For almost as long as I can remember, podcasting has been on a snipe hunt. Or a holy grail quest. Or a fountain of youth pursuit. Pick your metaphor, but it seems like someone is always trying to either build or predict the creation of the YouTube of podcasting.
Also, for as long as I remember, I've been dubious of that claim.
However, that doesn't mean we can't do better. So today, I'm offering an alternate Eldorado quest for you to consider—the Zillow of podcasting.
Hear me out on this, as I know that sounds weird. I promise I'll connect these dots.
Podcasting As Real Estate?
Before Zillow, buying a house was fueled by three discovery processes: chance, proximity, or with the help of a professional guide. That meant you either saw a For Sale sign in the yard of a house as you were driving by, you were going through the House For Sale listings in the classified section of your local paper, or you engaged the services of a real estate agent who had access to all properties for sale.
What you couldn't do was directly access the MLS—multiple listing service—that your chosen real estate agent had access to. That was the agent's secret sauce. It allowed them to show you not just properties they had for sale. Still, properties every agent everywhere had properties for sale because the MLS aggregated disparate listings from all the different agencies in the country to let them do their job.
But not let us do their job for ourselves. Zillow changed that.
Today, anyone with an internet connection can use Zillow to view almost every property for sale, almost anywhere in the entire country. I wouldn't be surprised if Zillow is planning on going international. Why not?
What does this have to do with podcasting? I can hear you asking. Most podcasts are publicly listed in every app and directory, as most apps and directories pull from very few primary datasets. Anyone searching for podcasts on just about any app will have millions of choices.
That's true. But Zillow does more than just show the address of a property for sale. Much to the chagrin of many real estate agents, Zillow's service unpacks and exposes data—lots of data—for every property when displayed on Zillow. And not just data that would be helpful for an agent, but data that's helpful for would-be home buyers looking to make better, more informed decisions on which house they actually want to buy.
That is what I think that is Zillow-like service could bring to podcasting.
Right now, podcasting directories and apps offer little more than the address of a podcast to would-be listeners. A listener needs to know more than just artwork, title, and description to make an informed decision.
What about Podchaser, you're probably saying. Isn't that what they're doing? Sort of, yes. I'm a big fan of Podchaser and fully support them on their quest to be the IMDB of podcasting. I don't have any insight into their future plans, and this may be on their roadmap.
But in case it isn't, let me outline some of the benefits I see from having a Zillow of podcasting.
Podcasts Available Near You!
By "near you," I don't mean physical proximity. But I do mean a show that is, with a high degree of certainty, something you might actually like to listen to, based on criteria you either establish or is inferred from your listening habits. Because let's face it, the recommendation engines in podcasting today are rudimentary. And that's being charitable. Such poor recommendation algorithms are partly why word of mouth continues to reign supreme in podcast discovery.
Imagine a new discovery system that ingested and analyzed podcasts. Not just the podcasts you listen to, but all episodes of all podcasts. A system that crunches through and analyzes all available data points. Length of the episodes, the tone and the style of an episode, the subject, how long the episode has been live, your listening behavior, someone else's listening behavior...
By atomizing the podcast and its episodes rather than just looking at the overall show, push-based discovery gets a whole lot better than we have today.
Open House, But For Podcasts!
Podcasters often don't see this reality, but getting someone to follow or subscribe to your podcast is a really big ask. Will the show they found really consist of the type—or quality—of content they really want to hear? That's hard to tell just by looking at a listing in the app or directory. Will the episodes after the trailer be jammed full of commercials? Will new content be added regularly enough to keep them happy? Or will there be too much content for them to handle?
There are loads of little quirks that make a podcast right for some people but not right for others. Just like a house. It's more than just square footage and price, right? Likewise, a well-built service could let would-be listeners experience what it's like to "live in" a podcast for a while. Some type of lower level of commitment than subscribing to or following a show could be attractive to listeners who don't want to risk the hassle of unsubscribing to or unfollowing a show that wasn't a perfect fit.
And those are just two quick examples of the benefits a service like this might offer podcast listeners.
However, there are a slew of challenges in the way of making something like this happen, which probably explains why we haven't seen it yet.
Public But Inadequate Data
The good news is that most datasets that this service would need to ingest and analyze are public, and many with adequate APIs. But the bad news is that those data sets are woefully inadequate to perform the type of analysis needed here. That's because, until recently, we've never really concerned ourselves with anything more than just whatever the RSS feed of a podcast contained.
But we need more. We need data that doesn't exist, so this isn't something that will be solved in a weekend hackathon session. Anyone seriously trying to develop a system like this has to make investments in time and resources to create new complementary data sets.
Who's going to pay for that? And how excited will the platforms be to participate?
A service like this wades into very treacherous waters. Zillow pissed off a lot of the extant real estate industry (and then continues to piss off, from what I understand) who feel their roles have been diminished. So too, might happen with big networks, powerful podcasters, or dominant listening/discovery platforms. Undoubtedly, many will see this new service as a threat, which requires mitigation or mollification to keep them happy.
Well, as happy as is possible.
Not Just a Better Mousetrap
But the biggest hurdle to overcome is the one that makes this a winning service: listener adoption.
Zillow wasn't just a useful alternative to the other methods of finding a new house. It was so much better than the status quo that potential buyers flocked to it en masse. Recalcitrant agents didn't really have a choice in the matter. And still don't today. They had to play by Zillow's new rules, like it or not.
Today's podcast listeners have plenty of ways of finding podcasts. No, the discovery process for podcasting isn't broken, no matter how many times you hear a podcaster say it is. It's far from perfect, but it works and has become habitualized by many listeners. Those same listeners are numb from empty promises of a better search and discovery experience.
This new service cannot be incrementally better than what listeners go through today. It has to be orders of magnitude better. Like Zillow was.
So yes, another crazy thought experiment for me. It's what I do. But I strongly feel it's important that we think not just of podcasting today but the way that podcasting might be in the future. With millions of podcasts available today and no signs of stopping, I think it's likely that someone will crack this nut and bring to use the equivalent of a Zillow of podcasting.
And listeners will flock to it.
I shall be back tomorrow with yet another Podcast Pontifications.