If you haven't heard of podcasting yet, I am not surprised. It's a brand new term—just invented last year, in fact, by Ben Hammersley in an article for The Guardian newspaper.

Podcasting refers to the technology used to pull digital audio files from Web sites down to computers and devices such as MP3 players. "Podcast" is derived from the name of the iPod MP3 player from Apple, although you don't need an iPod to partake in podcasts.

Podcasting is a significant departure from traditional broadcasting because it removes the time requirement; you can listen to a podcast radio program or interview any time.

Think what audio books on tape did for the road warrior—turning our cars and airplane seats into mobile universities. Podcasting has the same capacity to change the way we learn and take in new information.

With news sites and blogs, you are anchored to your seat or computer screen to partake in the wisdom of your favorite blogger or journalist. For those sites that are also podcasting, you now have an alternative.

Podcasting isn't just about downloading MP3 files. What makes it special is that it piggybacks on RSS technology, also known as Really Simple Syndication. Some Web site owners (including MarketingProfs.com), feature their most recently published content in XML files called "RSS feeds." Software programs called newsreaders that are installed on Internet users' PCs continuously monitor their favorite RSS feeds for new content.

From this evolved specialized newsreaders capable of accepting "enclosures"—multimedia files included in the RSS feed—and downloading them to an MP3 player or a hard drive (iPodder is one example). A user of this software can be presented with new podcasts of interest collected via RSS feed in a way similar to how he would follow the latest happenings on a blog through a traditional RSS reader.

Newly available MP3 audio files that appear in a subscribed RSS feed can be downloaded to your MP3 player, burned to a CD for playback on your car's CD player or simply listened to through your computer's speakers.

The key to the early success of podcasting is its ease of use, according to Doug Kaye, founder of ITConversations.com and a podcasting pioneer. "It's as easy as waking up in the morning, grabbing your iPod full of podcasts transferred invisibly overnight, and listening on your commute to the office."

It's the job of the podcasting client that you've installed on your computer (iPodder, for example) to do the hard work of monitoring your favorite podcasts via RSS.

So far, there are hundreds of podcasts out there, with new ones popping up every day. Many are talk shows on technology, business, entertainment, sports and so on. It's amazing the quality of some of this audio commentary being published out there on the Web, free for the taking.

Business 2.0 magazine calls podcasting the "democratization of broadcasting." Indeed, anyone with a computer and a microphone can try his or her hand at being an Internet radio talk show host, and building an audience of thousands, potentially millions.

Some early adopter bloggers are podcasting to augment their predominantly textual blogs, such as the very popular and highly regarded Dave Winer. Typically, their podcasts are far from professionally produced, however. Winer's podcast posted on December 19 was a testament to this fact, as it was recorded during a road trip in his car over highway noise.

Laura Ries, author and reknowned expert on marketing and branding strategy, happens to also be a blogger (of the Origin of Brands blog), but not yet a podcaster. In Ries's opinion, bloggers may have a hard time successfully transitioning to podcasting.

"Blogging is a written medium, and podcasting is an audio medium," says Ries. "It takes a unique skill to deliver content verbally. Some bloggers could make the switch, but many I am guessing could not. Also, one of a blog's unique features is the ability to link to other content on the Web—something that podcasting would have difficulty doing."

Kaye echoes Ries's sentiments that podcasting won't be for everyone. "As the number of podcasts grow, amateur podcasters will find it increasingly difficult to compete with the more formal, information-packed, professionally produced podcasts," Kaye says.

"People have a limited amount of time to listen to audio content," he adds. "You can't skim podcasts like you can skim blogs. Information consumers will become more discerning as they are offered more choices." Clearly, not all podcasters will win the hearts and minds of their listeners.

It's still early days to ascertain the ROI of podcasting. But results so far are encouraging. Kaye reports that traffic to his ITconversations.com site has doubled since podcasting came out; he attributes much of that growth to podcasting.

In a bold move, the BBC has started experimenting with podcasting by delivering the series "In Our Time" this way. The BBC also plans to put all of its radio archives online and to continue to deliver new shows online; it is possible we will see thousands of classic BBC radio shows podcast. It's great to see a traditional broadcaster right at the cutting edge of technology!

