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Ewan Spence

#BlameVikkisCancer – The Power Behind a Hashtag and Social Networks

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What is Facebook good for? What is Twitter good for? Now I know…

Two weeks ago my wife was diagnosed with cervical cancer. The hospital called us four hours after I stepped off the flight back from South by Southwest. For a few minutes, I didn’t know what to do, how to handle the emotions that were set off by the word ‘cancer’, and I needed to be there for Vikki.

Then I found my anchor. Drew Olanoff.

By that I don’t mean that he mysteriously appeared to hold our hands, but having watched him in his documented and public fight against his own cancer, rallying his friends around the hashtag #BlameDrewsCancer, and the subsequent work with the Livestrong charity, I had my life raft.

“That’s how Drew fought it,” I thought, “and I can’t think of a better example or guide than that.” Time has moved on, but those first few days I held on to the attitude of Drew while I learned to cope.

We found another benefit as well in being so open about the diagnosis. After speaking to our family and close friends, we posted the news online, through our blogs, through Facebook and on Twitter. And as the comments came in, with their mix of sorrow and best wishes, it was good to know Vikki (and I) have so many friends who are thinking about us, and supporting us in the fight. And of course we now have #BlameVikkisCancer.

Our communities online offer more than the words in the timeline or the Twitter stream, they offer support, they offer strength, and they offer reassurance.

Remember That a Podcast is Just One Tool in Your Online Armoury

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During the January just past, as people look at their New Year resolutions and decided to try out some new projects, I’ve had quite a few people come up to me (okay, pinged me on IM, but you get the idea) and ask about starting a podcast. While many of them are looking for more technical details, I’ve always asked them what they’re looking to get out of the podcast.

I’m trying to figure out if a podcast is the right thing for them.

In many circumstances, people are looking to explore the podcasting space, to find out how it all works, to see how they get on with it, and have a bit of fun. There’s nothing wrong with that – one of my popular podcasts started as a few shows on my personal blog and it eventually became too big for me to not notice the traffic and “spin it out” to its own site.

But for a long time that show was just a hobby, with it’s own little corner of my website. And while I have long running shows that are nothing more than a weekly podcast posted on a basic blog, that’s a great place to start and learn the ropes. But if anyone is looking to start up a podcast with a serious goal in mind to be noticed and get coverage, I always come back to the same piece of advice.

A podcast will rarely stand alone.

And if you think about it, you would never start a new site and not have an RSS feed. You wouldn’t ignore Facebook, or Google Plus. You’d make sure to have a Twitter account. I’d argue that providing a podcast, be it audio or video, is one of those tools. It’s rare that a podcast will be the only tool you use (just as it is rare a Twitter account would be the only tool you use), but it can be an important one.

It provides a voice to your site, and a regular spot to engage directly with your readers. It allows a different type of discussion to be taken, it provides continuity and regularity if done well, and keeps your readers interested in your content. The podcast is a surgical tool, but it’s one that is easy to wield. And in my opinion there are very few circumstances where a podcast would not help improve a site.

The Power of Community in Your Podcast

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Christmas is a time for giving, and that’s true for your online communities as well as family and friends in real life. Just before the holidays started I was reminded of the connection that a show can have between the listeners and the producers.

This time, I was the listener, and looking forward to the Christmas show from Radio International. It’s one of a number of sites based around the Eurovision Song Contest, and hosts a weekly podcast and radio broadcast in the Netherlands, and a few days before the festive broadcast I learned that JP, the host, wouldn’t be able to run the Christmas show – one that everyone was looking forward to.

So I volunteered.

Was it the same show that JP would have put out? I suspect not – a three hour show, with music, chat, and news has its own vibrancy derived from the host in the chair. Besides, I was sitting in the Belgian studio with JP’s music collection, but up in Edinburgh with a slightly more esoteric Scottish flavoured collection.

But with some help from many of the listeners I reached out to, a playlist was put together, guests were told of the new arrangements, and I sat down with a few spare hours and made sure that Radio International had their weekly show.

The community contributed to the show in the best way possible, and for me that was one of the best shows I have done. It also shows that everyone’s online shows are about more than a one to many broadcast – they are about personal connections, interactions, and friendships that flow in both directions.

That’s what makes new media so unique, special, and personal. And that’s what makes it an amazing space to continue to explore as we head into the new year.

Have a Million SIM cards, Will Travel

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The last few weeks have seen me bouncing around Europe as I cover various bits and pieces for the Eurovision Song Contest. Running a regular podcast on that subject means that I had lots of content to post, and with the events, lots of news and social media to interact with.

