At NAB, Rob Walch, VP at Libsyn (and a very smart guy) attempted to debunk the “myth” that shorter-length podcasts are more popular than long-form shows. And he did it by sharing Libsyn data indicating that “84% of podcasts with more than 100,000 downloads were more than 51 minutes long while just 9.9% were less than 30 minutes.”
By contrast, tons of largely attitudinal research has shown that listeners want shorter rather than longer shows, and the length of a show is one of the obstacles to its consumption.
So what’s the truth? And can you argue with actual data?
Of course you can.
First, the “myth” isn’t that shorter-length podcasts are more popular than long-form ones. The assertion (not a “myth”) is that shorter, in general, is more appealing than longer to more people. Appeal takes into account potential usage, not simply historical and habitual usage. Rob’s data is purely historical and ignore the vast numbers of folks who listen to podcasts little or not at all.
Second, the more engaged you are in any piece of content the more you generally wish it to last longer. This is what makes a fan different from a casual listener. But without casual listeners you don’t grow new fans.
Third, length arguments skirt around the deeper issue, which is quality. If something isn’t worth listening to it can’t be short enough and if it’s really outstanding an hour is not too long.
Fourth, length is relative not only depending on the quality of the content but on the type of listener introduced to that content. A “new to the show” listener is likely to be more impatient and less tolerant of length than a “faithful fan.” Yet it’s certainly possible that a longer show signals to a new listener that the investment of listening is “too much to bother with” if she lacks the motivation or time to consume 51 minutes of show. While it’s true that any listener can stop listening whenever she wants, if you see a time-code for the show and it’s long, you may believe a little bit of listening is worse than none at all. What other research is really showing is that length is an obstacle for new listeners. Even my own research has shown that.
Focus less on how long your show is and more on how good it is, and how to effectively reach and introduce listeners…
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Fifth, the Libsyn data is using what appear to be ambiguous labels. For example, does “100,000 downloads” mean 100,000 total downloads of all episodes ever, thus giving an advantage to the podcasts with the largest libraries, especially those that have been around a long time, are established, and are likely to come from public broadcasters or those who emulate them and tend to favor the hour-long clock? What about using the show as the basis of measurement rather than the episode (if, in fact, episodes are what’s being measured here)? What about separating established shows from new shows? Repurposed-from-radio shows from original online shows? Professional from amateur? Etc.
Fifth, what is the proportion of shorter to longer podcasts? And do they have fewer episodes to add to the total figures, thus creating a bias against them (if “downloads” represents all downloads of all episodes).
Sixth, it’s quite clear that downloading a podcast and listening to the entire show are not the same thing. I have hours of podcasts which have been passively downloaded but I have barely or never heard, and given that podcasting is driven by power users I am quite sure I’m not alone. And you know which types of podcasts that I am less likely to have heard completely? The longer ones.
So this is not to argue that you should create short or long shows per se. That debate is stupid because the “right answer” depends on the power of the content and the type of listener you’re out to attract. It also ignores how you open your show and tease what’s coming. These programming formatics are not irrelevant, even if they are ignored by too many show-runners.
What is certainly true, however, is that the more unfamiliar a listener is with your show the less likely she is to sample even a minute of it, let along 51 minutes of it. Perhaps to this listener a “shorter ask” will reduce the barrier to listening. Brevity alone is not nearly sufficient to promote sampling, of course, but it helps.
The biggest challenge facing podcasting in general is not show length, it’s the many listening barriers and the ecosystem’s dependence on distribution mechanisms filled with speed bumps and partners with no skin in the game (that’s you, Apple). That’s a big reason why today a relatively small fraction of Americans listen to even one podcast in an average week.
Ponder that as you debate how long or short your show should be.
My advice is to focus less on how long your show is and focus more on how good it is, and how to effectively reach and introduce listeners to it.