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December 30, 2011 @ 12:43 pm

Slicing the Audience, with Wang Chi

This week, between Christmas and New Year’s, is a traditional time for reflection. For most people, that’s about telling a story that makes sense. Scientists do the same thing. We just try to root our stories in data, in our observations of facts, surprising and humbling though they may be, and to reason forward to a conclusion from those data. The podcast this week will be a more personal journey type story, but here’s a data-driven, science-type story.

In keeping with the reflection thing, I started poking around on Podbean’s statistics pages. I started looking at how many times each episode had been downloaded, as an individual audio file. First thing I was surprised by is how consistently low those numbers were. They ranged between 7 and 28 downloads, from 11 different countries. That difference is so small I can’t really draw any conclusions about what kinds of content these one-time listeners prefer. It’s also a little humbling and worrying in terms of funding, something I’ll have to loop around back to later.

When I plotted those data in a spreadsheet, I did see a surprising pattern. Episode 2, a review of the sitting-around-drinking-and- bullshitting science fiction film The Man from Earth, is our most popular episode ever, having been individually downloaded 28 times. There’s a consistent downhill trend from there. Now if I were a pundit, making a best of/worst of list, I would start rambling on about how popular hard science fiction on religious themes is, especially during times of economic uncertainty, and looking for other examples to cherry-pick. But it looks to me like a simple decay with time. In other words, the oldest things get more hits because they’ve been there longer. Yeah, it also might mean I’ve been losing listeners the whole time. I would need more detail to be sure about that.

Next I started looking at the RSS feed hits, those people who are subscribing to both the podcast and the blog, who get them automatically delivered to their favorite platform. That’s an average of 18 people per day, for a total of 5531 contacts, from only 4 different countries – the US, Canada, Germany, and China. Those are the loyal listeners (who I love), but since they get everything, I have no way of passively distinguishing what they prefer. I would need to talk to them. Podbean has multiple feedback mechanisms in place, and we do have an e-mail address vsi dot beacon at gmail dot com, but people aren’t using them for the most part, so there’s a frustrating lack of data, a vacuum. I need to figure out how to jump-start the community aspect of the show. One way to do that would be to just require my students to listen, which is definitely going to happen. But I’ll experiment with anything.

Third, and most surprising to me personally, was how relatively successful our website is, when we’ve put very little effort into it, compared to the podcast. We’ve had visits from 3580 different IP addresses, from, by my count, a staggering 49 countries. 1245 of those hits have been just in the last month, and 157 of those hits came on one day, the 23rd of December (I have no idea why).

But the overall pattern is very clear. The written blog is more popular than the audio podcast, and the blog’s popularity is growing, where the podcast has kind of stalled out. There’s two conclusions I might draw about that pattern. One is that we should abandon the podcast. Another is that all we have to do is figure out how to convert those website visitors into listeners and subscribers.

Why was this in any way surprising to me?

Well, first, outside of my blogging, I personally don’t spend much time webslinging for non-professional content. I do a lot of searching for journal articles (like three hours yesterday alone, while I was writing a very late abstract for the Contact conference), but I don’t read a lot of blogs. I do listen to a lot of radio, while I’m in the car or cleaning my kitchen, or on those rare occasions when I make it to the gym.

Secondly, I work with teenagers, who don’t read (which is a whole other chicken/egg nightmare of causality).  YouTube is their idea of a research tool.  So, am I writing and podcasting to two different audiences?  I don’t think so.  Should I be?  Interesting question.

Reminds me of something our old buddy Wang Chi said, in the immortal John Carpenter film Big Trouble in Little China, “That’s why the bottle didn’t slice.  My mind and my spirit were going north and south.

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