Monthly Archives: January 2015

Why it’s so difficult to get podcasts to go viral


It was bound to happen. After countless articles about how podcasts are “booming” and going “mainstream,” it was only a matter of time before brands and corporations, always eager to join the party, would roll out their own podcasts as a form of marketing. With the success of Serial, arguably the first standalone podcast to launch “watercooler” conversation, it’s natural for a brand like MailChimp, which received so much free publicity because of its catchy ad at the beginning of Serial episodes, to wonder why it shouldn’t bypass the gatekeepers completely and launch its own podcast focused on email marketing.

While I’m not aware of any plans MailChimp has to record its own podcasts, we’re certainly going to see more and more brands dipping their toes into the water. As Digiday’s Tanya Dua reports, some of the largest advertising and marketing agencies are debuting podcasts; right now they’re a form of marketing for the agencies themselves, but it’s probable that the move is an attempt get better acquainted with the medium so they can soon begin recommending it to clients. A company called Pagatim, based in Oregon, is focused entirely on launching and marketing podcasts for brands. “Our audio programming works to engage your customers’ imagination with a consistent offering of unique and memorable content,” it states on its “about” page.

But before companies like Nike or Doritos decide to debut their own versions of This American Life, they should recognize that gaining an audience for a podcast can be a brutal, uphill climb, primarily because users aren’t primed to share them the same way they share other sorts of content. Go to your Facebook feed and look at the most recent 20 posts shared by your friends. Chances are the content shared comes in the form of images, words, or video. If there is any audio shared to your feed, it’s likely music, not the kind usually found in podcasts.

This is a problem that has plagued public radio, arguably one of the largest producers of podcasts. Eric Athas, a senior digital news specialist at NPR, wrote a recent article for Nieman Lab detailing his team’s experiments in attempting to ameliorate this problem. “Why doesn’t audio go viral?” he asks. “How come people share images, videos and text, but not sound?”

For the past year, he’s sought to answer these questions and identify what aspects of audio could be tweaked to make it more shareable. He identified four types of content that performed particularly well: audio explainers, storytelling, snappy reviews, and “whoa sounds.” Here’s how he explains that last one:

A Whoa Sound should make you react that way — whoa. And many people did when they shared a Whoa Sound on Facebook or Twitter. This category captures the fascinating sound of a place, a person, wildlife, or something else. It creates a unique listening experience that wouldn’t work visually. It’s a cellist playing a duet with her brain (27,100 listens). It’s the eerie silence of climate change (26,000 listens). The strange sound hidden inside a hummingbird’s chirp (75,500 listens)

While these are certainly important insights, there’s another strategy that’s been employed in recent months that has been, I think, tremendously successful at propelling new podcasts into the stratosphere: syndication on an already-established, popular podcast.


Two of the most recent widely-discussed podcasts, Serial and Alex Blumberg’s Startup, were launched in this way. Both had early episodes syndicated on This American Life (Startup also had an episode played on the incredibly popular Planet Money podcast), and both saw their subscription numbers skyrocket as a result. After venture capitalist Chris Sacca decided to invest in Blumberg’s new podcasting company, Blumberg asked Sacca what made him pull the trigger. Sacca’s response:

I do think you have one unfair advantage. That is you got to piggyback on one of the most successful shows in the history of radio. And as a result, right off the bat, you are in the top three podcasts on iTunes. To come right out of the gate like that is unprecedented. And Ira Glass, I hope he’s on your holiday list, I hope you sent him a fruitcake or something. To get involved in a company where right at the seed stage of investing, you already have the distribution of what would be reflective of a really successful media company, that’s how we wrapped our heads around investing in  your company.

Blumberg and Serial may have stumbled into this form of podcast marketing, but NPR has quickly adopted it into its distribution strategy. As Justin Ellis documented for Nieman Lab, the public radio company has embarked on an all-out blitz of promotion for its new Invisibilia podcast. Not only were its first two episodes syndicated on Radio Lab and This American Life, but it’s also been excerpted in other NPR shows, and nearly every NPR podcast I listen to begins by encouraging me to go and subscribe to this new podcast.

