Trends in Digital Communications

I have been monitoring a few trends in digital communications. In this post, I will discuss what I have noticed, where I think it is all going, and why historians should care.


General Observations


Digital communications has entered a “Wild West” period. Digital audio, video, and magazines have been around long enough that people know how to start and produce content for them. Today, the focus is not on content creation, but on how to monetize digital media.

There are four major players driving digital media monetization trends: Traditional media networks, digital media networks, internet entrepreneurs, and consumers.

Consumers want to locate high-quality, digital content that interests them quickly and reliably. Traditional media networks, digital media networks, and internet entrepreneurs aim to service this consumer demand by providing high-quality, easy-to-find, niche content to consumers as part of membership/subscription programs.

The future of digital media is content curation and bundling.[1]

Rise and Proliferation of Podcast Networks

Network-TowerAt a casual glance, the world of podcasts might seem like a free-for-all. In fact, consolidation has begun.

The number of podcast networks has exploded over the last year.

A few of these networks developed out of traditional media such as the NPR podcast network. The majority have their roots in digital communications such as Panoply (Slate), Rainmaker.FM (Copyblogger), and Earwolf (Midroll). Others had a hybrid birth: Radiotopia and Gimlet began as digital networks, but their founders came from NPR.

Networks allow participants to cross-promote member shows to audience members who already enjoy one or two shows within that network. As a result, shows within a network tend to grow large audiences.

Additionally, networks offer bundled ad buys to advertisers. Ad revenue proceeds do not always divide equally. The network takes significant cut for maintenance and advertising fees and shows with larger audiences receive higher percentages than shows with smaller audiences.


More Players Enter the Digital Audio Game

Competition has been stiff in the realm of digital video.

Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu all offer original video content. YouTube stands as the second largest search engine and internet video producers have started to hyper-specialize in the content they produce to stand out on the platform.

The same has not been the case for audio.

Apple has dominated the podcast market.

iTunesAs of July 2015, 82 percent of all podcast listeners listened on an iPhone. iTunes and the Apple Podcasts App account for more than 50 percent of all podcast downloads. The closest competitor to iTunes has been Stitcher Radio, which supplies approximately 2.5 percent of all podcast downloads.

However, Apple is about to experience serious competition to its near monopoly as a gateway to digital audio.

During the last 4-6 months, more digital media companies have either entered or have made strides to enter the digital audio market.

In May 2015, Spotify released a beta program to curate podcast content. Since June, the company has hand selected podcasts to include in its service and each month it expands its podcast offerings for its beta user group.

On October 27, 2015, Google announced its reentry into podcasts. Google Play Audio is now accepting submissions for its Google Play Music podcast directory.

On November 2, 2015, Pandora revealed that it will be the “exclusive streaming partner” for season 2 of Serial, the most popular podcast to date.

Amazon stands as the only major player that has not announced a plan to incorporate podcasts into its media offerings.


Membership Has its Privileges

MembersSmaller podcast (audio and video) networks have begun to mimic their large counterparts. Just as Google Play Music, Amazon Prime, Spotify, Pandora, Apple, and Netflix compete to offer unique content to their subscribers, internet entrepreneurs and digital media networks have begun to create membership programs.

Panoply (Slate) offers Slate Plus. $50 per year gets you access to all content on the Slate website and extra, members-only premium content.

Gimlet Media is pivoting to the membership model too. Listeners who support the network at $60/year receive a t-shirt and access to behind-the-scenes content.

Radiotopia also offers swag for listeners who subscribe to its monthly donation options. However, listeners who subscribe at the $20/month or $300/year level also get the chance to participate in developing and choosing new talent and shows for the network.


Out in Right Field: Live-Stream Video

Live Stream VideoThis next trend has nothing to do with the consolidation and bundling trends noted above. At least not yet.

Live-stream video is growing in popularity. Millions of people love to watch live video of people doing everything from surfing to delivering a talk on how to save money on your taxes.

