Leadership

Why Podcasting Works for Leading (and Leaders)

By / Dec 12, 2016 (iStock/Thinkstock)

Executives aren’t always expert tweeters and bloggers. But in podcasting, they likely have a natural fit.

When it comes to messaging, sometimes we’re slow to get the message.

Associations stress out a fair bit about their content strategy—a term I don’t exactly love, because it applies a lot of gravitas to what was once more simply called “communications.” But many meeting hours get filled discussing appropriate channels, proper tone, timing, and so forth. One level, I get it: Budgets and time are limited, members and stakeholders can be easily confused about what your association is up to on a good day, so a little extra effort toward clarity can help.

But on another level, I wonder if some associations have absorbed the lessons about communications we’ve learned in the past decade or so. I think about this in the context of my feature story on association podcasting in the latest issue of Associations Now. While speaking with the three associations that are trying their hand at the form, I had flashbacks twice over. The first one was to circa 2005, when blogging had become a real-deal phenomenon, and associations and corporations were wringing their hands over whether their leadership should get involved. Five years later, and they were having the same concerns over using social media.

Today many association staffs are likely having the same labored communications talks—sorry, “content-strategy blue-sky f2f sessions”—about whether a podcast might be worth their effort. And the answer is the same as it’s ever been: Anything that introduces an audience to your leaders and experts about what your association is passionate about is a good thing.

Consider the case of This Week in Microbiology, the most well-established and largest of the three I wrote about. The podcast was originally the passion project of a microbiologist, Dr. Vincent Racaniello, who later caught the attention of the American Society for Microbiology, which now helps produce and distribute TWiM and other related podcasts. The podcast is professionally recorded, and Racaniello is an avuncular host; I’ve enjoyed listening to the show even though microbes don’t rank high on my list of interests. But good production values just provide some shapeliness to what’s the truly important part of the show: experts in the field chatting about what’s new and relevant to their work.

“If you’re trying to build a loyal committed audience, I don’t think there’s another medium that really does it quite as well.”

“We have a couple of working microbiologists discussing a paper,” Racaniello told me. “It’s really a conversation. It’s like you sat down over coffee or lunch in your department and you say, ‘Hey, did you see that paper?’ You talk about it for a half hour. That’s what we’re doing. Everybody’s chipping in. You don’t have to actually slog through the methods and the results. You don’t have to look at all the figures.”

That casual style, rooted in expertise, is what’s given the podcast a broad audience, and one that’s inspirational to people who are not in your industry. Listeners, Racaniello says, “write all the time and say, ‘Your show has made me want to be a microbiologist. How do I do this? What do I do next?’” Because your mission statement likely involves something about promoting the value of your industry, ASM’s lesson is a valuable one for a lot of associations.

Well, “valuable” in a broad sense—ASM has attracted advertising revenue through its podcasts, but the dollar figures are modest, and most associations don’t have the same luck. But there, too, I’m having flashbacks to the days of tedious conversations about the “ROI of social media” and skeptics huffing that if all that blogging and tweeting wasn’t going to make money, it wasn’t worth doing. Eventually, we’ve learned (more or less) that the value of all of these tools is in building bases of advocates who may invest in your efforts down the line—becoming a member, attending a meeting—but who won’t do any of those things if they don’t know who you are.

Chris Condayan, a producer at ASM, put it straightforwardly to me: “If you’re trying to build a loyal committed audience, I don’t think there’s another medium that really does it quite as well as podcasting does,” he says. “They’ll listen to an episode and if they don’t like it, they’ll go away. If they like it, they’ll continue to listen and they get quite attached. We have serious fans out there.”

There’s one minor but important difference between podcasting and blogging and social media, though, at least when it comes to leaders. I never really thought it was particularly important for CEOs to blog and tweet. It’s not a bad idea, but not every CEO is a natural writer, especially in terms of the peculiarity of those forms, so their efforts could be a potentially negative thing if the posts looked overly manicured and, well, effortful. But podcasting is talking, and leaders know talking; the popularity of podcasting speaks to people’s interest in hearing experts speak in their own voice, and executives speaking at once off-the-cuff and authoritatively about your work can mean a lot in terms of a listener’s perspective on an organization. Better still, it can connect you to audiences outside of the bubble of the industry, and provide opportunities that more mainstream radio outlets may consider your work too niche for.

Podcasts aren’t magic bullets in terms of engagement and revenue. But they’re here as much as magazines and Facebook posts are. The content-strategy on this is simple: Get out there and start talking.

What has your association done in terms of podcasting? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. More »

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