What’s the most effective paid podcast strategy?
2021 was a big year for paid podcasts.
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Ok, let’s jump into it…
What’s the most effective paid podcast strategy?
Our first question comes from Taegan Goddard:
What are the best examples of subscription podcasts?
So 2021 was a big year for paid podcasts, in that both Apple and Spotify launched the functionality to sell in-app subscriptions. Before that, podcasters only had the option of using third party platforms like Patreon to distribute paid episodes. While third party platforms offer some great features, they can be clunky to use because they require a user to input a customized RSS feed into their podcast player of choice.
I’m definitely keeping an eye out for how publishers use Apple/Spotify’s in-app subscription features, but I think it’s probably still much too early to point to any successful case studies there. For now, I’m going to focus on successful paid podcasts that utilize third party platforms. I’ve grouped them under four main categories:
Simply creating extra episodes
This is probably the most straightforward way of running a paid podcast: simply record extra episodes and place them behind a paywall.
A good example of this is the podcast Blocked & Reported. Hosts Jesse Singal and Katie Herzog record roughly two episodes a week and then distribute half the episodes through paid subscriptions on Substack. They also host subscriber-only discussion threads and episode comments on Substack. I don’t know how much they’re currently generating, but back when they were on Patreon the podcast made over $20,000 a month.
The upside to this strategy is that free listeners have a pretty good idea of what they’re going to get if they subscribe. The downside is that you have to spend a lot of time creating content that will go out to a relatively small audience. Every now and then Katie and Jesse want to talk about a huge piece of news that broke when they were scheduled to record a subscriber-only episode, so they end up having to release a free version of the paid podcast. That might result in fewer people that week converting to the paid version.
Creating tangential, related content
I’ve seen lots of podcasters create content that’s differentiated from what they offer on their main show. Usually this content is somehow tangentially related in subject matter, but it allows the podcasters to mix things up and offer something that’s truly special.
A good example of this is the Filmcast. Each free episode centers around an in-depth discussion between the hosts about a movie that’s currently in theaters. It’s a great podcast to listen to if you’ve just watched the latest James Bond film and want to listen to three smart, funny people dissect it for an hour.
For Filmcast’s Patreon, they offer something completely different. Each week they publish a subscriber-only “after dark” episode that focuses on a topic that they wouldn’t otherwise feature in the free version of the podcast. Usually, it’s an in-depth discussion about either a TV show or an older movie that’s not currently in theaters.
What I like about this approach is that it allows the hosts to let their hair down and talk about stuff that interests them but wouldn’t otherwise fit within the main podcast. It also gives subscribers something that feels truly different.
Their Patreon currently has 3,000 subscribers and likely generates between $250,000 and $300,000 per year.
Recording bonus segments
For the last several years, Slate’s run a paid subscription program called Slate Plus. While it offers lots of benefits, including unlimited access to the website and VIP tickets to live events, one of its most consistent features has been the bonus segments that are included with podcast episodes.
Here’s how it works: the hosts sit down to record an episode that includes multiple segments, and they simply record an extra segment at the end that only goes out to paid subscribers. What I like about this approach is that it minimizes the extra work that would otherwise go into producing a separate episode. The hosts simply stay on for an extra 20 minutes or so, and in so doing create just enough extra content to lure listeners into becoming paid subscribers.
Using text messages/Q&A segments
There’s a long-running Ohio sports podcast called Buckeye Talk, and for several years its episodes traditionally featured a segment that was mainly crowdsourced from Twitter. Listeners could tweet their messages at the hosts, and then the hosts would read the tweets on air and react to them. It was a great way for the show to interact with its audience and it also generated some fun content in the process.
Starting in 2020 (I think?), Buckeye Talk moved all that interactivity over to a platform called Subtext. It basically makes it easy for a content creator to charge a subscription for the ability to exchange text messages with subscribers. The creator has the ability to both broadcast texts out to all subscribers and also conduct conversations with individual subscribers.
Now, when Buckeye Talk conducts its Q&A segment, the questions are sourced entirely from paying Subtext subscribers. What I like about this approach is that it doesn’t require the podcasters to place anything behind a paywall. Instead, the segment drives a feedback loop that results in more subscriptions. Free listeners are subjected to constant FOMO and a desire to be a part of the conversation. Every time a host reads a subscriber’s message on air, it’s instant validation and probably makes it much less likely for that person to cancel their subscription.
To learn more about this approach, definitely check out this longform interview I did with Buckeye Talk cohost Doug Lesmerises.
Will Twitter always dominate real-time discussion?
Jonathan Rick asks:
In the next five years, will any company threaten Twitter, or is Twitter’s supremacy for breaking news and live events too entrenched at this point?
Twitter’s been around for 15+ years and no other platform has come close to replicating its ability to foster real-time discussion of current events.
Take the Ghislaine Maxwell verdict as an example. As soon as it came in I saw about a half dozen tweets reporting it, and within minutes a huge chunk of my timeline was overtaken by discussion of the news. When I later went over to Facebook, I saw a single NPR post about the verdict, and I didn’t even bother wading into the comments to see how people were reacting.
I’m not saying that current events aren’t discussed on other platforms, but they’re rarely discussed at the same speed or complexity. Let’s say the CDC releases a new batch of data on the Omicron variant. Within minutes, the foremost health experts will be retweeted into my timeline, and I can read through their threads that contextualize the data with everything else we already knew about the virus. On any other platform, it takes much longer for the level of commentary or analysis to rise to the top of the feed.
