Putting The Simple Back In Podcast RSS Feeds
Subscribing to a podcast should lead to frictionless listening. That’s true for present and future episodes, but what about those from the past? It may be time for us to move past our one-size-fits-all approach to feed management.
This is not about getting rid of RSS feeds. This is about better ways to utilize RSS feeds to keep the friction low for podcast listeners. I know I’ve raised the specter of podcasting moving beyond RSS feeds t some point. But that’s not today’s topic.
It’s not an overstatement to say podcasting would not exist without RSS feeds. The magic power of an RSS feed is enabling the process by which people get new content and then listen to that new content. The magic of an RSS feed is manifested on the listeners’ end via a podcast listening app. They subscribe to a feed in their app of choice. That app then checks the feed to pull down new content. And the app makes it so the listener simply has to press play to listen to that new content.
I wrote the word “new” four times in the preceding paragraph on purpose. Because RSS feeds are great at connecting listeners to current and future episodes. So great, in fact, that listening to current and future episodes is nearly frictionless
But they’re less great when it comes to back-catalog content.
Many would argue against my supposition. After all, there’s no theoretical limit on the number of items that can be added to an RSS feed. Even for shows with more than a thousand episodes, they can still have a single RSS feed that contains all episodes.
But, as I discussed on Monday’s episode, trying to listen to extensive back catalog episodes inside of a podcast listening app is a horrid experience.
But we can make it better if we think about RSS feeds from a slightly different perspective.
Real-world Examples Where Choice-limitation Is A Good Thing
At some point in your life, you have walked into a library. When you did that, you did not find books organized by recency. Sure, you probably saw a promotional “new arrivals” shelf. But you did not find books on shelves organized by the month in which they arrived at the library, going on for row after row of books sorted by arrival date, all the way back in time to the very first book procured by the library.
Because that would be a terrible way to manage library content for library patrons.
Think about the menu of your favorite restaurant. You know it’s not a complete list of everything the chef knows how to make. In many cases, it’s not indicative of only what you can order. I order off-menu all the time.
When you go shopping for new clothes, you know that what’s on the showroom floor is backed up by a stockroom with more sizes and sometimes even more styles. And, of course, the store is connected to a distribution center filled with even more choices for you.
Those examples make the case for segregating content into two buckets:
- What We Want People To See Right Now
- Other Options We’ve Moved Out Of The Way As To Not Overload People With Too Many Choices
Yeah, I should come up with shorter names for those buckets. But here we are.
We podcasters can do this too. The solutions is multiple RSS feeds:
- The List Of Episodes We Want To Display To New And Current Listeners
- Well-organized Archived Or Back-catalog Content For Listeners Who Want To Dig
- Another Batch Of Well-organized Back-catalog Content For Listeners Who Want To Dig Even More
Again, I’m not crazy with those names. But you get the idea. I hope?
Conventional Podcasting Wisdom Says This Is Stupid
Right now, conventional wisdom says that a podcast’s RSS feed should be complete with all available episodes.
Conventional wisdom also probably thinks that having multiple RSS feeds for the same podcast would lead to confusion among new would-be-subscribers.
But bear with me, as I think there’s a simple solution that eliminates confusion.
I’m A Much Bigger Fan Of Advancing Podcasting Wisdom
It starts with the main RSS feed for a show. That main RSS feed must always be current. Every new episode — full, trailer, or bonus — is published to this feed. This main feed, as well as the directories and listings the feed powers, is the one that is promoted by the podcaster. It’s the one that’s linked to from the podcast’s website. It’s the one that is sent when someone asks “how can I subscribe”.
Anyone brand new to the podcast should be subscribed to this, the main RSS feed.
This re-imagined main feed does not contain every episode your show has ever produced. It only contains enough episodes to satisfy the needs of a new subscriber. No, I don’t think you should only have the most current episode in this feed. We still have to consider how the feed causes the show to appear in podcast listings and directories. Take out too many episodes, and suddenly a show looks less impressive.
But this only works if the main feed is accompanied by another archive feed and the subsequent listing of that archive feed on all podcast directories and apps. Perhaps even multiple archive feeds and their listings.
This requires some strategic thinking on the part of podcasters. How “full” should your main RSS feed be? How do you decide where to break content? Do you need more than one archive feed?
