A new client of mine has 3,700 episodes of their podcast. They do an episode every day, five days a week, and have for about five years. Do the math. It's about 3,700 episodes. This client has contracted with my firm to help migrate to a more modern hosting environment. While the technical implications are interesting enough, it’s giving us a chance to really think through the strategy of presenting those files to potential listeners.
We know there’s merit in having all 3,700 episodes available on the website, so we’ll migrate them all and update all the media file links. But we’re thinking about the in-app listening experience for that extensive of a catalog. That’s more worrisome for a catalog that big.
Today, podcast subscribers only have two options when it comes to consuming available episodes: start from the most recent episode and work backward, or start from the very first episode and work forward.
Neither of those is very attractive for 3,700 episodes.
Even though Apple gifted us with the ability to break up batches of episodes into seasons, listeners’ options are still limited for getting all the episodes within a given season. Yes, that’s fewer episodes to rifle through. But the listener will have to repeat the process multiple times to evaluate the full show. Is that helping? Or just delaying?
In Which Evo Once Again Blames Podcasting’s Woes On Blogging
Podcasting inherited this paradigm of date-based sorting from blogs. The reverse chronological structure of RSS feeds is well-suited for syndicating new items to subscribers. You publish a new episode, your hosting company (or website) updates your show’s RSS feed, and all your subscribers get it. That process relies on date-sorted content to work properly.
We also inherited a distributed architecture… and then fractured it even more. You host your podcast files on your chosen podcast media host. I host my podcast episode files on a totally different podcast media host. And we probably also have a podcast website in the mix that’s hosted on a completely different set of servers.
While that’s great for resilience, it inhibits the development of a solid recommendation engine ala YouTube’s recommendation engine. Neither download nor consumption data of episodes is shared between hosting companies or listening apps, so that’s a big hump to get over.
Podcasters Taking Matter Into Their Own Smart Hands
Some podcast owners are taking the initiative of re-grouping and sorting episodes on their podcast’s website. I think that’s a smart play and know if a few data-minded people looking at web analytics, media hosting company downloads, and consumption data (like from Apple Podcasts and Spotify) to make a rudimentary recommendation engine of their own content.
But none of those efforts matter at all once someone becomes a subscriber. Once they’ve subscribed, they’re off your website and are back to two options: listen backward or listen forward. There’s no connection between the episode they just listened to and another episode in your feed. Except for the one that came immediately before it.
Sure, the listener can “click out” to get to the webpage for the episode where that savvy podcaster has created a list of next episodes to listen to. But now the listener is no longer in their app, and wasn’t that where you wanted them in the first place? How do they easily navigate back to their chosen app once they’ve received a recommendation from your website?
It’s messy, even if you don’t have a thousand episodes. This is the 305th official episode of this podcast. Add in the bonus episodes and that’s closer to 320. Yes, some people do download the entire feed and start from episode 1. Others just work their way backward from wherever they start. But neither is really conducive to enjoyable listening. What they all want, even if they don’t know it, is to be guided through the episodes they want/need to hear about.
There has to be a better way to present this. Temporal alignment can’t be the only way. But it’s the only way I’m aware of today.
It’s easy to leave the burden on the shoulders of the creators. After all, we made each episode. If anyone knows which episode someone should listen to next, it’s us. But again, we don't have a good architecture to manage or present this. While I might be able to go through all 320 episodes and put in better tagging, categorization, and connections, my efforts are quickly out of date.
It’s A Podcast, Not A Magazine Or Newspaper
For some podcasts, sorting by date is perfectly fine. Some episodes are captured moments in time, so the date alone might be enough to see what one podcaster had to say on July 29th, 2007. Maybe that was an important day in history and understanding what was said on that day is worthy of examining, much like you would a magazine or a newspaper. In that case, the date-sorting we have today is perfect.
But I bet if I went over to your house and I looked at the books on your bookshelf, I would not find your books organized by publication date.
Figuring out a better way that works for all podcasters hurts my brain.
Will Smart Earbuds Solve The Problem?
I imagine a future where smart earbuds change the game. Thanks to the growing adoption of smart speakers, we’re becoming more accustomed to using voice assistants during our day. These voice assistants listen to us. Perhaps they can listen to the episodes we’re enjoying, stepping in when one has ended and making a recommendation of what we should listen to next?
While I can barely remember what my episodes were about last week, AI-powered tech should be able to store contextual information on a much larger scale. That’s the direction we think Google is taking with its integration with Google Search. And Google’s voice search continues to improve. So it doesn’t take a crystal ball or corporate espionage to see where that’s headed.
Curmudgeons may disagree and privacy wonks will sound the klaxons, but a future where deciding on what episode to listen to next is truly a hands-off experience guided by a smart device is rather interesting. And a bit obvious.
Speaking of interesting futures, I’m visualizing you, right now, going to BuyMeACoffee.com/EvoTerra and, you know, buying me a coffee.
I’m also envisioning you making a phone call or sending an email to one podcaster you know and telling them about Podcast Pontifications. Word-of-mouth efforts are really what spreads an ultra-niche show like this, so thank you in advance.
I've got all sorts of weird, crazy things on my brain, so that's what I'll be covering all week long. I'll see you tomorrow for another Podcast Pontifications.
Podcast Pontifications is written and narrated by Evo Terra. He’s on a mission to make podcasting better. Allie Press proofed the copy, corrected the transcript, and edited the video. Podcast Pontifications is a production of Simpler Media.