This nutritionist generated 35 million downloads of her podcast. Here’s how she did it

Monica Reinagel

Monica Reinagel had no background in broadcasting or radio when she launched a podcast called Nutrition Diva in 2008, but she was a trained nutritionist, had published several books, and was writing a regular column at a popular health website, and this was just the sort of background that Quick and Dirty Tips, a podcast network run by the book publisher Macmillan, was looking for when she reached out to it to ask if the company would consider taking her on.

Flash forward a decade, and Reinagel now has over 500 episodes under her belt, and they’ve generated a collective 35 million downloads. I sat down with her recently to discuss how she benefited from joining a podcast network, where she gets the ideas for new topics, and why she has to be super picky when choosing which brands she’ll allow to sponsor her show.

To listen to the interview, subscribe to The Business of Content on your favorite podcast player, or you can play the YouTube video below. If you scroll down you’ll also find a transcript of the interview.

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Simon Owens: Hey Monica, thanks for joining us.

Monica Reinagel: Pleasure to be here.

You have this podcast called Nutrition Diva. I think it just surpassed something around 35 million downloads. How did it get started?

I was recruited to join the Quick and Dirty Tips network of podcasts. It’s a network of podcasts started by Mignon Fogarty. She’s best known as Grammar Girl, and she signed up with Macmillan publishing to launch one of the first podcasting networks, and I joined that network as one of the first hosts back in 2008.

I’d have to say that when I became a podcaster, I barely knew what a podcast was. And neither did a lot of the people I was telling about it.

I’ve talked to other people who have joined the Quick and Dirty Tips network. Some of them were pitched by the network, some were big fans of Mignon Fogarty and pitched themselves. Your background is as a trained nutritionist; they like to bring in subject matter experts to host their own news you can use podcasts that are giving actionable advice. What was that dynamic for you?

That’s exactly right. I am trained as a nutritionist, and I was at that point blogging for a nutrition site that was subsequently bought Conde Nast and rolled into their Self magazine site. I was blogging there, and I was actually being interviewed on someone else’s podcast on some topic of nutrition, and when we got off the air, I was chatting with the engineer, and he said ‘have you ever thought about podcasting? You should check out this podcast called Grammar Girl. They’re these short, little focused podcasts on subject areas, and they’re building a network. Maybe you’d be a good candidate for that.’

So I did check out the Grammar Girl podcast, and I went to the Quick and Dirty Tips website to see what other podcasts they had in their stable, because it did feel like nutrition would be a natural fit for that sort of expert-driven news you can use format, I couldn’t believe they didn’t have a nutritionist yet. So yes, I reached out to them, sent an inquiry to the publisher, and they shared with me that they had been looking for a nutritionist for a while. They did see that as being a perfect fit for the network they were trying to build. But they were having trouble finding someone who had a science-grounded, evidence-based approach, because that was very much in line with Mignon’s approach. She was a science editor before she did the Grammar Girl podcast, and the people who were pitching them tended not to have credentials in the field, and were more popularists, and they were really looking for someone who could bring that science background to it.

So I recorded a few sample episodes, and they brought me on, and last week we just published our 500th episode.

What was the learning curve for figuring it out? A lot of people, whether they’re podcasters or YouTubers, they have to find that narrative beat they’re going to have that their audience is going to respond to. Do your episodes today sound exactly like they did back then? What did you learn as you were starting to record these episodes?

I’m sure there’s been an evolution over the 10 years, both in my trajectory as a podcaster and writer. But I did hit, right away, what turned out to be one of the core features of this podcast, and that was taking a popular meme or trend diet or a study that was getting a lot of play in the headlines, and either debunking or unpacking or bringing a contrary point of view, a point-counterpoint kind of approach. And people really seemed to appreciate that, and it unleashed this tidal wave of questions.

