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Podcasting Is Social Media
I didn’t say it’s LIKE social media, I mean it literally IS social media.
Welcome to Dispatch #22 of The Audio Insurgent.
Hello and welcome. You know what this dispatch WON’T contain? A hot take on Spotify and Joe Rogan. Enough already. I think I am the only podcast newsletter, column, or web site that has avoided this topic.
You are welcome.
I have one big and two small things to create a small thing sandwich…so let’s get on with it.
[TODAY’S FIRST SMALL THING: “THAT DOESN’T WORK”]
In my consulting work, I throw out a lot of ideas. And at least a third of them are met with a version of “Yeah, we tried that before, but that doesn’t work.”
That doesn’t work.
I f-ing hate that phrase.
Sometimes when I hear it, I’ll reply with, “You mean, you tried X and it wasn’t magical.”
“Magical” meaning that it worked without much additional thought beyond doing any version of it.
Almost universally, there is another story going on: The idea wasn’t fully implemented. The execution was wrong. Some signals were missed. No testing and learning and retesting occurred. Looking at the wrong data. Expectations that were way off.
There is a world of difference between “we did it wrong” and “it doesn’t work.”
Like Edison’s 2,774 prototype light bulbs, it often takes trial and error before “magic” things happen.
I hear “that doesn’t work” tossed around a lot in audio, especially podcasting where the high expectations and corresponding low threshold for patience often dull out any interest in introspection or learning.
Just as universally, when I hear what’s behind “that doesn’t work,” I see other pathways that should have worked better–other routes, options, and approaches.
Next time you hear “that doesn’t work,” do yourself a favor and back that up a bit. Ask: “Is there another approach to this we can try?” “What can we learn from how others have tackled this?” Or “How would my competition handle this?”
Sure, there is always a time when the benefits gained are outweighed by the effort required to unlock them. But almost as certainly, there is more that can be done beyond that first “that doesn’t work.”
[TODAY’S BIG THING: PODCASTING IS SOCIAL MEDIA]
21 years ago next month, I published my first book, called Parental Advisory, about the history of music censorship in the United States. I don’t talk about it much because it feels very, very dated to me–plus, I wrote it when I was still in my 20s and…well, it reads like it was written by someone in their 20s: full of passion and vigor, but who hadn’t found his own voice yet.
One of the concepts I wrote about a lot in that book was the concept of free expression and how expression is bi-lateral–a two-way street: You have the right to express yourself, but also the right to receive the expression of others. And there are often times when you use the expressions of others to express your own ideas, thoughts, and feelings. If you’ve ever worn a band t-shirt or shared a poem, you’ve done this.
Whenever there is heat around social media, it is often framed as a free expression issue: people should have the right to express their thoughts and ideas, even if you disagree or they are demonstrably wrong.
In the mad rush into podcasting, most legacy media companies and organizations entering the space flail their way to mediocre results. They miss their own expectations because they treat podcasting like a media distribution platform, just like TV, radio, or whatever they’ve done previously. When podcasting is working at it’s best, it is social media.
Please note that I didn’t say that podcasting is like social media. I mean it literally is a social media platform. Also note that I did not say that podcasting uses social media as a promotional tool. It does, but it is better to think of “social media as a promotional tool” as being the equivalent of Instagramming a screenshot of a tweet–it is using one social media platform to share something created on another social media platform.
“Social media” is defined as: “forms of electronic communication through which users create online communities to share information, ideas, personal messages, and other content.” Most people consider social media to be blogs, social networks (like Facebook or Instagram), business networks (like LinkedIn), social gaming, and even virtual worlds. But no one seems to think of podcasting. And if virtual worlds count, why doesn’t podcasting?
If you accept estimates that there are around 450 million podcast listeners worldwide, that would make podcasting almost big enough to make the list of Top 10 social networks, right behind China’s Twitter-like Sina Weibo.
It’s the “online communities” part of that definition that most legacy media companies coming into podcasting completely ignore. They put all their thought into creating audio episodes, but don’t realize that’s only a part of the equation to make a successful podcast. They think of podcasting as a content distribution system, not an interactive system. And this is why they fail.
