What is the future of podcasts?

What is the future of this communication tool? I can't give you a definitive answer, but you'll find in this long post why podcasts can be attractive for publishers and somewhat less appealing for consumers. And because podcasting is almost not searchable and doesn't encourage interaction, this is not the right medium for me. Read on...

Like blogs, podcasts are all the rage these days. But what is the future of this communication tool? I can't give you a definitive answer, but you'll find below why podcasts can be attractive for publishers and somewhat less appealing for consumers. Several research companies estimate that the future is bright for podcasts in terms of audience and dollars. But because podcasting is almost not searchable and doesn't encourage interaction, this is not the right medium for me. So read on and tell me what you think.

Before going further, what is a podcast? Basically, it is an audio file -- or sometimes a video recording -- available on a Web site. It can be (more or less automatically) downloaded and listened later at any time on a variety of media players.

Now that we have a definition of what is a podcast, why would you start to produce one? Basically because it's cheap.

  • You don't need some fancy equipment: even a cheap microphone is enough to start and there are plenty of free or inexpensive software to help you to start.
  • You don't need to foolproof your text: even if someone listens to your podcast, he'll soon forget the errors.
  • You'll also need an host to store your wonderful creations, but there are plenty of inexpensive storage solutions these days.

The situation is not as good for potential listeners who face a number of hurdles.

  • First, you need to locate a podcast. Of course, you can use mainstream search engines or rely on specialized ones, such as Podcast.net. But you might lose some time searching through the more than 50,000 different sources available today.
  • And even if the title of a podcast looks interesting to you, what about the contents? Is the producer knowledgeable? How long lasts the podcast? Very few podcasts publish a detailed summary of their contents. And if you're a podcaster, I encourage you to follow the model of the Engadget podcasts. With their table of contents, you know you can skip the first 8 minutes and listen to the 20 seconds of interest to you.
  • Some other podcasters also publish a textual transcription of their audio files, but they are very few to do it and respect their audience, even if again, there are plenty of free or inexpensive software to help producers.
  • In other words, once you've located and downloaded a podcast, you can only listen to it until the end, even if the contents are boring or useless: maybe you'll have to listen to 15 minutes of uninteresting content before a real gem appears.
  • So you're like an hostage or a prisoner. It can be fine if you're already in such a situation, for example if you're trapped in a traffic jam. But personally I cherish my freedom.
  • Finally there is a last aspect from a consumer point of view. You read several times faster than you listen to words. This is why I can read or scan several hundreds of articles everyday, something which would be totally impossible with audio files.

Even if these issues are real, several market research companies see a rosy market for podcasts. Here are some examples.

  • According to FeedBurner, podcasts outnumber radio stations (Ben Charny, eWEEK, April 17, 2006). "FeedBurner now distributes 47,000 different podcasts, which means there are more podcasters than radio stations. And the rate at which new podcasters emerge on the scene has doubled in the last six months, the company said." Still, it's easier to turn on and off your radio than to find a podcast.
  • Internet researcher eMarketer forecasts that the total US audience for podcasts could reach 10 million in 2006, 25 million by 2008, and perhaps 50 million by 2010. For more information, you can read Podcasting: Who's Tuning In? (Mike Chapman, March 2006, 7 Pages, 10 Charts, $695).
  • In another report, Blog, Podcast and RSS Advertising Outlook (April 2006, $995), PQ Media writes that the "podcast ad spending reached $3.1 million in 2005, and is projected to grow at a compound annual rate of 154.4% from 2006 to 2010," when it reaches $327.0 million (please note the decimals!!!).
  • Finally, you might want to read Podcasts are huge; it's just the audience that's tiny (John Paczkowski, Good Morning Silicon Valley, April 6, 2006) which mentions a Forrester report, Podcasting Hits The Charts (Charlene Li, Forrester Research, March 28, 2006, 6 pages, $249). "Who's listening to podcasts? Apparently no one. According to a new report from Forrester, only 1 percent of online households in North America regularly download and listen to podcasts. 'Podcasts have hit the mainstream consciousness but have not yet seen widespread use,' Forrester analyst Charlene Li explains."

Now that you have enough qualitative and quantitative elements to forge your opinion, let me summarize why podcasts might be good for you, but not for me.

  • The contents of podcasts are not searchable -- at least by mainstream search engines: with very few exceptions, there is no possibility to find a text version of a podcast.
  • Podcasting is a one-way medium: a producer talks to consumers. There is no interaction between both except through posts on blogs.
  • In other words, podcasting is not a collaborative medium. On the contrary, it follows the traditional one-to-many communication model. Sorry, after several years of blogging, I like to be able to start a conversation.

So today, a very small percentage of online users is listening to podcasts. Do you think that this number will grow like research firms are thinking? Have you listened -- and enjoyed podcasts yourself? Send me your thoughts.

Sources: Roland Piquepaille, April 24, 2006; and various web sites

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