Paying Our Listeners: A Smoke Signal of the Apocalypse?
A new podcast is doing something novel in our industry: offering $50,000 to a lucky listener who solves a treasure hunt. Is this a clever idea--or the first step along a slippery slope?
Welcome to Dispatch #28 of The Audio Insurgent.
Just a quick reminder that I’ll be roaming around Podcast Movement Tuesday afternoon to Thursday morning. If you are a reader, please say “hi.” I’d love to meet you.
Before we jump into today’s main thing, I wanted to put out a call for “Ask Me Anything” items.
Last year I did an AMA featuring reader questions about podcasting, radio, audio, and so on. It was really fun and, at the time, it was the most-read dispatch I’d published. So let’s do it again now.
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 Friday, September 9th. Get them in before you forget!
Okay, so on to cash money money…
[TODAY’S MAIN THING: PAYING OUR LISTENERS]
I remember a research project where one of my former employers wanted to understand why non-listeners didn’t listen. In order to get these people to participate in focus groups, they paid them $10 each. The results of the focus groups were pretty typical: the content didn’t feel relevant to them nor felt like it was talking to them (as opposed to talking to other people).
A few people, about one-in-ten, who had never listened to our content before, said the study served as an introduction, and now they listen regularly.
None of this is particularly remarkable. I’ve seen versions of this play out for years. But the weirdest thing about this particular study was what many of my colleagues took from the study: If we pay people to listen, some of them will become regular listeners.
This led to a number of very serious discussions about paying people to try us out. As I’m typing this, I still chuckle at this and can’t believe this was a real idea, but it certainly was: Let’s pay people to listen and about one-in-ten will become regular listeners.
The idea behind this is actually pretty common in business, especially among subscription services, it is called SAC (subscriber acquisition cost, or sometimes customer acquisition cost). When Blue Apron runs an ad on a podcast offering you a free week of food, both the cost of the advertisement and the cost of the free food is added up, then divided by the number of people who sign up for Blue Apron after hearing that ad, thus giving you the SAC, or cost to acquire a customer. Businesses can then look at a number of different campaigns (hence all the “offer codes” with podcast ads--which are really to track where potential customers come from), calculate the SAC, and figure out where the best ad investments are.
What my colleagues were suggesting was a $10 SAC. But the problem is that this wouldn’t be a $10 SAC, it wouldn’t be $100 SAC…it would be much more. And while it felt like it was solving one problem, it was creating a lot more.
This all came to mind recently when Cavalry Media announced that it was creating a treasure hunt, worth $50,000, that would go to a lucky winner who solved a number of clues embedded in their podcast X Marks The Spot: The Legend of Forrest Fenn. The podcast is about a guy, named Forrest Fenn, who found a literal treasure worth millions, hid it again, and then died, leaving cryptic clues as to where his treasure was hidden. Cavalry Media decide to tell the story of Forrest’s treasure in a podcast, written and hosted by Branden Morgan, and then promote that podcast by hiding a little treasure of their own. To be clear, they aren’t providing clues to Forrest’s lost millions, just a more modest bitty bit of treasure that’s much more likely to be found…maybe.
And to be even clearer–I’m not suggesting that Cavalry Media doing this is wrong, unwise, or a bad idea. I think it is a really fun thing to try. It’s clever and who knows what will come of it. But this does bring up a number of reflections of radio’s history of contesting and giving away prizes and money…and how badly it has devolved into paying people to tune in.
So let’s jump back in history a bit–to the 1950s. The invention and mass adoption of television caused a lot of disruption in radio, leading to a lot of experimentation and innovation that created many of the format elements we still hear on the radio today. One was contests, giveaways, and increasingly outrageous promotions. Things started out modest. After a 1954 court ruling that radio station contests and quizzes were not illegal lotteries, stations started to experiment with cash giveaways and contests, using (by today’s standards) modest prizes.
Since they are designed to get attention, there was a natural tendency to “level up” each contest, making the prizes bigger and the requirements to get them more over the top. In 1956, listeners could win a $100 government bond by answering their home phone by saying “I like KEYD, my country-western station, 1440.” By 1989, 49 listeners had legally changed their names to “The New Q103-FM” in order for a chance at $10,000 (note: changing their name to the station slogan didn’t earn them $10k—just a chance, as the cash went to the person who could produce the most documents with their new legal name on it). Things moved very quickly from the quaint (like putting a bumper sticker in your window) to the absurd (such as listeners coating themselves in honey before diving into a swimming pool filled with money), all to generate attention for a radio station.
