Reading Is Faster Than Listening, So Why Would Anyone Listen to Your Podcast?
It’s true: If you want to download information straight to your brain, and you don’t live in The Matrix, then your quickest path between not knowing and knowing is to read something. Or, better yet, scan it.
And that’s the issue we face as podcasters: We need to keep in mind that other mediums exist, and that other options are available, for our audience to acquire knowledge.
So why would anyone listen to our podcast? To successfully make the case for audio, our podcast needs to have something unique: a distinct and different purpose than the one that compels the audience to read articles and books.
We need to avoid that knee-jerk reaction that, if we’re honest with ourselves, we know some folks have when they encounter our show:
“Wait, 45 minutes for me to learn this stuff? Can’t I just scan the transcript? Do you publish the key takeaways anywhere? Is there a blog post about this instead?”
If that is what they’re thinking, then we’re better off not publishing a podcast at all. We’ve made the experience a chore. They’re asking for a shortcut. They don’t want to endure the process of consuming our show.
To quote the great philosopher Sir Scoobeth of Doo: “Rut roh!”
So what does it take to create a podcast others actually want to hear? For starters, our efforts must focus on the “hear” part, i.e., the experience. That’s the punchline in all of this. For us to create a show others would select, we need to create a better experience than they could find by not listening. In fact, the experience must be such a draw and so enticing and worthy of their time that they willingly decide to spend more time with our podcast than they know they’d spend with a blog post. We need to make the experience of listening — not the resulting knowledge gained from listening — the point.
How can we do this? Here are four ways you can entice your audience to choose to listen instead of read.
1. The value offered inside your podcast can’t be transactional in nature.
I’ve been in more than one debate, both on- and offline, about this central feature of podcasts: they demand more time from the audience than does reading the same content. When a marketer debates why anyone would invest so much time listening to a podcast, or when a member of your audience hints at wanting a list of 10 steps or a summary of key takeaways in text form, they both reveal the truth: When we create content, we’ve been primed to think about transactional value, not transformational value.
Transactional value: How to build a skyscraper.
Transformational value: How to be a great architect.
Transactional value is just that: a transaction. Listeners seeking transaction value don’t want the experience of acquiring the value, the information or insights or story — they just want to be done already. They’d rather use that technology from The Matrix and get something downloaded straight to their brain than endure 30 minutes of your podcast episode about the same subject.
The issue isn’t that podcasting is less efficient, or text is more efficient. The issue is that podcasting is better suited to deliver value that isn’t by nature transactional. If all you do is share tips-and-tricks, you’ll greatly diminish the number of people who will tolerate the prolonged listening experience and value how memorable or impactful it is.
(It turns out it doesn’t matter if someone knows the blueprint if they’ve never been trained to see the work like a true architect.)
Many podcasters — and marketers in general — believe the lone type of content they should share is transactional. That’s what ranks on search. That’s what people overtly ask them for. That’s what we can think up more easily in a brainstorm meeting. So when a podcast is used to deliver transactional value, it makes total sense that they would eventually seek a shortcut, like a transcription, or wishing the creator would just write a blog instead of run a podcast.
When we make that kind of content, the experience of consuming it is no longer the point. I’d liken this to the writer Tim Urban, creator of Wait But Why, who describes his process of delivering a TED Talk:
“When they asked me to do a TED Talk, I was excited. It was always a dream of mine to have done a TED Talk in the past.”
When all you want is the benefits, and the process or the experience itself feels like a chore, or daunting, or even boring, the goal is to “have done it.” Thus, a podcast sharing only transactional value prompts listeners to wish they could say about an episode, “It’s a dream of mine to have listened to this in the past.”
The thing is, there are some other, very powerful types of content that can and should be delivered in podcast form to truly serve an audience: stories, deep and cathartic and honest conversations, philosophies and metaphors and challenges to our conventional wisdom, heuristics and ideas that fundamentally teach us to see and think differently and better.
