An Attempt To Demystify Podcasting (A Work In Progress)

Ok, I’m going to blaspheme here. For those with “delicate sensibilities,” cover your ears (or monitors, or whatever).

Here goes…podcasting is just a technology.

There, I said it.

The myth-hype-buzz around it has been dizzying. (And more buzz buzz buzz, and those are just from today.) Yes, I’m just as hooked as the next person. And I’m almost through my back-queue of DSCs and Covervilles and Hobson and Holtzs after being off the grid last week. But, like blogging, or wifi, or databases, or the inclined plane, it’s what the end-user does with it that matters.

A while back, there was a sketch put together of the different types of business blogs.

(from Fredrik, with further commentary here)

The “internal vs. external” distinction is going to be important in podcasting (especially business podcasting). What’s missing from the picture above is a podcast-relevant nod to the “consumer vs. business” implications of how the technology can be used.

Most of the podcasting uses that have gotten all the buzz so far have been the consumer-oriented ones. Here’s where we “kill radio,” etc. Why do people listen to podcasts? For the same reason they listen to radio today:

  • Humor
  • Entertainment
  • Information
  • Community

The great thing about the consumer-facing aspect of podcasting is that, due to its very nature, it’s outside the reach of these jokers. And, since there is a huge overlap between blogging and podcasting, the mores that have grown up around blogging…transparency, disclosure, timeliness, ease-of-creation (and a sometimes-refreshing lack of “polish”), etc…have spilled over into podcasting.

Sidebar: Your thoughts…where is podcasting on the following chart right now?

Transparency. Disclosure. Timeliness. Ease-of-creation. Those are all wonderful things. But let’s take podcasting back to first principles. What is podcasting, really? Podcasting is a simple way to (a) distribute and (b) time-shift ones and zeroes …those things that some folks call “content.” (To drive this point home, I know of at least one organization that is using podcasting as a software distribution mechanism. Who should be worried? Companies like Marimba.)

So, in addition to all the consumer-facing genres of podcasts listed here, perhaps we need to take a step back. Maybe something like this:

  • Podcasts
    • Consumer
      • Entertainment
      • Humor
      • Information
      • Community
      • etc.
    • Business
      • Internal
        • Executive Communications
        • Competitive Intelligence
        • Product Rollouts/Training
        • etc.
      • External
        • Branding/Awareness
        • Presentations
        • Product Update News (to existing customers)
        • etc.

(if anyone wants to play with this outline above, here is the OPML file)

Using the outline and context above, it becomes a bit more tangible as to the places where using podcasts may be appropriate.

Unfortunately, if past history is any judge, podcasting is going to follow the hype curve shown above. Like blogs, we’ll likely see many millions of abandoned podcasts in the upcoming couple of years. We’ll see a handful of “super podcasts” with huge followings. We’ll see an even greater number of niche, long tail podcasts with a handful of subscribers each. But those numbers are just for the consumer-facing ones. What will be hidden (just like blogs) will be the many millions of internal, business-oriented podcasts locked behind the firewall.

There is a lot of talk about the various business models for podcasts. Like blogs, the short-to-mid run will see the pans-and-pickaxe providers being the primary ones making money. And, also like blogs, I have a feeling that people will be far more likely to make money “because of” their podcasts, rather than “with” them.

The Customer Remix Culture

“Think back to a book I did in the late 80’s on UUCP – I did it originally as an 80-page pamphlet and I did 10 editions over the next five years, about every 6 months there was a new edition and they were almost entirely driven by user-submitted content. People would say ‘Oh you didn’t cover this-and-this device, and here’s how it works’ and they’d give me 3-4 paragraphs which I’d just drop right into the book. And I think we have a lot more of that ‘book as output of connected conversations’ now, where people are engaged in dialogue…”Tim O’Reilly

Is it just me, or are we getting to the point where a motivated customer has the ability to dive right in and put his or her own mark on nearly any aspect of nearly any product? Is that what “participating in the conversation” really means? Examples abound from nearly every traditional corporate “department.” (And let’s be clear…this is not just limited to digital goods.)

For someone in marketing, the view may be that customers are beginning to control “the message.” Examples abound.

But it’s not just “the message” where this occurs. Customization, from cars to code, is becoming part of the norm. And smart projects, like SpreadFirefox, take advantage of this trend. In addition to the core application, there are now hundreds of extensions (ranging from RSS aggregators to weather forecasts), all user-created and user-submitted. Anything can be tinkered with.

