Mar 24, 2009

Retaining Ownership

Ownership is another thing to bear in mind when you're making the decision about where to host your podcast and what software you're going to use. Another way to think about this is using the concept of brand. If you're spending lots of time and effort to create a successful podcast, your podcast, Web site, URL, and everything to do with your production are part of your brand. Building a successful podcast goes hand in hand with building a successful brand.

Successful companies have what's known as brand equity. That's why soft drink companies are extremely protective of their brands. They know their brands have intrinsic value, and they don't want anyone else to be profiting from them. You should be thinking the same way as you build your podcasting empire. If your podcast becomes wildly successful, you want the rewards from that success to come back to you — not your podcast hosting partner or your Web hosting partner. These people may play an important part in your success, but without your success, they're just hosting companies. You're the one bringing the programming to the table.

For this reason, it's important that you seriously consider retaining ownership of everything related to your podcast. Earlier in this chapter, we mentioned that you should register a URL for your podcast, and this is a prime reason why. If you're hosting your site on someone else's service, you're surrendering some of your brand equity. As your brand builds, you're also building someone else's brand, because everyone coming to your site sees your hosting partner's branding. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; you may, in fact, be building your brand on the strength of an existing podcast directory's brand. In the long term, however, you want to be able to focus on building your own brand, not someone else's.

Similar to registering your own URL, you should also retain ownership of your RSS feed. It's great that many podcast hosting solutions offer tools that automatically generate valid RSS feeds. However, these feeds live on their servers, so the URL to your feed ends up being:

Part of that URL has your branding, but the other part has your podcasting host's branding. The problem here is deeper than just the URL. After all, the URL may be hidden beneath a large "Subscribe to my podcast!" button that you put on your home page, so folks may not even notice the branding attribution. The problem is what do you do when you decide to part ways with Podcast Poodle? Everyone who has subscribed to your podcast has done so via the hosting service URL. You have to wean your audience off the old URL of your RSS feed to the new URL, which may not be a simple task, particularly if you have thousands of listeners.

A better approach is to keep control of your RSS feed, so that all your subscribers are coming in through your Web site, subscribing via your RSS feed. That way, you can change hosts at will, Web or podcast, and your audience won't notice a thing. If you change Web hosting partners, people will still find your Web site through the magic of the Internet's Domain Name System (DNS). They just type, and presto, your site pops up. Similarly, if you change hosts for your media files, you just have to change the contents of your enclosure tags in your RSS feed, and no one will ever notice.

Granted, managing your own Web site and maintaining your own RSS feeds may not be for everyone. It requires a significant amount of responsibility and technical know-how. There's a reason that podcast hosting companies are popular: The convenience is hard to pass up. If you decide to go the hosted route, just remember that you may be faced with a difficult decision later if your podcast is as successful as you hope it will be.

Mar 12, 2009

Finding a Home for Your Podcast

Now that you have an understanding of what RSS is and how to create an RSS file, it's time to figure out how the RSS feed fits into your Web site, where to put it so that people can find it, and how to keep it current. It's not that difficult, but there are a number of different ways to do it, so you should do some long-term thinking about how you want to manage your podcast and your Web site.

You have to make a number of decisions revolving around the two main aspects of your podcast, your Web site and your media. The decisions you make now have a direct effect on your production chain and also affect your long-term planning. After you launch your podcast and crank up your Web site, it can be difficult to change your approach mid-stream.

Let's start with an overview of the different ways that you can bring your Web site and podcast to market, along with some of the basic benefits and drawbacks of each option.

What Are the Options?

Up to now, all we've really discussed is how to create your podcast media file, and we talked a little bit about authoring your RSS feed. There's another aspect that can be just as critical to your success: your Web site. Podcasting began as a way to add audio to blogs, and to have this audio automatically transferred to an iPod. However, the concept of podcasting has grown since then. Informal studies have shown that up to 50 percent of all podcasts are watched while sitting in front of a computer. Many of these may be played on iTunes running in the background, but a significant number are also watched on Web sites as embedded presentations.

Podcasting purists are quick to say that these aren't really podcasts. (Some, in fact, say that anything other than an MP3 file is not a podcast.) Call it what you want: A ton of programming is being produced and distributed on the Internet using RSS feeds. This programming can be experienced in many different ways. The question is what sort of experience do you want your audience to have?

