5 myths about podcasting

There is an experience most hobbyist podcasters can relate to: You just started out and actually you have no idea what you’re doing. As a result your show has *cough* some room for improvement and your listener numbers are in the double digits (if that). Your idea of promotion is to buy Facebook ads and you signed up to every podcast related online group you found. There even is a weekly post to share your show’s link under (Spoiler: no one clicks on these, not ever; you keep posting your link anyway). Hour after hour you stare at your stats and after a few weeks of plateauing you get frustrated. This is when you ask on the forum how to find listeners and how others suggest to make money from such an audience.

Now you encounter below myths. As with every myth there is some truth to each, but they also can be a bit misleading. They get repeated everywhere on the web and certainly “feel” very intuitive which led me to write this little essay to share my thoughts on them. The five myths share a common theme: Podcasting has finally grown up, the rules have changed!

Myth #1 — Podcasting is a niche medium…

This very popular statement is made by podcasters new and experienced alike. What they intent to say is that podcasts often have lower audience numbers than other media and that many podcasts specialize on a narrow content niche. In fact they make it sound like a strength unique to podcasts…

Of course there is some obvious truth to that. We know from studies that there are less people familiar with podcasts than with, say, TV. And, of course there are plenty of podcasts about niche topics. (Just as there are plenty of books or plenty of youtube videos on niche topics as well)

But…

… the medium itself outgrew the stage “niche medium” years ago! Just look at some numbers that hopefully illustrate what I mean:

Let’s start with the general potential in the English speaking world, especially in the US: According to Edison research about 67 million Americans listen to podcasts. The record podcast S-Town achieved more than 10 million downloads within the first four days of its release! Let’s reiterate: 67 million Americans listen to podcasts! Compare that to 100 million Netflix subscribers, to 37.5 million NPR listeners, or to 2.5 million subscribers of the New York Times. If you thought the podcast market is small, think again!

By now podcasting as a medium is as much a mass medium as is TV, radio or even printed media. The total numbers may differ, but in general we’re beyond categories like “small” or “niche”.

You wouldn’t call the Newspaper industry as being all about niche audiences just because there are papers for special audiences, neither is podcasting a niche medium just because there are special interest formats.

Just look at the podcasting operations of NPR, Gimlet, Radiotopia and other networks! They do not think of themselves as catering for a niche audience, instead they develop shows with a mass appeal. And the numbers add up. As an example: With 15 shows the podcast publisher Gimlet self-reports to generate about 7 million downloads per month!

Why it matters depends on who you are. Chances are you fall into one of three categories:

  1. Let’s say you’re one of the many podcasters out there who dreams big and hope to make money or even a living from podcasting. You’ll find a whole range of niche podcasters that will tell you how they monetize off a niche audience. And they’re absolutely right, they really do! But, they might also admit that their ad revenues are in decline, that they either compete among each other for a similar niche (podcasting about news in tech, movies and comics anybody?) or that they have trouble keeping lucrative sponsorship deals without joining larger networks. The truth is that niche podcasts have an increasingly hard time to make profits, precisely because the industry around them has outgrown that phase.
  2. If you’re even more ambitious and your plan is to land a podcast hit with several 100,000 downloads per month, it is the competition you need to worry about. Serial had almost 20 folks on a payroll, Gimlet has more than 60 people on staff. I’m not saying that you cannot compete with them with smaller operations, but simply having a good idea probably will not cut it anymore. You need to invest in overall production value as well.
  3. Maybe money is not what you’re after, the arguments above are not for you then. There is a third (and a fourth) reason why you should care: “barrier to entry” and “openness”. Right now everyone is welcome to the podcasting world as it requires only a modest investment to start. It is based on open technology and the current de-facto gate keeper, Apple, imposed only a minimum ruleset. What we start seeing though is a trend to better analytics, better monetization and increased control over consumers. If you’re a big company competing over a limited number of listers, what will you do? Right. You will be tempted to lock in your customers to your own networks, content models and platforms. Look at the NPR app, at walled gardens like Spotify or Amazon… geo-fenced content, prepaid vs. ad-financed content, DRM’ed content, licensed show concepts, individually tracked consumption are only small steps away. All of these ideas are already out there and are music in the ears of large content producers. Most of these ideas depend on a closed ecosystem and are hard in an open market… 
    We’re not there yet, but some explore that space already. I think it can be balanced with independent media producers and an open creator’s scene. Realizing the environment we’re in is a mandatory first step though.