I was a little nervous when I started that after 50 weeks of this I’d run out of things to talk about, but people responded to that almost immediately by sending in their own questions. ‘I read that, my sister told me this, can you look into this?’ The listeners ended up generating the lion’s share of content ideas. All I really have to do to figure out what I want to do for each week’s episode is open up my email box and just pick the best question.

I have come up with a sort of rule. If I get three emails in one day about the same topic, the same book, or the same headline, then whatever was planned for that week’s podcast gets pushed back a week, and that’s the topic of this week’s podcast.

It’s funny, you’re not the first content creator who’s told me that they go in worrying that they’d run out of stuff to do, but once they get into the flow of having a spreadsheet or Google Doc where they just throw ideas in, they start realizing that they have way more ideas in that document than they could ever get around to actually covering. That certainly helps when you have something where people are writing in and requesting stuff, because then you have even a bigger fountain of ideas.

On the other hand, after 10 years of doing this on a weekly basis, the number of questions that I’ve already answered is getting larger and larger. So in a lot of cases it’s as simple as hitting reply and saying ‘oh I did a podcast on this, here’s a link to it.’ A greater number of those get filtered out anyway. I think all content producers probably find that there are times when your slushpile of topic ideas is just so deep, and it just feels so secure to have all of those ideas ready to go, and then for some reason it just seems to dry up a little bit. You’re just getting to the bottom of the stack, and there might even be a week or two where you’re really casting around looking for a good topic, one people will be interested in, but also one that you care enough about to spend those hours researching and crafting and recording. Fortunately, those dry spells don’t last very often, and more often than not I’ve always got 10 or 12 things in my queue that I want to tackle.

Your library is pretty big now where your podcast is pretty self-referential. You’ll do sub-branches of topics that you’ve already covered. You did one on intermittent fasting, but you’d already done one on fasting in general, so you referred back to the original episode, and I’m guessing in the article version of the podcast you were able to link back to it. You’re building on content that you’ve already created.

Exactly, and it allows me to keep the format short. Because sometimes there’s something really important that should be added to a conversation, but if I’ve already done a podcast on it, I can just refer people back to that earlier episode and I don’t have to be constantly repeating myself.

That is part of our web strategy. We’re a little unique among podcast networks, in that all of our shows are fully scripted. They’re not an impromptu interview, but an actual article that I write from start to finish. That then becomes a page on our website, and then I record it as a podcast. So the web presence is a much bigger part of our strategy. And being able to link internally to all that previous content is an important part of it.

It’s very synergistic. The website itself gets a lot of traffic. That creates a lot of good content for search engines because you’re answering a lot of questions that people have. A lot of people are punching those questions into Google and ending up on your site. The articles themselves help promote the podcasts, so it’s another way to get the word out about the podcasts. But the website also generates money itself. Because there are articles and it’s a traditional website, there are display ads. What do you notice from being part of a network that you wouldn’t get from being out on your own?

One of the biggest advantages for me was all of the production support and administrative and promotional support I get from Macmillan. That would have been a pretty steep learning curve for me to have to worry not only about the actual content, but also having to solve all the technical details and figure how and when to start looking for sponsors. I think one of the biggest strengths is that we can divide and conquer. We have people who can do that much more effectively than I can, and then it leaves me free to focus on the two parts of it that only I can do, which is bring my expertise to the topic.

And then the other thing was my essential role in the network, building the relationship with the audience. I spend an enormous amount of time doing that. I don’t know that I would be able to spin all those plates at the same time. I’m just grateful to have other people who can focus on those details and free me up to really spend my time and energy on those aspects of it.

What does that entail to build an audience outside of the podcast itself? What are you doing on a weekly basis?

Immediately from the beginning we launched branded social media channels to go with the podcast. Back then, Google+ was still making a play, and there were Twitter and Facebook and a few others. And I kind of decided there was no way I was going to be able to really invest in six different social media channels. So I just kind of threw a dart at the dart board and I picked Twitter and Facebook. And those were the two that I decided to invest in.

