The Power of Three
Long ago some researchers decided to determine how many times a listener needed to hear passive information in order to retain it. The answer: three times. So how do we use that to promote podcasts?
Welcome to Dispatch #31 of The Audio Insurgent.
For some reason I can’t explain, there are more than 300 new people since the last dispatch. Not sure what brought you all here, but I’m happy you are here…and please feel welcome. We have fun. If you love the audio industry, you’ll have fun too. I hope you stay a long time.
Today I have a few things, the next installment in our look into the mechanics of effective promotion–this time focused on the power of repetition, as well as a few thoughts about what’s going on right now in the podcast industry.
Also, the last item is an important one: about how the Audio Insurgent is made possible–and your role in that. Read on.
[TODAY’S FIRST THING: FROM THE “I TOLD YOU SO” DEPARTMENT]
I try never to be a person who says “I told you so” after bad things happen. Instead, I try to channel that energy into being the person who says “I told you so” BEFORE the bad things happen.
There has been some turmoil in podcasting over the past few weeks: lay-offs, recession fears, strategic shifts, fire sales, and acquisitions that didn’t quite land the way they were intended to.
I’ve never been one to embrace making bold public predictions about the future. Whenever I’m asked to write or speak a prediction about where I see things going, I don’t talk about the future. Instead I use the request as permission to tell the truth about where we are today. Rather than forecast something new, I point to things I see happening that many are ignoring or missing. It’s me tapping the industry on the shoulder, trying to turn their attention to things they need to pay attention to.
Some examples are my Nieman Lab Predictions for Journalism. My 2017 prediction concerned the emerging stratification between haves and have nots in podcasting. For 2018, I wrote about the emerging new styles of podcasts. For 2019, I wrote about the emergence of cross-promotion to build audience. For 2020, I wrote about the coming dearth of hit shows in podcasting, which was recently examined again by Nick Quah for Vulture. For 2021, I wrote about podcast acquisitions ending and risk tolerance going down. And for 2022, I wrote about large legacy media companies abandoning their ill-rendered podcast strategies.
So not only did all those come true, but all of them rang true in 2022, arguably several in the last few months.
Even in this newsletter, I’ve spent time talking about all these issues. I’d provide links, but there are notes of this in all 31 dispatches of The Audio Insurgent. That’s the thing about insurgencies, they are passionate and powerful, but they are often sloppy, error-prone, and sometimes abandon common sense.
The point in bringing all this up is not to say “I told you so” but to point out that these “predictions” have been easy to make. All you need to do is look at podcasting and digital audio with a clear eye.
For the past few years, podcasting has been treated like some sort of magical utopia, where the laws of gravity don’t apply. It is a “new” medium and, according to its hyperbolists, it is going to change everything.
Long time readers of this dispatch know that while I am really excited by all the possibilities I see for audio, especially digital audio, I have never bought into the breathless hype surrounding podcasting and its suggested ability to defy logic and the basic laws of economics. Podcasting’s potential is massive, but it isn’t limitless, and it still needs to operate in a way that makes sense.
If anything, the past few months have proven that podcasting is…a form of media. It is subject to the ups and downs, ins and outs, disruption, flashes, hot-then-not, and fickle cycles that every other form of media experiences. So, the bottom line: this is normal…and it still isn’t as bad as it could be. Things will rise again, and fall. Ideas will flourish, and others won’t pan out.
But above all, know that everything is going to be okay.
I’m thankful that, for now, there is such a demand for talent that many who find themselves losing jobs, often because of a destined-to-fail plan cooked up by someone who doesn’t understand the medium very well, are able to land a decent job quickly. Fingers crossed that it lasts.
[TODAY’S MAIN THING: THE POWER OF REPEATING YOURSELF]
So, let me start off by repeating myself: Well-produced, listener-focused promos, fed in the right places often enough for listeners to hear them, can increase listening to your show.
