Steve Pratt: Podcasts don’t “go viral.” Is that worth celebrating?

Guest columnist Steve Pratt is co-owner and Partner of Pacific Content, which creates original podcasts for brands including Slack, Mozilla, and Dell. This article originally appeared on the Pacific Content blog.

And should we all be more grateful for RSS Feeds?

I spent part of my summer vacation reading Ryan Holiday’s book, “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of Media Manipulator.” It’s a remarkably insightful book about how the media can be manipulated and, written pre-Trump, it reveals how a huge amount of truly “fake news” originates and makes its way to the mainstream media.

Trust Me, I’m Lying, by Ryan Holiday.

I always read books like this through my own lens of being in the podcasting industry, and there was a really interesting portion of the book that stood out to me.

The Perils of the Online Business Model

The business model for much of the web is based on advertising. Advertising is often based on how many page views you get. And so, Holiday argues, blogs and online news outlets are in a constant race to the bottom.

They, by necessity, are becoming more and more sensational, more focused on rumor and gossip instead of true journalism, and less user-friendly (because they make more money the more they can make you click).

They also deliberately create content designed to evoke strong emotions — often anger — because people share content more often when it makes them angry. Content that is shared widely leads to… more page views and more revenue.

And so we end up in a vicious circle of increasingly abusing the trust of audiences to generate page views to generate revenue. Holiday writes:

“The web has only one currency, and you can use any word you want for it — valence, extremes, arousal, powerfulness, excitement — but it adds up to false perception.”

Ryan Holiday, author of Trust Me, I’m Lying

Yellow Journalism vs. Subscriptions

Holiday draws a strong parallel between today’s online media ecosystem and the yellow journalism era of the newspaper industry. The yellow journalism era was defined by scandalous and seductive headlines, heavy use of visual imagery, anonymous sources, and celebrity-focused content. Sound familiar?

The solution back then came from the New York Times with the introduction of a newspaper subscription. With a subscription, there was no need to have a newsboy on the corner trying to sell you a paper every single day by shouting fresh and increasingly outrageous headlines. Instead, a subscription allowed quality to win over sensationalism, for nuance and intelligence to triumph over generating extreme emotions, and for trust to be built between publishers and audiences.

Once you’re subscribed, you don’t need to be sold every day.

Today, apart from iconic publications like… the New York Times (where online subscriptions are growing), most digital audiences no longer make daily visits directly to blogs or individual websites — they consume stories a la carte that they discover on social media, Google News, and Flipboard. The modern online publication has become atomized into individual stories through search and social media. And, much like pre-subscription newspapers, every individual story has to scream loudly to get your attention. Sadly, more sensational actually is a winning strategy for publishers in today’s online environment.

Holiday writes:

“Instead of providing quality day in and day out, writers chase big hits like a sexy scandal or a funny video meme. Bloggers aren’t interested in building up consistent, loyal readerships via RSS or paid subscriptions, because what they really need are the types of stories that will do hundreds of thousands or millions of pageviews. They need stories that will sell.”

As a result, it’s very hard to build trust, to avoid sensationalism, and to tell meaty, smart stories.

Clearly, there is a massive problem with how the web‘s business model works for delivering trusted information, quality information, and great journalism. Here’s where the podcasting link comes in…

Podcasting Should Celebrate and Embrace RSS

Podcasting is the last bastion of RSS and that is something to celebrate. There is a lot of valid concern about how archaic RSS is and how many problems it introduces for podcasting, but in this particular context, RSS is what separates podcasts from almost everything else in the current digital media landscape.

So what is the power of RSS and why does that matter for podcasts?

Subscriptions Put The User First

“The reason subscription (and RSS) was abandoned was because in a subscription economy the users are in control.”

RSS means voluntary (usually free!) subscription. Subscription means trust. Subscription means that listeners are choosing you because you have created value for them. Subscription means that you have been invited into listeners lives and have become part of their ongoing media diet and their daily or weekly habits.

If someone subscribes to your podcast, you win and they win. They like you a lot, they have ‘opted-in’, and you don’t have to market to them anymore. You just have to keep making awesome stuff that makes them happy. This is VERY different that the current world for most bloggers and online publications.

Much like the way the NYT moved beyond yellow journalism in newspapers with a subscription, podcasts can create content and business models that simply don’t work in today’s world of online blogs. Podcasts can tell 30 minute stories. Podcasts can create content that is not explicitly designed to go viral. Podcasts can conjure all sorts of emotions that AREN’T anger and be successful.

“So today, as RSS buttons disappear from browsers and blogs, just know that this happened on purpose, so that readers could be deceived more easily.”
Ryan Holiday

Let’s not make the same mistakes with podcasts. We’ve got a really good thing going precisely because RSS feeds and subscriptions put the user in control. Let’s keep putting the audience first by making great shows that can afford to tell the truth, be honest, be accurate, and be smart.

Let’s start a race to the top instead of a race to the bottom.

Steve Pratt


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