Is it just possible that podcasters from 47 states and 15 countries showed up in Chicago last week more out of passion than for profit?
Podcaster and entrepreneur Pat Flynn of Smart Passive Income told of his conversation with an independent podcaster who was thinking of giving it up. “How many listeners do you have?” Flynn asked. “About 200 an episode,” the podcaster said. Flynn says he told the podcaster to imagine 200 people sitting in an auditorium every week ready to listen to the podcaster’s message. Suddenly, taken beyond the realm of downloads and P&Ls, the podcaster was re-energized, realizing his words have meaning and the capacity to influence or even change lives.
So that’s the power of art. It was on full display at the Podcast Movement 2016, a third-year event billed as the largest gathering of podcasters in the world, where content and creativity, not necessarily at the expense of commerce, were celebrated by more than 1,600 attendees. Flynn’s evangelical moment was not isolated. As a tradeshow veteran in my own right, I thought of Scrooge being escorted by the Ghost of Christmas Future through conversations and situations that awakens him to what happens when an event is marked by such camaraderie, purpose and community to transcend the usual sessions, exhibits and snack breaks.
The attendee makeup was telling: More than 60 percent had no more than a year’s experience in podcasting, with 22 percent not even started. In terms of downloads per podcast episode, 85 percent had 5,000 or less, leaving only 15 percent with more than 5,000 per episode. Categories were all over the map: arts, business, comedy, culture, news, education, games and hobbies, fitness and family, religion, technology, and more. Sessions included everything from production, content, technical, and marketing to, yes, monetization.
Among those in attendance, interestingly, were a number of representatives from the radio industry, either because they (1) recently entered the podcast business, (2) see podcasting as the next logical step in the audio space, or (3) are feeling pressure to jump in but haven’t really figured out how.
That word “community” kept coming up, allowing for a deeply personal form of group sharing. “People launch podcasts to fill a void, fill a niche, and fulfill their dreams and passions,” said John Lee Dumas of EOFire.
It’s almost as if mention of revenue was taboo, even though all the major players – those with actual revenue streams – were there in force. Said Libsyn’s Rob Walch, “If the only reason you are here is to make money, then stop now. About 8 percent [of some 300,000 podcasts] get to a level where you can make money.” In other words, your child might have a better chance of playing a professional sport.
To put it in perspective, the median number of downloads for any podcast episode is 173. The top 20 percent get 1,400; the top 10 percent get 3,900, barely sniffing level for advertisers.
While much of the event was about advice and ideas, Walch noted in his presentation, “The value of advice in podcasting is inversely proportional to how much you pay for it.” In other words, while peer-to-peer sharing is in, consultants with get-rich quick (or someday maybe) techniques are not.
“It’s okay to do a podcast just because you want to do it,” Walch said. But for those interested in driving traffic and at least covering their operating costs via some income, he offered this: great content will always trump bad marketing, and bad content will always trump great marketing. “I ask the top podcasters the one most important thing they do to promote their podcasts, and they all have the same answer: ‘nothing.’”
Walch’s session offered lots of good (free) advice: While consistency is good and posting new episodes at regular intervals is desired, it’s not as essential as producing great content. “Get it right, rather than right now,” he said. “You’ll lose 10 percent of your audience with a bad episode just because you are supposed to get one out that day.”
In his keynote, Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment reiterated the event’s driving message: “I care about storytelling, energy, passion, and magic – there’s not enough money in this business to care about anything else.”
Storytelling does not have to revolve around a crazy event or activity that happened – it doesn’t have to convince us of anything, he said. “It can be simple, like picking at scabs.”
He also said people too often get in the way of good stories. “We fail to trust the people who are telling us their stories, sharing great things. We don’t listen carefully. If someone is telling a story about their mother, you start thinking of stories of your own mother instead of focusing on their story.” That’s human nature.
Anna Sale, host of Death, Sex and Money, also raised the importance of listening – in her case, to her audience. “The internet is a dangerous place, but you have to put yourself out there,“ she said. “Listen to your listeners. They often have great feedback and hear things that you don’t hear yourself. But what it does is make you realize you are not putting out the show alone.”
Keynoter Kevin Smith of the Smodcast Podcast network, was another strong advocate for the podcaster’s voice: “You’ve got one life – spend it self-expressing,” he said. “As we tell our children, ‘Figure out what you love, then figure out how to get paid for it.’”
“Podcasting has no gatekeeper,” Smith said. “Go from imitating to innovating. Podcasting doesn’t require talent. You can say what you want. It’s a medium built on passion.”
Jeff Brown of Read to Lead also said podcaster efforts have to focus on the quality of the show itself: “Put 80 percent of your time into content and 20 percent into marketing. You’ll have better traction.”
He suggested, “Determine the profile of your ideal listener, answer questions about them, and then figure out how to reach them.”
Audible’s Eric Nuzum pondered the question of why more people don’t listen to podcasts, noting that 55 percent of the population has heard of them, but only 20 percent listen regularly. “It boils down to three problems: data, discovery and content,” he said.
Some of that can be fixed but not all. “Podcast discovery is like a flea market that has great treasures, but you have to sort through a lot of junk to find them,” he said. “Our efforts want to focus on outward-facing media – people who should be listening to digital media who aren’t.”
When it comes to content, Nuzum has the same directive for all of Audible’s shows: “Surprise me. Be different and better than expected.”
In advertising, he said, “It’s great if 1,000 impressions lead to two people taking action. We want to get to where 1,000 impressions equal 1,000 actions.”
Eric Diehn of Midroll Media offered tips on how to build an audience. “Mind the basics – get them right,“ he said. “Make sure you have a regular, consistent format; get the metadata right; and have nice art. First impressions really matter.” But like the others, he reiterated the common rallying cry: “Make a good show!”
One of the key stumbling blocks to monetizing podcasts has been the ability to properly measure audiences to the satisfaction of potential advertisers. A panel addressed this concern.
“Right now, podcast measurement is following a maturity curve much like websites did a while back. Conversations have elevated with the technology,” said Steve Mulder of NPR. “But without better, standardized measurement, the podcast industry won’t evolve and grow as much as we want it to.”
Said Stephen Smyk of Performance Bridge, which puts together podcast advertising campaigns for clients, “We spend more time with our clients explaining what they are buying rather than talking strategically with them.”