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Adding Audio to your New Media

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by Andy McCaskey, Principal

With all of the social media tools at your fingertips, your next challenge is creating and distributing good content about your product and service. A good place to start as you move beyond basic blog posts and photos is to add audio to your content mix, and then promote it with your social media tools.

New Media audio is not just podcasting, but so many people have become accustomed to that term from its traditional media adoption that it's a useful concept.  Podcasting is a form of distribution that burst onto the scene in late 2004 due to the convergence of several factors, including the Apple iPod portable music player (replicated but never equaled by scores of competitors), the rapid rise of broadband penetration, and recognition that distribution of audio content could be automated and attached to popular blogging platforms, notably Wordpress. Most potential listeners still had poor connectivity, so the process of alerting a subscriber's computer to new content, slowly downloading overnight to the computer hard drive and then pushing to a portable player was a clever solution to the needs of the time.  Apple iTunes quickly became the standard “podcatcher” on both Windows and Apple computers, performing the function automatically once a listener subscribed a podcast.

New Media audio is still often distributed in this original podcast subscription/download model, but that is rapidly changing. Until 2012, the process generally depended upon interaction with Apple iTunes platform on either a Mac or a PC, and a cumbersome docking procedure, in order to get new content onto the device. It is now being rapidly replaced by so-called “Podcatcher Apps” on Android and iPhone smartphones.  These apps allow content to either stream directly to the device through the background 3G or LTE connection, or be pushed directly to the app whenever WiFi is available, bypassing iTunes completely.

The most effective new media content is content that is highly relevant to the community member (formerly known as the audience). The frictionless goal is to make that content available on demand at the time, place and screen/device of choice when that person wants the information.  In many situations - exercising, driving, walking - the screen of choice is in fact no screen, because visual information is either irrelevant or unwanted. That's the ideal connection scenario for audio.

New Media audio applications are not limited to the mobile device. Audio can be embedded in websites, blog posts, or emails. Audio can be distributed - along with supporting text and photographs on USB thumb drives, or credit card sized variants. Audio can be embedded in modern electronic versions of magazines. However, as connectivity increasingly becomes a part of the baseline environment for business, online distribution and streaming capability are key expectations. Your audience will expect mobility as a part of the mix, and you need to proceed with that in mind.

Getting started in creation of audio content begins with planning. The most effective new media content is never scripted, but it is certainly planned - using an outliner, mind map or pencil and paper to identify the ideas, order and sequence. A beginning, middle, end, and call to action are just as important in New Media audio as in any other form of business communications. 

More importantly, in your planning you need to focus on the consistency of the experience. One of the main advantages of new media audio is that, unlike formal radio or TV you are not restricted to any particular length.  The temptation is to keep rolling and add just "one more thing". You will find, however, that consistent content published on a regular schedule with a consistent length will be far and away more effective than irregular publication of audio content of variable length.

Generally shorter-form content is best, unless you have a rabid audience of enthusiasts that cannot get enough information quickly enough. Keep in mind that the average commute in the US is around 21 minutes. Add-in time for on- and off-ramps or changing trains and you can see that most 40 minute audio podcasts are going to be consumed elsewhere, or not at all.  It’s difficult to find a full hour without interruption, so as a rule, shorter is better. One of our podcast series on sales training topics is limited to five minutes, for that exact reason. It comes-in to within a few seconds of the expected length in every episode.

Effective recording can be done with minimal equipment. Many long established audio podcasts (including my original production Slashdot Review in October 2004) began with a $20 gamer microphone and Dell laptop. The free online audio editor Audacity (available in PC or Mac) is still the low cost standard, as well as a free program Levelator that reduces the complex audio engineering essentials to a drag and drop operation.

Conditioning of the recording environment is crucial. Most office and home settings will initially be unsuitable, but can be adapted. You may not realize that you have access to a fantastic and well-appointed sound recording studio - if a bit cramped: the interior of a (parked) family minivan. With the recording capabilities of your laptop, and less than $150, a basic microphone mixer can add a second channel. From there, the sky is the limit, catered to by vendors offering multiple equipment packages.

There are numerous online sources of information to quickly get some of your staff onboard with the mechanics of podcast recording, editing and encoding. For remote interviews, the Skype system is used by most podcasters, although the complexity of multiple locations can drive the studio costs and particular attention necessary for audio quality into sound engineer territory. Just insure that the audio file is in mp3 format, instead of the obsolete Microsoft wma format and that the identifying tags, known as id3 have been attached.

Most enterprise level websites are not going to permit access to the web page code, so you need to provide the audio in embed form. The publication of a podcast attached to a blog post is a simple process, much like attaching a photo to an email – but the audio file must be hosted elsewhere, on a server not connected to your web site. Commercial services like Blubrry or Wizard Media can inexpensively host your audio content, assist you in iTunes listing if desired, and most importantly deliver metrics to you on subscription rates, downloads and geographies. Basic measurement services are free of charge, and highly recommended to help you understand how your podcast is being used. It is also possible for you to work directly with Amazon S3 for cloud based implementations and the Content Delivery Network (CDN) for more elaborate systems, but that is usually well beyond the scope necessary for most podcasts.

Podcasts do not have to be public in nature. They can be secured or obscure and need not be listed on iTunes to communicate with a select audience.

For smaller organizations with direct access to website details, the Wordpress content management system (CMS) is by far the easiest implementation of podcast delivery. Minimal implementations are possible on other CMS systems (Joomla and Drupal), but they are literally years behind the Wordpress ecosystem in their support of the technology.

Consistently relevant content, regular publication, and consistent length are some of the elements essential to new media audio production. As we will see in our next installment, video follows the same rules.

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