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The Power of Podcasts

Universities explore mp3 technology as a new marketing tool.
University Business, Feb 2006

With more than 30 million iPods sold since 2001, chances are you've witnessed the invasion of these small digital players and their matching distinctive earphones on campus. Your students, their parents, your alums, their kids, and your faculty and staff have likely seen or used one. Supported by the so-called "net generation" as much in love with cutting-edge technology as with on-demand music, the arrival of this fashionable device at colleges and universities has opened the door to a digital audio revolution in higher ed: podcasting.

Word familiarity is one thing, but let's agree on its definition. According to Wikipedia, the web encyclopedia, podcasting is "a collection of technologies for automatically distributing audio and video programs over the Internet via a publish-and-subscribe model." Unlike earlier online collections of audio or video material, podcasting is automatic, usually through RSS feeds. Independent producers can use it to create self-published, syndicated "radio shows," and it offers a new distribution method for broadcast radio and television programs.

While iPods have definitely played a role in the naming and the development of this new practice, you don't need an iPod to listen to podcasts. Any mp3 player or even a good ol' PC can be used to delve into the wonderful world of podcasting by downloading a free podcast from Apple's iTunes online store or any other podcast directory.

Podcasting certainly presents some of the characteristics of more ephemeral crazes: It's about a year-and-a-half old but has already attracted a lot of buzz, mainly driven by marketing strategies from Apple, mainstream media, and other key industries. Whether it was planned or not, Duke University (N.C.) got a lot of media coverage of its "iPod first-year experience." In 2004, more than 1,600 freshmen were given brand new iPods to enhance their academic experience. Although the initiative wasn't repeated on the same scale the following year, it resulted in very positive promotional outcomes.

More recently, the announcement of a similar initiative by the School of Education at Drexel University (Pa.) for the new master of science in higher education program--made just days after the launch of iPod video--confirmed the device's magnetic marketing appeal for higher ed.

"The Future of Podcasting," a November 2005 study based on a sample of 4,400 radio listeners and conducted by Bridge Ratings, estimated that 5 million people would have downloaded podcasts in 2005. This year, the forecast is 9.3 million users, and it is expected to reach 62.8 million within five years.

How many of these millions of podcast listeners plan to go to college, make a donation, recruit your graduates, or write an article about your institution? That could be the million-dollar question in a couple of years, one that some corporate players in higher education have begun studying.

Thomson Peterson's introduced podcasting in February 2005 and has yielded promising results: more than 4,000 downloads per month. Executives had been exploring the idea of offering audio and video resources as a way to supplement the online experience, recalls Dan Karleen, Peterson's director of online product delivery. "When podcasting came along, giving people the option of subscribing to receive new programs automatically, the time seemed right to launch a series of podcasts complementing our three core areas: college admission advice, financial aid resources, and standardized test preparation."

Since last September, more and more institutions of higher ed have decided to offer some of their lectures as podcasts to their students. Some, like Purdue University in Indiana, have made their class podcasts available to anybody who would like to download them; others, like the University of Michigan's School of Dentistry, have reserved these class recordings for current students via a private iTunes store. For the past few months, the academic uses of podcasting have been at the center of an animated debate in academia between fans and critics, but the controversy shouldn't overcast what this technology can offer to admissions, marketing, or college relations.

"I'm not a big fan of jumping on the next thing that comes around in college marketing. ... However, there are some colleges who have started to play around with [podcasting] models," says Brian Niles, CEO of TargetX, a company specializing in interactive marketing communications, as well as the producer of podcasts for college admission officials.

With 30,000-plus podcasts downloaded in 10 months, Allegheny College (Pa.) is a great example of the power of podcasting. Launched in April 2005, the podcasts are 15-minute interviews with a new guest every week; recent guests have included the director of Athletics Information and the entrepreneur-in-residence. The podcasts are viewed as a complement to more traditional online and print marketing efforts. "They allow us to go into much greater detail than you can in a press release or a printed brochure, and do so in a conversational manner, something that makes a difference to people and allows them to make a more direct connection with Allegeny College," says Mike Richwalsky, the host and producer of these podcasts.

At Savannah College of Art and Design (Ga.), meanwhile, the video podcasts available on iTunes since October 2004 are just another way to deliver admission-related videos produced for the institution's on-demand streaming video website. "SCAD On Demand topics include visiting artists, the exploration and creation or art and the experience of living and studying at SCAD. ... When the opportunity arose to expand our reach and make SCAD's streaming media available through iTunes, it just seemed the logical thing to do," explains Paul Razza, director of the communication broadcast unit.

For Mansfield University (Pa.), spokesperson Dennis Miller believes podcasting is simply a new way of communication delivery--"what radio used to be," he says. "It's intimate, speaking to one listener at a time. If it's done right, it creates images in the listener's mind that last a long, long time."

Promoted via radio spots at their launch and available through iTunes or Yahoo, the MU podcasts offer a glimpse at the experience of four freshmen through unscripted, yet edited, weekly interviews as well as advice from the Admissions and Financial Aid directors. "These shows can be a big help to guidance counselors. They answer questions that students and parents ask all the time," adds Miller.

According to Lori Schmidt from TwigPod Production, a podcasting agency whose clients include California Institute of Technology and Whittier College (Calif.), podcasting strength also resides in its ability to deliver content to an audience in an inexpensive and extremely timely fashion. "These days, it's not uncommon for a college or university to recruit prospects for three or more years. Once they've seen the publications, website, and DVD, what does an [institution] have to throw at students to keep them interested? That's the benefit of podcasting."

While podcasting can help create and build great relationships with prospective students and their parents, the buck doesn't stop at the Admissions office. Because podcasts can tell stories about an institution in a more compelling way, they often appeal to multiple audiences, from high schoolers to older alumni.

They can help build and develop a community of individuals interested in an institution not only off, but also on, campus. Last year, the web team at Buffalo State College (N.Y.) launched a podcasting initiative to add an interactive, multimedia, community-building element to its website. "The main goal was to engage our online community to participate, whether it is by producing their own podcasts, subscribing to a podcast feed, or using the technology in the classroom. We also thought it would be a unique way to disseminate messages about what makes Buffalo State great--interesting lecturers, a student-run radio station, undergraduate research programs, and so on," says Brett Essler, web publications editor.

While podcasting is still in its infancy, higher ed podcasters see it as a promising communication channel. As Paul Kruczynski, senior web implementation specialist at BSC puts it, "By building a podcast repository now, we create a framework and method for further integrating these tools into tomorrow's academic environment."

So podcasting might well be worth your time.

Karine Joly is the web editor behind, a blog about higher ed web marketing, public relations, and technologies. She is also a web editor for an East Coast liberal arts college and a consultant on web projects for other institutions.

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