The slow pace of Podcasting growth

From eMarketer:

Nearly one out of five (19%) Internet users in the US say they have downloaded a podcast, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Pew’s researchers said that was up from 12% in August 2006. However, podcast downloading is still a niche activity. Even among those who said they downloaded podcasts, only 17% did so on a typical day.

That translates to just 3% of internet users who download podcasts on a typical day.

This does not strike me as particularly strong, given especially that, says Pew, 34% of American adults and 43% of internet users report owning an mp3 player or iPod – up markedly from 20% and 26%, respectively, in April 2006.

When you factor in the youthful, male, and tech-oriented skew of podcast usage, you have to wonder what’s holding back this trend.

Here are some of my thoughts:

1. iPod owners don’t sync up daily. You can only download content as often as you sync. Then again, if the content doesn’t drive more frequent sync behavior, then what does that say about the power of the content in the podcast medium?

2. The right content is hard to find. As lovely as iTunes is, it’s really best for finding exactly what you want, not exactly what might be best. There are a zillion podcasts out there. How do I know what I’m even looking for? Sure, I can search – but for what? And how do I know what I find is worth the trouble? A podcast, unlike a song, doesn’t have a “hook,” so it’s impossible to sample a few seconds of it and appreciate it. So is it worth investing the time to hunt down and subscribe to shows on spec? As those of us in the radio trenches know, it takes months or years of repeat exposure for a show to “grow” on an audience.

3. If you don’t sync daily or don’t listen daily to what you sync, the value of daily podcast content is reduced, thus creating a vicious cycle: I don’t listen, I don’t sync, so I don’t sync and I don’t listen.

4. iTunes is fundamentally destination-based. That is, you go there for something, not for anything. Radio and the rest of the internet provide a ready platform to expose music content which is easy to pluck off iTunes with very little trouble. Not so for podcasts, which receive relatively little “horizontal” promotion across media, thus guaranteeing any individual podcast is likely to remain a relative niche. You don’t know what you’re missing until you hear what you missed. How do I know this or that podcasts on sports or cooking is better than any other? A podcast could be all about car repair – or it could be as entertaining as NPR’s Car Talk. How do I know the difference?

5. Lots of non-music audio entertainment is consumed passively; that is, I am in the right place at the right time to hear it on the radio – and if I miss it today I’ll catch it tomorrow. It is not destination programming the way the latest chapter in a TV series is. This means the content available for download should be “must-hear” or “must-see” or it won’t be heard or seen en masse.

So where does podcasting fit with your bag of tricks?

Well, considering radio produces audio entertainment we would be foolish to avoid podcasting.

But the fact that podcasting has not swept the audience the way other trends have should give us pause. Some trends become phenomena. Others remain niches.

The larger question is: What, if anything, does this say about your ability to create and leverage brands online? Repurposing for podcast is all well and good, but there’s more to leveraging digital media than that.

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