So, first and foremost, to give our podcast a distinct and different purpose to listeners than an “audio blog post,” we need to go beyond simple tips and tricks and instructions. We can provide transformational value, whether in the topics we cover and words we say, how we talk about it all, or how we make them feel throughout the experience.
Shows must be experiential, and experiences are about just that: a great experience, the process of consuming it and being present in that moment for its own sake, not wishing you could extract the benefits and just move on.
The benefit of a great show is the experience of consuming the show.
To understand the true value of a podcast, we suggest reading A CMO’s Business Case for Shows: Data and Ideas to Get Buy-In. It’s crafted in part as a logical pitch for why a brand would run a show, and it includes both industry stats and quotes from our interviews with marketing’s brightest showrunners.
Along those lines of a show’s experience being the draw…
2. Your podcast must be entertaining.
The goal of great marketing isn’t to get more people to arrive. It’s to get the right people to stay. It’s about depth and resonance, subscription and time spent — not merely more impressions or “awareness.” Said another way, we are in the business of giving others a reason to choose and return to our work. In a world of infinite choice, people only choose what they enjoy most.
This is my biggest problem with marketers publishing full-episode transcriptions. If an episode’s transcript works just fine as a standalone blog post, the show isn’t entertaining enough. Think about what a transcription strips away from the experience of the show: tone, pauses for effect, sound, music, the emotion behind the words, the carefully crafted pace of the experience, and more. Think of what you’d miss if you read a transcript of your favorite TV show. The entertainment value alone should be enough of a pull that people don’t want to read a transcription instead. It shouldn’t also work as a standalone article when left unchanged. A podcast episode should feel like something else entirely, not merely an audio blog post.
To be sure, there are a few good reasons to transcribe an episode: accessibility, SEO, and for superfans who want a relic of the episode to refer back to later. But if your audience repeatedly chooses to read a transcript (or demands it) rather than listen to the episode, it’s likely a sign that you have an entertainment problem.
3. Your podcast strategy should include a recurring, logical publish time.
Often, we think about “day” instead of “time.” We’ll publish on Tuesdays each week, because *shrug* reasons. But when I say “time,” I do mean that: a given time of day, not merely a given day.
Podcasts are the only type of content you consume while physically looking at the world around you. You can’t read an article or watch a video and walk around the city (and good grief, if you do, I should be able to stop in my tracks and just … let you walk into me). You’d also be hard-pressed to read or watch something while washing dishes or taking the dog out. You certainly can’t consume other content while driving (insert another “good grief, please no” disclaimer but in 1,000-point font). Podcasts are multitask-friendly, for better or worse. So, survey the typical day and week your audience likely experiences, and think about where you fit in.
For instance, 3 Clips, our show deconstructing great podcasts, releases super early on Monday mornings each week. Why? Our show takes a bit of a challenger-style approach to teaching podcasting. With it, we want to inspire people and push them to be better. We encourage a kind of “blank canvas” thinking.
I think the best time of the week to engage with this type of content — i.e., the purpose of our show — is when you’re starting a brand new week.
Other shows, for instance Pivot from Kara Swisher and Scott Galloway, might be a nice way to wrap up the week. They cover news, reflect backwards a few days, and use a blend of humor and irreverence (not to mention a lengthy episode) more suited for the bar than the boardroom. That feels like a Friday in corporate America to me! (Pivot now releases a second weekly episode on Tuesdays, and it’s a carbon copy of their Friday episodes. However, with that new, second time, they have a real opportunity to tweak the episode format and purpose so it better fits the cadence of the workweeks and lives of their listeners. For instance, maybe it’s shorter, or focused on going deeper into one topic versus summarizing several news stories. What would serve the audience best on a Tuesday morning, versus a Friday morning?)
Podcasts already have a distinct use case that’s different than reading: They’re great for when you physically can’t read. We can take this one step further to make our podcasts integral parts of our listeners’ weekly routines. If we’re proactive about when we publish and why, we can make more effective creative choices about things like runtime, tone, and topics.
