Mark Athitakis is a contributing editor to Associations Now.
Conversational and quirky, association podcasts can be much more than shop talk. Done right, they can engage professional members with a need to know and larger audiences with niche interests. Do podcasts have a place in your content strategy? Three association podcasters share what they've learned from behind the mic.
Dr. Vincent Racaniello likes microbes. A lot. So much that Racaniello, a professor of microbiology at Columbia University, has hosted three podcasts on the topic since 2008—This Week in Virology, This Week in Microbiology, and This Week in Parasitism—in addition to two other science programs.
And listeners like Racaniello’s podcasts. A lot. Each new episode of each podcast is downloaded around 5,000 times the day it’s released, and often 20,000 times after a month. Early on, the American Society for Microbiology partnered with Racaniello to provide production, technical, and promotional support for the podcasts, and ASM hosts him at its annual conferences, where his live podcasts attract a crowd. Taken together, the podcasts have a wide enough audience to generate advertising revenue.
That’s a win for ASM, and there’s a bonus: Listener research and the mailbag tell Racaniello that only about a third of his listeners are scientists and ASM members with a professional obligation to keep up.
“The rest is a whole gamut,” he says. “Students—high school, college, graduate students, postdoc. We get lots of laborers. We get truck drivers, mail delivery people, we get policemen.” One loyal listener’s dogs are named after Racaniello and one of his cohosts.
“One of our strategic objectives here is to promote and advance the microbial sciences,” says Chris Condayan, video producer at ASM. “That’s exactly what these podcasts do. It’s getting harder and harder to get your messages out. Science is not covered as much [by mainstream media] as it used to be 10 or 15 years ago, so we’re basically becoming our own media and producing our own content this way.”
For many associations, podcasts now play precisely this role, connecting with members and aficionados during their spare time. Like every content channel, podcasts have unique demands in terms of technology and organization. But done right, they can build member engagement—and, perhaps more important, expand an association’s mission to the wider population—in ways others can’t.
When the National Association of Convenience Stores launched its podcast, Convenience Matters, earlier this year, audience was paramount to the association’s strategy.
“We felt there clearly are some stories that are very industry-specific, but at its heart we wanted [the podcast] to be general enough where anybody could get value and just learn a little bit more about the industry,” says Jeff Lenard, NACS’ vice president of strategic industry initiatives.
Looking beyond members-only esoterica has helped Lenard identify some lively material. Convenience Matters has done a deep dive into the naming of convenience stores—why all those odd spellings of “quick” and “easy”?—and interviewed a man who successfully maintained a healthy diet for a month on convenience-store food alone.
That mix of eclectic but relevant fare has earned NACS a steady audience for its weekly podcast, which draws about 2,000 downloads every month. But because it hasn’t yet attracted ad revenue, NACS makes sure to keep costs and staff time to a minimum. Once a month, Lenard and his cohost, John Eichberger, record a month’s worth of podcasts in a studio, then have a contractor handle editing and music.
One thing you can’t skimp on, Lenard says, is sound quality. “People will not stay tuned in to something that doesn’t sound great,” he says. “Whether you need to go to a studio and use the mics and the equipment that they have there, or you’re able to acquire that equipment, you need to make sound a very important part of your strategy.” (Bad sound is “an insult to your listeners,” Racaniello says.)
Offering engaging content in a podcast can be an effective way to connect with members. But so can the process of recording the podcast in the first place. That’s something that Kathryn Furtaw Keuneke, CAE, content strategy manager at Million Dollar Round Table, has learned while working on its podcast.
Launched in 2015, the MDRT Podcast spotlights the challenges that its financial-expert members face: finding and managing clients, anticipating trends, expanding one’s business. But rather than build episodes around pre-identified topics, Keuneke lets members take the lead, sharing their concerns in free-flowing recorded conversations.
People will not stay tuned in to something that doesn't sound great.—Jeff Lenard, National Association of Convenience Stores
“We go to cities in the U.S. where we have a lot of members, and we invite them,” she says. “[Those members are] people who are not engaged with our organization or not highly engaged with our organization.” Committee meetings also provide opportunities to talk with more engaged members about their concerns. “We don’t usually think to ourselves, ‘We need to capture this topic,’” she says.
Though the process of gathering podcast fodder is relatively serendipitous, producing an episode requires deliberate steps. MDRT staff members read through transcripts of the recorded conversations and select the portions they want to include. A production firm handles editing, background music, and voiceovers for the intros and “outros.”
The cost in terms of staff time and expense is nominal (see “Sound Investment” on this page). But because MDRT accepts no sponsorship or ad revenue, it’s motivated to keep costs low.
“It’s such a small cost, it’s really not a huge time commitment, and it gets our members together and it gets them sharing their ideas in a different format,” says Keuneke. “Our members are huge on networking, and this is a little bit like listening in to a networking conversation.”
For associations looking to move their podcasts into the black, however, more rigor is essential. Convenience Matters and ASM’s podcasts all run on a weekly schedule without fail. That’s essential for building the reliable audience that attracts advertisers.
Listeners “will come to know that you’re uploading your show on a certain day, and they’ll wait for it to download so they can listen to it on their commute or when they exercise,” Racaniello says. “You can’t disappoint them. As soon as you stop or skip episodes, you lose listeners.”
Racaniello’s podcasts do attract advertising revenue—about $1,500 a month, split 70-30 between him and ASM, depending on who acquires the advertiser. (Racaniello also asks for direct support from listeners, which draws an extra $500 a month.) To avoid any ethical minefields or listener complaints, he doesn’t accept advertising from pharmaceutical companies.
“Most of our advertising … has come across organically,” says Condayan. “Once people realize, hey, we reach a lot of people per episode, or the network as a whole in a month reaches, depending on the month, like 120,000 listeners, that’s quite a niche.”
To keep the audience coming back, successful podcasters also understand how long listeners will stay tuned in. NACS’ Lenard says Convenience Matters stays under a half-hour with commutes in mind.
“We thought, ‘Convenience stores own commutes.’ We sell the fuel. We often sell the breakfast sandwiches, and all the other things that go on in the morning or at night, so let’s try to see if we can make our podcasts [last] about the time of a commute,” he says.
Racaniello’s podcasts, by contrast, often break the 90-minute barrier, though discussions of a particular piece of research can be closer to 20 minutes or half an hour. Even so, he is tinkering with the idea of punchier, more casual episodes for people interested in the subject generally but not in a deep dive into the latest research paper.
“There’s a place for shorter content, and that’s something I’ve been working on and trying to develop,” he says. “I’m thinking of developing a 10-minute infectious disease news type of podcast. I think there’d be a lot of audience for that as well.”
Such room to experiment comes from knowing that you have a substantial audience that a host is willing to engage with. Just like comments on blogs and letters to the magazine, a back-and-forth dialogue with an audience is a key way to keep people listening. That’s something Racaniello makes sure to cultivate by dedicating some episodes exclusively to responding to listener mail.
“Listen to your listeners,” says ASM’s Condayan. “Make sure you go out of your way to engage your listeners so you can get some feedback. We have all-email episodes where we just read questions and comments we have received. This can go on for an hour and a half with the email. We’re still not through all the emails.”
[This article was originally published in the Associations Now print edition, titled "Podcast News."]