So if this is the best way to generate a quick ascension into podcast popularity, brands seeking to enter this medium might be facing an uphill climb, one that’s much steeper than what they encounter when promoting video, text, and image content. While I do agree that the podcast as a form of listening is growing in popularity, it may be a better investment for a brand to advertise on an already-existing podcast rather than launch one from scratch. And if a company does decide to produce its own episodes, it should do so with lowered expectations. Ira Glass can only promote so many new voices, and chances are yours won’t be one of them.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at For a full bio, go here.

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Are audiobooks benefiting from the current podcast boom?


Did you hear the news? Podcasts, once a niche product, are now “booming.” Due partially to the success of Serial, the This American Life spin-off podcast reinvestigating a 1999 murder in Baltimore, the medium has now made its way into the “cultural mainstream.” Yes, journalists have been prone to hyperbole when touting a podcast explosion, and there’s ample evidence they were already tremendously popular before the debut of Serial, but it does seem that they’ve entered our everyday conversation, and it’s not uncommon now to discuss a podcast with friends the same way you may otherwise talk about a new episode of a popular television show.

If you are a consistent listener of podcasts as I am, then you’ve likely noticed that a constant sponsor of many of the most popular shows has been, the largest outlet for purchasing and listening to audiobooks, as well as the world’s largest producer of audiobooks. This makes total sense when you think about it. According to data from podcasting ad platform Midroll, podcast listeners are affluent and well-educated, and they’ve already made a habit of downloading audio files and listening to them during their commutes and/or free time. This is an audience primed for conversion from free audio podcasts to paid-for audiobooks.

So are audiobooks, like podcasts, seeing an explosion in growth? And if they are, is the mainstream success of podcasts helping that growth? I’ll spoil the answer to the first question: Yes. The answer to the second is more difficult to tease out.

According to a survey conducted by the Audio Publishers Association, a trade industry group, not only are we seeing a rise in the number of audiobooks published every year (35,713, more than double the previous year’s 16.039), but “net sales in dollars are up 12% over the prior year’s revenues,” bringing revenue to $1.2 billion. In 1997 the entire industry only generated $480 million. Digital downloads make up 70 percent of all podcasts sold and the overwhelming majority of audiobook purchases, 80 percent, were of fiction titles.

Amanda D’Acierno, the publisher at Penguin Random House Audio, confirmed in a phone interview that what we’re seeing is, indeed, a huge expansion in the audiobook market. “It’s been absolutely huge growth. year after year,” she said. “Especially the past six or seven years as we’ve all become accustomed to having a smartphone in our pockets and being able to listen that way. When I joined this division 11 years ago, it was rare that I would meet people who would listen to audiobooks. It was not uncommon to meet people who never listened to audiobooks or didn’t even know what an audiobook was. I don’t think I’ve gotten that question in the last three or four years: what is an audiobook?’”

The audiobook industry emerged in the 1950s, first with LPs and then graduating to cassette tapes and later CDs. For a long time it was very much an ancillary, small portion of the overall book market. Because of the high costs of producing audiobooks and the requirement of multiples tapes or CDs, they’ve historically been much more expensive than hardbacks and were primarily sold to libraries, where it was more practical for consumers to borrow them. Also, because of the limited capacity of cassettes and CDs, listening to an audiobook could sometimes be a clunky experience. If you were listening to a CD in your car and then wanted to pick up where you left off in your kitchen, you’d have to awkwardly fast forward through a chapter until you found your place again.

