In a very difficult year for media, podcasting has managed to remain the fastest-growing publishing platform. The US podcast listening audience passed 100 million for the first time in 2020 and, according to eMarketer, that number is expected to grow by another 25 million by 2023.
Alongside bigger listener numbers, podcasts put on some serious revenue in 2020. Covid slowed revenue growth to just over 10% compared with almost 50% in 2019. But any growth this year is a bonus and eMarketer’s forecasts predict a return to growth of 45% in 2021, making podcast advertising a $1 billion industry.
If you haven’t made the leap into podcasts yet, then 2021 is the year to take the plunge. Yes there are more podcasts than ever before – almost 1,700,000 shows and more than 42 million episodes according to Apple Podcasts data. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find your niche and even turn a profit from podcasting.
Here are nine tips for launching a profitable podcast in 2021, some to help you make a podcast good enough to monetise and some on bringing the money in.
1. Manage your expectations
Launching a profitable podcast and launching a podcast that will bring you Scrooge McDuck style wealth are not the same thing. One is all about about the plan, the other is generally dumb luck. Like any distributed media, podcast hits are often viral hits and you just can’t plan for them. What you can plan for is a professionally produced podcast that complements the rest of your publishing portfolio and reaches exactly the audience you want it to.
You might eventually do a ‘Joe Rogan’ deal with Spotify, but remember he’s been going since 2009 and would really want all that controversy, even for $100 million (don’t answer that).
2. Respect your listeners
Making a podcast is pretty easy – this student podcasting guide from NPR tells you pretty much everything you need to know. Making a good podcast is harder.
There are just too many podcasts out there that simply aren’t any good. No professional publisher ever published a rambling, unedited magazine spread or web article. So why do they think it’s okay to publish an unedited, stream of consciousness chat between two editorial staff?
Without listeners, your podcast will never be profitable and the only way to get and keep listeners is to respect their time and their ears. Edit your audio the way you would any other piece of content. And pay attention to sound quality. It doesn’t need to be perfect, but make sure your listeners can actually make out what’s being said.
3.Make a podcast your audience think is good
Editing and audio quality are important, but a clear editorial proposition that delivers value to your audience is crucial if you want to make a success of your newly launched podcast. What problem will your podcast solve for your audience? How will it inform or entertain them?
With so many podcasts available to people, most for free, you’ll need to be able to communicate your podcast concept quickly and then deliver on the promises you’ve made. Spend some time thinking about your podcast format and content, and your forward production schedule. Make two or three pilot episodes to iron out the wrinkles before you release anything publicly.
4. Make good podcasts regularly
Earlier this year I interviewed the winners of the Publisher Podcast Awards, a competition that I co-founded with my colleagues from the Media Voices Podcast. The winning podcasts came from fields as diverse as science and movies, health & wellbeing and news, food and sport. But the one thing that they all told me was that showing up, consistently was absolutely the secret to their success.
As a publisher, used to keeping your audience engaged by putting content out on a regular schedule, this might seem obvious. But in the world of podcasting the number of shows that never make it past episode seven is scary. Podfade, basically ceasing to release new episodes, is a very real problem, and the killer blow for any dreams you have of making a profitable podcast.
5. Don’t be shy about selling your podcast
As soon as you have crafted the content strategy for your podcast, recorded a couple of pilots and set your forward production schedule, start selling. There’s a temptation to wait until the numbers are in, but big numbers matter much less in podcasting than they do in other media. According to podcast host Libsyn, the average 30-day download total is less than 150; reach 50,000 and you’re in the top 1%.
Make the most of the fact that podcasting is still developing and get your clients to buy into the novelty. Let them know that podcasting delivers engagement like no other modern content platform. Brian Morrisey, formerly of Digiday, told me that listeners were spending, on average, a half hour plus on the Digiday podcast. “Unless they’re really slow readers, I can’t imagine any of our regular articles achieving that,” he said.
6. Don’t overdo the ads
Although tolerance for advertising in podcasts is growing, it’s important not to pack too many commercial spots into your episodes. In their Fall 2020 Download report the Westwood One Podcast Network reports that audiences are accepting of advertising in podcasts because they recognise that’s what keeps the content free. But they have their limits, and in a 30-minute episode that limit is about three ads.
The relevance of your advertisers also matters. Ad content that is closely aligned to the subject matter of your podcast will appear less interruptive than a random mattress or meal-kit ad. This is where talking to existing clients can be a real win. They already know your audience and will be more open to work with you to create commercial content that speaks directly to your listeners
7. Host reads are not the only way to do podcast ads
Podcast listeners are very familiar with pre-roll and mid-roll advertising segments read by podcast hosts. But hard-wired DIY read-throughs have been joined by dynamic advertising options as marketers come to accept podcast advertising and platforms like Acast step up their network sales efforts. According to 2020’s IAB/PwC Podcast Revenue Study, almost half of US podcast ads were dynamically inserted in 2019
Of course, network sales require scale. Some publishers are doing very well from scale-based advertising; The New York Times has earned more than $10 million from its ‘Daily’ podcast. But it’s unlikely that a newly launched podcast will make significant revenue from dynamic ad insertion. Maybe wait until your podcast gets off the ground before looking at third-party network sales.
8. Host reads are not the only way to make money
Even if you’re not a global publishing brand like the New York Times, you should be able to secure podcast sponsorship deals that rely on your brand’s reputation with your audience rather than straight reach. This is especially true of clients supporting full series or those that are willing to work cross-platform with you, bundling sponsorship sales with web, print, or newsletter advertising.
Some podcast owners are also turning directly to their audiences to generate revenue. As more and more publishers have come to see reader revenue as an important part of their revenue mix, podcasts are being used as value-added content to help acquire and retain subscribers. Subscription sports site, The Athletic, has used podcast content as a freely available taster to tempt listeners into full subscriptions.
9. Get creative commercially
Alongside direct ad buys and sponsorship, publishers are also working to create podcasts in partnership with their commercial clients. The podcast team at The Week created the ‘Business Unwrapped’ separate from its regular weekly podcast with the new series sponsored by a finance company.
My own Media Voices podcast doesn’t carry any advertising in weekly episodes. Instead, we work with publishing vendors to facilitate panel discussions that feature them, as the sponsor, and one of their clients. The panel discusses real-world publishing problems and have been a big win-win-win, bringing in sponsorship revenue, providing our sponsors with targeted exposure, and giving our listeners useful industry content. One of our sponsored episodes is our second-most listened to episode.
The danger for publishers in launching a podcast is the temptation to jump in without clear objectives. Profitability is a good aim for your new podcast, but start out with the aim of making a podcast that your audience will love. Whether your podcast makes any money, directly through advertising, sponsorship and audience contributions, or indirectly through subscription and membership sales, you’ll need the audience to keep coming back to see any returns.
Peter is a consultant and trainer helping publishing professionals make better decisions about the future of their businesses. He writes regularly about the media, with bylines in The New Statesman, The Drum, Publishing Executive and What’s New In Publishing, and has written in-depth reports examining the current state of the media markets and individual publishing strategies. Peter has presented on media strategy at conferences and corporate events in Asia, Africa, North America and Europe and is a co-host of the Media Voices podcast where he regularly interviews senior publishing executives.