Podcasting and The Value of Scarcity

Written Jul. 7, 2009 by Tom Webster in Podcasting with 0 Comments

With all of the recent kerfuffle surrounding Chris Anderson's new book Free, it's worth noting that one basic economics lesson continues to hold true: scarcity creates value. In fact, economics is essentially the study of scarcity, and when a good or service becomes common, it becomes devalued.

I was reminded of this crucial distinction when I perused the results of RAJAR's latest MIDAS research. RAJAR, the UK's radio measurement entity, publishes a semiannual look at British consumption of Internet-delivered audio that examines trends in digital radio, streaming and podcasting akin to our own Internet and Multimedia Research Series here in the States, and I am always interested to see how the behavior of UK digital consumers agrees and differs from our own here in the US.

I'll have more to say about the podcasting statistics in a later post (they show continued growth in uptake, from 7.2 million podcast consumers in October 2008 to 7.8 million today,) but for now I wanted to focus on this telling statistic: while 4.2 million say they listen to podcasts at least once a week, only 28% find time to listen to all the podcasts they download (the typical user reported subscribing to 5.2 podcasts per week.)

I freely admit that I rarely listen to everything in my queue, and often weeks will go by before I will listen to an episode. Some subscriptions I have never caught up with, and others remain weekly staples. The vast stew of unlistened-to podcast episodes in my iTunes folder is very reminiscent of my TiVo "Now Playing" page, which also contains dozens of shows (and one entire series) that I've never watched. I suspect, if you own a DVR, that you have had a similar experience.

It's easy to subscribe to episodic content--less so to find time to fit it all in. If you are a podcaster with a program centered on information or news content in a given niche, you know that listeners have multiple ways to get the content you offer (after all, you also got it somewhere.) What keeps listeners coming back, week after week, is you--character development, roles, trust, and your story. Even the most compelling podcasts, however, can pile up in someone's feed reader amidst the plethora of audio and video available on the Internet.

That's where scarcity can be your friend. If you are a terrestrial broadcaster thinking about podcasting your morning show, think hard about how often you want to seed content to your feed--sure, a quick, daily 2-minute joke or benchmark is an easy thing to snack on, but think long and hard before you attempt something long-form on a daily basis. More frequent podcasts may work if you are Dawn and Drew, because they aren't repurposing broadcast content. But the more unlistened-to or unwatched shows I have piled up for a given program, the more daunting it is to tackle them--and the more likely I am to just choose a nuclear option.

All of which brings me to online video maven Tim Street, and how he handles the production of his wildly popular French Maid TV series. Tim's very clever idea was to film a "how-to" series for men, with the subject of each video demonstrated by women dressed as French Maids. Some of the topics he has covered include how to change your oil, how to register a domain and (of course!) how to podcast. What makes Tim a very smart guy is that these topics are ripe for sponsorship--and he doesn't shoot an episode until a sponsor pays for it. This means that he is able to monetize his show--and design it around a sponsor--from day one, and it also has the beneficial side effect of making new episodes scarce--i.e., valuable. Viewers know that a new French Maid TV episode is an event, so they make the time to watch it. Sponsors know this as well, which means that they have a little control over when the campaign is viewed (I've discussed podcasting's problem with variable campaign length and asynchronous consumption before) and they also know that because Tim isn't littering YouTube with hundreds of French Maid TV episodes a year, that they are sponsoring an actual, special event.

Now, this isn't the prescription for everyone. But it may be that the best thing you could do with your podcast content is to make less of it, not more.

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