Understanding Traffic vs. Engagement On A Podcast Network


I’ve been inspired by a couple of trends and conversations happening these days. One of them is (obviously) viral stories and how they’re affecting the news and the conversation around education and other “forgotten” topics.

In running EdReach, which gains most of its traffic through downloads via Stitcher and iTunes and other podcast platforms, we often struggle with understanding the difference between basic Web traffic, or in this case I’ll say downloads, vs. people that are actively engaged in the show, retweeting, sharing on Facebook, chatting, etc.

As our downloads and network continue to grow on EdReach, I’ve been studying things like social sharing of podcasting all across the Internet- on other podcast networks as well. Also- looking for Disqus comments on those shows, etc. I’ve been surprised that even the most popular podcast networks have very little in terms of social engagement after the show has been published. And not just little. Miniscule. Almost non-existent.

There was a great piece on Digg a couple weeks ago titled:  Why Audio Never Goes Viral

The article opens the conversation on the psychology behind sharing video, audio, images and other things that get posted and reposted, sometimes millions of times. As a student of psychology myself  (B.S., Psychology, WIU), author Stan Alcorn helps me see that video goes viral, I believe, because the viewer has a taste of how that video is going to make them feel. There’s a promise in viral video and with sites like Upworthy: watch this and you’re going to laugh. Or cry. Or get mad at the government and fill out a petition.

With video and images- even if we’re given a thumbnail image- you can make a split-second inference about how you’re going to feel in that moment, and decide whether or not to click share or play. That’s a powerful social contract that takes place between users and content companies. It’s very hard to do that in audio.

NPR posted another theory in how to create viral audio, and they’re experimenting with the idea of creating audio “earworms.” One thing they discovered is that for audio virality, making a promise that the listener is going to hear something- helped that audio get shared. Here’s a few of their example headlines:

  • Here’s What Advice From Colorado’s Talking Urinals Sounds Like (KUNC)
  • Hear What It Sounds Like Inside The Pacific Ocean (Oregon Public Broadcasting)
  • Listen: ‘Bending’ Sound Makes It Difficult to Hear Firefighter Alarms (KUT)
  • Listen: A Woman Describes What It’s Like To Nearly Drown (WBUR)

What I thought worked here was their discovery about those headlines:

“Notice how the headline promises that you’ll listen to something? People who came across the headline understood that they were getting a listening experience. This piece, which was the most popular KALW story the week of October 7, generated more than 4,700 plays. And 94 percent of the page’s visitors came from social media.”

Again- for the social contract to occur, you need to let people know that they’re going to hear something.

So What About Podcasting?

So where does that leave a podcast network- which creates audio content based on the idea of explainers, and analyzation of a topic from a broad panel of experts.

I was recently doing a little research on our friends This Week In Google. I was delighted to discover some things. On an episode a few weeks ago, Leo alluded that ONE episode of TwiG gets 70,000 downloads. Now- that’s a lot more than an EdReach show, but they’ve got many years of a head start. But that’s not even what surprised me. Take a look at how many social shares one TwiT show has on their website:

Screen Shot 2014-02-08 at 9.40.08 AM

That’s not to say that TwiT is not successful, and that people aren’t listening to their content, but the TwiT website is not where that traffic is coming from, obviously.

Go to the 50 minute mark in this show embed to hear Leo chat about this:


If you’re listening to a podcast in a car, you’re obviously on your iPod, or you’re using a podcatcher, or the Stitcher App: all of these apps have one inherent problem: there’s no way to share or engage in the show after the fact. Sure, you can use Twitter, but, you’re in the car- how often are people going to tweet from the car after they’ve heard a remark on your show?  Why is sharing hard with podcast networks? According to Jesse Thorn, from the Digg article:

“The greatest reason is structural,” says Jesse Thorn, who hosts a public radio show called “Bullseye” and runs a podcast network called Maximum Fun. “Audio usage takes place while you’re doing something else.” You can listen while you drive or do the dishes, an insuperable competitive advantage over text or video, which transforms into a disadvantage when it comes to sharing the listening experience with anyone out of earshot. “When you’re driving a car, you’re not going to share anything,” says Thorn.

So Where Does Engagement Happen Best in an Audio World?

I think it’s clear that if you look at TwiT as an example, that they get the most listener engagement through their IRC chat that happens during live shows. EdReach is very similar there as well.  Since we started doing live shows through Google+ over a year ago, our best metric for listener engagement happens during the live experience. For those shows that don’t do live, although the downloads show that they are getting a nice audience, it’s almost like doing the show in a vacuum.  Shows like the #LadyGeeks and the Two Guys Show have done a fantastic job of using Twitter hashtags during the shows to keep listeners engaged. They share this hashtag at all the conferences they go to, and that kind of social connection helps- a lot.

The Google Educast,  EdCeptional and most other shows on EdReach use the Google+ Hangouts comments that happen while live. However- we notice that user engagement on Google+ goes way up, the longer your Hangout has been published. If a Hangout is published on the day of, or say, only a few days before the live show user engagement via Google+ engagement goes down. Lesson for Google+ Hangouts: Publish Early and Often.

So Is Creating Viral Audio Even Necessary?

One of the things I pride myself in is the fact that EdReach has people listening for 30-60, even 90 minutes at a pop . That completely goes against the trend, and shows our listeners to be people that are looking for higher-order stories, that want to hear educators analyze the tools and platforms and processes that we’re using in education. That’s fantastic.

Rather than calling ourselves an Education Broadcasting Network, I’d take a tip from Jeff Jarvis from his Buzzmachine Blog, and call us an Education Explainer Network.  Or both.

Viral audio/video has its place, and we’ve already experimented with creating short podcasts that can be easily consumed and sharable. The viral piece, can be about getting listeners to discover the larger community around that podcast. I don’t think we’ve cracked the nut on viral education podcasts, yet, but we’re still testing around it.  The EdAdmin Show is a two minute education leadership podcast, and purely, by volume, it gets thousands of downloads per month. The host, Chris Atkinson, an Assistant Principal in Indiana, often creates 3, sometimes 5 shows per week. Building an audience through podcasting- is a long game. You build a core audience after one, two, three years of consistent publishing. That’s how a podcast becomes an institution.  The most downloaded shows on EdReach publish weekly, and are in it for the long haul.

Jeff Jarvis remarks so thoughtfully about the difference between viral content and “explainer” content like ours in this TwiG episode, and I paraphrase him:

“Do you measure yourself by tonnage (like Upworthy.com), or do you measure yourself by the outcomes in your users’ lives, and are they better off for it? You have something that they value.”

One thing that EdReach has consistently proved- and this is always evident when you get to meet our listeners face to face at conferences like ISTE; our content absolutely makes a difference in people’s lives.

Photo Credit: Renneville on Flickr