Developing a podcasting habit

Of all the things I set out to accomplish in 2014, the most frivolous goal I gave myself was to start regularly listening to podcasts.

Frivolous, because other than "read more books," who makes it a personal goal to consume media? But there I was in January, combing through the Podcasts app on my iPhone in search of new shows to listen to. I also got some great recommendations from friends and colleagues.

Podcasting survived some lean years and now both creates and attracts superstar entertainers. I approached it as a curious outsider, wondering how its ethos differed from the public radio I'm surrounded by every day. Four months in, I'm enjoying my new habit and have a handful of observations as a listener coming late to the party.

Of course, I subscribed to all the obvious podcasts that everyone listens to: WTF, 99% Invisible, The Talk Show, Accidental Tech, How Stuff Works. Each of these are enjoyable, well-produced and often compelling, but they're also pretty ubiquitous so I won't waste time repeating what many others have written.

I also entirely avoided subscribing to public radio podcasts. I get plenty of public radio in my daily routine, and was interested in exploring podcasts as a fringe space, a place that (I hoped) was populated with weirdos wielding microphones.

I currently listen to about 30 different podcasts across a range of topics. Here's a handful obscure or delightful enough to be worth sharing:

  • Storming Mortal: Anže Tomić does great interviews with technologists. He's Slovene, and he combines a bit of an outsider's perspective with a really supple mind. He treats his guests with deep generousity and respect, and his interview style has a refreshing amount of sincerity and depth.
  • Hired: Cameron Moll hosts this great but too infrequent podcast, where he talks to (mainly) designers about leasership, mentoring others and creating company culture. Fantastic stuff for anyone who aspires to design or UX leadership.
  • Why We Listen: Also too infrequently updated, Why We Listen is the smartest and most original podcast I've come across about music. It focuses on the deeply human stories behind the listening habits of artists and musicians.
  • Back to Work: Back to Work is a well known podcast, but I mentionit for two reasons. First, because it's one of the few podcasts that can be irreverent enough to make me genuinely laugh. And second, I'm drawn to how Merlin Mann comingles down-to-earth Buddhist practice with the detritus of a working life.
  • Let's Make Mistakes: Mike Monteiro is a deeply empathetic, ethical designer- a pleasure in the current landscape of glossy Dribbble shots and social app startups. He's also an awesome cranky old man with a soapbox, who is foiled perfectly by the pluck and joie-de-vivre of his co-host, Jessie Char.
  • Meditation in the City: Smart talks from a rotating cast of weekly guests, produced by the Shambhala Meditation Center of New York.
  • Giant Robots Smashing Into Other Giant Robots: Produced by Thoughtbot, GRSIOGR is my favorite podcast done by and for developers. It's willing to dive deep on the technology side, but also frequently reaches beyond the myopic tech scene to pull in guests like Seth Godin and Cards Against Humanity creator Max Temkin.
  • Stratechery Ben Thompson is one of the best tech bloggers writing today, and also has good insights into the busines and mechanics of publishing and journalism. He's just launched the first episode of this podcast, which seems like it will be a space for him to riff on things he's blogging about. Based on what I've heard so far, that's fine by me.

A few non-earth-shattering observations on the state of podcasting as a form:

  • Two hosts seems to be the sweet spot for podcasts. One person podcasts come off like lectures downloaded through iTunesU. More than two hosts and they wind up talking over each other, or their voices all sound too similar to discern.
  • Please, podcasters, get some better bumper music. Most of the lead-in music on podcasts is godawful, embarassingly bad stuff. We desperately need a consortium of recording artists to give their songs away to podcasters as an act of charity.
  • Podcasting feels a little too safe. Though I respect the insane effort it takes to produce a regular podcast, I admit I'm disappointed with the overall lack of ambition and MOR-ness I sensed in most of the shows I've heard. This is a young format with so few constraints, and yet the form seems surprisingly rigid. With a few notable exceptions (Welcome to Nightvale comes to mind), I find myself wondering when podcasting will get its own Joe Frank or Ira Glass.

A final aside: am I the only one whose mind was slightly blown hearing WNYC advertising their new mobile apps on recent episodes of WTF? It shows how influential podcasting has become when one of the most successful public radio stations in the country is paying a guy in a Highland Park garage to help them reach new audiences.