Which is why my first job on landing at an airport has been to find a local SIM card for my smartphone.

Yes there are some cute options for roaming data, but let’s take Armenia as example. Using my Orange UK SIM card while in the capital city of Yerevan I could roam at £5.50 per megabyte. In the local currency that’s just shy of 4000 dram a megabyte. Or I could walk into the high street store, show my passport, and walk out with a local SIM that would charge just 5 dram a megabyte.

One of these options is going to be for “a real emergency” while another will allow me to stay connected, to reply to Twitter messages, to keep up to data on Facebook, post to my blog, moderate comments…

…and let me upload my podcasts.

Yes, there’s every chance that I can find some wi-fi or use a hotel lobby, but that’s never guaranteed, and in any case it’s still cheaper to go with a local mobile number and the data charge than it is to pay for twenty four hours of hotel wi-fi. The rise of international SIM services can help, but these are still mostly geared to voice, and not data. Those that are can rarely compete with local prices.

If all goes to plan, I’ll be bouncing round Europe for the next three months, and in my bag will be a little collection of SIM cards, each with enough credit for a weekend of “unlimited” browsing on my mobile phone (which doubles as a hotspot). It’s all well and good being able to get stories, but it’s even more important to know you can get them onto the web without relying on anyone else or breaking the bank. Because if you have a great post about a tree falling in the woods that you can’t get online, then did the tree even fall?

BlogWorld is Over, But Your Work is Not Yet Done.

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blogworld keynote

Run the checklist, is your life anything like mine at the moment: Tired limbs, sore heads, great memories and a box full of business cards, notes and scrawled twitter handles…

Yes, the LA Blog World Expo is over, but that doesn’t mean you can start planning #bweny for 2012 just yet. To get the most from your conference, it’s time to do some follow-up, and make sure that the connections you made at the Convention Centre continue to work for you. Here are three easy steps to keeping the Blog World Expo moments alive for the rest of the year, and beyond.

First up, decide who you are going to reconnect with. I know the temptation is to go through all the collected business cards and say “Hi I met you at Blog World”, but I’ve always sent emails that either finish a discussion with an action point, or have some content that needs auctioned.

By all means send the personal ones out (especially if you can’t find them on Twitter or Facebook!), but there is nothing wrong in not following up with someone if there is no fit with you away from the exhibition hall floor – the exception being if you couldn’t give them details and you need to give them your details.

Go through the cards, file the ones that need to be filed, and action the rest.

Keep those first emails short and snappy – everyone is recovering from the Conference, so a quick one line reminder as to who you are, and what you’d like to do next. Be it a guest blog post, explore some licensing opportunities, or asking for a price list, make a clear action point.

Chances are, with all these follow-ups going around, you’ll have some yourself to answer. In which case answer them with the same focus, but place a deadline on it. For example, “thanks for getting back to me to ask for the pricing, here’s the PDF and I’ll be back in touch at the end of next week“.

You worked hard to get to BlogWorld (and the team putting on the conference worked even harder), but don’t stop now. Just a little bit more work and you can make sure you get the best results out of your time in LA.

How to Miss a Podcast and Make it Work For You

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CaseyKasem

It was really easy for Casey Kasem when he wanted to take a week of America’s Top 100. There’s an expectation in radio (and to a certain extent on TV) that you will get the occasional guest host standing in. This has lead to some great moments the world over – John Peel taking over the BBC Radio 1 lunchtime show and continuing to play his usual late night mix of new and undiscovered bands instead of bland “popular” music is one close to my heart — but what happens on your podcast when you need to take a break?

It’s all about planning ahead, and deciding what option you’re going to do.

The easiest choice is to go dark. Depending on your style of podcast, you can prep the audience on why you are going away, when you are back, and ask them not to be too disappointed. Sometimes this is the only choice, but it goes against many of the main rules of thumb for successful podcasting, the biggest being “keep it regular”.

It’s possible, again depending on your format, to pre-record an extra show or two and have them in the can and ready to go, either by hitting publish from a mobile browser while you are away, or setting a publish date in the blogging software running the podcast to make the post and podcast live at the regular time. This is a strategy advised by many for those with text based blogs, and the same is true for podcasters.

Of course many podcasts are based around news and current events, and that makes a pre-record a bit trickier. You could always resort to a “Best Of” clip show if the cover is for a single show, otherwise you need to think of another way. If you have a group discussion podcast, it’s usually a simple matter to cover one missing pundit, but what if you’re running solo (at least to your listeners)?

