By Simon Owens
Two years after Jamie Golden and Knox McCoy launched Popcast, a pop culture podcast they host once a week, they still couldn’t attract high quality advertisers despite the show’s loyal and growing audience. “We found the advertisers who were approaching us weren’t quantifying our value in any kind of tangible way,” said Golden in an interview. “And yet we had these fans who would just go to bat for us. Whatever we asked of them, they would do, and they were supportive and stayed consistent. We never saw a decrease in downloads, not one month we’ve been in existence. It’s been growth, growth, growth.”
The two launched the podcast in August of 2013. At the time, Golden was working as a marketer for nonprofits while McCoy wrote screenplays for a video production company, and for the first year they treated the podcast as merely a hobby. “After about 18 months with consistent growth, we just sat down and decided that if we’re really going to do this, we need to make some decisions and goals,” said Golden. That list of goals included items like conducting live shows and growing the podcast’s newsletter. But at the very top of the list they set an objective to start generating revenue.
If you run a podcast with a small-to-midsized audience, this is often easier said than done. In the past few years we’ve seen the podcast industry, as a whole, make significant headway toward attracting advertisers to the medium. Some podcast companies report they’re commanding between $50 to $100 per thousand listeners, and major brands, initially reluctant to dip their toes into the podcast waters, are now budgeting for ad spots on popular shows. Meanwhile, podcast startups like Gimlet have announced multi-million dollar investments from VC firms.
But the overwhelming majority of these new advertising dollars are flowing to podcasts with millions of monthly downloads. Last summer I attended Podcast Movement, an industry conference, and sat in on a panel led by Lex Friedman, the chief revenue officer for Midroll Media, one of the leading podcast networks. At one point during the Q&A, someone raised their hand and asked how many listeners a show needs to have in order to get accepted into the Midroll network. Friedman replied that the current threshold was 50,000, but that it would soon double to 100,000. Advertising has always been an industry that chases scale, and so even podcasts that boast tens of thousands of listeners are still struggling to make money.
That was the reality facing McCoy and Golden. “We were told that since we cover TV and film, we needed 5,000 downloads per episode,” recalled Golden. “But then when we’d reached that number, they’d say we now needed 10,000 downloads. And so on and so on.” The two determined, given the fervent interactions they experienced with their listeners, that they’d turn to those same listeners to generate revenue. At the time, some other podcasters were launching crowdfunding campaigns on Kickstarter and Indiegogo. But these platforms were geared more toward one-off projects, like those who planned to publish a book or an album. “We wanted something that would be more ongoing.”
So McCoy and Golden turned to a then-new crowdfunding platform called Patreon. Founded by music artist Jack Conte, Patreon differed from other crowdfunding sites in that it was optimized for artists who generated work on an ongoing basis. Rather than making a one-time contribution, supporters set a dollar amount and then Patreon charges that amount to their credit cards at the beginning of each month. One of the platform’s most famous early adopters was singer Amanda Palmer, who wanted to leave her corporate record label behind and now receives close to $34,000 from Patreon supporters for each piece of art she creates.
When the Popcast team reached out to Patreon, there weren’t many other podcasters on the platform. “They were small at the time,” said Golden. “You knew everyone by their first name at the organization.” This allowed Golden to give direct feedback and see immediate results. “We would ask Patreon questions and they’d be like, ‘Hmm, we haven’t thought of that, so let’s try it.’”
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Patreon allows a user to set several subscriber levels and, as with other crowdfunding platforms, the more you give, the more you receive from the artist. At first, McCoy and Golden struggled with deciding which benefits to offer up. “We made it very complicated to support us because there were too many levels and rewards,” said Golden. After attracting an initial 200 supporters, their funding plateaued. Then, in Fall 2016, they simplified their offerings to subscribers. “We only had two tiers to support us.”
If you subscribed at the $3-a-month level, you would gain access to monthly deep dive episodes. For those who subscribed at the $7-a-month level, you would receive an extra pop culture news segment from the weekly show and “mini-episodes” that spanned between 10 and 15 minutes. They also set a fundraising goal of $2,500, and once they reached that goal they promised to produce weekly recaps of The Bachelor. Before they revised their offerings, there had been tiers that required them to record video and even send stuff by mail. “That was so much harder than producing the very thing we’re good at creating, which is audio content.” The change worked; since October 2016, Popcast has tripled both the number of subscribers and the amount of revenue generated through Patreon.