In an effort to try to impose some sort of order on this chaos, we can divide the different options into three main categories of ways to host your podcast:

  • On a Web site or blog that you manage and maintain yourself

  • On a managed Web site or blogging service

  • On a dedicated podcast hosting service

Each of these has advantages and disadvantages. In a nutshell, if you're willing to take on the burden of managing and maintaining your site, you'll have the most flexibility and freedom. This flexibility comes at a price, though. If you're managing your own site, you have to worry about lots of things, such as software updates, hackers, spammers, and hardware problems. If you use managed or dedicated systems, you have much less to worry about, but this ease of use comes at the price of flexibility. You may not be able to install some new gadget on your site that you found on an opensource forum, or you may not be able to embed the latest video technology due to support issues. Let's talk about the options in a little more detail.

Managing your own Web site

Managing your own Web site can be lots of fun, but it can also be lots of work. First, you have to either build a server or buy space on a shared server from a Web hosting provider. Some Web hosting providers allow full access to the operating system so that you can tinker to your heart's desire, while others place fairly serious restrictions on what you can and cannot do.

The nice thing about managing your own site is the complete freedom to do what you want, when you want. Assuming that you're running on your own server and have full access to the operating system, you can add forums, install a wiki (a shared space where people can add and edit content at will), change the look of your home page, or do anything else that strikes your fancy. You don't have to wait until a host adds new features; you just add them yourself.

Of course, this assumes that you're very comfortable running a server and installing software. Many blog and content management system (CMS) software packages install fairly painlessly these days. At the end of the day, however, if something breaks, you have no one to call. Everything is just fine until something breaks, at which point running your own server can become a nightmare, particularly if your podcast becomes popular and your audience is baying for more.

Scalability is another issue. If your podcast becomes wildly popular or if for some reason iTunes decides to put you on the podcast directory home page, the traffic to your Web site will spike. Web servers are not that complicated, but they can break down, and if they do, it's almost invariably due to a large increase in traffic — precisely the most inconvenient time for them to do so.

As the saying goes in the world of start-ups, having capacity issues is "a good problem to have." If your podcast is so popular that you're frying the small server at the end of your home DSL line, chances are good that you'll be able to afford a new server or afford to move to a managed hosting service. You should try to run your own server only if you're a seasoned Internet veteran with access to some reasonable server hardware and some free time. If you're just starting out, you should consider a managed hosting service or a dedicated podcasting hosting service.

Using a managed hosting service

The next step up in the hosting world is to use a managed hosting service. There are literally hundreds of different hosting options out there. When you register the URL for your podcast, chances are good that the company you use to register your URL will offer some sort of hosting package for your site. Hosting packages generally offer a certain amount of free storage and throughput each month, and you pay overage charges when you exceed either of these.

Some hosting packages come with pre-packaged software that allows you to create a Web site from pre-existing templates or a content management system that allows you to easily manage your Web site. If you're thinking about including e-commerce on your site, you'll need e-commerce capabilities. Many hosting service providers offer "shopping cart" functionality and may even be able to process credit card transactions for you.

One thing you'll want to make sure the service offers is statistics about your Web site traffic. If you're serious about turning your podcast into a business, you'll need accurate traffic statistics to gauge the success of your programming and to lure potential sponsors and advertisers. You should look for as much statistical information as you can find. A number of standardized Web stats packages are satisfactory, but the best hosting companies will offer incredibly detailed stats.

Perhaps the greatest thing about using a managed hosting service is that a significant amount of responsibility is taken off your plate. You no longer have to worry about hardware, and spammers and hackers are the hosting partner's problem. Also, if your statistics are showing a strong upward trend, you should be able to predict when you're going to run out of capacity and work with the hosting partner to add more capacity.

The only drawback to using a managed hosting service is that you may be limited in the software you can install. It depends on the type of service you purchase. You can purchase a shared server, in which case you're usually fairly limited, because the server must be a reliable hosting environment not just for you, but the other clients on the same server. There may be hundreds of other Web sites running off the same shared server.

Hosting services generally also offer dedicated servers, where you essentially lease hardware from them and they keep it up and running. Different hosting services allow different levels of access. Some let you do anything you want to do, while others limit what you can do so that the machine conforms to their standard, which makes it easier for them to maintain. The service you choose depends largely on how much freedom you want to install and modify software.