What’s amazing to me is the number of areas where customers are doing things on their own time, that enable organizations to fill in the gaps of the whole product. Again, examples abound.

Technorati’s tags needed better explanation? A customer who calls herself “Improbulus” comes up with some contributed documentation.

Think that SocialText needs a better demo of its wiki environment? Customer Raymond Kristiansen has created a fifteen minute customer-generated demo.

Want to create a customized training curriculum? Folks are doing that, too.

Support lacking? We’ve entered a place where customers help each other.

The old model is thus (although the paragraph below is focused on digital media, the thought can be generalized to pretty much anything):

“One image of the copyright consumer is as a passive consumer of copyrighted works as entertainment commodities. Call this the “couch potato” view. Under this view, the copyright consumer is really no different from the consumer of any other good. The consumer is primarily interested in getting access to a wide variety of copyrighted works at reasonable cost. The consumer then consumes these works in a largely passive manner. That is, the consumer reads the book, watches the movie, listens to the CD, and does little more. Consuming books or movies is thus little different from consuming potato chips, bottled water, athletic shoes, or any other consumer product.” – Joseph P. Liu

But that view is slipping away, rapidly, thankfully.

The more open a product (or for that matter, an organization) is, the more customer remixes can occur. And this, as Martha says, is a “good thing.”

Bonus link: Open-source marketing

The Customer And Identity Management

Way back when, I got to hear Doc Searls speak passionately about Identity Commons. Now, it looks like the folks in Boston are also taking a stab at this. The Berkman Center has paired up with a couple of technology providers to create SocialPhysics, “a new open source project” that aims to “acquire corporate and foundation sponsorship to undertak[e] a series of ‘experiments’ to explore models in digital self governance and alternative intellectual property regimes.”

Big plus: Love the fact that the customer/individual is at the center of this:

“As part of the SocialPhysics initiative we are developing both a software framework, and on top of it, an initial base application. The framework embodies a set of principles that govern natural, real-world relationships. It is based on the idea that a person should have full control over information about themselves and their relationships with others. People participate in multiple groups and systems, each with its own social protocol. Since what people are willing to share and say about themselves depends enormously on the context, there is a need for persons to be able to manage multiple versions of their identity. The framework makes it easy to create and join many different kinds of networks (e.g. groups, teams, and communities), each with its own rules for what is shared, what is private, and what is measured.”

Things to watch:

  • This project was initiated by a stealth-mode startup that aims to “create the software platform and conduct the issues research upon which [the company] plans to base its products and services.” It’ll be interesting to see how they pull this off.
  • Although “YOU” are in the center of the picture above, a deeper dive into the site gives a feeling that the project seems to be very technology-driven (lots of talk of “frameworks” and such). Hope this project doesn’t get too friggin’ “elegant,” if ya know what I mean…

That Annoying Scorch Of Re-entry

Oh, man. Helluva week. After the new powder beginning of the week, the skies cleared and midweek was ridiculous…postcard-blue skies and springtime temps from first run to last. Tweaked a knee in a futile attempt to keep up with she who skis too fast on Silverado (what the hell was I thinking?), but other than that, no major injuries. The offspring all had fun. Many Cuba Libres were consumed. Aaaaah.

Now for the draining of the email / RSS / podcast queues…

A Brand Is A Place, Not A Thing

Hugh writes:

“A brand is a place, not a thing. (i.e. A place where people gather and do wonderful things.)”

Agreed. Strongly.

Let’s roll with this, especially in the context of the relationship hub discussion. First off, let’s get this out in the open: it’s the customer’s choice whether he or she wants to visit any of these “places,” and it’s the customer’s choice what happens once he or she gets there.

Now, that being said, it seems to me that there are three ways for this “place” to spring into existence.

  • The vendor/brand can provide a venue that the customer may visit. Vendor-driven users groups are a great example. Online communities are another. A corporate blog is yet another. Example: RUG. (disclosure: we’ve done some work with these folks in the past)
  • A social customer may create a venue like this or this or this. Smart companies will show up at the customer’s door and jump right in to the conversation. As noted a number of times previously, David S. does this really well (check the comments here when Jason C. teed off on Technorati).

  • A neutral venue may exist, like Epinions, where both the customers and the vendors can gather.

In no case is the “brand” in charge of the conversation at any of these venues.

Homework: Which of these three types of venues exist for your company/brand? And who from your company (anyone? anyone? Bueller?) is bellying up to the bar at each of them?

