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Marketing a Podcast: More Lessons from U Buffalo School of Social Work

Building an audience for a podcast is a major undertaking, as the School of Social Work at the SUNY University at Buffalo has discovered. The school's podcast producers have managed to build theirs through a combination of traditional and guerilla methods, exposing their work to those who can benefit from it and helping to create a more tech-savvy image for their school in the process.

Building an audience for a podcast is a major undertaking, as the School of Social Work at the SUNY University at Buffalo in New York has discovered. The school produces a biweekly podcast titled Living Proof, which features prominent social work professionals, interviews with researchers, and information on emerging trends and best practices in the field of social work. The podcast was developed as part of an effort to reach out to "digital natives" and attract them to social work as an academic pursuit. (You can read part 1 of this two-part series, "Producing a Podcast: Lessons from U Buffalo School of Social Work," by clicking here.)

Marketing can take many forms, but the first is simply making sure the episodes of "Living Proof" are up on the School's Web site in a visible location. From there some marketing takes place automatically. When a podcast is added to the library, a program generates an RSS feed that includes the current episode's information. The Web site is coded to draw from the RSS feed, which means a separate update doesn't have to be done to the Web site pages. That RSS feed alerts subscribers to the existence of a new episode.

Web site functionality is added by Web site developer David Coppola as the ideas surface and get approved. He added a Web form to enable listeners to insert reviews and ratings for an episode, similar to what Amazon offers, and set up a flagging system for visitors to flag inappropriate content. Coppola tends to prefer coding these Web site additions rather than using pre-built widgets or components, which frequently require customization anyway.

The crew has found that when the hosts share comments in the podcasts from the reviews that have been posted to the site, similar to how NPR emcees read listener comments on the air, that encourages more visitors to add their own reviews.

Since August 2009 the school has had a presence in the iTunes U, which also is updated by the RSS feed. Before those additions, most traffic from the outside world came from, a site run by Sonic Mountain that provides an Internet search tool for videos and audios.

The School also has a presence on Facebook, which is updated with the podcast feed as well as other custom feeds for School of Social Work events and news.

A newer initiative, led by graduate student Katie Clark, is to publicize the episodes through social networking sites, particularly Facebook, Twitter, and blogs. Her job is to search for people or organizations that would be interested in a topic being covered by a podcast, then to communicate with them. As she explained, "I say, 'Hey, you or your fans or readers or followers might find this interesting. If you want to link to this Web site, please do so.'"

For example, on Twitter, she searches the site by using the hash mark for a particular theme. For an episode that explored the topic of veterans and post-traumatic syndrome disorder, she searched for #ptsd to find out who was talking about it. Then she contacted the people and groups that focused on the topic and sent a message: "I see you have a lot of followers who are soldiers. PTSD is a hot topic. Maybe they'd find listening to our podcast beneficial or helpful in some way."

The group is cautious. Those involved with the show said they don't want to be accused of spamming people. "There's a fine line," said School of Social Work Dean Nancy Smyth. "When you link up people with something they're interested in, they're appreciative."

Those guerilla marketing efforts are paying off. According to Richard Amantia, the director of technology services, the episode on PTSD has proved to be the most successful download for the podcast.

Within two or three months of launching that social networking effort traffic to the site showed dramatic increases. Also, instead of seeing referrals from just a few sources, they're now being fed from a large variety of links.

The crew has also worked with its major competitor, a blog and podcast called "The Social Work Podcast," produced by Jonathan Singer, an assistant professor of social work at Temple University. But the term competitor isn't entirely accurate. The two entities have presented together at an academic conference and Singer has mentioned "Living Proof" on his show.

The School has also publicized the show by handing out T-shirts, business cards, and flyers at the conferences and training programs it participates in. It has considered experimenting with advertising in Facebook and Google. "We don't pretend to know what we're doing," said Smyth. "We're really stumbling around out there. The work Katie has done has ratcheted up our visibility a great deal."

The podcast group also decided to categorize its episodes by categories, such as "cultural competence," "evidence-based practice," and "children and youth." Then Smyth sent a message out to a national listserv she belongs to that consists of deans and directors of schools of social work, written in a way that it could be forwarded to faculty. Smyth's idea was that special parts of a podcast could be worked into course material for student use, and that's begun to happen. Amantia has seen other institutions' IP addresses show up during his Web site stats monitoring.

During that presentation done with Singer, one of the first questions that was asked, recalled Howard Doueck, professor and associate dean for faculty project development who acts as producer for the show, was, "Can I use this in my course?" Attendees seemed surprised that they could--without charge and without going through a permission process.

Also, he added, U Buffalo's own faculty uses the show in their classes. Some instructors are requiring students to listen to podcasts and write reviews in the review function included on the site.

Lessons Learned
The podcast crew at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work knew it wasn't well prepared when it began its effort to create a bi-weekly podcast on topics of interest in the field of social work. But it learned quickly. Among the lessons learned:

  • Be flexible and creative. Said producer Doueck, "Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Within a two-week time span, we had a recorder stolen that had a podcast still on it that we were planning to post; one interviewer came down with flu; and another person to be interviewed had a death in the family."
  • Have several months' worth of content in the can. Amantia had suggested having six months of material prepared before the show went live. "I thought that was excessive," admitted Smyth. "Others had told me four months. But that's probably good advice. You don't just turn on your recorder and decide you're going live two weeks from now."
  • Make sure you have a committed team. Smyth said, "People lose their energy and enthusiasm over time. When you have more people to share the work, it helps.... People are excited by the project--it's a labor of love and of hate probably at times."
  • Make sure you have sufficient technical resources. That includes both equipment and people. Observed Amantia, "We had our very own powerful Web server and high-end Web development tools. So we had to educate ourselves more on podcasting. We had physical resources. We just needed to develop the skills and processes for handling the podcast." Added Smyth: "We also already had very good technical people here. We really didn't have to add a lot that way. But we did have to add resources as far as students helping us, since time is the biggest resource."
  • Make sure you can express the vision for the podcast. As Smyth explained, "You have to articulate to university administration how this fits within the mission and strategy for the School. I don't talk about this as a public service, although it is a service. I talk about how we're using it strategically to meet goals with the university. Without that, I think I would have gotten a lot more pushback. If people were going to do this and didn't think about how to articulate it within that larger structure, they'd have a hard time."

Mission Accomplished
If the purpose for doing the podcast is to make the School of Social Work at the University at Buffalo more visible among potential recruits, Dean Smyth said she believes it's working. "This is the first year that our doctoral program has had a third of students coming in who are international. Generally it is more regional," she said. "We get feedback from incoming students and faculty candidates who really seem to respond to the content and have heard about us. I don't have any doubt that it's raised our profile."

This school is now considered to be a "tech school," which is ironic, Smyth said. "There are some that offer their entire masters programs online. That's not us. We have online courses, but not a lot of them. They think we were an early school to go onto Facebook, though we're not the only ones." The podcast has been a major part of building that tech rep, Smyth said.

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