Myth #2 — Content is king (trumping style or audio quality). If your content is good, listeners will follow.

As intuitive as it sounds — this statement has actually never been true. I like the premise though. It is the idea that in a podcast the “what do I say” is distinct from the “how do I say it” and the “how will it sound after I published it” and the only thing that truly matters is the “what”. In other words it is the hope that it doesn’t matter how clumsy you sound and how little you care for audio production as long as you got something original to share.

I’m sorry…

The hard truth is that your listeners need to be persuaded by more than that. They can spend their free time in thousands of ways and for them the distinction between content, style, or production quality rarely exist. Listeners expect those aspects to be in balance and if you don’t care about all of them then you’ll never attract more than just a very small fanbase. Even worse — the more your audience gets used to high quality audio productions, the less forgiving they’ll be if you fail to meet basic standards. The average podcast listener subscribes to about 5 shows. Your content needs to be extraordinarily unique if you really hope they’ll listen to sub-par audio quality or poor narration.

Certainly content is a key element though, it ought to count for something, right? — yes, it is, yes it does, but not on its own.

Listeners will compare with other options and dropping your subscription is just one tap away if you don’t care about removing that annoying hiss or at least try to work on your “uhms”.

Having said that — there is an alternative way to think about this question: Above statement can be true if we rephrase it slightly into two separate statements.

“It is better to publish something sub-optimal and iterate based on feedback than not publishing at all.”

… followed by …

“First, make sure you got something to say, then worry about the production.”

These two statements are meant to get you out into the world instead of optimizing your podcast to death without ever launching. Iterating on feedback is key if you like to grow your audience and production quality is a requirement you should work on.

Your listeners choose out of a wealth of high quality content that is thoughtfully designed and skillfully produced. Your content needs to win their loyalty and at least to some extent that means you have to do your “audio homework”.

Myth #3 — There are no winning recipes to successful podcasts

This is just plain wrong. There is an entire industry producing low cost interview formats, sometimes churning out one per day, often with a standardized questionnaire. There are famous hosts like Tim Ferris or John Lee Dumas making millions with that recipe. John even sells quite expensive courses on how he does it. The caveat: Because it is technically easy there is plenty of competition. By now you need to be really creative to find interview guests that are interesting while not yet interviewed by everyone else.

Or how about the so-called narrative storytelling following the style of famous NPR shows like This American Life or Planet Money? Again you’ll find a recipe. Transom sells (quite costly) workshops. Or you invest in this amazing book (yes, it is a comic) that tells all the secrets (and what an unbelievable amount of work it is) from masters of the discipline like Ira Glass. In fact, narrative storytelling is such an effort that there is no harm to the industry in sharing the knowledge about its methods at a very low price, sometimes they even give it away for free. The author of said book has an amazing podcast-workshop you can follow here and I encourage you to follow the material, it is eye-opening!

Last, not least, there are decades of experience in radio and audio book production. Even surprise successes like Serial followed quite known methods. Look at movies, read books, follow audio media and you will discover that humans like the familiar and like to be guided by well established patterns. Podcasting isn’t any different.

So, yes, there are recipes. But the easy ones are already taken and the hard ones are, well, really hard to do.