We Have To Get The Naming Conventions Correct Or This Fails Miserably
If the episodes of your show are already aggregated by seasons, your decisions get a lot easier. Imagine a directory listing of the following feeds:
- Podcast Pontifications: Season 3
- Podcast Pontifications: Season 2 (July 2019 — May 2020)
- Podcast Pontifications: Season 1 (July 2017 — June 2019)
That doesn’t seem all that confusing to me. Yes, I know we’re at the whim of Apple or other directory owners who have clear guidelines that I’m ostensibly breaking. But those guidelines exist to weed out bad actors and spammers. The changes I’m suggesting here increase the clarity and usability of podcasts in their catalogs. So I’m betting they’ll be OK with it.
If you don’t do seasons, then what about years? Apple Podcasts already segregates episodes for un-seasoned podcasts by years. But here, I’m suggesting you do it by year of your release, much in the way that Chris Christensen was doing for the Amateur Traveler Podcast (here’s his 2012 archive listing on Apple Podcasts).
Again using my show as an example, breaking out feeds by years would look like this in directories or apps:
- Podcast Pontifications
- Podcast Pontifications Archive: 2019
- Podcast Pontifications Archive: 2018
- Podcast Pontifications Archive: 2017
Both of these systems work and are fairly simple to implement. Sure, it takes a little maintenance on the part of the podcaster. But nothing too arduous, I hope.
The Huge Misstep That’s Easy To Make That You’ll Want To Avoid, Podcasters!
This is really important: Never make a new RSS feed for your next season or the next year. Never do that. If you make a new feed for new content, people will have to subscribe to that new feed. You do not want to ask people to subscribe to a new feed. Because most — the vast majority — will not. That’s the opposite of “frictionless”.
Instead, you’ll simply rename the main feed, if warranted. In my example, I’m still in Season 2. So if I implement this new way of approaching RSS feeds, I’d call my current feed “Podcast Pontifications: Season 2”, without the date range. And, obviously, I’d make a new feed for Season 1 content, naming it appropriately and removing all S2 content from this new archive feed.
Before I launch Season 3, I’ll create a “new” archive feed with only episodes from season 2. I’d name the new archive field appropriately and submit the new feed to all the directories. Only then would I go in and rename my main feed “Podcast Pontifications: Season 3”, removing all the S2 episodes so it only contained the trailer episode for Season Three.
Confused? Don’t be. It’s just following a good procedure so that listeners aren’t confused. That’s what’s important. Oh, and this needs to be said one more time:
Never make a new feed for brand new content. Not if you want to keep subscribers.
Other Considerations To Help Make Podcast Listeners Love Your Big Catalog Even More
There are other aspects which might help. Like adding a season-ending trailer to the archived feeds where you tell people that there’s more archived content on another listing and that there’s still a current listing in the same app if they haven’t already discovered it.
There might be different naming conventions. Like the show my wife and I created when were traveling around the world. Maybe we create a feed with subsequent directory listings called “The Opportunistic Travelers Archive: The Thailand Years (2016 to 2018)”? That’s descriptive enough so that people would know what they’re getting.
Best of all? We can do all this with the current architectural infrastructure podcasting relies on. We don’t need to change the way RSS feeds work or how podcast clients ingest those feeds to make this happen.
This seems like a good idea to me. So much, that I’m going to implement it by the end of the week. Let me know if you’ll join me!
Also: please tell someone you know about Podcast Pontifications. Your word-of-mouth and personal recommendation goes a long way to bringing more listeners into the fold. So thank you in advance
If you’ve done that and want to help further, go to BuyMeACoffee.com/EvoTerra and slide a couple of bucks my way each month to support the show.
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This article started life as a podcast episode. The ###th episode of my four-times-a-week short-form podcast called, oddly enough, Podcast Pontifications. It’s a podcast for working podcasters that’s focused on trends in our growing industry and ideas on ways to make podcasting not just easier, but better. Yes, you should listen. Here’s an easy way: 👇
Evo Terra (hey, that’s me!) has been podcasting since 2004, is the author of Podcasting For Dummies and Expert Podcasting Practices for Dummies, and is the CEO and founder of Simpler Media Productions, a strategic podcast consultancy working with businesses, brands, and professional service providers all around the world.