Currently, podcasting exists primarily as audio content, but the technology also supports other rich media as well, such as photos and video. The new iPod photo MP3 player supports not just the playing of audio files but also the display of digital photographs, offering podcasters a new opportunity to mix audio with still images. The popular blog Engadget, for example, includes photos of the devices being reviewed.

Podcasting and Marketing

How will podcasting relate to marketing? And why is podcasting important for marketers?

Well, people like dealing with people. Audio commentary injects a human element not present on your typical passive brochure Web site.

Adding that human voice to your Web site through podcasting gives people the opportunity to reconnect with your business on a repeated basis, assuming they find your audio content to be valuable and interesting to them.

What would be some good applications of podcasting for marketing? A few come to mind:

  1. Interview various authors and thought leaders in your industry, then publish these interviews regularly to your podcast on your site. You could even transcribe these podcasts to post on the site as well. It's good search engine fodder if the interview contains the right keywords.
  2. Provide a thought-provoking idea or tip of the day. Just a short bit of practical advice published on a frequent regular basis coming from one of the thought leaders within your own company helps establish their credibility in the listener's mind over time, assuming the podcasts are really good.
  3. Offer late-breaking podcast industry news compiled from sources across the Web that you monitor on a daily basis. This is really no different from many of the blogs out there that focus on news. The difference is that someone doesn't have to sit in front of the screen to get the latest happenings. People can subscribe to your podcast, download it and take it with them as they go out jogging or commute to the office.
  4. Get your listener subscribers to participate in a kind of a talkback show where they can ask thought-provoking questions and make comments, which can then be addressed and elaborated on by your in-house experts or even a panel of experts.
  5. Sponsor existing, high-quality podcasts. This allows you to associate your organization with a reputable podcast, and it gives you an instant audience. For example, sponsors of IT Conversations reach an audience of 14,000-15,000 listeners. Sponsoring others' podcasts can be a viable alternative to producing your own podcasts and building up the listener base from scratch, for potentially less expense and better ROI. Sponsor slots shouldn't sound like commercial interruptions; they should be relevant to the listener and add value.

To get started podcasting, all you'll really need is a microphone and some software. There's a great tutorial on podcasting, both for listeners and producers, on Engadget.com.

Why You Should Podcast

  1. You will be seen as an innovator on the cutting edge of things. You will most likely be the first mover in your market to use podcasting as a marketing tool.

  2. Loyal listeners will come to rely on you for the latest thinking, news or trends in your field of expertise and interest. As their thought leader, you can influence the listeners' buying behaviors through a soft-sell approach.

  3. People will regard you as a human being they can relate to. The personal voice of your podcast is more real than the "voice" of your company's Web site. It is more disarming and makes your company seem more approachable if done right.

  4. Because podcasting is novel at this point in time, there is some PR value to be milked when dealing with the trade press.

In addition, podcasting is quite suitable for recordings of conference presentations. Just think: if you weren't able to attend the latest Pop!Tech conference, you could still enjoy hearing such thought provoking speakers as Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point, offering insight into human nature as it applies to marketing and product development.

It occurred to me that the folks at Sky Radio could make excellent use of podcasting. Sky Radio produces the business interviews you hear on the in-flight radio on airlines such as United and American. I think those interviews would be fantastic material to make available on a podcast RSS-type format. Sometimes, you don't get to listen to all the shows, or you want to recall something you heard when half asleep at 30,000 feet. Personally, I'd love that.

Podcasting has the power to change the way rich media information is broadcast. It's kind of a mix of the Web, TiVo and portable consumer electronics, all in one.

Spread the word. Podcasting has arrived.

Editor's note: Our first three MarketingProfs podcasts are now available, They are audio interviews of Toby Bloomberg of Diva Marketing Blog, Doug Kaye of IT Conversations, and Marc Holland of Sky Radio, conducted by Stephan Spencer. We welcome your feedback on your experience with podcasting.

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image of Stephan Spencer

Stephan Spencer is the founder of Science of SEO and an SEO expert, author, and speaker.

LinkedIn: Stephan Spencer

Twitter: @sspencer