Though audiobooks are still far outsold by their print counterparts, they’re becoming less and less of a niche market. Penguin Random House has 12 recording studios and producers on both the West and East coasts, and D’Acierno said that each year she publishes about 10 percent more audiobooks than the year prior. Currently, the company produces between 700 and 800 titles annually, about a fourth of what it publishes on the print side. I had assumed that it automatically owns the audio rights of any book it publishes, but it’s not uncommon for either a Penguin Random House author to sell his audio rights elsewhere or for Penguin Random House to purchase the audio rights for a book put out by another publisher.”About  80 percent of my adult Penguin Random House list is published [in print] here at Random House,” she said. On the children’s books side, roughly half of her audiobook inventory was published in print by non-Random House companies.

So why is there so much growing interest in audiobooks? “The iPod did amazing things for the audio business,” said D’Acierno. Not only did it expand the market of portable listening devices, but companies like Audible, no longer bogged down with the expensive production of multiple CDs, drove down the prices so they’re much more affordable. As for the role podcasts play? “Serial is certainly capturing so many listeners right now, and it definitely helps with awareness,” she said. “Audible is very, very smart to promote their services on podcasts, because once you as a consumer become aware of the spoken word and how easy it is to download and how much of a pleasure listening to a story makes your commute every day, then we definitely have our converts.”


Matthew Thornton, Audible’s senior director of communications, had a reverse thesis for the chicken or egg scenario — that podcasts were influenced, in part, by the rising popularity of audiobooks. “Audible was doing podcasts before podcasts,”  he wrote to me in an email. He pointed to original programming in the early aughts with Robin Williams, Ricky Gervais’s podcast as a paid product, Susie Bright’s weekly show, as well as recurring New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and other magazine and radio content. In a follow-up phone interview, he explained how Audible has been expanding the market for audio listening on your phone, in many ways paving the way for the success of podcasts like Serial. “Serial has been huge,” he said. “I would assume that it’s brought some people who were not listening to content before to [regularly downloading audio], but we’ve been experiencing this kind of growth for years.”

What seems apparent is that audiobook listeners, once they’re converted to the medium, become fervent consumers of content. The average Audible customer downloads more than 17 titles per year; the average American reads 12 books per year. The overwhelming majority of Audible listeners take part in its subscription offering. On its lowest-tier plan, users pay $14.95 per month for 12 “credits” a year (a credit is usually equal to one audiobook download). And because Audible is now owned by Amazon, it was able to launch Whispersync for Voice, a technology that keeps your place across formats and devices so if you purchase a Kindle book and the corresponding Audible audiobook, you can switch back and forth between reading and listening and never lose your place. If you’re reading on your couch and then leave to drive to the grocery store, the audiobook version picks up where you left off in the ebook.

Audiobooks have become so popular, in fact, that Audible has begun to commission original works — audiobooks that don’t have print counterparts. As detailed recently in the New York Times, the bestselling crime writer Jeffery Deaver wrote an audio drama specifically for Audible. “You have this massive opportunity when you don’t have to fight for people’s eyes,” Audible chief executive Donald Katz told the Times. “It’s time for us to move from sourcing content that can produce fantastic audio, on to imagining what the aesthetic of this new medium should be from the ground up.”

It’s not difficult to imagine those same words coming out of the mouth of someone at This American Life or a producer from one of the dozens of other high-quality podcasts currently running. It seems that asking whether podcasting caused a boom in audiobook sales or vice versa is perhaps the wrong way of looking at it. Maybe instead we should ask whether the two forms are merging, and when we’ll see one medium cross over into the other. After all, what is Serial but a 12-chapter non-fiction crime book? Perhaps it’s time for Serial host Sarah Koenig to start shopping for a literary agent.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at For a full bio, go here.

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How my blog reached its first 100,000 views

simon blogging 2

Back in August I quit my job at a communications firm with two goals in mind: Could I launch a website completely from scratch and build a sizable monthly audience? And once I built that audience, could I monetize it to the extent needed so I would never have to return to a traditional day job? Though I’m still a ways away from where I hope to be, I did pass an important milestone a few days ago: my articles reached 100,000 total views. Sure, lots of websites out there receive more traffic than this in a single day, but most of them either have large editorial staffs or have been around much longer than five months. And while I hope to reach a point sometime soon when I’m regularly generating 100,000+ visits a month to my content, I wanted to pause and analyze how I reached this milestone and outline some of the lessons I learned along the way.