Two dispatches ago, I started a short series resurfacing work I did in 2004 about on-air promos for radio and asking how it applies today to podcasting and digital audio. You can read the original 2004 report here. In it, I talk about the Three “Rs” of program promotion, and today I want to talk about the 2nd “R”: Repetition.
According to researchers, an average listener must hear a message three times within a relative period of time to retain and recall the information that it contains. Great. So, how do you do that?
In radio, it is easy, because you can use audience analytic tools to create what is called a “reach and frequency” chart. What that chart does is tell you what percentage of your audience you are reaching by airing a commercial, promotion, or other collateral information. On the chart, you can see what percentage of the audience you will reach by airing a spot X number of times.
While you want to air something often enough for most listeners to hear it enough to remember it, you want to avoid excessive frequency. I was talking to a friend recently who mentioned they’d stopped listening to a favorite podcast. I asked why.
“The damn promos” was the response.
The podcast didn’t contain any advertisements. But it ran promos for three other podcasts. The same three podcasts were promoted in the pre-roll. And the same three promoted again, in the same order, in the mid-roll. And again for good measure, all three again, in the same order, in the post-roll. Episode after episode. Week after week. So let’s put aside this as a clear indication that this network clearly never has any of their staff monitor or listen to their product. But after months (it was a daily podcast) of multiple airings of the same promos, in the same order, three times per episode–my friend quit.
He heard the promo so much that he couldn’t hear anything else.
But that’s a rarity.
What is far more common is for a podcast to air a cross-promo for another podcast once and only once. Then they look at their download numbers, see no bump, and come to the conclusion “that didn’t work.”
So is there a sweet spot between once and so-often-it-literally-drives-the-audience-away? Sure.
The problem is there is no organization in podcasting that can produce something like radio’s reach and frequency charts.
In radio, there is a frequency scheme that drove a lot of best practices for how often to air advertisements and promotions, it is called OES—Optimum Effective Scheduling. It was developed in the late 1980s by commercial radio researchers Steve Marx and Pierre Bouvard (currently Chief Insight Officer at Cumulus Media) and has been the gold standard ever since. Radio professionals using OES make calculations that are unique to their stations. Those calculations help the stations air messages often enough within a week for listeners to recall and retain the information.
Calculating a station’s OES number is very simple. The calculation requires two numbers from the station’s latest ratings audience report (the station’s weekly audience, aka their Cume, and the average quarter-hour audience, aka AQH) and uses an equation that’s simple enough to be done on a piece of paper or any calculator (a fuller explanation is in the project report I linked above).
The OES calculation determines the number of times you must air a message so that half your audience will hear a message three times.
This raises two fairly obvious questions:
First, why three times? Cognitive researchers say that the average listener needs three exposures to an audio message to process the message’s information. This is surprisingly consistent across time and demographic groups.
Second, why settle for just half the audience? Think of the makeup of your audience: Some people listen a lot at regular intervals; others listen far less often and less regularly. Once we reach the OES number (three airings for 50 percent of the audience), further airings yield diminishing returns. At that point, we are drilling deeper and deeper into our fringe audience, many of whom don’t even listen regularly enough to hit that “three time” threshold.
But, as I mentioned, podcasting doesn’t have a reach and frequency chart, nor the two pieces of information radio stations use to calculate it (Cume and AQH). All we have is downloads (let’s mark this as another indicator of how crap our objective audience knowledge is and how much better it could become).
I can hear you say, “Great, Nuzum, you tell us about this and then tell us we can’t use it for podcasting or most other digital audio. Thanks.” Well, first, some CAN use it. Anyone who has listeners in a closed system (Spotify, Audible, or any other platform with a listening app or site) could create this for themselves if they wished to.
But secondly, while you can’t use it with certainty, any podcaster can certainly use it in spirit. One clear takeaway: airing a cross-promo, or any kind of spot in a podcast once is a waste of everyone’s time. Twice is equally a waste. Three times is a waste for most.
If you want to run an effective cross-promo campaign, I think it is safe to say you need to run it a minimum of six times, probably closer to 10-15 times. Then you are much safer.
