Players Gonna Play: Some Tips on Growing Your Podcast Audience

Your podcast is perfect. You do it all: edit for the gods, release regularly, feed it to all the podcatchers, and social media like a queen. You’ve grown an audience, but then what? Things plateau. That’s what.

Nothing on top but a bucket and a mop and an illustrated book about birds. But don’t be scared, who needs action when you’ve got words. Specifically, these words: Non-RSS Growth. There is more you can be doing to grow your show. But, it means exiting the podcast bubble and entering a broader media landscape. Growing your show through players and social audio is the best strategy you aren’t doing.

What is Non-RSS Growth?

Simply put, it means growing a show’s audience by increasing listens outside of its RSS feed. Primarily, this means increasing listens through embedded web players and shareable players on social media.

Most shows are published and pushed out on RSS. Podcatchers subscribe to that RSS feed and listeners access content through the podcatcher. This is a great way to grow a successful show but it also puts a wall between your podcast and new audiences. I’m not talking about people who already listen to podcasts and just haven’t heard yours. I’m talking about NEW new audiences. People who don’t listen to podcasts. And despite my own overwhelming sense of self-worth telling me that everyone listens to podcasts, this Edison Research Survey suggests it’s only 24% of the U.S. population. So there’s a lot of room for growth, and I’m wearing stretch pants.

Why Does Non-RSS Growth Matter?

Because diversity. It’s not just about increasing your listens, it’s about increasing your listeners. Successful podcasts have historically skewed white and male. Indeed, 70% of the top podcasts are hosted by men. And some 85% of podcasts have at least one white host. Most of these have found their success in the RSS feed. To grow a pie of successful and diverse shows, a different growth strategy is in order. Yet we continue to isolate podcasts as something to download and engage with in dedicated apps.

Diversity is found by reaching potential listeners on social platforms. First by adapting your tech approach to distribution, and second by adapting type of content you distribute.

Players Crush a Lot Too

Player technology is not new, but it’s having a moment. Players can be embedded, tweeted, and shared by text. Historically, the journey of the player ended when the newest episode was embedded on your website. There are two problems here, neither of which are that no one goes to your website. Zing!

First, just embedding a player ignores people’s tendency to share articles not audio. Second, it doesn’t exploit our 24-hour news cycle.

The more walls you put up between a new listener and your content, the more likely you are to lose that listener. The word podcast is a giant wall that does not need to be built. Readers that have decided they don’t listen to podcasts are not going to engage with an article that says podcast in the headline. But, readers that find an interesting article about audio content may take a moment to listen. Moreover, they may take a second moment to share that article with their friends.

So let’s talk sharing. In a world of newsfeeds, game them by making news out of your podcast. Write an article about the content of your episode and embed a player into the article. Share that article, don’t mention the word podcast. This is imperative. For example:

Article about a recent episode of Hard Pass on BusinessInsider.com

Now, let’s talk exploitation. Content thirst is strong, and when you make news out of your audio content, it has a greater chance of being picked up and amplified elsewhere.

Here’s an example close to my heart: On May 16th, my show Hard Pass published this episode with billionaire Jim Chanos. The same day, host Linette Lopez wrote this article about it for Business Insider. Later that day, Vanity Fair wrote their own article, citing Business Insider as a source, and linking back to Linette’s article. That led to the show being picked up by some other entities (ValueWalk, The Crux). We saw a similar course of events on a later episode with an article on Business Insider that was picked up by Barron’s. Put plainly, if your player is embedded in an article about the content (not about the podcast), it can reach new audiences outside of regular podcast channels.

Does the Content Match the Tech?

If we keep making audio stories the same way, we’ll keep fighting over the same listeners. That Edison Survey I talked about earlier, the one that says only 25% of the population listens to podcasts, ALSO says that more than half of the population is familiar with podcasting. It’s not discovery keeping these people from listening, it’s content. Growing an audience outside RSS means catering your content to their ears. It doesn’t mean abandoning your structure, but it does mean doing some content code-switching.

Not all content is created equal when it comes to growing an audience through social media. Indeed, The Onion summed it up nicely with this headline: Friend Who Sent Link to 8-Minute YouTube Video Must Be Fucking Delusional.

With short form content, players embedded in social media give you an opportunity to grow an audience independent of RSS. Indeed, if it’s a reasonable length the lunchtime listener could stream a podcast from a player in a tweet. Short form content is having a little bit of a renaissance, including short explainers from The Week, live shows with Podcast Therapy, and sonic tidbits from The World According to Sound. And Transom’s Rob Rosenthal just blessed the cause with this HowSound episode that may also be the title to my autobiography: Short is Beautiful.

Long, narrative content is not going to thrive on Twitter. But don’t despair, there are options. Creating trailers or promo versions of your content and not pushing those files to RSS is a great way to allow new audiences to samples the wares. Also, you can use your social presence to engage existing audiences. Publish unheard tape only to social media, encouraging existing listeners to engage with you in a different space, and figuratively, on a different level. These engagements are viewed by their networks, further expanding your reach. Each platform requires a different tone — if you want to grow an audience outside of RSS, make something that works with the platform.

If you don’t want to make something new (which you should), sharing moments of a show via player can make that 45 minute ask a lot quicker. Many players (ahem, Acast) offer this feature, as well as various clipping solutions being developed by Clammr, Pop Up Archive, and This American Life. WNYC just open sourced its audiogram experiment, which is also a fun way to clip what you have into something more snackable.

Ultimately, I’m excited to see where audio content can change when it releases its grip on the RSS feed. I see a world with less barriers to entry, more unique content, and more advertising dollars. A world with audio content integrated with the rest of digital media, like this piece of pure joy from Veronica Simmonds and Katie McKay, where there really isn’t a verb for what you just did. We can’t all be Canadian, but there’s still some great opportunities for exciting content.

Some Closing Bullets

  • If a podcast drops and three-quarters of the U.S. population isn’t listening, has anyone heard it?
  • Why do we treat podcasts like special snowflakes of digital media?
  • Players make podcasts more accessible and attract new audiences.
  • To maximize the effectiveness of players, content should be catered to social distribution.
  • If we make the same form of content, we’ll never reach the audience that wants something different.
  • Have you heard my podcast?
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