Of course, money has always been a part of this.
A lot of these contests and promotions were “forced listening”—where someone has to listen intently to a station for a clue, prompt, or piece of information they’ll need to be the lucky caller/listener/participant. Of course, in measured media, these boosts in forced listening stood a good chance of goosing the ratings, thus raising advertising rates.
By 1999, a station in San Francisco and another in Washington, DC, both offered contests with prizes of a million dollars. That seems to have been the peak. From there, like a lot of things in radio in the consolidation era, things got a lot less innovative, much more formulaic, and just kinda…rote. Also around that time, prizes that sounded impressively large (big sums of cash, fancy vacations, or chances to meet celebrities) were now national prizes, not local to the station—making the odds much, much worse (and, surprise, very little disclosure of this). Today, these contests just feel sad. Incentives like: “Listen at 7:20 tomorrow for your chance at $500” are the norm—completely boilerplate, completely not fun, low stakes, and…boring.
It is basically paying people to listen.
I was at some podcasting happy hour thing before the pandemic and someone asked me what I’d consider a sign that podcasting had lost its way. I blurted out: “When we pay people to listen.” To me, it is a sign that we’ve given up trying to create attractive, buzzy, innovative, valuable, and fun things—and start to increasingly depend on gimmicks to drive downloads.
To be honest, when I first read about Cavalry Media’s $50,000 treasure hunt, my first reaction was, “Oh boy, here we go.” The first step down that slippery slope.
But now that instinct feels wrong.
This past week I spoke with Branden Morgan, the host and creator of X Marks The Spot about the series and the origins of the contest idea. At first, X Marks the Spot presented as a pretty typical narrative podcast. Branden spent a few months researching and writing the episodes, and then launched weekly in June with no mention of the contest. Once all nine of the season’s episodes were released, Cavalry Media announced the contest, shared that there were a number of clues hidden inside the season’s episodes, and started releasing bonus episodes containing additional clues.
“To me, I thought the clues in the episodes stick out like a sore thumb. I feel they are really obvious,” Branden told me. “But no one seems to have figured them out yet.”
The bonus clue drops have become events in themselves—they have their own sponsorships and routinely see more than 100,000 downloads each.
The effort put into hiding the prize and creating the clues is impressively amazing. Cavalry Media hired a company that specializes in puzzle-making to create the clues and determine the location of the $50,000 prize (I asked them to share the name of the company, but they declined, concerned that even revealing the creator company would, itself, serve as a clue). The CEO of that puzzle-making company is the only person who knows where the prize is hidden, no one at Cavalry Media, Branden, nor even the people who worked on the clues, know its location. This isn’t just for secrecy, but for safety, fearing that an overzealous prize seeker might start to harass or stalk those involved.
Despite being a month into the treasure hunt, with an incredible amount of chatter, buzz, press coverage, discussion boards, and listener interest, Branden told me that no one is even close to solving the puzzle and finding the prize. Branden described the clues as “diabolical” and said it would be almost impossible to solve the puzzle without all of the several dozen clues (only six bonus clues have been released so far).
While I found all this fascinating, the thing that really got me excited about what they are doing is that Branden and Cavalry Media don’t see this as a promotion for their podcast—they see this as a new format in podcasting: a combination of storytelling and puzzles that can lead listeners to a prize, almost like a kind of game show.
Some have experimented with incorporating clues or required decoding to understand or follow a podcast story, but this is different. There is something at stake. There is more to gain for the effort than just hearing a story. It’s very novel.
Cavalry Media has already greenlit a 2nd season. It will be fun to see where they take this. “We aren’t egotistical enough to think no one can do this better than us,” Branden says. “Eventually, someone will come in and do it better. Hopefully then we’ll come back, build on that, and do it better again.”
So we may be witnessing the invention of a fun new podcast experience—but my initial fears also come back when I think what others will take from this idea. Hiring a puzzle company. Making the clues hard to solve and the prize hard to find. Eventually, someone is going to dumb it down, make it easier, or just offer a prize won by chance.
Doing some quick math, it would take about 1 million downloads worth of advertising to cover a $50,000 prize. It won’t take long until networks are running spreadsheets to calculate the needed return on other prizes.
And then, it won’t be long until some genius suggests dispensing with the fun and innovation, and simply paying people to listen.
“Listen to next week’s episode for your chance to win $500.” That seems silly now, but it is coming.
Okay, that’s it for today.
(Before closing, I want to cite the work of others about the history of radio contests. Here are the links to the resources I used from my research: 1, 2, 3.)
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