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Monday, October 05, 2009

Some Podcasts Fill a Niche, Others Miss the Mark

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a LinkedIn poll about work-related podcast listening habits. I had a few reasons for being curious about this question. First, as I am considering hosting a podcast on jury issues, I wanted to get a sense of my potential audience. Second, while podcasts clearly comprise part of the "social marketing" landscape, they have received much less attention in the press (and on blogs, from what I can tell) than blogs, twitter feeds and social networking sites. Finally, I wondered whether the demographic trends typically associated with technological adoption and Web 2.0 applied similarly to podcast usage, especially given the ubiquitousness of iPods and other digital audio devices.

Using a LinkedIn Poll

A LinkedIn poll has certain advantages and other disadvantages. The main advantage is that one can easily broadcast its existence to one's entire LinkedIn network. In my case, that is about 250 people. In addition, one can post the link to the poll on the discussion boards of any LinkedIn groups to which one belongs. (I did so for about 5 groups). LinkedIn users who just like checking out the ongoing polls can also find and answer any poll they choose. Regular LinkedIn updates about recent activity of connections can serve to remind (or annoy) people that the poll is ongoing. Finally, LinkedIn provides a unique URL for each poll so it is possible to invite people to see/take a poll from Twitter, a blog or a website.

On the downside, a LinkedIn poll is limited to a single question with a list of discreet answers. So, there is no way to ask a series of nested questions or even to collect poll-specific data about respondents. Also, only LinkedIn members can answer a free poll. For a fee, LinkedIn will expand the subject pool outside of the LinkedIn community. Back on the positive side, there is an opportunity for respondents to leave comments.

Work-related Podcast Usage

As you can see from the graph above, I received 23 responses. Not exactly a deluge. As many of you in my network can attest, I tried pretty hard to encourage people to take the poll. It is hard to know whether the majority of folks who chose not to participate are people with zero interest or experience with podcasts, or simply weren't willing to take the few minutes to complete the poll. Hey, time is money. In something like this, the temptation to free-ride on the efforts of others is pretty high. I plan to leave the poll active for a while longer to see whether this blog entry inspires a few more people to take the poll. (<-- Hint, Hint)

So, what do we make of these results? Well, the first thing that stood out for me is that over half of the respondents indicated that they rarely or never listened to work-related podcasts. And this is from the small set of people sufficiently interested in the topic to take the poll. This suggests that the universe of available podcasts is not serving well the needs of the professional community. Most of my professional contacts are connected in some way to the legal profession, so the results are likely most relevant in that arena. Perhaps doctors and painters and chimney sweeps all have great podcasts. But, despite the recent proliferation of law-related podcasts, they don't seem to have developed a loyal following (at least according to my very limited sample).

All is not lost. Almost a third of my respondents indicated that they listen to a podcast related to their jobs weekly. This probably means that they actually subscribe to at least one podcast, perhaps more. Some podcasts produce new episodes weekly, but it is more common for new episodes to come out monthly. So, in order to listen weekly, it is probably necessary to subscribe to a few different ones. One person said that s/he listened to a work-related podcast every day. Boy, would I like to know what business that person is in.

Given the bimodal nature of the distribution, it seems that the podcast market hasn't really evolved to serve most professionals' needs. That said, certain niches must be getting served pretty well. I wonder if, during this early period in the market's evolution, related podcasts operate more as complements than substitutes. That is, a critical mass of podcasts on a topic needs to emerge so that professionals in that field see podcasts as a viable method of keeping up-to-date on industry developments.

Demographic Differences

Given the small sample size, these results are really only suggestive. I wouldn't dream to generalize from what we have here. First, there did not seem to be any real difference with respect to gender. In my sample, the heavy podcast listener was a woman. On the other hand, somewhat more women than men reported never listening to podcasts. Things are a little more interesting with respect to age, especially given the conventional wisdom about generational differences in technology adoption.

Well, as predicted, our podcast addict was a youngster. On the other hand, the rest of our heavy podcast listeners were over 35. The 35 - 55 age group made up more than half of our sample and their listening habits were all over the map. One lesson seems to be that one should not target professional podcasts exclusively to gen-x or gen-y types. Professionals of all ages are savvy enough to make good use of this technology (keeping in mind that everyone who took this poll was already savvy enough to be on LinkedIn).

What next?

I guess I am a little surprised that more respondents didn't indicate that they were podcast fans. This begs the question of what more systematic market research has discovered regarding podcast usage. There is a good longitudinal study of podcast listeners conducted by Bridge Ratings here. They actually revised down their estimates of podcast listening growth (2006 estimates compared to 2005 ones). On the other hand, a nice longitudinal study of social media usage by Inc. 500 companies, conducted by two UMass researchers, shows that the percentage of these companies that produced podcasts increased from 11% in 2007 to 21% in 2008. A nice predictive study of podcast usage is summarized here, with many graphs and tables.

I think that the podcast market is suffering from a matching problem. It is still unclear which type of content is effectively conveyed through podcasting. As video podcasting develops (I predict that most will be video within two years), the answer to this question might change dramatically. Podcasting will probably evaporate in certain fields where the demand just seems too weak. On the other hand, certain fields will have full podcast immersion, with a wide variety of high quality programming to choose from. Got any ideas about which industries will be in which category? Then, submit a comment below and put your predictive talents to the test.

One thing is certain. A lot more market research about podcast listening habits needs to be done. Right now, it seems like everyone is surfing the wave of technology adoption, firing off podcasts because everyone else is doing it. Eventually, good data will have to replace conjecture about where the podcast market is heading.

1 comment:

  1. I've thought more about your podcast idea since participating in the poll, partly since I have a little experience in audio production. I don't often listen to work-related podcasts, but I'm a FREQUENT podcast listener. Only occasionally is there a cast that relates to my work (psycholinguistics), and I wish that would change.

    Something important to me when I listen to podcasts is length of the program. Anything shorter than ten minutes I don't usually bother with, but anything longer than twenty minutes I put off listening to until I have the time. The cast I listen to the most often is ChinesePod, which gives me a written bilingual transcript on my iPod Touch and which lasts about 15 minutes. Good for a bus ride or a warmup on an exercise bike. So it doesn't really take up working time for me, but it allows me to feel like a productive double-tasker.

    Production costs can be extremely low while preserving quality of a podcast (a little DVR works fine), so just about anyone can enter the ring. And, you know, freemium market, etc etc. (Has anyone tried iTunes University? I am curious. There was some news item about students doing better on exams when they listen to lectures in podcast format, but I'm skeptical.) What kind of format are you aiming for? Will it have a format similar to that of your blog, or do you plan to conduct interviews or have discussion panels?

    Speaking of multimedia lecturing, I just saw a cute talk on probability theory with an example from a British criminal case:

    Natalie K.