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April 2005

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How Podcasts are Distributed

by Glen Emerson Morris
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As my last column explained, podcasting has become the fastest growing technology trend in history. Podcasting is the process of creating audio shows in MP3 format and automatically downloading them to Apple iPods for listening to later. While last month's column dealt with what podcasting is, this column will take a look at how podcasts are distributed, and how advertisers might use that process.

Most podcasts are distributed using a technology called RSS, short for really simple syndication. Initially RSS was developed as a programming language for syndicating text based Web content, but in 2004 it was modified to support distribution of MP3 files. While MP3 audio programming has been available for years, it was not until podcasting teamed up with RSS that it really took off. This combination allows people to time shift listening to the shows, and even more importantly, it also frees them from having to have a computer in front of them to listen. Though largely commercial free now, podcasting offers great potential for advertisers.

The publishing process for RSS is relatively simple. A content producer, like a newspaper, includes RSS code in the stories they publish online. A news aggregator like or regularly sends Web robots to monitor a number of news services and private blogs for new articles published in RSS format. Consumers subscribe to news aggregators and select what news services and blogs they want to see headlines from. From then on, all consumers have to do is to click on a button on their browser or RSS client to see a list of current headlines. Clicking on a headline in the list opens the news story on the original publisher’s Website.

While the code needed to publish stories in RSS format is very basic, it takes some understanding of the history of RSS to do it right. RSS was originally developed by Netscape to be used in its attempt to develop and market portal technology. Netscape developed RSS .90, but abandoned further development when they gave up on the portal business. Several other groups then took up RSS development, leading to a total of 7 different versions of RSS. (The most robust version is considered to be RSS 2.0 from UserLand, a company that markets Web publishing technology.) Not all news aggregators support all formats of RSS. Deciding which version of RSS to use will take some research.

Though still not widely used by consumers, RSS has been adopted by many of the world’s news services, including the Washington Post, New York Times, CNN, the BBC, Christian Science Monitor, Yahoo News, CNET and National Public Radio. RSS is also being used by a number of state governments in the US.

While RSS may seem attractive to advertisers, there is a strong prejudice against advertising by RSS news aggregators and the people who use them. RSS users tend to be those who have Tivo and are willing and able to use the latest technology to filter out advertising whenever possible.

In some cases however, advertising can’t be avoided. If the page the RSS headline link opens has ads in addition to images related to the story, like many online newspaper stories do, there’s no easy way to filter out the ads. If the RSS headline link opens a page on a private site that never includes images as part of the stories, a filter could be created that would take out all of the image based ads without filtering out anything related to the story.

Given current sentiments against advertising by the public and the news aggregators that make RSS feeds available, it may be necessary for the advertising industry to develop RSS Websites that specialize in making infomercial podcasts available for consumers. The idea isn’t that far fetched. Many cable channels are loaded with half hour and hour long infomercials running between midnight and dawn. The advertisers that run them have found that there is an audience for long presentations about their products. There is reason to believe that an audience for audio infomercials also exists, and a news aggregator to help consumers find informercials would be a success.

Podcast infomercials will appeal to a smaller market segment than regular podcasts reach, but they will likely get a much better hearing than broadcast based commercials. People will be listening to them because they really want to, not just because they are there.

Even now, it’s possible for advertisers to sponsor existing privately produced podcasts. Standard radio spots could be used, and there is a good chance that at least some of them will be heard. However, it should be remembered that most MP3 players allow fast forwarding through commercials, much like Tivo systems. Making commercials that people will want to listen to is the best solution to the problem.

In another approach, some advertisers are offering podcasts through their own Websites. Having a Website that gets a lot of traffic helps in this approach, but it isn’t mandatory. Having a healthy budget for the Website, however, is mandatory.

The biggest limitation on podcasting is the cost of bandwidth used. Even in low audio quality, a 10 minute mono audio show can take up 5 megs. This means a Website with a 50 gig a month download limit will only be able to support 10,000 impressions a month. Offering infomercials in high quality stereo would be expensive, but it still might be worth it, and bandwidth costs will come down in time.

Though still in its infancy, there is little doubt podcasting will become a common tool for advertisers, and very effective one, too. Early adopters of podcasting will have an advantage when it becomes mainstream, so it’s not too early to start thinking about how to use it.

In keeping with the times, Advertising & Marketing Review will begin publishing stories in RSS format beginning with the next issue. We are also exploring the possibility of becoming a news aggregator ourselves, offering feeds of Colorado advertising & marketing industry news during the month, as it happens. Whether we do this or not will depend on whether we can find sponsors. If you’d like to sponsor our RSS feed, contact Ken Custer at 303-277-9840.

Glen Emerson Morris has worked as a technology consultant for Network Associates, Yahoo!, Ariba, WebMD, Inktomi, Adobe, Apple and Radius, and is the developer of the Advertising & Marketing Review Data CD.

Copyright 1994 - 2010 by Glen Emerson Morris All Rights Reserved

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