There’s no one right time to publish. It all depends. Largely, it depends on your audience, but it can also be useful to survey the competitive landscape of your niche. To help, browse The World’s Biggest List of Branded Podcasts and Video Shows.
4. Your podcast should be focused on going deeper with some of your audience, not merely accruing more “reach.”
The last distinct and different purpose of podcast (especially compared to text) has to do with the Venn diagram overlap of the technical and the emotional.
From a technical standpoint, blog posts are easier to use to grow audience reach, whereas podcasts struggle to fly but excel at deeper resonance.
Blog posts rank well on search. They get shared rather easily (and quite often) on social. Search and social media form the two largest broadcast technologies on the planet right now. (Cue marketers complaining that these aren’t for pure “broadcast.” But let’s be real: It’s how marketers use them.)
Podcasts don’t benefit from the discoverability and shareability of blog posts. Google is only now beginning to experiment with ranking audio in its results (embedded episode players). Even then, they point listeners to the vastly underused Google Podcasts. (About 65% of our 3 Clips listeners come from Apple Podcasts, followed by Overcast, Stitcher, and Spotify, in that order. Google doesn’t even show up in the top 5, and we appeal to a rather digitally savvy, Google-obsessed crowd: content marketers.)
So podcast episodes don’t really benefit from search rank like blog posts do, so discovery is worse and reach is harder. The content around a podcast, like blog posts and landing pages, are what truly ranks, which only adds friction for audiences: viewing, clicking, opening or downloading apps, and listening.
They also don’t benefit much from social. Like search rank, it’s the content around a show that gets shared (articles, landing pages, audiograms, quote graphics). The episodes themselves aren’t shared as often. I blame both the clunky and buried social sharing functionality of most podcast apps, and the deep-linking issues audiences face when clicking those links. (I don’t know how many times a social media app has tried to redirect me to the browser version of iTunes to then download Apple Podcasts — an app that I not only use already, but that comes pre-installed on iOS. It’s a miserable experience, and it kills conversion.)
So, technically speaking, podcasts stink at accruing broad reach.
Emotionally speaking, they’re also expressly designed for resonance, not reach. A podcast isn’t scannable, so we can’t treat it like it is (hence this entire article existing). A podcast — or better said, a show — is built to create a passionate audience by going deep with both the material and that audience. Podcasts are like trust accelerants. They create the intimate feel of a one-to-one relationship, just at slightly larger scale. However, podcasts aren’t built with the goal of scaling.
Think of it like this: A funnel is the shape we often use to describe marketing content. Using this framework, organizations want to dump more people into the top of the blog (e.g., rank higher on search, create more viral pieces, promote articles more heavily — drive more “traffic”). Then, over time, some people stick continue to stick around, subscribe via email, and turn into leads or customers.
But that’s not how a podcast works. Don’t think of it as a funnel. Think of it as a series of concentric circles. The podcast starts by serving a small subset of an overall audience really deeply. That’s the tiny circle in the middle. Then, because they adore the show and the brand and develop passion and trust, that tiny group helps spread the show to a slightly larger circle via word-of-mouth. And so on and so forth.
So, in the end, I guess it doesn’t matter that some people prefer to read than listen to our show. Our show isn’t for everyone. It’s designed to go deep with a few people, not spark a casual interaction with more.
Understanding how depth with a smaller audience leads to actual business results can be tricky. Learn about the 1 mentality shift and 1 metric we can use to do so.
Reading will always be quicker than listening in order to acquire knowledge. Given that fact, we have a new, more nuanced aim with our podcast: We aren’t in the business of simply sharing knowledge. We are in the business of creating experiences others choose. The job is to create something genuinely worthy of a larger time investment than scanning for a list of ideas.
When you tinker on your show, make the process of creating something great your goal. Because if you aren’t focused on the process, how can you expect audiences to be?
That is our real goal. Make something so good, they can’t ignore it. Give it a distinct and different purpose than anything they can get anywhere else.
Because that is why anyone would choose to listen.
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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