Podcasting: Podcasts open new doors for customer relationships

On the heels of the blog explosion, some companies are trying their hands at podcasting, or messaging via web audio files, to engage tech-savvy consumers.

On the heels of the blog explosion, some companies are trying their hands at podcasting, or messaging via web audio files, to engage tech-savvy consumers.

If you feel as though you've heard the podcasting story before, it's probably because you have. That story was - and is - parallel to the blog phenomenon: It's either revolutionizing the media world or clogging up our already precious time, depending on whom you ask.

Generally speaking, the art of podcasting is simple. One makes an audio file available to the public via a real simple syndication [RSS] feed, and people can download it and listen to it whenever they want. But it is more than a simple web-based audio recording because it allows you to alert listeners when you've posted a new one; the file shows up in a feed reader just like blogs do. Podcasts are part of the trend toward "time-shifting" media, like digital video recorders and video on demand, where people can consume media when they want in the format they want.

If the definitive moment for blogs came when the Democratic and Republican conventions gave media credentials to bloggers in 2004, the tipping point for podcasts came on June 28 of this year, when Apple's newest version of iTunes began supporting the medium.

Just two days after the launch, Apple reported that 1 million people had subscribed to podcasts through its service. Stories about smaller podcasts receiving 10-fold subscriptions dotted the media landscape, and many bloggers and podcasters lauded it as the day podcasting became legitimate.

"It's a very significant milestone in the history of podcasting because it opens up the podcast market to a broader audience," says Christopher Carfi, cofounder of Cerado and creator of the Social Customer Manifesto podcast. "It's attracting an audience of individuals who may or may not be technologists [and] that would not have listened to podcasts prior to [iTunes'] straightforward interface."

Corporate opportunities

In the days since, a conversation has heated up as to whether there is a business opportunity in podcasting. Like bloggers have done, can podcasters attract not only audiences, but sponsors and advertisers?

Jason Calacanis, chairman of Weblogs Inc., a network of blogs and podcasts, says that bloggers who also podcast should approach podcasts as an additional way to build rapport with their readers, rather than as an additional revenue stream. While Volvo sponsors his company's Audioblog and Engadget podcasts, he thinks few bloggers will be able to attract sponsorship for theirs. He does think, however, that podcasts are a great opportunity for corporate America.

"I think it's a great channel for companies to go direct to the consumer. I love JetBlue, and if they had a travel show that incorporated where it goes, what you can find at its destinations, and travel tips, I would certainly download it," Calacanis wrote via e-mail. "If you're a Flash designer and could listen to a podcast each week on Flash design produced by Macromedia, that would be of high value, as well. Just like blogs can engage customers in a conversation, [podcasts] can, as well."

The approximately 3,000 podcasts Apple currently lists in its directory include entries from such corporations as Walt Disney World Resorts, Virgin Atlantic Airways, Oracle, and GM. But while scores of companies have expressed interest in starting a blog, there is still a dearth of companies podcasting.

However, if the impact felt by podcasters who've been featured on iTunes' directory is any sign, there could soon be an explosion of companies doing it.

Carfi called his podcast's inclusion in iTunes "very significant." Before iTunes' launch, he says, he had been serving a couple gigabytes a month in traffic, but this month projects to serve as much as 20 gigabytes.

Duncan Wardle, VP of press and publicity for Disneyland Resort, said Disney's foray into podcasting began in May, when it announced events for its 50th anniversary.

Wardle says that podcasting is just an obvious step toward reaching more internet-savvy consumers.

"We've seen our online coverage grow," Wardle says. "Our audience, like everyone else's, trends toward the internet."

When Disney did its first podcast, it tapped emerging legend Michael Geoghegan, of the Reel Reviews podcast, to host it. The file received 38,000 downloads that month.

While Wardle says no person or entity has a monopoly over how blogs or podcasts can be used, Disney expects a bulk of its podcasts to be entertaining content for consumers.

"Personally, the way we will go is not delivering our corporate messages, but [tapping] other people to do the speaking on our behalf," Wardle says. "[Geoghegan] wasn't Disney talking about Disney. It was a father who experienced the event with his two children."

The company is also looking into other ways to use podcasting to enrich the consumer experience. One example he gives is providing audio material for those who might be in a long line for the Haunted Mansion ride.

"What if they pre-downloaded MP3s with a variety of different stories, like the history of Disneyland or ghost tales?" Wardle asks. "It's a great way to engage with our guests."

While Disney does not have a disclosed definitive timeline or content source for future podcasts, Wardle says the gate is wide open.

"Say a single mother from San Francisco is thinking of coming to Disneyland. When she's planning her trip, what if she listened to a podcast of a single mother talking about what's good and [bad] at Disneyland?" Wardle asks. "Right now, consumers are in the marketing mix, as they should be. There's a huge change of focus where you will not be marketing at consumers; you will be marketing with them."

Shel Holtz, PR consultant and co-creator of the For Immediate Release podcast, applauded Disney's approach.

"When Disney did a podcast [to announce] its 50th anniversary, they did it under the Disney moniker, but they hired a podcaster to do it for them," Holtz says. "I thought that was a smart move. [Disney said], 'Let's not go the corporate route.'"

He also thinks highly of GM's Fast Lane podcast.

"It's car enthusiasts listening to those employees who design the cars," Holtz said. He even praised the low-tech aspect of it, with flubs and the low-fi recording.

Holtz also sees podcasting as a choice medium for reaching narrow audiences, such as suppliers and vendors. As long as they're not disclosing material information and are obeying Regulation Federal Disclosure, Holtz sees the potential for investor analyst podcasts, as well.

Relation to blogs

Despite the similarities between podcasts and blogs, stark differences remain. One of the most obvious is the lack of immediate feedback available in blogging.

"If that's the goal, then you should have a blog," Holtz says. "People need to understand that podcasts are a linear medium."

But, nonetheless, people like Carfi and Holtz are doing things to change that one-way communication.

"On For Immediate Release, Neville [Hobson, Holtz's podcasting partner,] made a series of statements that I wanted to respond to. So I excerpted that portion of For Immediate Release and respond to his content [on my podcast]," Carfi said, adding that Holtz and Hobson, in return, played a snippet of his thoughts and responded on their show.

Carfi adds that some podcasters have set up free voice mail for listeners to call so they can respond to those comments in the next podcast.

Above all, podcast enthusiasts point back to the user being in control of the media today, and wise companies will work to adapt their messages to multiple channels.

"Different individuals have different affinities; some are visual people, and some are audile," Carfi says. "For an individual who doesn't have the interest in reading [news] on the screen all day, podcasts are very appropriate."

Podcasts, Carfi says, should not be a substitute for blogs, but rather "a great complement."

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