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

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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.

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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 simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

Image via Beyoungandshutup