Is Podcast Listening Too Big Of An Ask?
Given what we know about how people use the internet, it’s surprising podcasting works at all. Or perhaps explains why, for many struggling shows, it doesn’t. Today, it’s about trust, timely data, or infotainment.
Yes, this article is about podcasting. But I need to start off with an air fryer metaphor. You see, I really didn’t know anything about cooking with an air fryer. Luckily, the fryer came with a big book of 100 air fryer-specific recipes for all sorts of dishes. That book was my trusted source for recipes.
But I quickly realized that only a small portion of those 100 recipes were something we’d enjoy at ShEvo Studios. It doesn’t matter how easy making or tasty eating Sweet Potato Toast may be: It’s not something either of us wants in our mouths. So I did what anybody else from the 21st century would do and I started searching the internet.
If my first search was for generic “air fryer recipes”, I can promise you my second one was not. I already had a trusted source of information in the cookbook. I wasn’t looking to add to the number of recipes I could choose from. At that moment, I was seeking out something specific to fill my immediate needs. And belly. Like “air fryer kumquat recipes” or something equally as bizarre but would give me exactly what I wanted at that time.
During my search, I stumbled across various YouTube channels hosted by air fryer aficionados who demonstrate how to cook a great multitude of dishes, from the mundane to the downright strange, with an air fryer. Some even went so far as to create a series of videos that would show you how to make an entire Thanksgiving feast using an air fryer, each playing right after the other.
I Assure You This Article Is About Podcasting
The journey I described above is how we humans have trained ourselves to use the internet. This is how we humans discover digital content, decide what digital content we will consume, and filter out the vast majority of content that doesn’t fit our wants and desires.
Potential podcast listeners are humans responding to that same informal training we’ve all put ourselves through. And it could shine a light on one of the weaknesses of podcasting compared to other forms of digital content.
Though you could slice it many ways, humans tend to seek out digital content in one (or more) of three ways:
1. Trust A Trusted Source
People are happy to let others do the sorting for them, so long as those doing the sorting are trustworthy. People subscribe to New York Times, either the paper or some of the podcasts they produce, because they trust the editorial team to produce content that fits their own world view and are happy to leave discovery in trusted and capable hands. Others feel the same way about a well-credentialed journalist with a reputation of uncovering news that hits their dopamine centers. Or they listen to a comedian who makes fun of the things that the listener would like to make fun of if only they were as funny as the pro.
In all of these cases and those like it, the listener relegates their agency to the person, the company, or the organization because they are a trusted source. The audience trusts that every day, week, month, or whatever the frequency, quality content will be delivered. This trust gives the provider a lot of latitude. A trusting audience is often a forgiving audience.
Many podcasts (like mine) clearly are trying to be seen as a trusted source. We generate content not because someone specifically asked for it. Our listeners (and readers) trust us to generate the content they need to hear. Even if they don’t know it. (Goodness, that sounds pretentious, doesn’t it?)
2. Timely Data
Even though we’re subscribed to our trusted sources, we often have immediate needs. While some might assume our trusted sources will eventually get to the topic we’ve been hearing and are curious about, we all have search engines at our fingertips.
And the search engines themselves realize this is why we use search engines. The next time you search for something very specific (which is most searches, by the way), you’ll probably see a knowledge box in the upper right hand corner. That’s the search engine trying to get you the information you need as quickly as possible. Google is even trying this with podcast episodes, adding relevant podcast episodes to the listing of search results.
But living in this space is problematic for podcasts, especially if the nugget of information someone is looking for is buried deep inside a 45-minute episode.
This disconnect isn’t unique to podcasts. Videos have the same problem. When I was trying to solve a very specific problem with my webcam yesterday, Google served up a 14-minute video for me as the best result.
I assure you it was not the best result.
It’s been 15 years since Google acquired YouTube, yet I still have to sit through a 14-minute rambling video because they still don’t know if it actually provides the info I need? You understand why I’m a little bearish on their plans to improve podcast discovery.
And I’m equally bearish on podcasters ability to ever properly capitalize on the delivery of timely data without also being a trusted source. That’s a problem.
Not all searches are for timely data. Some knowledge requires more than a glancing exposure, and a lot of it needs a full-on deep-dive. And most of all, we humans love a good story. Properly presented, informative deep-dives can be quite entertaining. And those of us seeking out infotainment need not necessarily have a lot of pre-established trust with the presenter.
This is where podcasting can (and often does) shine, especially when it’s presented as a series of well-crafted episodes. If we make the story compelling, we can hook people into listening to a dozen episodes. We can’t waste their time, obviously. And we probably shouldn’t make just one 4.5-hour-long episode. But if we are able to make compelling content that informs and entertains, that content will find the audience it deserves.
Where Does Your Podcast Fit?
Developing trust is easy if you already have a big following elsewhere, or are well-respected in another medium, or happen to be a celebrity. But for the rest of us without a big name or a big organization behind us, asking people to listen to or subscribe to our podcast is a very big ask. Especially if our potential listener/subscriber already has a source they already trust to deliver information like we produce.
Producing timely data requires a great deal of effort for podcasters trying to stay in-step with the news cycle. If you say “timely data inside!” and then bury it in a super-long episode, you’re going to disappoint some of your existing listeners and turn away potential listeners. Because if you force someone to slog through your non-sequiturs or meanders before you deliver the goods 45 minutes later, then listening to your podcast is too big of an ask for someone who's looking for something very specific. (This is a hard need to meet in a podcast form. But it's doable. Some podcasts are exploring microformats and other ways to reduce the size of the ask. It’s a work in progress.)
Figuring out a multi-episode, seasonal arc that digs deep, with compelling storytelling at every turn until the story is fully told is really, really hard. But some creators are great at it, taking a dozen or more episodes to inform and entertain. Can you find a worthy story and make it interesting enough to keep someone listening to a dozen episodes? Because if the story isn’t that compelling, or if you cannot pull off great storytelling with every episode, then it's too big of an ask to get people to sit through all of it.
Viewing Your Podcast In The Mirror
Think about the kind of content you produce. Or the content you want to produce. Or the content you think you’re producing. Now think about which of the three scenarios above you’re trying to work toward with your content with one question in mind:
How big is your ask?
Once again, I’m leaving you with more questions. But that’s kind of what I do on Podcast Pontifications. Hopefully, my thinking through things helps you think through them as well.
I would love it if you would send someone in your podcasting circle a link to this episode. It’s often a good idea to get other opinions as you think through where you podcast fits, so send this to them as primer so they can help make your own slice of podcasting better.
And if you're happy that Season Three is back on and that you see me and this show as a trusted source, I'd be very appreciative if you went to BuyMeACoffee.com/EvoTerra and signed up for a small, monthly contribution. It's a little bitty, tiny amount of cash for you, and it makes me feel nice and warm inside knowing you love it enough to support it.
I shall be back tomorrow with yet another Podcast Pontifications.