Bigger Isn’t Better
The obsession with being #1 has rooted itself in podcasting, which is one of the mediums where being the biggest is almost meaningless.
Welcome to Issue #7 of The Audio Insurgent.
I’m trying to dial the length back on these newsletters. I’ve been getting too worked up about too many things. So today I have one big item and one smaller item, both related to the same topic: listener-sensitive revenue.
Next time we’ll get away from these heady concepts and more into making stuff.
[BIG RELATED THING: BIGGER ISN’T BETTER] I remember walking into podcast conference a few years ago and being greeted by a massive banner where iHeart declared itself “#1 in Podcasting.” This happened sometime after podcasting showed up on iHeart’s radar, yet before Bob Pittman declared that podcasting was iHeart’s “birthright.”
iHeart repeated the phrase many times over, even on its air. I always found it puzzling because I wasn’t sure what about podcasting they were “#1” at. It wasn’t downloads. It wasn’t hit shows. It wasn’t listeners to their app. But, I’m sure they were number one at something and it seemed very important to them to declare this.
There is a bigger question here, regardless of who claims whatever they claim: what is the benefit of being “#1 in podcasting”?
I’d argue that podcasting is a medium where being “#1” is almost a pointless distinction.
There was a time in media that being number one meant something important: it meant that in among a limited pool of options, consumers “voted” by listening, watching, or reading what they thought was best. In any given market with access to 20 radio stations, probably (at one time) a few newspaper options, and a half-dozen or so TV stations, you were the preferred choice. At that time, being “Detroit’s #1 Choice for Local News” meant something. If there are three rock stations, and you are #1, it is pretty safe to assume you were “the best,” “the leading station,” and so on.
What if there weren’t 3 rock stations, but 3,000? And what if, in line with basic economic principles, as choice grows, so does the need to specialize? So there aren’t 3,000 identically programmed rock stations, but 3,000 rock niches. In a world of niches, being number one is kind of meaningless. You aren’t going to see someone say, “Hey, among ‘Rock From the 80s Featuring Songs by Female-Lead Groups Where The Female Lead Also Wrote All The Songs’...we’re NUMBER 1!!”
One time several years ago, I was asked by the company I was working for at the time to go find “the #1 Game of Thrones podcast” so that the company could acquire it. It was nearing the height of public interest in Game of Thrones and the thinking was that we could acquire the #1 GoT podcast and its listeners would flock to my employer. I replied that there really wasn’t such a thing. There were hundreds, if not thousands, of GoT podcasts, each with its own niche: two older gay men talking about GoT, a roundtable of young black women discussing GoT, two moms from Missouri talking about GoT, comparative literature professors talking about GoT, the feminist take(s) on GoT, and so on. Almost endless variety from countless perspectives. Who had the most listeners? Who cared. Listeners would gravitate towards the one that most resonated with them.
In podcasting, your distinction is your distinction. Distinction doesn’t come from your place on a list or chart.
The evil cousin of the desire to claim #1 is the desire to claim bigness. I have fought this battle almost everywhere I’ve ever worked, where the GM or CEO or some other person-at-the-top would want to put out an announcement, sometimes even on the air, that we had achieved the “biggest audience in our history.” Luckily, I was at these organizations when they achieved that big audience, but I was always the last who wanted to trumpet that fact. I often lost that battle.
Why was I so against it? Two reasons: First, what were you planning to say when the numbers came down (which they often do at some point)? Issue another press release saying your numbers are flat or lower? Second, I’d argue that being big was irrelevant compared to being the best. And not being the best in everyone’s eyes, but in the eyes of your audience.
Your audience doesn’t care how many millions of people listen. They care about you remaining the thing they love and depend on. To them, it is a one-to-one relationship. If you are, in any way, dependent on that audience for financial support or to help grow your enterprise, then you are better served by having a great relationship with your audience. Not necessarily the biggest audience.
In podcasting, the need for bigness is replaced by the need for depth. As in, depth of the relationship between you and your audience.
Almost every realistic scenario for the future of podcasting includes being less dependent on advertising and more dependent on audience-sensitive revenue. Less dependence on advertising will come from a few possible triggers: the economy will sag (taking ad budgets with it), ad rates will drop (because there will be more sophisticated methods of buying it), digital advertising finds a new, buzzy bright shiny thing to dump big CPMs into, or you will max out the advertising potential for your podcast (in this scenario, advertising on the whole can continue to grow, but you can only carry so many ads per show). Audience-sensitive revenue includes any situation where your audience gives money (pretty much) directly to you: Patreon-like support or memberships, live events, merch, and so on.
Ask anyone who depends on audience-sensitive revenue and they’ll tell you that it is a great way to make it work, but, like any relationship, it takes time and attention to nurture and maintain.
In those inevitable scenarios where growth and revenue comes from the audience, size of the overall audience doesn’t matter. Size of the contributing audience is what matters.
As any reader of this newsletter knows, I revere good audience data. I use it whenever I have access to it as both a creative guide, pulse check, and inspiration. However, data is only useful if there is a direct action that can be taken as a result. Otherwise, it is just trivia. What is the action taken from being Number 1? Probably nothing besides worrying about how to stay that way.
While it does (and should) feel good to be #1, the most useful thing that can come from it is a bit of self-reflection on what got you there and why.
[SMALL RELATED THING: HOW TO MONETIZE] Last week I spoke to a podcasting club on Clubhouse. It was the first time I’d really done a talk and Q&A on Clubhouse. It was pretty fun.
One participant asked me about the best way to monetize his young podcast and the answer I gave surprised me. He had about 1,000 downloads per episode and wanted to grow to the point that he could start carrying advertising.
I told him that he should flip his thinking around, saying, “If your goal is to make significant money with advertising, I wouldn’t make that my first goal. I’d make that a goal for later.”
I told him that at this stage, he should be focusing on building his listener-sensitive revenue, not his download count to attract advertisers. I said that he probably had 50-100 people among those 1,000 listeners who would give me $1 a month now, if he asked right and nurtured that process. Then he should start to think how to grow that membership program by providing more perks and ways to connect. His time is best spent growing the community of givers. The pay-off is immediate, as are the indicators of what’s working and not for growing that program.
And the best part is that as he is growing his membership base, it also grows the overall size of his audience, which then starts to make a case for advertising. In short: to grow into something attractive to advertisers, it’s best not to focus on how to be attractive to advertisers. Just grow. Then the advertisers will often come to you.
That’s it for now. Again, if you enjoy this, please let me know. If you are getting this via email, you can simply reply to the newsletter and it goes straight to me (and doesn’t post your response anywhere, either, fyi).
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Make great things. I’ll be listening.