“Wait,” I hear you say again, “But why would my loyal audience need to hear it MORE than three times?” As much as we would like to believe it isn’t true, not every listener listens to every episode. They come and go. And they don’t necessarily listen in order.
Regardless of the number of times you air, the bottom line is this: If you don’t put a message in listeners’ ears often enough for them to retain or recall it, there is no point in airing it at all.
So once someone has heard something often enough to remember, what motivates them to action? That’s where the 3rd “R” comes into play: Real Content. There is something in radio advertising called the “10 to 1 Rule”: for every 10 people you effectively reach, 1 takes action. And if I’m being frank, I think even 10 to 1 is optimistic. But what moves people to action?
What you say is what’s most important, as impact is really driven by the creative. If a piece of copy or the read from the host is great, it sells. Most reads are horribly dry, unemotional, and don’t focus on the listener's needs or point-of-view. In the next installment of our look at on-air promo effectiveness, we’ll talk about the power of what you say in a promo. Expect that in the next few dispatches.
[TODAY’S LAST THING: AN OPEN ASK TO SUPPORT THIS WORK]
So if you enjoy getting these dispatches, let me remind you that they come to you for free. That doesn’t mean it is free to produce.
Since starting this, I have had multiple people advise me to optimize The Audio Insurgent for advertising, sponsorship, or to put part or all of it behind a paywall. While I’m not against it, I’ve resisted all of this.
I started the Audio Insurgent for two reasons: first, it's a great way for me to exercise concepts in my brain and work out how I’m feeling/thinking about the ideas I share. But more importantly, I honestly like helping people in our field and have always felt that even though we are competitors, we are also compatriots. The more good work and smart decisions you make, it eventually helps everyone in digital audio, including me. As I once said when describing my work, “Creators serve audiences and I serve creators.” If I can share an idea or point-of-view or entice you to think through things more deeply/clearly, you may come up with something even better (and that’s often the case).
But these dispatches take time–time I could spend on other things. I run a business which never seems satisfied with the amount of time I give to it. I have a family, including two dogs who always want to go out to play. And I also have a “honey do list” which never is fully ticked. Yet every few weeks I make time for this. And now that I’m recording an audio version too, it takes even longer.
If that has value to you, the way you can show your support, encouragement, and thanks is easy. First, you can simply share this–forward it, post about it, etc (fun fact: many of you do, as the number of people who read my dispatches via someone sharing it with them is often several fold higher than the subscriber count).
The second way is to buy me a beer (or 2 or 5). Whenever someone does that, it really makes my day. I’m easy to please…or a cheap date…or both. But when someone sends me a few dollars for a beer–I literally do take that cash and buy beer with it. Then I invite a neighbor or friend over, or enjoy it while sitting with my wife unwinding in our sunroom at the end of the day. Those times with those people are my happiest moments–something accompanied by the beer my readers bought me. So it actually isn’t a small thing. To me, it is a deeply meaningful thing.
While thousands of people read every dispatch, usually less than 10 people buy me that beer. And even more disheartening, a number of those people (I’m looking at you, Tom Webster), are serial beer buyers–so it often isn’t even 10 new people.
And we all can relate to wanting to make sure the time we invest is worth it–demonstrated by a small gesture of those who most enjoy it, wouldn’t you agree?
Could you step up and do it this time?
Or maybe it is time to start running ads. Nothing wrong with ads, but do you need more ads?
Perhaps buying the beer is a better choice.
And when you do it, it literally makes me smile, and I saw your name out loud, followed by a “Thank you.” Every time.
[OKAY, ONE MORE THING: A “GOOD” NUMBER OF DOWNLOADS]
Recently I read this article trying to answer a perennial question: what is a “good” number of downloads for my show. Depressing and fascinating at the same time.
Okay, that’s it for today.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
And while this is free, you are also always welcome to buy my book or (even better) buy me a beer.
Make great things. I’ll be listening.