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When You Choose to Snicker About Spotify, You Are Missing The Lessons Their Experience Can Teach You
Instead of gossiping about the mega-streamer’s efforts in spoken-word, we should be grateful for the lessons they can teach.
Welcome to Dispatch #37 of The Audio Insurgent.
Today we continue our diversion from how to make great stuff–and instead we talk further about how to make great change. Today’s dispatch has one item, and may not initially seem change-related, but when thinking about how to be effective at making things happen in your work, it's critical to know how to learn from the experience of others.
Podcasting is one of those industries that is small enough that many of the professionals working in it have deep networks throughout many companies. Even as the industry matures it still isn’t big enough that you don’t frequently know someone who works at a podcasting studio or network whenever it comes up in conversation–or at least are familiar with their work.
By and large, that’s great. Lots of people to turn to and relationships to lean on (think to the last dispatch's point about asking for help). But there is another side to the general chumminess of podcasting: gossip. Who is in and who’s out at various companies. Scuttlebutt on projects and talent. Who is moving from one company to another. Even who is dating whom?
And there is one word that is quick to bring out the gossipy side of many in podcasting: Spotify.
Spotify has provided a lot to talk about over the past months. It’s rare for two or three podcasting people to be gathered together–and not kibitz about Spotify at some point.
But as some delight in pontificating about Spotify’s moves in podcasting, the more the focus is on the gossip, the less the focus we have on what Spotify’s experience over the last few years can teach us.
[LONDON MEET UP: TIME AND LOCATION!!]
The first meet up for readers of The Audio Insurgent will be on Friday, March 10th, at The Star and Garter at 62 Poland Street in Soho, London from 5-7 p.m.
I will be there and (a) I will buy the first pint for any reader who comes up to introduce themselves to me at the pub and (b) since I will also be consuming pints of beer, I will be dispensing lots of FREE advice about podcasting, radio, etc (otherwise it costs real $$!!). We’ll be having a reunion with many of my Audible UK team beforehand, so I will be several pints ahead of you–so I can offer no warranty about the quality of the advice I will give, outside of making the promise that there will be PLENTY of it.
If you are thinking of attending: can you indicate an RSVP here–only so that if we tweak any details, I don’t have to send out an email to the thousands who won’t be in London and joining us. That would be REALLY annoying for them. So please, RSVP and I hope to see you there.
[TODAY’S THING: FOCUSING ON WHAT SPOTIFY HAS TO TEACH YOU ABOUT PODCASTING]
[Note: Since I’m talking about Spotify here, I want to disclose that I’ve done a number of projects for Spotify over the years. None of my work with them to date is germane to the ideas below. I always say that if you question whether or not to disclose something, you’ve already answered your own question—and the answer if always “yes.” Transparency is a good thing.]
What can I learn from others? The good as well as the missteps and mistakes?
I mean, why should THEY be the only ones to benefit when they try something new? How can I honor their risk, their trailblazing, their audacity by becoming their student? And this mindset applies to editorial, marketing, distribution, and every component of them.
Which brings me to podcasting’s favorite topic to wag tongues to: Spotify.
Starting back in 2018, Spotify decided it wanted to get serious, very serious, about podcasting and in the years since has generated a ton of headlines with its moves. Their ambitions were ginormous.
Two things are critical to start learning from Spotify’s moves in podcasting: first, despite chatter, they’ve gotten a number of things right. In fact, impressively right. Second, Spotify’s move into podcasting is actually several simultaneous moves.
Over the past few years, Spotify has strived to become a primary listening destination for all podcasts. On this, I think they have clearly succeeded. People new to podcasting are often surprised that when you look at the ecosystem of podcasting, once you move beyond Apple (and now Spotify) other listening apps and platforms represent tiny amounts of listening. It is rare for any podcast app or platform to achieve more than 1 or 2% of listening to most shows. Spotify used to be part of the 1% Club, and now, depending on where in the world you are listening, has evolved into the top app for podcast listening or a competitive second place.
