Do Cross-Promos Work? Hell Yes, But You Are Likely Doing Them Wrong…And We Can Fix That
In which 2022 Eric goes back to ask 2004 Eric for some advice about how to correctly use podcasts to promote other podcasts.
Welcome to Dispatch #29 of The Audio Insurgent.
An experiment today: you might notice there is an audio “voice over” version of this dispatch. I’ve had many, many requests to do an audio version of The Audio Insurgent, some quasi-threatening. My primary excuse is that I barely have the time to put this out as is, let alone cut a narration to match. I’ll try this, see how people use it and react, and then decide if this will be an on-going part of this thing…
Welcome back! Hope you all had a great summer. I know you are reading this instead of dealing with that mountain of email and Slack messages, but stick with me, this one will be worth it.
If someone came to the podcast industry and offered, no strings attached, billions of dollars to promote podcasting and grow audiences, as well as increase downloads and revenue, that would be amazing, right? Such an amazing offer that you’d be willing to stop what you are doing, put all your current projects on pause, and pursue these billions of free dollars, right? Of course you would.
Okay, hold on a second…
There, I just did it.
You are welcome.
Real quick before I explain…I’m currently taking reader questions for an upcoming podcast, radio, audio “Ask Eric Anything” dispatch. Submit your questions via this form–and it can be anonymous if you wish. Ground rules about what I will/won’t discuss are on the form. I’ll be accepting questions for the AMA until this Friday, September 9th. Get them in before you forget!
So, back to the free billions of promotional dollars. Yes, well…
I’m talking about cross-promos. Those promo ad swaps you do with other podcasts, sometimes in your network, sometimes out. You can purchase them, sure, but the smart folks do cross-promo swaps, that while worth a lot, are free. If everyone ran one cross-promo in every episode for a month, it would be worth tens of billions of dollars, and could unlock audience, downloads, and revenue.
And everyone asks: “Do they work?”
Answer: Hell, yes. But you probably aren’t doing them right.
Over the next few dispatches, I’ll be diving in deep on what works, why, and how we know it.
Today, I’ll offer a bit of an overview, including a sizable dump of material that radio people can use TODAY. Later in this dispatch, and over the next several dispatches, I’ll talk about how all this applies to podcasting.
Okay, so on we go…
[TODAY’S FIRST THING: AN OVERVIEW OF CROSS-PROMOS…AND WHY I CARE ABOUT THEM]
Here is a story of your tax dollars being put to work to help you, dear podcaster…
I have always felt like effective on-air/in-episode content promotion is fascinating and powerful, but often misunderstood and almost always poorly executed.
Let me back up and tell you why I care so much about cross-promotion.
Many of my podcast friends and followers know I came into podcasting because I arrived at NPR at about the same time as podcasting was becoming a real thing. But my audio career started way before that. I first started in radio as a board operator at a public radio station when I was 19. By the time I was 31, I was the station’s program director–in charge of all the station’s programming, on-air sound, and oversaw the work of all its hosts, reporters, and producers. Fun fact: at the time I was the youngest public radio program director in the country and everyone who worked at my station was older than I was–many I’d known since I started as a teen.
So, it was a weird situation, which forced me to learn a lot with an eye towards humility. One thing I regularly tried to do was admit when I didn't understand something, then try to figure it out, even when no one seemed to have any answers. Promos were one such thing. My station ran hundreds of promos each week to tell listeners about other shows on our station, and they were scheduled randomly and haphazardly. I asked myself, “Does this even work?”
I soon realized that almost everyone in radio aired cross-promos, but almost no one had any idea how they worked. So I decided to try to figure it out. I managed to convince CPB to give me a modest grant to learn and decode everything about on-air messaging, message frequency, and information retention–and then write a report on what I figured out, articulate best practices, make easy tools, and then go everywhere someone would have me to teach and train. I called it the On-air Program Promotions Insight Study and I continued to research and talk on the subject for a few years. I posted the final report on the Internet, and like many things that get posted on the Internet, it eventually got harder to find, the links didn’t work anymore, and it just went to seed.
A few times a year, even now, I get an email that reads, “Hey, what happened to that promo study you did?” I’ll then dig up the report, broken links and all, and email it back. Well, after 18 years, I’ve finally decided to go back, give it a super-light edit, fix all the links, and store it on Google Drive forever.
Please keep in mind that it is very radio-centric. Remember, the word “podcasting” had just been coined for the first time eight weeks before this came out. And it’s not only very public radio-centric, but very 2004 public radio (references to Garrison Keillor and Bob Edwards, etc–outside of This American Life, almost every other program mentioned is no longer in distribution). Yet despite its age, it can still be very effective and useful to all audio professionals today.