That’s where the free expression example comes into play. Expression isn’t one-directional, it is bi-directional. The same is true of successful podcasts. Are there a handful of examples of podcasts that basically threw their episodes out into the world and didn’t create that social feedback loop, sure. But it is a handful. If you look at the other 99.9% of successful podcasts, regardless of how you define success, they all are the hub of a community that surrounds them. I just looked back through the archives of this newsletter to find an example where I talk about the importance of creators recognizing that feedback loop–and realized that it's a consistent theme of this newsletter–mentioned in more than half a dozen dispatches–including the very first edition.
I can summarize by saying this: if you think your job as a podcaster is to create an audio file and share it over the Internet, you are missing half the picture. I don’t care who you are or what your show is, in a universe of 3 million podcasts, you can count on one hand the number of podcasts that have succeeded without a connection to the audience that listen to it.
So…so what? Who cares if podcasting is social media or not? Well, anyone who is in podcasting should care–because accepting it as such solves a lot of quagmires and frustrations.
When social media first emerged, every mouth-breathing media exec said a version of, “Yeah, this is great, but how do I monetize it?” It took awhile for this crowd to understand they were asking the wrong questions. It isn’t a question of how social media is monetized, but how social media helps build awareness and usage of what you make, which is both directly monetizable and builds a direct relationship with your audience. Instead of worrying how to literally make money off a Twitter feed, you should be worrying about how to use the Twitter feed to engage people…and then generate revenue.
This applies to podcasting too, in a way. Often the reason to make the podcast isn’t just to directly monetize it, but to use it as a way to accumulate audience (which you can then engage around other products and services to monetize the relationship). Sure, there is about a billion dollars in ad business in podcasting, but there is a ceiling there–there is only so much revenue you are going to drive through advertising. And, again, as we’ve said here several times: depending solely on ad revenue is a race to the bottom. Almost every growth path for podcasting involves using the podcast to activate other revenue streams like subscriptions, merch, ticket revenue, and other things that the podcast facilitates.
Great podcasts are a central point in a relational ecosystem with an audience. Sometimes the beginning of conversations, sometimes the end, but more often a midpoint in a much larger dialogue between the creator and the audience.
Don’t look at your podcast as a lecture; see it as a conversation.
People who just produce a handful of episodes and toss them out into the world are often disappointed by the lack of reaction they get–and this is the primary reason why.
[TODAY’S OTHER SMALL THING: THIS IS DATING FOLLOW-UP]
I’m kinda surprised that I haven’t put out a dispatch since the launch of This is Dating. The main reason is that we’ve been super busy trying to run our company AND deal with the response to the show. And in case you are wondering, it has exceeded our expectations. At launch, we had earned (as in not paid for) feature placement in the all of the top 14 podcast apps, received an astounding amount of positive buzz (including Nick Quah’s review and mention in a list of anticipated podcasts, and, oh, a feature in the New York Times featuring an amazing photo of my colleagues taken in our office), and just a lot of luck.
Isabel Lara, now the Chief Communications Officer at NPR, gifted me a framed saying after the launch of Invisibilia that said: “Luck is opportunity meeting preparation.” That’s true. Luck, like many things, isn’t magic. It takes work. In this case, luck took over 18 months of planning.
Jesse and I have gotten a lot of compliments on the show, but one always puzzles us: “You guys did a great job with the PR on this launch.” We’ve heard this very specific piece of praise dozens of times. While I’m always touched by any praise, this always feels weird to us because it is remarking on one very small component of a very large plan. Sure, we were very fortunate to strike at the right time, and there definitely was a tremendous amount of thought put into our “PR”--who (specific to the individual) to approach, when to approach them, what to give them when we told them about the show, and when/how to follow up, etc. But I’m here to tell you, after launching a lot of things and watching them flatline–that no amount of smart planning can get buzz and attention for something that isn’t deserving.
There are a lot of lessons we’ve learned from the launch of This is Dating, and we’ll go over a few of them here in the future.
The most surprising of all of them: how well offering subscriptions through Apple Podcasts seems to have worked…and the surprising amount of depressing blowback we got for offering those subscriptions.
More on that in a future dispatch.
Okay, on that note, that’s it for today.
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Make great things. I’ll be listening.