a lot more time towards.