Using a dedicated podcast hosting service

Dedicated podcast hosting services are managed hosting services that are highly customized for a podcaster's needs. For example, these services usually offer tools to create and update your RSS feed. They may even be automated through some sort of wizard so that when you upload a new media file, your RSS feed is automatically updated. Many dedicated podcast hosting services also offer some sort of Web site for their clients, typically in the form of a blog. The blogs often come with their own URL, so that you can have a somewhat custom Web address. For example, let's pretend that you've decided to host your podcast about pike fishing with a company called Podcast Poodle. You'd probably be given the option to register your own URL like this:

As good as this may seem, it's not as good as having your own URL, such as:

In the first example, your Web site is what's known as a subdomain of the master domain, which in this case is (please don't register this and sue us). Essentially, you're piggybacking on the master domain. This isn't much of an issue if you're a tiny podcaster, but if you make it big, you really want everyone coming to your Web site, not a page on someone else's site. When you use one of these services to host your site, you are giving up a degree of control, which you may not be happy about later.

That being said, it's hard to argue with the convenience these services offer. They make it extremely easy to get a simple Web site up and running, to keep your RSS feed updated, and to monitor how popular your site and podcast are, because they usually run top ten lists and feature different podcasts from time to time. Many also offer automated tools to list your podcast in a number of other directories, which is especially important when you're first starting out.

Some podcasting hosting services have become destinations themselves, either because they host other popular podcasts or have been around long enough that folks know it's a good place to find podcasts. This can be another compelling reason to go with a dedicated podcast hosting service. They already have an audience looking for podcasts, and there's a good chance that they'll check out your podcast if you're the new kid on the block.

You probably won't have lots of freedom to modify your Web site on these services, because they're so highly specialized to begin with. You also may not own all the real estate on your Web page. For example, the hosting service may reserve the right to advertise on your Web page in order to recoup some of their costs. They may also want to put an ad in your podcast. Seeing as how many of these podcast hosting services give away a serious amount of bandwidth and storage, it's not surprising that they want to try to earn a bit of money from your podcast. It comes with the territory.


Be very careful when signing up for a podcasting hosting service. Some incredibly bad contracts have been floating around that would make any respectable lawyer blush. One host in particular had language in its contract that specified that any podcast placed on its service immediately became the property of the host. In another case, a host was found to be modifying all the RSS feeds hosted on its service, crediting the podcasts to, you guessed it, the hosting service. It may seem like common-sense advice, but read everything put in front of you, preferably with a lawyer present.

What solution is best for you?

With all these options available, how do you choose what is going to work best for you? We can try to summarize your options here:

  • Managing and hosting your own Web site is really only an option if you're very savvy or if you already have an existing site to which you're adding a podcast. You may run into scaling issues, but because you're savvy, you'll be able to solve them, right?

  • Using a managed Web hosting solution is a great option for your Web site if you're experienced. The more Web savvy you are, the more you can get out of a managed solution. You'll have your own URL and the freedom to do what you like to your site.

  • Using a dedicated podcast hosting service is a great idea if you're just starting out and don't know much about Web sites. You can't beat the convenience, and they allow you to focus on the programming, which is what you should be doing anyway. If you outgrow the service, you can cross that bridge when you come to it.

One thing to mention is that this doesn't have to be an either/or situation. For example, you could host your Web site with a managed hosting solution and then use the dedicated podcast hosting service just to host the podcast file! Just because a podcast hosting solution offers you a simple Web site doesn't mean that you have to use it. In fact, this is probably the best option for the savvier user. Use a podcasting hosting service to host your podcast media files, and you'll be able to take advantage of its RSS tools, its statistics, and any other special tools it may offer. Then, host your site, complete with your personalized URL, with a Web hosting service, so you can have more flexibility with your site.

Mar 3, 2009

Filling a Niche by Focusing on a Specific Area of Interest

Deciding what topics you can talk about is an important step, but it’s time for the application of what we like to call Jurassic Park logic. JP logic requires you to ask yourself this question: You’ve spent a lot of time thinking about whether you could, but have you figured out whether you should?

While we’re not trying to put you into tidy boxes or for an instant suggest that adding your voice to a busy conversation is a waste of time, we are suggesting that you strive to introduce a new topic to the podosphere, or find an underserved audience. Yes, you could create yet another music podcast featuring an eclectic mix of podsafe music artists. But realize that you will be competing with the dozens — perhaps hundreds — of shows out there doing basically the same thing.