People love live-stream video for three reasons: First, it's authentic. Whereas people can stage how they present themselves through static social media posts or edited videos, they can’t hide who they are while streaming live video.

Second, they love live-stream video because it is interactive. Platforms like Periscope, Meerkat,, and Google On Air Hangouts allow viewers to interact with the person streaming the video. Viewers can ask questions, offer suggestions, and either harass or support the person streaming in real time.

Third, I suspect people also enjoy live-stream video because of the schadenfreude they feel when they watch someone mess up in front of a live audience.


Why Historians Should Care About Digital Communications Trends

Historians need to be aware of these trends as we consider how best to communicate our work in digital media.

For the moment, I am watching these trends to see which ones have staying power. I suspect that the consolidation and bundling of digital media into networks and subscription platforms is just getting started.

I do not think this movement to curate content as a subscription or membership service will spell the end for independent digital content producers, but when this trend finishes, it will make it significantly harder for independent producers to attract attention and build an audience. After all, the trend is about making it easier for potential readers, listeners, and viewers to find reliable, high-quality content that interests them.

Above, I noted four major players driving this trend. There might be a fifth player shortly: Universities.

At the moment, universities are focused on turning traditional ideas into digital media: They record course lectures and make them available via digital audio or video. This approach is inside-the-box thinking and doesn’t always translate into great digital content.

With that said, there are university departments producing native video, audio, and text content for blogs and podcasts.

The University of Texas-Austin History Department stands out. Check out their blog Not Even Past and the 15 Minute History podcast. UT-Austin history professors and graduate students produce blog and podcast content specifically for each media type. Additionally, although UT-Austin professors and grad students produce all of the content, their media does not reek of self-promotion.

BigTenAs universities become more involved in digital communications, I can’t help but wonder if digital education communications networks will form, whether they will form along athletic conference lines, and whether they will charge for the content they create and curate.

Will the bonds that tie the BigTen conference schools together extend to a future scholarly digital communications network?

I don’t know, but it would be powerful if it happens. Especially as the BigTen could advertise its scholarly digital communications network on its traditional television network.

When universities decide to develop digital media content that goes beyond the lecture hall, it will make it more difficult for scholarly digital media produced outside academic institutions to thrive. It may be the outlets such as Ben Franklin’s World, The Junto Blog, and We’re History will continue to prosper because of their longevity. But, new scholarly digital content producers will face a significant challenge as they seek to build an audience for their work.


[1] Bundling involves marketing, packaging, and offering two or more like products or services for one price. A good example of this would be Amazon Prime. The subscription service offers 2-day shipping, video and music streaming, and other services for one, annual membership fee.


State of Ben Franklin’s World: 4 Months Since Launch

State-of-the-PodcastAre you thinking about adding a podcast to your historian’s platform? I thought it would be interesting to share how “Ben Franklin’s World: A Podcast About Early American History” has fared as a method to communicate the work of professional historians to the history-loving public.

In this post, you will discover how Ben Franklin’s World has performed during its first four months.


Brief Overview of Launch

I launched Ben Franklin’s World in two phases: a soft launch and a hard launch.


Soft Launch

The soft launch took place on the website.

On October 7, 2014, I posted the first four interview episodes plus my short pilot episode; the pilot offers a brief explanation of who I am and why I started the podcast.

Until early December 2014, these episodes could only be accessed from

The soft launch gave me time to tweak the show and build a catalog of 8-10 episodes before I listed it on iTunes, the largest podcast directory.

Podcast experts recommend debuting a podcast on iTunes with 5-10 episodes.

Launching with several episodes allows new listeners to download multiple episodes. (Many podcast listeners like to binge listen to new shows.) This strategy also provides enough content for your podcast to generate the download numbers it needs for placement in iTunes' “New & Noteworthy” sections.

“New & Noteworthy” sections provide prominent placement within specific categories and/or the entire iTunes store. Placement in "New & Noteworthy" helps listeners discover your podcast faster; think free advertising.


