What a podcast is (and why yours may not actually be one)

Are you a podcaster?  Did you know that you may be calling yourself one and may not actually be “podcasting?”

Like almost any form of independent Internet content publishing, the term “podcasting” has become a catch-all term for many for just about any series of audio or video content.  But there’s more to podcasting than recording a piece of audio or editing a regular set of videos.  Let’s explore a little more about podcasting and find out whether what you’re doing really is a podcast or not.

What is a podcast?

Podcasting is a form of Internet content publishing that’s still somewhat in its infancy.  It started several years ago during the boom of iTunes and the iPod.  Despite the rapid advancement of consumer electronics technology, it’s still mostly a niche method of consuming web media.

In its most basic form, a podcast is a series of digital multimedia files — audio, video or a combination of the two — delivered from the publisher to subscribers using a syndication feed (known commonly as “RSS”).  The publisher makes the syndication feed available to subscribers either directly in the form of a URL link, or by listing it in a podcast directory like the Podcast section in the iTunes Music Store.

The listener will subscribe to the feed with a podcast client.  This could be iTunes, a similar app on their mobile device, or even in other applications that support RSS feeds, such as Google Reader.  The podcast client will regularly read the podcast’s feed, looking for new episodes of the series.  The podcast client (sometimes known in shorthand as a “podcatcher”) will then allow a user to selectively download the episodes they want to listen to, or automatically download all new episodes, depending on the personal settings selected.  The podcast episodes are then stored for listening at the user’s leisure.  Some podcatchers allow you to either download episode files for offline consumption, or to stream them instantly from the server.

Is my podcast really a podcast?

You may already be publishing audio and video on your blog or website as part of your social media presence, and call it a podcast.  But consider the key thing that makes a series of multimedia files a true “podcast” — the feed that allows users to know when new episodes are published and download your files directly to their mobile player of choice.

If you are merely uploading multimedia files to your site and linking them on a page or a blog post, it’s not yet a “true” podcast.  You may even have a fancy Flash player, but you’re missing the subscribing capability that enables your audience to consume your content on their terms, the way they want it.

Why does it matter?

Well first of all, if you’re just uploading audio or video, you’re halfway home to making a podcast.  The capability of creating a podcast feed from media files is not all that hard to do.  If you have a WordPress site, there’s a great plugin called PodPress that does most of the mechanics of a podcast for you.  WordPress with the PodPress plugin is one of the best, easiest ways to get a new podcast up and off the ground.  Plugins also exist for other platforms like Drupal, and other sites like Tumblr can be used to make a podcast with a little coaxing.  There’s even podcast hosting services like Liberated Syndication that offer turnkey podcast hosting solutions for a reasonable price.

So why does it matter to go through the trouble of making your A/V files a true podcast?

  1. Portability.Audio podcasts are essentially homebrewed radio shows, and many users like to listen to podcasts like they would any standard radio show.  They can plug their iPod into their car radio and listen on the commute to work every day.  They can put their iPad on a dock in the kitchen and learn to cook from a video podcast.  Simply publishing files to your blog doesn’t give them the freedom to consume your product when, where and how they want to in an easy manner.  Bear in mind, when you publish a podcast through your site, consumers can still get your shows through your website.  Many feature fancy Flash players built-in that make that way of getting your content easy too.  Making it a podcast just rounds out the ease of availability.  Offering your content via a podcast also allows your audience to pause and resume your content as needed.  If someone is merely listening to your content on your website, gets distracted and has to come back later, they lose their place!
  2. Discovery.Go browse the iTunes Store and its podcast section sometime.  There’s hundreds of thousands of podcasts there, and a well-designed and thoughtful podcast with excellent content will be discoverable in a whole new arena outside your own website.  Alternately, people who discover your podcast will often discover your website and social media presence, so it can create a whole secondary source of website traffic for you.  Add some specific content you reference in your podcast on your site and you’ll increase traffic to your site as well.
  3. Loyalty.Making a true “podcast” naturally lends a sense of loyalty to your brand.  Create good, unique content with a personal flair, and people will subscribe to your show.  Then every time you produce something new, your audience keeps up with you automatically because it’s delivered directly to their player of choice!
  4. Broader reach.If you put a media file on your website only, you’re tethering your audience to a computer screen or a device that doesn’t make the viewing the most comfortable experience.  When you publish a podcast feed, you open up the ability for your content to be consumed on a broader array of devices, like Roku boxes, Internet-connected televisions, Internet radios and TiVo’s.  Make your content easily available in an environment where your audience can make themselves at home.
  5. Trackability.Many podcast plugins will give you a certain amount of statistic data, showing you the number of times a file has been listened to or downloaded.  This gives you a more granular idea of how well your content is doing other than the simple pageviews your site is receiving.  When you run your podcast feed through an intermediate service like Google’s Feedburner, you can get even more data on your audience, like subscribers, downloads and even what software they’re using to get your podcast.One side note about Feedburner — I always recommend using Feedburner with a podcast.  Not only do you get the ability to track stats and impose finer control over the way your podcast feed looks to the end user and iTunes Directory, but there’s value in Feedburner for creating a singular podcast feed address.  When you cultivate a podcast, you’re building an audience.  What happens if you would want to change blog platforms or web hosts?  Changing the URL of your podcast feed can be tricky.  Running your feed through Feedburner (and making the Feedburner feed URL your podcast’s main URL) gives you the flexibility to make physical changes to your hosting or web platform without changing your podcast’s feed URL.  You’d simply put your new feed address into Feedburner.  No need to re-submit to iTunes.  No need to publicize a new address to your audience.  This is an instance where a middle-man is a good thing!
  6. Branding.If you choose to host your podcast through a service like Liberated Syndication, some of their hosting packages offer you the opportunity to offer your podcast as a customized app on Apple iOS and Android devices.  You can then tout your own podcast app in the iTunes Store and Android Marketplace!  There’s also the potential here for an additional stream of revenue, as well as the unique audience interaction that comes with having direct audience/publisher contact through the app.  You can also use it as an avenue to build loyalty by offering exclusive bonus content to app users.  It’s really an exciting thing to consider if you’re committed to doing a podcast and sustaining it.

Ultimately, doing a podcast is a time commitment and takes work, but it can be a really fulfilling way of connecting to your audience, establishing yourself as an authority in your field, and personalizing your brand.  If you’re going to take the time, consider doing it all the way and making your media a “true” podcast.

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