You’ll best serve the current and future audience of podcast listeners by selecting a niche topic. This stands in stark contrast to traditional broadcast media, where the idea is to select broad-reaching topics to maximize the coverage area. That’s fine in a world where only so many stations fit on a radio dial, but that’s not where we live. Go for the small and focused. It’s where you’ll find the most loyal audience just waiting for you to start talking.

Determining whether you’ll have enough to talk about

One of the perils of going niche is making sure you have enough material with which you can create new episodes. A show centered around the intricacies of reattaching lost buttons to ladies’ blouses might limit your options in the future. However, that might make an excellent episode of a podcast about tailoring or seamstressing (is that a word?).

Our advice is to write down the topics and subtopics that come to mind. Don’t worry — you’re not planning out your show production schedule for the next six months. If you can list ten items of interest with only a few minutes of thought, you’ll probably be fine.

Helpful Hint

You never know when show topics will hit you, so figure out a system for jotting down the inspirations when they strike. One of your authors uses a portable Moleskine notebook (overpriced notebook, claims the second); the other keeps an outliner application at the ready (though the first wonders why inspiration only strikes at the keyboard). Figure out what system works best for you. Heck, sticky notes are a great way to start. Anything that allows you to collect ideas as they come is good to have.

Considering whether anyone will listen

Once you know you have enough to get started on your first five to ten episodes, you’ll want to do a final sanity check: Is there anybody out there waiting to listen? We hesitated before putting this section out there and remain torn as of this writing. But in the end, practicality won out. You can have exceptional diction, excellent production values, and extraordinary content — but someone other than you and your mom needs to care.

Luckily, this shouldn’t be a problem for you; more (sometimes way more) than one person always seems to be interested in the most obscure things out there. Keep in mind, however, that audience size and podcast topic are intimately related. If a large audience is your goal (and we’re not saying it should be), then select a topic that appeals to many.

Mar 1, 2009

Taking Inventory of Your Interests

Let’s start this off with the most important person in the equation: you. No, it’s not your audience. It’s not the community you aim to serve. It’s not even the person who might have paid you to pick up the mic and start cranking out episodes. We’ll even tell you that it isn’t your spouse, though as we say this we cast a wary eye over our shoulders, burning through even more SPUs (which we explain later).

The host of the show is the lifeblood of the show. We’re not trying to put undue pressure on you, but your show won’t get very far if the topic isn’t something that you (a) want to talk about and (b) can talk about while (c) demonstrating that you know what you’re talking about. So what can you talk about? What do you want to talk about?

To be fair, you may have had the idea of doing a podcast thrust upon you as part of your job. That’s fine. Unless your boss has arranged for someone to hand you a completed script to read in front of the microphone (in which case, you probably aren’t reading this anyhow), you’ll still benefit from the suggestions in this section.

List what aspects of your job interest you

Like it or not, we spend a lot of time at our jobs, developing skills and competencies we use in our personal lives as well. While there is no question that some of your daily tasks at a job might fall into the mind-numbing category, examine those parts of your job that you do find interesting.

Notice we didn’t say day job. The reality is that for many people with the drive and ambition to even consider becoming podcasters, the wearing of two hats is commonplace. It’s not uncommon to take off the Accountant hat at 5:30 and assume the mantle of Community Organizer, Sports Memorabilia Collector, or Classic Car Restorer. These are every bit as much of a profession as that which provides the majority of your household income. The pay just stinks.

We recommend making a list of the things you do in your profession that most interest you, keeping the following points in mind:

  • You can get very specific or very broad — you can always refine or group tasks together later.

  • Be sure to include the aspects of professional affiliations, groups, or associations to which you may belong. Within all of these are hidden gems that may very well lead you to the right topic.

Jot down what you like to do for fun

What else turns your crank that you enjoy doing in your leisure time? All work and no play makes Jack a very boring podcaster whom no one much wants to listen to or talk with. And let’s face it, the possibilities for entertainment-focused podcasts are endless.

Look — you don’t have to be in this for the money. Some of the best-produced and most rewarding shows are created by people for the sheer fun of it. Perhaps you are an avid bowler and would like to share your passion with others. Maybe you know a ridiculous amount about beer. Perhaps your friends all turn to you for information when it comes to obscure knots and stitches, and everyone knows it takes you half as long to knit a sweater than anyone else on the block.

The idea is to find out what you are passionate about. Jot down a few ideas and see if you can come up with five or six subtopics worthy of further discussion. And remember that you don’t have to be the most knowledgeable person on the planet on a given topic. If you have the passion, it might be fun to take your listeners on the journey as you learn more