I launched those channels. And whenever you launch a new podcast and social media channels, it does take awhile to build up an audience. I brought some audience with me, people who had been reading my blog for years and knew me through that. But it was really me spending time on those social media channels, not just sending my content out each week, but really in dialog with the people who were listening to the podcast and interacting on social media. I tried to make myself very available to them to answer questions, or respond, or to talk further about something we were discussing in the podcast, especially if it turned out to be a little provocative and controversial.

The good news is I really enjoy doing that. It’s one of the things I like most about a digital media platform. I enjoyed that about blogging as well, that the feedback loop is so short. I had written a couple of books before I got into blogging, and the feedback loop couldn’t be longer. You finish your manuscript, and a year later you’re doing your book promotion. And then maybe you get some reviews or get an email from someone who read your book. But with a blog, or a podcast, or a social media channel, it’s almost a realtime conversation, and I find that really gratifying to be able to build relationships over years with listeners and readers that have literally been with me from the start. And I feel like I know who they are and what they’re about, and vice versa, and that just makes me feel kind of cozy.

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You’ve been podcasting since 2008. You’ve likely seen the various waves of adoption of podcasts. There was the point that Apple launched a dedicated podcast app on its home screen. There was the phenomenon that was Serial. What did you notice with your own growth in your audience over time? If you were to graph it, was it slow and steady, or did you see some of these big events impact your numbers where you were suddenly seeing these huge spikes where you’d double your audience?

Because we sort of divide and conquer, I do not pore over those numbers. Every once in a while, they tell me my numbers, and I’m like ‘wow, that’s a big number.’ I obsess about what’s my next topic, what research I need to do, who do I need to call to learn about this topic. So once I’m finished with it, I’m just about interacting with the people who are consuming it. And fortunately, for me, there are people at Macmillan who are watching those numbers and figuring it out.

What I noticed was that, as with any venture, the growth was so small in the beginning, and then there comes a sort of tipping point where you have enough episodes and enough listeners talking about you, and enough people on social where you might start to see a little bit more of a logarithmic growth to those numbers. It doesn’t stay linear, it gets to the point where the doubling time gets a lot shorter in terms of your audience.

And then, the thing I noticed making the biggest impact was Serial. That just seemed to turn everybody into someone who knew what a podcast was, knew how to get one, had probably listened to one. Whereas before, there were a lot of people who didn’t know what I did. Didn’t understand how to find me or how to access it. And Serial seemed to be the mainstreaming event for podcasts. And once someone has listened to one podcast, and overcome that barrier of ‘how do I find it? Where do I hear it?’ — once they’ve cracked that code, then all the other podcasts are there for them to discover. The NPR podcasts also made podcasting so much more of a legitimate media enterprise. When I first started, I always thought of it as a fringey little thing I was doing. Now I feel very mainstream.

It’s interesting that Serial had such downstream effects, because obviously your podcast has nothing to do with true crime, so that it had so much of an impact where it really was about getting someone to download a podcast for the first time and giving them that confidence that, once they were able to do that, they were able to branch out and start exploring what else they were interested in, and a rising tide lifted all boats.

Or they hear about a podcast. Maybe they hear it mentioned on a a radio interview, and instead of just being like, ‘oh, ok, a podcast,’ they think, ‘wait, I know how to download that,’ and they can actually follow up on that tip. So all of a sudden these references that were going by for them in their social life have an actionable component. They have a podcatcher on their phone. They have a way to find that, so it becomes much more likely that they will follow up.

The other thing that I noticed, to the extent that I do look at numbers, is the holiday bump. Every year, during the holidays, people get devices. So when you get a device, you play around with it and see what you can do. That seems to always bring a new wave of podcast listeners. It’s probably tapering off now that everyone has a device, but for a while there the podcast had a great bump because they had time off work and a new device, and maybe they were going to listen to a new podcast.

Has anyone at the Macmillan podcast network talked to you about smart speakers or trying to incorporate you into a strategy around that?