Myth #4 — Finding podcasts is hard. (aka ‘the discovery problem’)

I smiled when Alex Blumberg was asked about the discovery problem in a panel at the Third Coast Audio Festival (listen to the panel here). His answer was refreshing. While he acknowledged the general problem, he also said something very true: “So what? Facebook is also hard, yet people join nonetheless”. It may sound surprising at first because we’re incredibly familiar with Facebook, but actually he is right! Look at Twitter as a comparison or at *urgs* Snapchat — the ease of use depends on your personal preferences and how much time you’re willing to invest, but make no mistake: these tools have a barrier of entry all the same. The truth is that podcasting is not any harder to understand than, say, subscribing to channels at youtube or nurturing little monsters in Pokémon.

Once you found your way to podcasts, there is plenty of content for you and it is incredibly easy to find for anyone capable of a Google search or clicking in iTunes.

Why do we as podcasters think then, it is actually hard? Two reasons: First, we know plenty of folks who do not listen to podcasts and if we try to convert them we seem to explain a lot and they seem to be confused. Second, we suffer from a perspective distortion.

As a podcaster struggling to attract an audience it feels very much like “my podcast is harder to discover than others”. That is again a problem of a mass market with plenty of choices and plenty of consumers. The big players solve that problem with professional marketing, they create high quality productions and promote it through paid channels until they achieve critical mass. If that is successful then they create their own channels as a by-product. A good example of the latter are flagship shows like This American Life. NPR promotes new shows regularly to bootstrap core audiences through this channel.

Imagine a hobbyist podcaster could book such an ad slot in TAL. If you can afford that, then your podcast makes it to the top of the iTunes charts too…

To conclude: Finding podcasts is easy, but if you try to be found, then you’re like the metaphorical needle in the haystack. How can you change that? With money or luck.

Myth #5 — Podcasts are hard to measure

Yes and no. You can measure downloads, you cannot measure audience engagement. You’ll even see where downloads come from, what device was used, where the user came from and much more. In fact the granularity of download analytics can be remarkable.

The challenge for most of us is that this is not the same as knowing the actual users. We don’t know if the person downloading actually listened to our content, we don’t know when people drop out or loose focus and we would love to learn more about them, e.g. what other podcasts are they listening to? How about demographics?

Well… there are actually two myths in one here. First, this limitations are only for us “mere mortals”. If you’re a big player on the market, then you have plenty of alternative sources for additional data. You might look at your own network app (NPR), your own podcast distribution platform (Spotify), or maybe you’re large enough and Apple shares their backend data with you (yes, for tier 1 podcasts rumor has it that they see a bit more than the rest of us). Also, you probably can afford to research the market properly, so you combine insights from base stats with a socioeconomic understanding of your audience. It is safe to say that tier 1 publishers know a ton about their formats and us, their listeners.

The second aspect goes even deeper: We know enough for meaningful decisions too!

Modern data analytics can tell from what devices and at what times downloads have been made. If we focus on one type of device (say, a smart phone) and look at the downloads over time, then this gives us a pretty good idea how many people keep downloading (and likely consuming) our content, where they’re from, what time they check for episodes etc.

This may not be as precise as desirable but it sheds light on a key indicator: %Growth. In the end it does not matter how much subscribers you really have as long as you keep growing your audience. Growth means you’re doing something right. If the download trend points down, then you’re doing something wrong. It is that simple. To learn more about your listeners and their habits, you simply ask or experiment. Both go a long way and actually I argue this is quite enough for the average podcaster.

And it has the advantage that you’re leaving your listener alone which I consider a positive thing in our data-obsessed world :-)

hm…

Podcasting is relatively young and it is an industry in its infancy. For some weird reason it takes longer for audio than for video or text to take full advantage of internet and social media. But it arguable is booming right now. With this boom things change. I love thinking about those changes, I’m excited about it and if we care about the medium then it is worth paying attention.

What do you think? Do you agree with my ideas, do you disagree? I’d love to read your view on these and maybe other podcasting myths…

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