But the whole project boils down to one simple sentence: A well-constructed message, delivered to the right listeners often enough for them to recognize it, can increase listening.
The report has a lot more to it, but the core focuses around the “Three ‘Rs’ of Program Promotion: Reduction, Repetition, and Real Content.” Over the coming few Audio Insurgent dispatches, we’ll look at each, highlighting how they apply to podcasting and today’s digital audio experiences.
Today, we start with Reduction…
[TODAY’S MAIN PROMO THING: UNDERSTANDING REDUCTION]
If you are going to redecorate, you need to tidy up first, right? You can’t express a clear vision with debris scattered around.
For those who don’t want to dive in and read my 43-page manifesto on promotion, let’s take it in smaller bites. Today, a simple and quick lesson on “Reduction.”
“Reduction” is a concept that many media can learn from: it’s basically understanding the damage of short-term gain. Reduction has two definitions: On the macro level, it means talking about fewer things; on the micro level, it means simplifying the message.
I was recently listening to a podcast and, during its midroll, I heard four cross-promos for other podcasts. Reduction is understanding that the more messages you put in front of a listener, the less likely they are to retain the information, let alone act on what they hear. It’s an example of the law of diminishing returns. The more you put out, the less you receive.
Is one cross-promo effective? It can be. Can two cross-promos in an episode be effective? Sure, but probably not as effective as one. It goes on.
It’s also important to remember that cross-promos aren’t just competing with messages in other cross-promos, they are also competing with advertisements, your plug for live event tickets, your Twitter handle, etc. Think of your last podcast episode and ask yourself: “How many times do I ask my listeners to do something?” In fact, when I do podcast evaluations, I often tally this up. It is often, between everything, well over a dozen requests–from buying a meal kit to listening to another podcast to following the host on TikTok to reading transcripts to buying more stuff to coming back again next week. And worst of all is when the host challenges a listener to prove their loyalty and support by doing all these things.
Seriously, go back and listen to a recent episode of your show–how many things do you ask them to do?
The multitude of asks that aren’t benefiting the listener adds to the shower of noise that we dump on them. They tune out, don’t pay attention to anything, and worst of all, if affects trust.
All those requests fatigue listeners, not only because of their number but because there is rarely any explanation of what the listener gains from a suggested action.
Look at these common requests:
“Check out our Instagram at…”
“You can purchase tickets at…”
“Tune in next week for a new episode…”
“Go to blueapron.com for more info…”
What do all these have in common? They are actions, requested of the listener, that benefit you, not them.
Why would they ever do that?
So the first part of “Reduction” is simply prioritizing the actions you request from listeners, and realizing that you can only ask a very few if you want to have any return on the time you are taking to talk about them.
Talk about fewer things.
While reducing the noise level is essential, so is presenting a promo with a clear and concise message. The most effective messages—the ones listeners mentally process, retain, and recall most easily—are those that contain the clearest ideas, fewest words, and no unnecessary details or tangents. Research into message recall and retention has proven repeatedly that the impact of a message on listeners is proportionally reduced by the amount of “information bits” that surround the message. The fewer information bits packed into a promotional spot, the more likely it will make an impression.
On many occasions, I’ve received cross-promo (and advertising) copy that is just a bullet point list. The implication is the more bullet points you read, the “better” the promo or ad will be. Here is a hard fact: lists don’t work in audio.
Further, it reinforces a long-standing (and largely incorrect) assumption that the longer an ad or promo is, the more it will drive action. The opposite is often true.
When my promo study first came out, I used to play a promo in workshops for the attendees. It's a dated promo, obviously, but here is the script of it:
“This week A Prairie Home Companion comes to you from Ames, Iowa — Iowa State. With blues man Dave Moore, pianist Radoslav Lorkovich, The Barn Owl Band, the news from Lake Wobegon, and much more.”
Immediately after playing it, I would ask those in the room to name a single artist or location mentioned in that promo. On a rare occasion, someone could remember “Iowa”--but most times, no one could remember anything. And these people were (supposedly) paying attention.
So if that’s the case, why just list features, guests, and information bits that no one will retain?
The better course is reduction: fewer details, with great vivid descriptions and depth.
We’ll talk about that more in the section on “Real Content” in a few weeks, including examples.
Okay, that’s it for today.
Remember, Friday is the deadline for your “Ask Eric Anything” questions. Submit your questions via this form–and I’ll pick the best for an upcoming dispatch.
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Make great things. I’ll be listening.