Yes, we have recorded cues to let people know how to cue our content on the smart speakers. I don’t know we’ve seen that same tipping point with the smart speakers as we’ve seen with different types of devices. But with our eye on that, it’s a handy place for people to quickly access content.

Tell me about your book publishing. One thing that fascinated me about this network, and what makes it different from a lot of other networks is how it diversifies its revenue and leverages its audience. What’s cool about this is that a lot of the podcasters on the Macmillan podcast network are also authors for Macmillan, and there’s this synergy between the two where these podcasters are building up a loyal audience, and then you write a book on the exact same subject, and you’re able to leverage that audience to sell books. How many books have you published? How has that worked between working on your podcast and using that to sell books?

That’s certainly one of the concepts between the Quick and Dirty Tips network and their partnership with Macmillan. I have done one book with them, which was sort of a compilation, a greatest hits, of those first two or three years of the Nutrition Diva podcast. The idea was that we build this platform and this devoted audience that really feels that they know you personally, and I think that really goes with the audio medium. There’s something about having someone’s voice in your ear that’s different than seeing their words on a screen or a page.

So yes, you build up an audience of people who really feel like they know who you are, and they spend time with you in a more personal, intimate way. And then you bring a book out and it’s going to be a slam dunk. What I learned is that can be an enormously powerful tool, but however you still have to have a killer book that actually needs to be a book, rather than content that could be displayed in some other way. It doesn’t relieve you of the obligation to have a really strong book concept, something that’s really original, something that encapsulates some essential thing about what you do and what you know and what you offer, that really needs to be brought together in a book.

I would say it’s not an automatic win — have a podcast, write a book, sell a lot of books. I had other books that I wrote that were not associated with the podcast that actually did better, but that’s because they had a very unique reason for being other than ‘here’s more of me. You like the podcast, here’s more of the podcast in book form.’ That’s not quite enough to close that loop.

Why not then, since you already have this relationship with the book publisher, move forward with pitching more original concepts for new books?

Certainly that’s something that’s always at the back of my mind, but I have to tell you, having been a book author for several years and then switching to digital media, to be perfectly honest with you, I really enjoy the immediacy of digital media. I have my books, so I’ve punched that card. I’ve established, yes, I can write an entire book, and it can be between hard covers, and be published by a major publishing house. I’ve rung that bell. And I don’t itch for more of that, because I find what I do through the digital medium ultimately more satisfying. I like the pace of it better. I like the interaction of it better. And the platform I’ve built with the podcast, I’ve chosen to leverage it in other ways. I do a lot of public speakings and presentations. I do continuing education for other health professionals. I do corporate wellness programming. And I have some coaching programs that I run that listeners can sign up for with me.

I’ve enjoyed taking the advantage of the platform the podcast helped me build. And that might be a personality thing. Some authors would like to spend all their time alone in the room with a keyboard. I am an extrovert. I really like interacting with people. So I’m naturally drawn to the things that you can do with a platform that involve contact with people, and more immediacy.

So the podcast raises your profile, and that it a little bit easier for you to get those speaking gigs, trainings, that sort of stuff.

A lot easier.

What about advertising? I noticed that every single episode I listened to had at least one sponsor. They were host-read ads. How do you get those?

This is part of our divide and conquer strategy. We have team members at Macmillan who work with Midroll, and they manage that whole process, which in my case often involves vetting the would-be sponsors. Nutrition podcasts are often attractive to sponsors that I don’t feel comfortable endorsing — if it’s a product that doesn’t have solid science or is in line with my philosophy, then I don’t really feel comfortable doing a live read ad for it, because I take that responsibility very seriously. it’s a very powerful endorsement to have an expert you trust say ‘I think you should have this. Buy this. Use this.’

So I’m sort of picky about the things I feel comfortable endorsing. I know that gives them fits at Macmillan, but they’ve been nothing but supportive, and they’ve totally gone to the mat for me with Midroll and sponsorships, and I know they’ve turned away good money just because I felt like it was not worth trading my credibility or the trust of my listeners to read an ad that I don’t feel good about.