Spotify has also sought to build a robust advertising business around podcasting. On this, I think they are succeeding--as in, on their way but not yet there. This is where their acquisition strategy has made a lot of sense: Megaphone, Chartable, Podsights, and even Anchor have put a lot of smart people, services, and tech in their hands. While this isn’t working as smoothly as it could and should, it's on its way to being a valuable part of their podcast business.
The third area, and I think this is where the most contentious moves are (and also some of the best lessons) are in content: Spotify wants to make the things you listen to--or at least be the exclusive destination for the content you already love. This is where the biggest moves, highest profile acquisitions, and greatest amount of investment have focused. I think anyone, even those at Spotify, would call these efforts mixed. To a lot of those who talk to me, well, they are less generous, if not seeing it as a near complete failure.
You have to remember that Spotify, as a company, is very rooted in start-up culture, ways of managing, and appetite for risk tolerance. The start-up world, as my friend Will Page says, is like a bicycle: if you aren’t moving forward, you fall over.
That vibe continues with “move fast and break things,” “fail fast,” etc. A lot of Spotify’s podcast activities come from that same worldview: try a lot of things and be bold. Smart start-ups not only focus culture on fast change and risk, but also on learning.
I have no idea if Spotify is a learning culture, but instead of focusing on skuttlebutt, there are a number of things I have learned by observing them.
Now, before I share this list, almost every one should be prefaced with “besides The Joe Rogan Experience…” Joe Rogan is an exception just like Serial is an exception–so far of an outlier that it proves nothing about the rest of the industry.
So, some things I’ve learned by watching Spotify:
Senior leadership needs to understand spoken word audio. Spotify brought in several talented people who had done impressive work in other media and tasked them with guiding the company’s podcasting efforts. It’s easy to understand why they thought this approach made sense, but it was missing one critical element: the number of senior leaders in podcasting who understood how spoken-word audio works or why audiences listen was few (or weren’t being listened to).
Spotify isn’t alone in this, I’ve seen many companies respond to the boom in podcasting by bringing in leaders with impressive resumes. They have great connections in the creative industries, they understand how business works, and have great taste in content. The missing part of this is having an understanding of what audiences want and why. That’s the primary way that podcasting is different from other media, including radio. Podcasting is an emotional interaction. You could argue that a great movie or TV show is also an emotional interaction. But podcasting is also a communicative interaction–requiring two-way communication and interaction between a creator and the audience.
A glaring indicator of this disconnect is when a company/network invests heavily in editorial output, but has no matching investment in a social presence for that work. That is a red flag to me. See a shop that is investing a ton in production, but nothing in audience development and interaction? Almost universally, that shop doesn’t understand how audience and spoken-word audio work.
There are other downsides of that lack of audio understanding, but the lesson here is you have to be more than a success at other media to be a leader making sharp podcast decisions–you have to be more than a fan of audio–you need to be more than “excited by audio’s potential.” You have to have a mechanic’s like understanding of what is going on under the hood, not just of storytelling, but about what thrills audiences, the relationship the audience wants to have with creators, and what brings them back for more. Basically, how content and audience behave.
Exclusive content deals don’t work. Or at least not how the industry understands and implements them now. No producer has been satisfied with their audience reach under an exclusive deal, with Spotify or anyone else. A number of people involved with Spotify exclusives have shared their numbers with me over the years, and I would describe their downloads as “fractional” compared to when they were distributed in the open podcast ecosystem. Direct audience reach isn’t the only thing affecting talent and creators, because not only do downloads decrease, but their influence in culture decreases, the number of attendees for live events decreases, and book and merch sales decline–the entire enterprise becomes smaller. If you look at the outcome of Spotify’s content acquisitions, one sticks out as clearly doing well under Spotify: The Ringer. Not coincidentally, The Ringer was the only acquisition that kept its projects available in the open podcast ecosystem.
Having access to data isn’t enough. I have believed for years that audiences will tell you a lot, if you just learn how to understand the meaning of their behavior. Admittedly, that requires a lot of data. But it also requires a certain attitude towards that data.
So many moves, by so many companies–including the business of some entire companies–is focused on acquiring better measurement and data on listening and listeners. It’s considered the Holy Grail of podcasting. Most exclusive platform deals are founded in the interest of gathering additional intelligence on listening data.
