Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Five Questions about Podcasting

Five Questions about Podcasting

Quick primer on one of marketing’s hottest new channels.

By Stacy Cowley

Sometimes it takes a new technology to light a fire beneath an old one. There’s nothing revolutionary about audio programming or even audio on-demand—dotcom survivor has been selling downloadable content such as audio books and radio shows for nearly a decade. But thanks to the raging popularity and large storage capacity of Apple’s iPods, tech experimentalists began considering anew the possibilities of downloadable audio. It’s a classic tipping-point scenario: Tie new, easy-to-use distribution tools together with ever-cheaper storage capacity and the millions-sold iPod market. The result is podcasting, a phenomenon that went mainstream almost the moment it was created.

How does podcasting work?

"Podcasting" is a portmanteau of iPod and broadcasting. The broadcasting part comes from syndication tools that allow listeners to subscribe to receive automatic downloads of new podcasts in series that interest them. Apple’s iTunes software has built-in podcatching features, but you can also use other, standalone programs, such as the free, open-source Juice Receiver. Podcatching programs transfer new episodes to your PC. Some software will then also automatically deliver the files to your digital music player.

Podcast producers use RSS (Really Simple Syndication), a dialect of XML (extensible markup language), to create subscription feeds. Listeners point their podcatchers toward those feeds and receive their automatic updates.

Do you need an iPod to listen to podcasts?

No. Individual podcast shows are usually recorded in common audio formats like MP3. While some podcatchers’ auto-synch features only work with iPods, you can listen to podcasts on any digital music player or on your PC with standard programs like RealPlayer or Windows Media Player.

What’s the marketing angle?

Your company can shape the message it delivers, and a podcasting series distributed regularly to subscribers is a great way to build loyalty and create a bond with customers and leads. The trick, of course, is to offer content listeners will covet. For some companies, the podcasting opportunities are obvious. Music distribution services provider posts a monthly promotional podcast of samples from its archive of live shows, while travel website offers podcasts of travel tips. But companies that aren’t in the consumer services market can still make use of promotional podcasts—they just have to be more creative in evaluating what they have to offer.

IBM Corp. joined the podcasting crowd last August when it launched an occasional series called "IBM and the Future of...." IBM draws on its research scientists and business consultants to expound on how technology will influence the evolution of fields such as the auto industry, urban planning, shopping and the wired home. "The reasoning was that we could use content from our experts out in the field to market ourselves in different ways," says Ben Edwards, who manages IBM’s investor communications and oversees the podcasting series. IBM didn’t have any formal ROI metrics for its podcasting experiment, but with few hard costs attached and 52,000 downloads registered in the series’ first three months, the company considers it a success.

OK, so how do you make podcasts?

Audacity is a popular, free program for recording and digitizing and editing sound, but any sound software will work. Once you have a recorded sound file, upload it; if you’re creating a series, set up an RSS feed pointing to the site where new episodes will appear. That’s all there is to it. Unless you’re aiming for top-quality production quality, podcasting is a fairly inexpensive undertaking.

What if you don’t want to go the trouble of doing your own production?

Services shops are springing up to handle podcasting chores. SoniByte has a production staff and network of voice artists on tap to quickly convert scripts to ready-for-podcasting sound files. Liberated Syndication runs a hosting and syndication service that handles podcast storage and RSS feed creation, with an unlimited bandwidth allowance. For marketers interested in podcasting, the obstacles to start up have never been smaller.


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