Many of the podcasters I spoke to for this article said they struggled with how to structure their support tiers. The goal is to be able to offer up subscriber “extras” that provide value to those who receive them while at the same time ensuring these extras don’t take up too much time and resources to fulfill — time that could be better spent improving the podcast itself. Ben Kissel, a host for Last Podcast on the Left, which focuses on true crime and serial killers, told me that he and his co-hosts settled on a range of rewards that dovetailed with their content. “You could get a picture of a crime scene photo signed by us,” he said. “And then [co-host Marcus Parks] went through the manual labor task and pain of using a bone saw and sawed up cow bones that his parents sent him up from Texas. People absolutely loved it.” New subscribers would receive shoutouts on the show, bonus audio content that featured the hosts reading aloud from the Satanic Verses, and early ticket purchasing access for live shows.
Unlike many other podcasters who turn to Patreon because advertising isn’t yet an option, Last Podcast on the Left receives over a million downloads per week and attracts sponsorships from several large brands. In fact, the podcast has a diverse set of income streams that include Patreon, advertising, merchandise sales, and live shows. But Patreon, by far, is the most important of the show’s revenue sources. “Patreon was the initial catalyst for having financial freedom and the ability to invest the money back into the podcast,” said Kissel. “We wouldn’t be nearly where we are today without it.” Those initial subscribers allowed him to quit his day job to focus on the podcast full time and funded the expensive upfront costs for the merchandise and live shows. “The amount of money coming through the Patreon page is understated when it comes to the actual significance of where that money was able to allow us to get.”
Other podcasters use Patreon so they can expressly avoid advertising all together. This is why Tom Merritt turned to it in January 2014 shortly after launching his podcast, Daily Tech News Show. Though this particular podcast was brand new at the time, Merritt had an already-existing fan base that he’d grown in his previous podcasting stints at both CNET and the TWiT network. “It was my attempt to say, ‘OK, I’ve had two successful daily podcasts about tech news, let’s see if I can start one on my own,’” he told me.
While Merritt’s previous podcasts had accepted sponsors, he wanted this new one to remain ad free. “Because of the nature of the audience, a lot of whom are into the open source movement, I knew it was a big selling point to them to have a show that didn’t have any outside influence,” he said. So he did some back-of-the-envelope math to calculate how much money he could bring in if he accepted advertising. He determined he could forgo sponsorships if he could reach $10,000 in monthly contributions, which he would use to pay himself and the guests who appeared on his show.
Merritt experimented with various calls to action to convince listeners to subscribe. He started by promoting the Patreon page in the middle of the show, but after listeners complained that it sounded too much like an ad, he moved his pitch to the end. “I actually had an old radio guy say, ‘Hey, I thought a public broadcasting message might be cool,’ and so he created a pre-roll ad for me,” he recalled. “So I played it at the beginning of my show and that inspired a bunch of other people to do the same thing, so now that’s become a standard thing that I have a pre-roll at the beginning of every show. Sometimes I read it and sometimes it’s someone from the audience reading it.” The message resonated with listeners; he reached his $10,000 monthly goal less than two months after launching on Patreon.
As more and more podcasters joined Patreon, the company began rolling out new tools to aid them. One of the most important feature releases was a special RSS feed that allowed subscribers to listen to bonus content in their podcast app of choice. “If we did audio bonus content, a supporter wouldn’g be able to open it in their podcast app,” said Golden. “They would have to listen through the Patreon app or at the Patreon website. And so when we surveyed our Patreon subscribers last Summer, that was the number one complaint. People said, ‘I have to go to two different places to enjoy your content.’”
The RSS link generator, which Patreon announced last year, solved that problem. If enabled, a podcast’s Patreon subscribers would receive a personalized RSS feed that they could copy and paste into their podcast player. Each URL is unique, which prevents multiple people from simply grabbing and using the same feed. When the podcaster uploads new subscriber-exclusive audio content to Patreon, it automatically shows up in the subscriber’s podcast listening app. “Once they launched that, we were like, ‘Thanks, you’ve solved all our problems,’” said Golden.
According to its website, Patreon has directed more than $100 million to the creators on its platform. And while most of the podcasters on Patreon have only raised enough to merely supplement their income, some have managed to amass a full-time living. Golden told me she recently left her job to work on Popcast full time.
Kissel and his Last Podcast on the Left cohosts also now count podcasting as their main gig. “We’re full-time artists, which is a dream come true and a miracle,” he told me. “It’s something we don’t take for granted.” He’s especially glad they got to this point without putting up a paywall or begging for money. “For us, it’s laid back. If you feel as if we’re worthy of a dollar, please feel free to give it to us. If not, enjoy the content for free.”
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