Well, you’re back to Casey Kasem, it’s time to draft in a substitute. If you’ve been interacting with the community around your podcast and the area, you’ll know the people that are switched on enough to do a show. Some of them may well be other podcasters (and you’ll know this because you are listening to the competition, aren’t you?). A quick email asking if they would like to be involved and do one show, and not only are you working with your community to benefit them, you’ve an option to reach out to new listeners (the followers of your stand-in host).

That’s a win all round.

In the big game that is social media, podcasting, and the internet, there are very few problems that cannot be turned to your advantage. Going on holiday is one of them.

Find Out if Anyone is Listening to Your Podcast

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“Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” To the old cliché it might be worth adding “number of internet downloads” because working out just how many people are consuming your content is the source of countless applications, rules of thumb, and the occasional touch of snake oil (yes, I still get pitched with measured “hits” in 2011).  It gets even more interesting with podcasting.

Nobody likes to produce to an empty room, so how do you know if people are engaging with you? While most podcasters are going to have a blog (even if it’s just to power the RSS feeds for your show), there are some great strategies and ideas to discover your listeners and interact with them. Here are three, and feel free to add your own.

One of the important areas you have to remember is that people listening to your podcast are not likely to be next to their computer when they do listen, and if they are out and about they might not be in the best place to use a smartphone or tablet to carry out the action. So you need to make any call to action memorable and simple.

If you want something, ask for it. That’s a rule you want to remember here, because you want to get that listener interaction. The time honoured way is to offer some sort of inducement, and that’s why competitions should be considered. It doesn’t need to be a fantastic prize (unless you’ve got a sponsor who’d like to help out with that). An Amazon digital voucher is always a good place to start.

You could always combine the competition with a survey. Asking your audience a “question of the month” is a great format, and as well as engaging with them and starting a two-way conversation, any survey should always ask the basic demographic details of those taking part. Why? Because when you start to approach advertisers, they’ll really appreciate that kind of information (so make sure you tell people why you’re asking for the demographic data, be honest).

Finally, your podcast is just a file on the internet, so tracking downloads is a valid method. There are various plug-ins for blogging platforms that will help you do this, and some of them are tailored for use with podcasts. Personally I’m a fan of Blubrry’s service that’s wrapped up in their Powerpress plug-in for WordPress, but there are others out there you can use.

The flaw in relying on a counter is that downloads don’t necessarily mean listeners – go and check your podcast queue to see how many podcasts you have unplayed and you’ll see what I mean. That’s why the call to actions in your podcast are important. They may be reinforced with links on the show notes, but fundamentally they are discovered when people listen. Keep them simple, make them easy to remember (consider using a custom bit.ly link such as bit.ly/blogworld), and make sure to keep your own records on what works and what doesn’t – it’ll be different for every podcast audience!

Image: TwiT at MacWorld 2008″ cc Macinate / Flickr

The Flexibility of Consistency

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One of the initial attractions to podcasting is the ability to listen to a show whenever you want to – be it in the car, the daily jog along the boardwalk, or on a long flight across the Atlantic (perhaps to BlogWorld, if so I’ll be in the back of the plane in cattle class). I think this freedom for the listener has been one of the strengths that has made podcasting what it is today.

By creating personal appointments (such as Vikki Spence and I listening to the BBC’s Friday Comedy Podcast on a Sunday morning), the emotional bond between listener and creator is magnified, but that places a strong demand from the creator.

To have a podcast that creates appointment listening means having a schedule, and sticking to it. Regular content is the key to a good blog, and it’s also the key to a good podcast. People will be relying on you, and when you can prove you have that, listenership goes up, people will be comfortable recommending the show, and feedback from the audience will rise (at least it does for me).

Signpost that regularity too. With my “Friday Rock Show” the clue is in the title, and as a result it leaves me little choice but to make that deadline. The obvious safety net is that I plan my music around recording on the Wednesday, for posting Friday afternoon (UK time). That gives me a few opportunities to record a show if I miss the regular time.

The other option, which needs a bit of lead time but is mighty useful if you know you have a tricky episode deadline to meet, is to invite in a guest host. While I covered the Edinburgh Fringe with a daily podcast (going live at 11am each day, making sure the consistency was there), I also had the commitment to the Friday Rock Show. One show was taped in advance, one show was made up of music that I had found at the Fringe (a nice doubling up of research and clearance), but the third may have caused an issue.