KPCC for iPad: rapidly validating product and editorial ideas

KPCC's new iPad app is approaching its 30th day in the App Store, and its reception so far is encouraging. We've had mostly 5-star ratings in the App Store, promising engagement metrics, and even some positive press in Nieman Lab.

But it could have easily gone another way. Every time I ship something new it feels like a hail mary pass, no matter how much I believe in the idea or how well I think we executed.

Ideas are cheap

Before we started designing and building the app, we wanted to establish an audience-informed product and editorial focus. Because of some logistic setbacks earlier in the project, we had to move quickly or else risk losing momentum. We knew what our editorial strengths were, but when it came to delivering news on a tablet we were unsure what jobs we could do most effectively for our audience. Being a newsroom in flux complicated matters: we had recently unified the broadcast and digital parts of our operation, and were producing more text and visual journalism than ever before. We worried, though, that our audience thought of us only as a radio/audio news brand.

We needed a sign from our audience to point the way, to give us a star to sail our ship by. Since focus groups have well-documented biases towards group-think and social desirability, I knew simply asking our customers "what would you like our iPad app to do?" would be unproductive. And because we were short on time, recruiting research subjects and scheduling user interviews wasn't possible.

Working quickly, we established a set of criteria our product validation step had to meet:

  • The signal from our audience needed to be an strong indication of committment. It wasn't enough for them to merely say "I like this." We wanted to create a set of circumstances that emulated the kind of conversion point we'd see when we went to market (i.e., someone reads the product description in the App Store and decides whether or not to install it).
  • We wanted to test and validate multiple concepts simultaneously. We had an abundance of ideass but lacked clarity, so testing multiple concepts to see if there was a clear "winner" was essential to achieving focus.
  • We had to arrive at results quickly. Given our time constraints, we had to devise a method for validating ideas with our audience that took no more than one week.

The experiment

We settled on running a remote A/B test with a sample population of our current audience, presenting them with four versions of a landing promoting our upcoming app. The design of each page was identical, but we varied the copywriting, presenting a distinct value proposition and key features for the app.

All four versions of KPCC's iPad app landing page experiments, represented as an animated GIF.

All four variations of our landing page experiment, each with a distinct value proposition and feature set.

We crafted value propositions that melded editorial and product strategy, each one promising users a different news experience. We tried to make each concept a distinct and compelling offering. The concepts broke down like this:

  • Live listening and breaking news: "The latest news in Southern California and around the world, from voices you trust."
  • All about audio: "The best listening experience for the public radio you love."
  • End of day reading/listening mix: "Catch up on your favorite programs and the day's news, all in one place."
  • Highly curated: "Breeze through the day's most interesting news, delivered in smart, hand-picked editions."

We set about designing landing pages for each of our concepts, taking care to isolate every variable we could. Each landing page was tagged with Google Analytics and contained a different Mailchimp signup form. We then set up a content experiment in GA so that we could evenly distribute traffic among our four landing pages, tracking conversions along the way.

One of the keys to the experiment was presenting it to the audience without them knowing it was an experiment. We used a variety of channels: social media, website invitations, app banners and email marketing. In every case, ths messaging promised a sneak preview of our upcoming iPad app, while the landing pages offered to notify users when the app launched if they provided us with their email address. So as far as our audience knew, the landing page they were seeing was the only one that existed, and if they liked what they saw, they were giving us their email address in the genuine hope that we would let them know when the app was available.

The outcome

We ran the experiment for seven days, promoting it via different channels in sequence (first by emailing members, then on social media, and finally through KPCC's iPhone app).

The results were fascinating. In the first 4 days of the experiment, our "highly curated news editions" concept was far and away the most popular concept, outperforming other concepts nearly 2:1. That held steady until the final three days of the experiment, when we began promoting the experiment to our current iPhone users. To our surprise, our "all about audio" concept really began to surge in conversions. By the time we concluded the experiment, our curated news and listening-focused landing pages had proved to be nearly equal in popularity.

With our concepts tested, we arrived at our product strategy: We lead with a twice-daily curated news experience (what became the Short List), also making sure there was a great listening experience there for the users who expected it of us. I'm not usually a fan of splitting the difference when it comes to produce strategy, but providing just enough familiarity has proven helpful when easing KPCC's audience into our new digital platforms.