Publish consistently

One of the brutal truths you learn while writing on the internet is that no matter how great your content, there’s no guarantee it will be seen by anyone. Especially when you’re first launching your website you have to accept that a good portion of your articles will fail to take off. A few days after I started writing full-time, I published one of my most-researched articles to date, but because it was placed on my site when I had virtually no audience, it’s only generated a grand total of 150 pageviews. So in order to overcome this hurdle, you want to begin consistently publishing content so that any new readers you do pull in will have fresh content every time they visit. You want to build momentum, so with each new article you increase your chances of it being seen by the right people who will then go on to share it to their social media streams. I’ve made it my goal to publish something every single weekday, and though most weeks I end up only publishing four pieces of content, the percentage of my articles that generate impressive traffic has increased significantly.

Site optimization

Getting people to visit your website is only half the battle. Your efforts are wasted if you’re not inspiring a sizable percentage of them to share and/or subscribe to your content. You need to optimize your site so there are calls to action. For instance, while I was building the social media strategy at US News & World Report, I noticed that a very high ratio of those who were sharing our content on Twitter were using the Twitter share buttons. Because it’s easy to control the text that’s automatically generated when you hit that button, you can modify it so that every time your content is tweeted it also includes your Twitter handle. This leads to a sharp increase in followers:

twitter optimization

There are lots of little tricks like this that can drastically increase the time spent on your site, the number of articles consumed in a single visit, the number of shares your content receives, and the number of subscribers who will come back for more.

Diversify your referral streams

Five years ago you gained a new reader when they either bookmarked your site, subscribed to your RSS feed, or signed up for your email newsletter. Now there are over a dozen major platforms that have millions of users. I was fortunate that when I launched this blog I had already built up a sizable, high quality following on Twitter, which has made it much easier to seed my content within the tech and media community. But starting in August I started looking to beef up my presences on other platforms. Though I’ve been on Facebook since its early days, I hadn’t put much effort into building out a professional audience, and for the longest time I struggled with whether to focus on building a presence on a separate page or encourage people to follow my public updates on my main profile. A few days ago I finally decided that the emphasis needed to be placed on my professional page, and so I removed the follow buttons for my personal profile from my blog.


When trying to write daily content for a blog, you realize quickly that you only have so much leftover time to invest in other platforms, so it’s important to choose which networks can produce the highest ROI for your content. Though I’ve long been interested in trying out Pinterest, I recognize its network is better for cooking, design, and travel blogs than tech and media news. In the end, I decided to invest my efforts in Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn and email. I also reprint one article a week at Medium (more on that in a minute).

Quality vs quantity

When I launched my blog, I initially decided that I would publish several aggregated posts a day with very light commentary and then work on longer, well-researched articles that I would post once every few days. But pretty early on I determined this wasn’t the direction I wanted to go. The aggregation posts were sometimes good for short bursts of traffic but I got the sense that it wasn’t high value traffic, the kind that enhanced my personal brand and led to more followers. So about a month in I scrapped that idea, and rather than publishing several posts a day, I would write one longer column per day, a column that strove to look at an issue from a different angle. My decision was vindicated pretty quickly when I saw several of these pieces gain traction. It turned out that my punditry skills were just as strong as my reporting skills.

Original research

Speaking of reporting, one of the best ways to generate a readership online is to publish original information that can’t be found anywhere else. Luckily, I have years of experience as a journalist; I started my career a newspaper reporter and have written for several major outlets ranging from US News & World Report to The Atlantic. At least once a week I publish an article for which I interviewed multiple people. Not only does this result in articles containing never-before-seen information, but my interview subjects often share my articles to their influential networks.