Until fellow podcaster Neville Hobson stepped up to guest host the show.

Double win! Not only do I get the show going out when the listener is expecting it, but I also get the bonus of having a bit of an extra promotion from the guest host as well – because you know they are going to mention it on Twitter or on their blog.

The point of course is to make sure you never let down your listeners, be they the regulars, or the first times who’ll know when to come back. Because that;s what you want, no drive-by listens, but solid, dependable listeners.

The Courage and Confidence to run a Podcast

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My podcasting work at the Edinburgh Fringe in the last fortnight has led me to think about what qualities are useful in podcasting and social media content creation. And I think I need to add another one to the list.

I just can’t make up my mind if it should be courage or confidence.

Let’s backtrack slightly. I’m doing a daily podcast from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (2500 different shows over three and a half weeks). Each show is about forty minutes long, and follows a standard chat show format of jokey opening, news and recommendations, followed by three long interviews and some music to finish.

Each interview needs around 30 minutes of time in my diary (if I’m being generous) plus an hour beforehand to see the show, then some editing on top of that, and compile the final podcast each morning. It’s a busy schedule, but one that I’ve fine tuned over the years. The only potential wrinkle is that there is very little room for a second take if something is missed.

And that’s where the confidence comes in. Because when you have one shot at getting all your material recorded; when you have one shot at an interview; when you only have the time to do one take of the morning news bulletin or you irrevocably screw up the schedule for the rest of the day; you need to have confidence in yourself that your equipment will work, you can switch it on, start recording, and simply go for it.

I love the luxury of working at home in my studio, with the ability to retake a line, section or even the whole podcast, but at the same time there’s a certain daredevil in my psche that thrives in a high pressure environment that allows no mistakes whatsoever.

I know I can do it. I know it makes for a better podcast. That’s what I mean about confidence.

But it’s also courage to take chances, to go down an interview route where the outcome is unclear, because so much can change. Especially when interviewing up to 15 comics a day in a five hour window, it’s impossible to do the sort of preparation that I would do for a weekly 30 minute interview podcast with one guest. There’s a press release from their PR, some scribbled notes from their wikipedia page and website biography in my notebook, and that’s it. Open the microphone, welcome them to the show, and simply see what happens.

That’s what I mean by courage.

It’s a high wire balancing act that I do as often as I can. Anyone who’s done live TV or radio beyond spinning discs and introducing the bands will know exactly what I mean. There’s an energy that can’t be replicated in a studio or with a safety net, and I’d encourage everyone to take off the stabilizers and find out if you can balance the podcasting bicycle on your own.

Image Attribution: Vikki Spence

Directing the Conversation

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In my last post, I wrote about the structure of a podcast which would allow you to block out the flow of information as you prepare to record a podcast. Now I want to talk about directing the conversation.

Unless you are doing a solo “news report” style podcast, you’ll have a guest on the podcast – that could be a second reporter or analyst, an invited specialist, chatting to a member of the public, or any other combination that makes for an exciting and informative show. The great thing about guests, at least for me, is that it makes the show unpredictable.

And that means not being able to plan out anything more than the broad areas in the structure. So how to keep everything flowing during the podcast? For me I keep in mind three key points.

The first is that you are undertaking a directed conversation. You know what you want to find out from your guest (and of course your guest has their own goals as well), so you do want to keep the conversation going in the direction of “what you want to tell people”. Keep these ideas in mind, and try to make everything you say lead up to one of those ideas, before moving on to the next one.

Second, your next question is in the last answer. It should all flow, no sudden jumps in the progression. Don’t forget that it is a conversation and not an interrogation, it shouldn’t need to jump around. Think smooth. It’s a smart idea to pay attention to random conversations (such as when you are out in a bar) and take note of how people talk with each other. That rhythm and feel is what you need to replicate, while directing the conversation. It might sound a bit false to start with, but over time you’ll be able to guide someone’s voice to where you want it to go, and still make it sound natural.

Finally, and one that sometimes requires tact and bravery in a host… what are the listeners screaming at you to ask? Right there, that’s the question you have to ask (or at least justify afterwards why you didn’t ask it). The key is getting to that point, and once you are there, being able to ask it in such a way that you get a useful answer. That sort of skill takes practice, but you can get there.

Keep those three elements in mind while you are recording your podcast, and you’ll keep the interest up in the audio or video, you’ll stay engaging for your audience, and your skills will continue to improve.

Image Source: iProng and Bill Palmer, Creative Commons.

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