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Serving the Underserved through Podcasts

I started listening to podcasts in late 2004 (my favorite is For Immediate Release) and launched On the Record…Online in April 2005 to help promote a greater understanding of how new media is changing the way organizations communicate, and the way people consume media and information.

Now, in addition to producing and consulting on new media initiatives for clients, I also do a workshop on the last Thursday of the month to give business people the information they need to make an informed decision about why and how to integrate podcasting into their outreach initiatives. I only take 5 people because we cover a lot of ground and I want everyone to be able to get all their questions answered.

And one of the things I’m learning through the process of helping others figure out how they might introduce podcasting into their marketing mix is the notion that defining audiences by either business to consumer, or business to business is fundamentally flawed. Here’s why:

There’s no clean divide between business and consumer audiences. All business people are consumers too, and enthusiasts attract business people like bees to honey, so what you get is an audience defined more by interest than occupation. Michael Geohagen’s Grape Radio is a podcast for wine enthusiasts, but it also attracts wine business listeners as well. And since it’s still so much easier to flip on the tube or radio when you want mainstream entertainment that appeals to a broad audience, I’m beginning to think that podcasting is much more suited to nichcasting, or more specifically, reaching a premium audience of underserved listeners, than going head to head with cable, TV, satellite or terrestrial radio.

This is only true for original podcasts. When existing programming is repurposed and distributed as a podcast, it still reaches a mass audience through mainstream media channels, so the fact that it only draws a niche audience online is inconsequential. But if your ambition is to reach a broad audience of listeners on par with radio and TV with an original program that is not available anywhere else, podcasting may not be the best media channel.

You still need to be very motivated to subscribe to podcasts. If you listen on the go, you have to plug in your portable MP3 player and download programs regularly, which sucks up bandwidth and processing power. And if you use itunes as your podcatcher, you have go through an inordinate number of screens to subscribe to RSS feeds, which itunes has a habit of turning off if you haven’t actually watched or listened lately to a podcast your downloading. Feeds stop working, you get error messages, and the experience is far inferior to operating a television remote.

And there’s still way more TVs and radios out there then portable media players. So why would anyone in their right mind try and compete directly with the MSM through podcasting, which is what b-to-c podcasting is, since the networks are focused on luring the same mass audiences to sell their attention in droves to advertisers who really only guess at who’s listening. Until a reliabel argument can be made for the vlaue of opt-in versus blind audience CPMs, the MSM has more inventory to sell to advertisers, and podcasters relying on the ad supported model still have a long way to go.

For these reasons, I think the podcasts that make it will be the ones who fulfill the needs of the unfulfilled. I’m not sure if there’s a podcast for model train enthusiasts but if there is, and it’s any good, knowing who fanatical those hobbiests are, I’ll bet they have a very loyal audience. Not an audience the MSM or advertisers would be interested in. But defintiely an audience anyone marketing product to that community would be follish to ignore.

If I’m right, podcasting will ultimately become nichecasting, and successful podcast marketers will design programs that give their most enthusiastic, influential customers something they want that they can’t get anywhere else. And it will give them that in the context of a compelling, sustainable and entertaining podcast program.

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