So you’re not doing any ads for Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, I take it.

Just going to leave that right there on the table where you left it.

The ads seem to be, at least for the most part, related to the subject matter of your podcast. You’re not doing ads for Mailchimp or Squarespace. The most mainstream ad I heard was for Hello Fresh. But they’re all related to nutrition.

Nutrition. Food. Sometimes just related lifestyle, household goods. To tell you the truth, I’d actually love to do ads for someone like Mailchimp. They’re what I use for my mailing list, and I find them to be a really usable service. I use a lot of those tech services in running my business, and I’d be happy to give positive endorsements for products that have helped me build my business. But for some reason, they think that people listening to a nutrition podcast only want to hear about nutrition, and that that’s the natural fit. I kind of think it’d be interesting if they widened their view a little bit and recognized that I do all kinds of things other than writing about nutrition, and that would be great fodder for me to say ‘I love this product, I use it all the time. This has really made my life easier.’ It doesn’t necessarily need to be a nutritional supplement. It would be honest, it would be sincere, and I imagine the people who listen to my podcast have lots of different interests. But I’m not in advertising. That’s not my area of expertise, so I try to just leave those things to people who know it better.

Most of the ads you’re doing mirror what’s going on in the rest of the industry — they’re direct response. ‘Use this offer code.’ Less brand advertising.

Every once in a while I’ll get an ad and there is no promo code or specific URL they’re directed to, and I always find that interesting because I wonder how they measure return on investment, but that’s somebody else’s problem to worry about.

You have an upcoming spin-off podcast. Tell me about that.

The Faces of Farming series?

Yes.

This is actually part of the Nutrition Diva podcast. It is something new for us. As we were getting closer to the 500th episode and the 10-year anniversary, I was sitting with my editors, and we were brainstorming, and I was really just casting around for some way to keep these fresh. I’ve been doing this podcast for 10 years, and I see the podcasting industry involving around me and all of these new things evolving around me, people trying new formats and being innovative and creative.

I was thinking yes, we have this very successful formula, but wouldn’t it be fun to experiment with some new things. So this is one of the things we decided to play around with. It’s a series of interviews around the topic of agriculture. Each week I’m interviewing a professional, a farmer, from a different sector of agriculture. I talked to a cattle rancher, to a vegetable grower, to an almond farmer — to really get some insight, a virtual visit to their farm for the listeners. What happens there? What’s it look like? What do you do all day? What does it take? What’s the hardest thing about your job?

It’s sort of organized around the Thanksgiving harvest season, a way to appreciate the people who work really hard to put food on our tables, and that’s the link, for me, to nutrition. But also it’s just an opportunity to experiment with a longer running topic that’s spun out over several episodes, and then also doing something I hardly ever do in the podcast, and that’s an interview format.

I’ve really enjoyed doing it. The interviews are really exciting for me, and really fresh. And I hope other people will enjoy it too. I’m curious to see what the feedback will be. The trick here is to balance, not ruin, what we have, and still find ways to experiment with what could also work. Whenever you change things up, people get nervous. So we’re trying to keep enough the same, and leave some room for some experimentation so we can think about what the next 10 years will bring so we’ll stay engaged and excited, and also keep up with this new medium that’s now growing so fast in content and volume, and also just exposure.

If it is successful, you can see more thematic seasons for your podcast, where rather than doing one subject at a time, you try to bite off something much larger and do it over a multi-episode arc?

Exactly, or try this format on a different topic, or different ways of organizing this approach. Try some things and let our listeners and tell us what they enjoy, but also taking into account there will be some pushback of ‘hey, where’s the podcast I’m used to?’ Let them tell us what they find interesting and let that guide us. Maybe it could potentially lead to an actual spinoff, a new product, if something really seemed to have traction and be worth pursuing, that’s a conversation we could have. Can we make this new thing? But it’s a great way to sort of lab those things, and see what people like, and what I enjoy doing.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com. For a full bio, go here.

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