For the first two months or so, I was dead set on only publishing content exclusively to The thinking was that I could maximize personal brand recognition if every reader who landed on one of my articles did so on a website that prominently featured my name and photo. But because my website was so new, I was writing extremely high quality articles that came nowhere near realizing their full potential. After interviewing blogger James Clear about his success through syndicating his content to other outlets, I decided to go that route. I began by cross-posting my Monday columns to LinkedIn and my Friday columns to Medium. Though not every post took off, some saw explosive viewership. One post at LinkedIn was chosen for LinkedIn Pulse and received over 50,000 views. A column I posted to Medium last week generated 4,000 views.

In addition to this, I also reached out to my contacts at places like Daily Dot, PBS’ MediaShift, and Harvard University’s Nieman Lab and worked out deals where they could reprint my content.

There were several benefits to this strategy. Because my articles were plugged into much larger networks, my content and byline reached much wider audiences. This usually led to a sharp spike in new followers whenever a piece of content took off. The success of my LinkedIn posts has resulted in hundreds of new subscribers on that influential platform. It also led to emails from potential sources who had seen my content on these platforms. A Nieman Lab reprinting of an article of mine led to an email out of the blue from someone who ended up being a source for one of my most successful articles.

Of course there are downsides as well. Only a small percentage of those who discover your content on these other outlets will even notice your byline. And because they’re more established, they’ll usually outshine you in terms of SEO. For instance, if you Google “James Clear” and “Simon Owens,” you’ll find the reprint of my article at The version is almost impossible to find on Google.

Revisit your archives

This is one I need to improve on. There’s this assumption that once you publish a piece of content you can just share it once and everyone who follows you will see it. But the reality is that only a tiny percentage of your followers will see any given piece of content you share on social media, and though you should be careful to space out your promotions of the same piece of content, you can get away with sharing it several times in order to reach more people. Also, as you begin to accumulate new followers over a period of months, there will be a bunch of people who have signed up to read your content who would have never been exposed to your past articles. Some of my biggest traffic days have come after I shared a piece of content a third or fourth time. Back in August I wrote an article about Reddit’s public dialogues with the world’s top scientists. The piece did pretty well, generating about 2,000 views. But a few weeks ago I noticed someone share the article on Twitter so I decided to retweet him. My retweet was seen and retweeted by one of my most influential followers, and the article just exploded from there, generating an additional 8,000 views. And to think, it was all because I retweeted out an article that I had assumed was long past its expiration date. Vox tried an experiment recently where it began updating and sharing articles that were more than two months old, and it saw half a million visitors as a result.

Be patient

I have to admit, I’ve experienced many dark days since launching the blog, days when I published articles I had spent weeks researching only for them to completely flop. These were days when I was absolutely convinced that no matter how hard I tried and how much quality content I put out, there was just too much noise on the web for me to break through with a single-author blog. Luckily I’ve had friends and family there to talk me off the ledge, to remind me of the days when my content did extremely well and assure me that they would increase in frequency. That increase has definitely begun to occur, but I know I’m nowhere near where I eventually want to be, and there will be plenty more days in the near future when I get discouraged. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over all these years creating and promoting content on the internet, it’s that building an audience, one that returns to your blog over and over again, takes time, and so you have to be patient. As long as you’re creating great content and exploring all best practices for marketing that content, it will get noticed. And as it gets noticed, slowly but surely people will recognize you as an original voice and sign up for more. So while it’s helpful to pause and reflect on the first 100,000 views, my energy now is to focus on reaching that next 100,000 that much quicker.


FULL DISCLOSURE: Want to know how I was paid to write this article? I explain it in this video.

