Issue 283,  published November 17, 2020

Who are Audiograms for?

Last week, my eye was caught by a press release about a newly formed partnership between Bitcast, an iOS podcast clip sharing app, and Podcast Notes, a website that summarizes podcasts. The story used phrases like “a new paradigm in social audio” and “podcast clips emerge as an incredibly powerful new medium” — market clichés that were pompous, and still yet largely unproven.

Now, I don’t think this development is especially significant in and of itself: such peripheral startup activity has become the norm in the audio world. What gave me pause, though, was the fact that the press release made me realise that I hadn’t ever seriously interrogated the idea of whether “audio clips” have a meaningful role to play in the way that podcasts are discovered and disseminated.

Over the years, I’ve seen podcasters sharing short sections of podcast episodes on social media, whether via a clip feature within a podcatcher or as a custom made subtitled video. I’ve participated in this practice myself, having even installed WNYC’s audiogram generator from 2016 on my PC when I worked as an in house producer at a magazine in a previous life.

That tool dated from an earlier era — post Serial, pre consolidation — when the so-called “podcast discovery problem” was high up the agenda for shows big and small. It was also the time of the wider media’s (ultimately disastrous) pivot to video, something that was expressed in the documentation for that WNYC tool, which promised to turn audio into video, the “first-class citizen of social media.” At that time, it felt to me like everyone was on the hunt for that silver bullet, one easy implementation that would send download numbers rocketing upwards. The idea of making a longer piece of audio easily visible and shareable seemed perfect for that moment.

Where do things stand today, then, now that the promised land of video has dematerialised and there are so many more big players spending money in podcasting? Some podcatchers, such as Overcast, Castro, and Listen Notes, have inbuilt podcast clip sharing features nowadays, meaning that listeners are able to pick a short moment and publicise it on their accounts. There are also other established services like Headliner and Wavve, explicitly aimed at podcasters wanting to create their own clip assets for marketing purposes. And then there are “social audio” apps like the aforementioned Bitcast that seek to build a brand around the exchange of clips specifically.

Of these three approaches to the audio clip space, it’s the second one that feels to me like it has the most mileage for podcasters. When researching this piece, I found it very difficult to find any independent data on whether the subtitled audio-as-video clips created by tools like Headliner or Wavve actually led to positive impacts on a podcast’s listenership — it just seems not to be information that anyone is collecting in a comprehensive way. There are some slight indicators out there, though, which seem to show at least that social networks’ algorithms react positively to the posting of clips.

Back in 2016, Delaney Simmons, then the director of social media at WNYC, revealed that their “audiogram” clip tool was showing some very positive results for their shows. “On Twitter, the average engagement for an audiogram is 8x higher than a non-audiogram tweet and on Facebook some of our shows are seeing audiogram reach outperform photos and links by 58% and 83% respectively,” she wrote in an August 2016 Medium post. Obviously, that’s just from one publisher’s perspective and impossible to verify externally, but it does seem to track with the way social networks handled posts including video at the time.

For a more contemporary view of this question, I spoke to Oliver Wellington, founder of Headliner, over email. His team does some A/B testing of different clip formats and styles and shares the results on the company’s blog. Perhaps unsurprisingly for in-house research, the results come back pretty positive. “In some of the tests, video has outperformed static images by five times,” Wellington said. “We also ran a survey asking users to report how much Headliner videos have increased their listenership. We got 415 responses, with over 70 per cent of respondents saying Headliner-made videos had helped increase listenership by between one and two times.”

Since WNYC’s tool launched in 2016, Twitter has rolled out the ability to share audio in a post to some iOS users — the “voice tweets” feature was launched in June 2020 and enabled for more users in September. As a podcast marketing option, though, it has yet to take off, and Facebook remains in much the same place regarding adding audio to posts. This is why video clips are necessary, Wellington argued. “As a medium, podcasting is at a disadvantage on social media,” he said. “With a video clip, podcasters are now able to level the playing field and meet listeners where they are, on any social network.”

Both when I was making podcasts for a big magazine and now that I do it by myself, I’ve personally always found that the time investment necessary to make decent-sounding audio clips never seemed to match up with the return. In other words, “make clips” is always on my production to do list, but it almost never gets crossed off.

This is a common problem, according to Wellington, who has apparently seen plenty of podcasters “trying video once or twice and giving up because the initial video or two didn’t perform well.” He added: “Social media is a constant stream of information and posts, you need to put a bunch of stuff out there to figure out what will work, and this can take time.” He recommends trying lots of different clip styles and formats to see what works for your audience.

Lisa Golden, a producer who has been responsible for making audio clips at big publishers like the Guardian and Al Jazeera as well as for her own podcast, told me that she remains somewhat sceptical of the power of these assets to translate into actual downloads. “To be honest, I’ve never seen them push traffic from social to the actual piece of content in any meaningful way,” she said over email. “Even if the clips did well on social, the click through to the actual piece was tiny. For brands that are conscious of numbers/reach, you could collect easy views on these shorter clips to make your overall audience look bigger.”

They’re better viewed as a brand awareness option, she felt, rather than something that directly translates into more listeners. Which “should make you think carefully about why you want them and how much time you’re willing to spend doing it.” Another producer who got in touch with me about this issue, Charles Commins of the Northampton Town FC podcast It’s All Cobblers To Me expressed a similar view, although he sees a value in the clips he makes beyond just as a means to push downloads.

“I’m a big fan of repurposing as a way of reaching as many people as possible. I use audiograms to create a kind of trailer for each individual episode,” he said. “While I can’t say that the audiograms definitely increase my download stats, they do get the podcast more visibility on social media. The idea is that if more people see it, more people will listen.”

While I was looking into this topic, it didn’t escape my notice that it’s often podcasters with smaller shows that are preoccupied with the efficacy of these clips. Or, to put it another way: there are some pretty big shows out there that, to my knowledge, have never posted one. Publishers with social media teams may like them as an additional social marketing tool, and if smaller operations enjoy having them, then it’s up to them to decide whether they’re worth the resources. I felt Lisa Golden summed this up well:

If you want them as a part of a look and feel for your podcast brand online, fantastic. They can make you look more professional as a part of a cohesive social media strategy. If you’re labouring over them in the hope that people will click through to the episode and listen to the whole thing, give them a miss.

As with many of the marketing techniques pushed at podcasters with smaller audiences, social audio clips can suck up a not inconsiderable time that could have been spent on the show itself. After all, sometimes the best podcast marketing tool is making a really good episode in the first place.

Caroline Crampton is a UK based journalist who has been writing about podcasts since 2014. Her journalism has appeared in publications including the Guardian, Lenny, the New Statesman and the Millions. She is a regular speaker and media commentator on the state of the podcast industry.