But what if you had terabytes of data on your listeners, as well as an incredible amount of data about their demographics, other listening behavior, and even the activities on their phone? That would be utopian, wouldn’t it? Well, Spotify has all that and more.
Spotify knows an incredible amount of information about their listeners, but that has not helped them. Instead of data-based strategy, we’ve seen a lot of strategy-based data—stretching data to justify rather than understand. While it is important to have data, it’s useless unless you ask the right questions and act based on what it tells you. The next time you hear someone in our industry bemoaning the lack of data and measurement in podcasting, keep this in mind.
Without an emphasis on understanding, data just becomes trivia.
Focus attention on what you are doing, not what you plan to do. The drive to make splashy announcements about upcoming projects, even high profile ones, can be counterproductive. Those who have worked with me in the past know I do not like announcements about upcoming projects. I favor making an announcement and trying to get attention for a project only when it is available to listen. Now in my consulting work, I often counsel others to do the same.
I have a few reasons for this:
Announcements paint you into a corner. You need to give yourself room to morph and change the project into something you couldn’t imagine when you started. And you need to leave room to kill things that aren’t good enough.
You often only get one spark of interest, so save it for the time when you can translate that into actual listening.
It can cause confusion. The time between signing a deal and the project being available to the public can be months, often close to a year or more. That gap invites speculation and confusion.
You get a lot more bang for your buck, attention-wise, by surprising people with what you’ve made with other talent and organizations.
While I’ve felt this way for years, Spotify has given us a lot of examples about why waiting is almost always a better choice. Outside of the flash of buzz and a temporary jolt to a stock price, I don’t need to list off the times that the gap of time between Spotify signing a deal and the launch of related projects (if they ever launch) has caused more reputational harm than good. Making these early announcements doesn’t set them up for success–it sets them up for failure.
Almost anyone can fart into a paper bag and get Deadline Hollywood or The Hollywood Reporter to write a post about it–so the positives are almost nil. “A celebrity is making a podcast” is no longer an attention-worthy headline. Imagine instead, “A celebrity just dropped a surprise new podcast–and it is so much better than we would have expected.”
Keep things close to your chest, make as many mistakes as possible out of public view, and always leave people wondering about your next move. That’s how players should play.
And finally…Don’t believe your own bullshit. I don’t know how many Spotify staffers I’ve heard repeat versions of “We are the biggest podcasting platform in the world.” As a blanket statement, that’s easily proven to be untrue, or at best true with a truckload of caveats along with it. In fact, I’ve had a number of Spotify employees confess to me that they know it isn’t entirely accurate, but they are told that is the party line.
The problem is that when you start saying things like that over and over again, you start making decisions based on that idea or to prove that idea is correct (when it isn’t).
I’ve worked for large companies before. In those roles, externally (and even internally), I work to be one of their biggest evangelists and shout about their importance and impact…using facts. I feel that integrity is important to their brand (and mine). However, internally, I always remind my teams that those accolades can be taken from us at any time if we don’t fight like hell to improve, get better, attack our own weaknesses, move onward, and earn tomorrow’s accolades.
So, those five lessons are just some top examples. But the biggest take-away is I’m grateful to Spotify for having the moxie to make bold moves in our industry. It keeps all of us oriented on progress. What we’ve learned from them has made us all better. That deserves respect.
I’m not sure why others are interested in Spotify, but I’ve always been fascinated with them because they are, uniquely, in a position to change podcasting for the better. Sometimes they do. More times they don’t. Often they fail because they are focused on the wrong things or approach them the wrong way. But if Spotify could orient themselves for longer-term prosperity, focus on delighting and surprising listeners, solving listener problems (as opposed to their own), and clarify a vision for their own creative efforts, they would get so much farther, so much faster–and it would cost a lot less.
And the next time someone wants to gossip with you about Spotify, okay…indulge a little if you want to…but then ask your friend/colleague: What can we learn from this? You’ll find a lot to talk about.
[TODAY’S EXTRA THING: SOME RANDOM INTERESTING LINKS]
Okay, that’s it for today.
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Make great things. I’ll be listening.