What Twitter can learn from Reddit

twitter reddit

If Twitter CEO Dick Costolo had to name his chief frustration, I bet it’d be investors’ unwillingness to look beyond the logged-in user. Wall Street analysts have hammered the company because its growth of monthly logged-in users has stalled while Instagram, with its 300 million users, sped past. Costolo has insisted that this number is, while not meaningless, at least very misleading, because it masks the overall reach of Twitter. “There’s also the hundreds of millions of people who come to Twitter and don’t log in,” he’s said. “And beyond that, there’s the world of a syndicated audience. That audience we reach across the entirety of the web.” What he means is that there are millions of users who don’t log in but perhaps visit the Twitter streams of their favorite celebrities, or they see tweets embedded in an article, or they’re watching television programming where the hosts are reading tweets live on the air. Twitter co-founder Ev Williams put it even more succinctly:

If you think about the impact Twitter has on the world versus Instagram, it’s pretty significant. It’s at least apples to oranges. Twitter is what we wanted it to be. It’s this realtime information network where everything in the world that happens on Twitter—important stuff breaks on Twitter and world leaders have conversations on Twitter. If that’s happening, I frankly don’t give a shit if Instagram has more people looking at pretty pictures.

If Costolo’s view is that these logged-out users are extremely valuable, a view I’m sympathetic to,  then what puzzles me is why Twitter doesn’t do more to cater to these users. To understand what I mean by this, let’s look at another social network that has a high number of logged-out, casual users: Reddit.

Now I don’t know exactly how many Reddit users log in in a given month, but I do know, based on stats it makes publicly available, that on any given day about 3.2 million users log in. For the sake of argument, let’s say that three times that number, roughly 10 million, log in at least once a month. According to Reddit’s official stats, it’s visited by 174 million unique visitors a month. That would mean that 94 percent of the people who visit Reddit every month never log in.

Reddit is extremely valuable as a tool for casual users, and to understand why, here’s a screengrab of its front page when you’re not logged in:


Now here’s what I see when I visit as a logged-out user:

twitterNotice the difference? A user who visits Reddit is immediately pulled in and able to extract utility from that visit. Someone who visits Twitter is prompted to sign up for a tool without any initial indication of its value.

I would consider myself a pretty involved Reddit user, one who regularly logs in, subscribes to subreddits, and even occasionally comments and submits posts. But I wasn’t always that way. For a long time I visited Reddit without ever logging in, perusing its front page for interesting links to click on. Then eventually I started clicking through to its comments and, while there, learned about interesting subreddits that I would need an account in order to subscribe to. Through its default subreddits, I was led down a rabbit hole that resulted in me obsessively reloading the Serial podcast subreddit and diving deep into comment threads.


What if, instead of seeing a log-in page when you visit, you instead encounter a stream of “default” Twitter users. Twitter’s staff could either establish a list of 200 or so news organizations, celebrities, and interesting accounts, or it could hire an editorial team (or enlist a company like Storyful) to curate the most interesting content. Suddenly, becomes the go-to place for the real-time web, an alternative to Google News or any other web destination where users go for a distillation for news. And once Twitter has managed to hook these more casual visitors, they start to realize, ever so slowly, that they are only scratching the surface and can discover even more interesting content if they create an account and follow those users. And once they’re logged in, they realize how easy it is to create content and to opine on the content they’re reading.

In fact, Twitter may have already realized this missed opportunity. According to AdAge, it’s planning some kind of revamped homepage:

Among the pitches at CES was an improved home-page for logged-out users that would include paid products, according to executives Twitter pitched last week. To address flagging engagement, Twitter recently introduced a slate of features, including an “instant timeline,” to attract more users. The website shown last week included a series of tiles featuring Twitter content, both images and text, clustered by subject matter, like entertainment and sports.

Without seeing screenshots of this revamped homepage, it’s difficult to tell how robust such a product will be, but the news does indicate that Twitter, if it wants to convince investors of its utility beyond logged-in users, knows it needs to provide a venue for those logged-out users to congregate. If it does, then it has the opportunity to become the true homepage of the internet, and its significance as arguably the most important social network will be even more readily apparent.


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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on TwitterFacebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at For a full bio, go here.