Relationship Hubs In The Long Tail


Chris Anderson
: “Everyone’s taste departs from the mainstream somewhere, and the more we explore alternatives, the more we’re drawn to them. Unfortunately, in recent decades such alternatives have been pushed to the fringes by pumped-up marketing vehicles built to order by industries that desperately need them.”

myself: “It’s about relationships. Being a customer in the long tail is not as much about acquiring the things that are unique to you. It’s about connections.”

Susan Mernit: “…web-like organizations don’t fit corporate structure, so we’ll see those networks grow outside and around the new tools as they’re fitted into the mainstream–and see additional tools (maybe FOAF?) radiate out from their hub.”

Steve Gillmor: “Attention is about what we do with our time, and attention will win. Friends and family are about who we do it with, and we will all win.”

Ross Mayfield: “I almost see a new system of checks and balances between personalization (corporate interest, information-centric), customization (personal interest, information-centric) and socialization (social interest, relationship-centric) as memes lobby for attention.”

Edward Vielmetti: “…if you go far enough away from the centers of media and economic production, it’s hard to find lots of choices in the stores and in the movie theaters.”

“Imagine a crystal clear bitterly cold night in Alaska, inside a cabin with candles on the windowsill and these two guys playing for you and a bunch of friends next to the woodstove. Oh my god….”

Talkeetna, Alaska has a population of 772 souls, and is a three hour drive from Anchorage (assuming the road is open and the moose aren’t rutting). In the winter, it can get down to 30 degrees below zero there. And that’s without the windchill.

There’s a tiny little cabin in Talkeetna. At 12’x12′, it’s probably smaller than your bedroom. (It’s certainly smaller than your garage.) In the winter, it’s heated with a single wood stove.

I would argue it is the heart of the Long Tail.

(now playing, Amy Rigby)

How can any place, let alone an unfinished cabin in the middle of the Alaskan tundra, be the “heart” of the Long Tail? Well, this particular cabin is ground zero for a little radio station called Whole Wheat Radio, a self-described “labor of love” according to its creators Jim and Esther. But, although it’s served up 2.9 million songs to over 180,000 web-based listeners, it’s not a typical “radio station” playing to a passive audience. From the WWR website:

“By definition. an automated radio broadcast is pretty boring. That’s where the listeners come in. The absolute best way to listen to Whole Wheat Radio is to keep the web site handy in your browser. We call this the WWR Listener Console. Click here to see how it looks.

Using the WWR Listener Console, listeners can…

* Get detailed information about the music being played (including photos and website links)
* Make music requests
* Communicate with each other, using a live chat window
* Type a message to be read on the air (it’s read by a synthesized voice)
* See who else is listening, and where they are from
* View an automated display of photos and pictures (and you even request a different set of images).”

It’s this community aspect, this relationship infrastructure, that makes WWR unique. There are thousands upon thousands of internet, satellite, and terrestrial radio stations. What is it about the little cabin that has not only drawn 180,000 listeners to the website, but has also convinced all these people (scroll down for the full effect) to travel to the middle of friggin’ nowhere to play guitars, sing songs and eat potato salad?

(now playing: Peter Mayer)

Whole Wheat Radio, both online and in the wilderness, is a relationship hub. It’s a nucleation site where socialization can occur, for people who have similar “music taste” vectors. Similarly, this place, and this place, and all these places are also relationship hubs in the Long Tail.

Relationship hubs are passion amplifiers. Prior to the having the ability to connect with others who also have an interest in a particular obscure topic (read “niche in the Long Tail”), we all needed to indulge our various idiosyncrasies solo. As a result, sometimes those aspects of our personalities atrophied and withered away for lack of feedback and support. No longer is this the case. The Long Tail is an opportunity for individuals to embrace our true interests and connect with others who share them.

(now playing: Big Head Todd and the Monsters)

Who’s on right now? “16 Listeners In: Seward, Alaska – Victoria, British Columbia Canada – San Rafael, California – Half Moon Bay, California – Escondido, California – Indianapolis, Indiana – Derby, Kansas – Wichita, Kansas – Burtonsville, Maryland – Tucumcari, New Mexico – Old York, New York US – Fayetteville, North Carolina – Oklahoma City, Oklahoma…“


Tim Bray and Julie Leung: “the Long Tail is actually a tangled mess of microcommunities and subcultures and tribes and hobbies and fanatics”