Soyuz_fg_22.07.2012Hard Launch

The hard launch took place on December 2, 2014 when Apple accepted my submission and listed Ben Franklin’s World on iTunes.

New episodes appeared every other Tuesday until December 30, 2014, when Ben Franklin’s World became a weekly show.

By starting as a twice-monthly program, I created positive buzz for the podcast and gave myself time to build a sufficient store of new episodes to support a weekly show.


Strategy Results

This two-part launch strategy worked.

Ben Franklin's World built a small, but dedicated following of friends, family, and people who found the show via social media between October and December.

Early listeners provided useful feedback, which I used to tweak the show. They also helped to elevate the profile of the show when it launched on iTunes.

After iTunes listed Ben Franklin's World, I sent an e-mail to the 30+ people on my e-mail list. I informed them that they could now find the show in iTunes and asked them to provide honest ratings and reviews. (Apple uses ratings and reviews to help determine which shows to place in its "New & Noteworthy” sections.)

Their downloads, ratings, and reviews helped place Ben Franklin’s World in the “New & Noteworthy” section of the history category before the end of its first week on iTunes.

Placement in "New & Noteworthy" also boosted the profile of Ben Franklin’s World. Show download numbers went from single and double-digit downloads per day to 100 and 200 downloads per day.

Ben Franklin's World #35On December 28, 2014, the podcast took off.

The show received placement in the “New & Noteworthy” section for the entire iTunes store and two or three times appeared among the top 10 shows in “New & Noteworthy."

The result: December 28, marked my first 1,000+ download day with 1,304 downloads. On December 29, the show had 2,548 downloads. The peak came on December 30 with 3,545 downloads in a single day!

Throughout January, Ben Franklin’s World did not have a sub-1,000 download day.

Peak days always came on Tuesdays (new episode release days) when instead of having a 1,000+ download day, the show had a 2,000-2,500+ download day. Release days always put Ben Franklin’s World among the top 200 podcasts in the overall store.

Apple allows new podcasts about 8 weeks of eligibility for its “New & Noteworthy” categories. Ben Franklin’s World enjoyed great placement for exactly 8 weeks.


Downloads Post “New & Noteworthy"

On February 1, 2015, iTunes removed Ben Franklin’s World from “New & Noteworthy.”

History New & Noteworthy 123014Download numbers have dropped a bit, but I am very pleased with the performance of this young program.

New episodes still experience 2,000+ downloads on release day and numbers stay above 1,000 downloads per day until about Thursday or Friday when they dip into the 900-500+ downloads per day range for the rest of the week.

With that said, new episodes still reach 5,000 downloads in 7-14 days.

As of Thursday, February 12, 2015, at 9:57 am, listeners have downloaded episodes of Ben Franklin’s World 83,494 times.

Although downloads do not equal number of listeners, they illustrate that a lot of people are choosing to spend 35-55 minutes each week discovering the great work that academic and public historians are conducting in early American history.

In the near future, I would like to increase the reach of Ben Franklin's World and its daily download numbers so the podcast once again enjoys 1,000+ downloads per day. I have ideas for how I can achieve this feat and I will share my strategies for promotion in future posts.



I enjoy podcasting and the medium has provided me with many benefits.

First, podcasting has helped me achive my goal: It has enabled me to start bridging the gap between professional historians and the history-loving public.

Ben Franklin’s World has created a wider public awareness about my colleagues' historical research.

Second, podcasting has expanded my professional and social networks.

Each week, I have a meaningful conversation with a different colleague, often someone I have not had the chance to meet in person.

I also receive several e-mails per week from listeners who tell me how much they enjoy the podcast and learning about the work of its guest historians.

Third, my work as a podcaster has allowed me to become a more well-read historian.

Since August, I have read one history book a week that does not pertain to my research or my sepcific interests in early American history.

I look forward to continuing this new professional adventure.


Thoughtful-WomanWhat Do You Think?

Have you considered creating a podcast? Do you have questions about podcasting that I could help you answer?