Whether it’s sports, pop culture, politics, or breaking news, Twitter is the place you go to discuss it in real time. What’s kind of amazing is that no other major tech behemoth has even really tried to create a competing product (unless you maybe include Google Buzz. Anybody remember that fiasco?).
How do you find a podcast network to represent you?
Stacey Nye asks:
How do you get a reputable, well known podcast network to pick you up?
Several years ago, I attended a podcast industry panel that included a Midroll executive, and someone posed a similar question to him. He responded that Midroll didn’t even consider a podcast for its network unless it received a minimum of 50,000 downloads per episode. I’m guessing that the other big networks have similar barriers to entry.
My sense though is that podcast networks will become less and less central to podcast monetization, just as multi-channel networks eventually became less central to YouTube monetization.
Ten years ago, multi-channel networks were all the rage on YouTube. The belief was that, by combining the reach of thousands of YouTube channels, MCNs could attract larger advertisers and improve ad rates for all those involved. But those benefits never materialized, and meanwhile the success of the YouTube Partnership Program meant that individual stars could essentially outsource all their ad sales to YouTube’s programmatic system.
A similar evolution is currently happening in podcasting. Nearly every major hosting platform has acquired at least one ad-tech company with the goal of inserting programmatic advertising for all those who opt in. Pretty soon, you won’t need network representation to gain access to Fortune 500 advertisers. Also, the more the market matures, the more adept brands will become at establishing direct connections with podcasters. That’s the reason why Instagram influencers with only a few thousand followers still manage to find sponsors; brands have spent years refining their influencer outreach campaigns and see a lot of value from courting micro influencers. The same is happening with podcasts.
Should digital publishers launch print products?
Adam L. Rockwell asks:
What is your take on paper newsletters vs. email subscriptions? It seems that paper newsletters might be more powerful now than e-newsletters due to inbox overflow.
I work for a nonprofit that does both and we raise much more money via traditional paper newsletter than email. AND our email list is double the size of paper.
I’m afraid I don’t have any metrics on print newsletters vs email newsletters. I have, however, seen some anecdotal evidence that digital publishers can increase engagement with their most loyal readers by launching some kind of supplementary print product.
One of my favorite examples came from my friend Ernie Smith. His Tedium newsletter is distributed entirely in email form, but back in 2018 he announced that “Tedium will be releasing a limited-edition zine that will only be produced in numbered editions for everyone in my $5 Patreon tiers and higher.” The zine was just a stapled-together chapbook, which meant it wasn’t super expensive to make, but it made for a cool collector’s item for those who are big fans of Smith’s work. As far as I know, he only distributed it that one year, but I keep hoping that he makes it an annual tradition.
Then there’s Innovation Leader, a $695-a-year subscription publisher focused on corporate innovation. In 2016, it launched an annual print magazine that it sent to all of its subscribers. Co-founder Scott Kirsner explained his reasoning to me in an interview:
We heard anecdotally that people who got the email newsletter wished they had more time to pay attention to it, and that they did pay attention to print products (like the Economist, the Wall Street Journal, Fortune, etc.) So that led us to build out print as part of our membership offering. It was a tangible thing that members would get in the mail, or would pick up for free at our live events, or live events run by other organizations — and potentially turn them into paying members.
The print magazine both improved retention for current subscribers and helped convert prospective subscribers. I like the idea of creating a once-a-year tactile experience that can strengthen the relationship with your brand.
Did I not answer your question yet?
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And again, if you’re not yet a subscriber and want to join in on the fun, use the link below:
I put together a Twitter thread of my favorite interviews from the past year. It would mean a lot to me if you took a few moments to retweet it. [Twitter]
Over the past year, YouTube has accounted for 12% of my podcast downloads/streams. It's generated more listeners for my podcast than Spotify. And yet a huge percentage of podcasters don't even bother to upload episodes to YouTube. [Tom Webster]
Discord "has more than 150 million active users each month — up from 56 million in 2019 — with nearly 80 percent logging in from outside North America." [NYT]
"Graphics-centric stories are also particularly effective at turning readers into subscribers: They are often on The Post’s list of top-converting stories." [Adweek]
CNN+ will lean heavily into documentary programming, which is probably smart since not a lot of people will want to pay to simply watch talking heads scream at each other every night. [Bloomberg]
The New York Times might be close to acquiring The Athletic. [Puck] An Athletic acquisition certainly makes sense given the NYT's efforts to launch more subscription verticals. It would automatically increase its paid subscriptions by 1.2 million and get extremely close to its 2025 goal of 10 million subscribers.
Music artists constantly try to raise a stink about how much they get paid per-stream on services like Spotify. I published a Twitter rant explaining why their logic is flawed. [Twitter]
The local news ecosystem is quickly evolving, with hundreds of startups rising up to fill in the gaps left by retrenching legacy newspapers. Many of those startups are nonprofits. [Axios]
And that’s a wrap
This is my last newsletter for 2021. I thought about publishing a retrospective look back at what I’ve accomplished over the past year, but the newsletter’s two-year anniversary is in late February so I think I’ll hold off until then.
Suffice it to say, I’m incredibly grateful that all of you read my newsletter and listen to my podcast. It’s so cool that I get to build my own little community on the web. I’m especially thankful for all those who have converted into paying subscribers. You’re literally helping to pay my rent and put food on the table.
I have a super exciting 2022 lined up. I just checked and there are nine podcast interviews and 10 case study interviews that I’ve already conducted. Those interviews are packed with insights that will help you grow your own content business. I can’t wait to publish them.
Have a happy New Year!