Several conferences I was scheduled to attend have been canceled in the past week. All of the sponsors cited an abundance of caution in the face of the unknown consequences of coronavirus transmission and outright COVID-19 pneumonia.
That’s all to the good, but we need to get business done even in the face of the virus, because business has to propel itself forward or individual companies wither. It’s bad enough that manufacturers have supply chain worries from this. The software industry doesn’t have to succumb to the same issues if we find workarounds.
In my previous column, I made the point that Web-based meeting solutions like WebEx emerged from the dot-com bust when people needed to find ways of meeting but also needed to lose the expense of traveling. That market signal gave innovators the impulse they needed to bring together an array of technologies to produce an innovative response to the signal.
I think the market is providing an important, but different, signal today to help vendors get over the hump of canceling conferences due to the virus. It’s podcasting. Before you say, “yeah, we know about podcasting” — that’s the point.
Innovation in Search of Disruption
In some ways podcasting is an innovation looking for something to disrupt. So far podcasting has been something individuals have used to publicize their own interests. Right-wing talking heads podcast and so do left-leaning influencers and comedians like Marc Maron. They have shows, sometimes daily, that you can tune into at your leisure because they’re recorded providing an important measure of asynchronicity.
The podcast is the exact tool that vendors should get behind to deliver at least some of the messages they had planned for their canceled conferences. You might think that all you really need to do is record the presentations that would have been given at a conference and you’ll be done. While that’s a good first step it might not be enough for a couple of reasons.
First, a typical OpenWorld, Sapphire or Dreamforce will contain thousands of presentations, enough to keep someone busy just watching them for years. Smaller shows like Oracle MBX and Salesforce Connections will contain hundreds of presentations at a minimum, so just plastering the Internet with your presentations will overwhelm your customers.
Second, companies pay good money to attend shows by footing the bill for expensive admissions, travel, accommodations and entertainment. There’s an expectation of seeing and meeting with others who have similar interests and of watching and listening to the give-and-take when experts converge in roundtable discussions.
Finally, there are keynotes to consider. The keynote is the place where the vendor’s executives give the official line on new product innovations and service availability, and it’s there that a personal touch is needed.
The keynote should act as an index for the event, and some vendors do a better job than others on this. A podcast substituting as a keynote is better than nothing, and it will set up the last library of recorded presentations in a cohesive and comprehensive order. So a vendor’s podcasting career should begin there.
How would that work? A vendor podcast shouldn’t look or sound like a political production, and it needs some boundaries that are distinct from what we see in some current podcasting. Following are some ideas that might serve as starting points.
I asked Steve Gillmor — a technology commentator, editor and producer in the enterprise technology space — to share some of his expertise. For clarity and full disclosure, Gillmor is also head of technical media strategy at Salesforce and a TechCrunch contributing editor.
First of all, mobile devices can play a big part in podcasting, significantly reducing what Gillmor calls the “friction” involved in production. Our humble handhelds represent a studio, supporting editing, playback and storage for the final product.
Companies like Anchor, and others on the various app stores, now offer packages that combine all of that, greatly reducing the overhead involved. That benefits all parties, especially small producers and hobbyists. It also can be a boon to companies that need to hit the ground running, because the technology is really good and makes professional sounding podcasts.
“The studio becomes virtualized through the available technology,” Gillmor explained. “Modern podcasting leverages the phone and its microphone, obviously. But it’s accessing the network that the phone provides, and it’s allowing the people at the other end to be able to do the same thing that’s virtualizing the studio and the costs that go with it.”
Recording is only the first part, and though you could publish a raw recording you’ll probably want to polish it through audio editing.
“If you’re a Mac fan, or an Apple fan, like I am, you can load it into GarageBand,” Gillmor told me. Other sounds, like your theme music, are easy to source if you want to do the full NPR.
So, suffice to say, modern podcasting platforms can reduce if not eliminate the overhead and time delays that were inherent in starting a podcast only a few years ago.
You’ll need a way to let your peeps know about your podcast, so a vendor with a good customer list has an advantage. Knowing who your customers are means you don’t need to troll around to find listeners the way any new podcaster would.
Most vendors simply email their customers and that’s fine, but notifications might be even better. Notifications can be short, sweet and quick.
“I think that Twitter and to some extent, LinkedIn are the most effective ways of communicating awareness of podcasts,” Gillmor said.
The Right Content
Those are at least some of the nuts and bolts, and maybe the biggest ones. Next we need to consider content and how to make it. When considering conference presentations, we often think about slideshows and predetermined timeframes, like an hour. You can do that with a podcast but not necessarily every time.
Think of your podcast as a chance to go one-on-one with customers. Practically, that’s not right, because your podcast is intended to be a broadcast — but customers should feel like you’re speaking just to them. You’re in the ears of one person at a time and that promotes intimacy, so take advantage of the opportunity.
A podcast is a show and it needs some of the production values of shows that people are accustomed to. This likely means that your chief-whiz-bang officer (CWO) shouldn’t go on alone. Your CWO is not a broadcaster. A chief’s talents typically lie in understanding tech and making sure it gets delivered to the market on time and defect-free. So, don’t burden this person with an ask outside his or her skillset.
A good podcast, in this case, needs a person to function as interviewer for two reasons. First, the interviewer can steer the conversation providing conversational filler if needed and ensuring all of the major points of the session get covered. Second, having two people conversing naturally brings in the audience, making the whole production more relatable.
You may need a script, but not a script like a Shakespearean play. You need just enough to list the topics you’ll cover and their order.
Gillmor’s early experience in the field includes producing “The Firesign Theatre” comedy troupe.
“They sound like it’s an improvisation but in fact, it’s very tightly scripted and resulted in something that effectively sounded like a roundtable conversation,” he told me.
That’s the balance you need to strike.
This sounds obvious — a podcast has to end sometime after all. The point here is to use only the time needed to get the idea across. Think of the audience member who might need to listen to multiple sessions. For that person you need to ensure you don’t take a full hour or even 45 minutes on things that can be said in 15.
Here’s a good way to find your limits, and this time it is to look to Shakespeare. I have no data on this so it must be true: Most plays have three acts, and for good reasons each act has a different length.
The first act settles the audience and sets the table for what you’re going to discuss. The second act contains the meat of the discussion. It might introduce one or more business problems and solve them with your new product iterations, for example. Then, Act 3 should summarize and send the audience on its way to live happily ever after. Cue the credits.
My Two Cents
Podcasting is not a universal solution for everything in the business world, but it can become an effective approach to communicating with customers during these travel-challenged and virus-tinged times. In the future I expect podcasting will become as important to some companies as owning and operating a website. Why not start now?
Making good and successful podcasts takes a little work. There’s plenty of affordable technology available today, and by adopting a few production rules any business can spin up a credible service.
Plan a broadcast using an interviewer with your experts. Script the event to the extent you feel comfortable. Then keep the clock in mind only to the extent that you quit once the message is complete and you are sure you haven’t wasted anyone’s time.
Last, you might want to edit your production using an audio editor to help shape it and reduce dead air.
If you do all that you’ll have good podcasts — and you might even be initiating a new service for engaging customers.