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Rachael King is the CEO and co-founder of Pod People — this interview has been lightly edited for style and readability
Rachael was speaking to Sam Sethi; you can hear this interview in the Podnews Weekly Review.
RK: Pod People is a content and marketing studio for award-winning podcasts and social creative - because at this point I don’t think you can have a podcast without fantastic social to go along with it. We work with clients like HBO and Netflix and Marvel. We do some gaming, some podcasts for gaming companies which are really fun. We work with a lot of tech companies and startups like SoFi and Lattice, a couple VC firms. We’ve done shows for People and Vogue and Bon Appetit and Travel & Leisure. It’s a really wide mix which is fun.
SS: Can you leave something for everyone else, please?! How big is your team? Hundreds or thousands?
RK: Oh, no! I think we just hit 25. We’ve grown very slowly over the years. I think we were one the first year, and then maybe four or five, and then 10, and then 15, and then 20, and now 25. So it’s exactly as you’d expect, slowly over time.
SS: How have these companies approached you? Is it word of mouth?
RK: I had been in the tech startup world for a long time doing content marketing and communications and PR - helping brands tell their stories - but I’ve always loved the audio format. I realized that brands were going to need to figure out this channel of communication - arguably the best channel for connecting with your audience - so I decided to force my way in and start a branded podcast production agency. I did a lot of research and networked with folks in the industry, and found out that it was super fragmented. I also learnt that there were lots of audio producers and I found my way to the listservs - you know, the New York listserv, the LA listserv, and so on: and that’s how I started networking and got to know people and created a database, that we still have, of all the talented freelance producers, sound designers, writers, and so on.
We now have our in-house team, but we still use this database - this community of wonderful freelancers - to supplement our own team when we need a certain kind of subject matter, expertise or language, or we need someone in a certain location. We also used it for a time staffing up for clients: when Wondery or Spotify were scaling up, we did a lot of staffing for them, for example; but our talent team focuses much more now on host searches, guest booking and casting for our fiction shows.
SS: What does 2024 look like for Pod People?
RK: Slow, steady growth is always the name of the game at Pod People, which might sound boring. 2021 was a little rocky for us, because we realized too much of our revenue was concentrated into few clients - so, towards the end of 2021 and early 2022, we worked really, really hard to diversify. Having that diversification means that we’re healthier, that we can breathe easier. If we lose one client, it’s not the end of the world. This year we doubled down on the new services that we’ve created that are working: our marketing team, which we created last year, was 5% of our revenue then. This year it’s 20%, and I think that it will grow as large as 30. We’ve seen many companies decide not to invest in new shows, but they are using those funds instead to grow their existing slate, and so that’s been good for us and for our marketing team to be able to help with that. And our talent arm has been growing a lot since we shifted the focus to guest booking, casting and talent; and our video and social arm has obviously has been exploding, given how podcasting has gotten to the point where we at the very least need social clips and ideally would have a video version of the show as well.
SS: YouTube’s come on the scene, and TikTok is talking about adding RSS for, I suppose, linking clips back to the original podcast. Where do you see the focus for 2024 for your marketing arm?
RK: We are focusing on social clips. YouTube Shorts have been really successful. TikTok has also been wildly successful for podcasts, if you do it well. Obviously, if clients already have a presence on YouTube, we are doing full video episodes. Youtube says they’re going to do all kinds of things, but it’s kind of confusing where podcasting is now - you can have it on YouTube or YouTube music, and this one needs video, but that one doesn’t. I want the dust to settle before we push new clients who don’t have a YouTube presence to be doing full video episodes there.
Sometimes with clients it’s also about walking before we run - let’s get the show up and running. The show needs to be fantastic. Let’s focus on that first. Let’s have great social clips and then let’s think about adding in the video component once the show is up and running. You know you’re going to invest for the long haul, and same goes for TikTok. I’m really excited about the idea of them doing longer form podcasts and I know they’ve already sort of tested this with some TV shows, which is all very interesting. If they did RSS feeds, that’s even easier: but, again, we’re playing a game of wait and see.
SS: I don’t disagree with anything you said about YouTube. I’m still confused and I’m supposed to report on what they do.
RK: And I’ve read so many thoughtful pieces about it and it’s still like, yeah, this sounds like it’s too much of a mess.
SS: How do you measure success? What is your metric?
RK: Most of our clients are making a podcast for content marketing purposes to reach their audience or a new audience, go deeper with them, engage them in a different way, create a different kind of trust and loyalty that you can with thoughtful, long form content. That’s different to a more surface-level relationship on social. So their goal is getting to the right audience, retaining them, going deeper with them.
Sometimes it is a top-of-funnel play where they want to reach a new audience. We worked a lot with Meredith Corporation, and their goal for podcasts was to reach a younger audience than they might have had through their magazines, which makes a lot of sense.
We do a show for Lattice, which is an HR platform: they want to get in front of people leaders and CEOs who are making those kinds of decisions. The show is really good, it’s called All Hands, and it says “there is no HR for people leaders”, so that’s what the podcast is designed to be. It is so obviously providing value, being super sticky, being a true resource that leaves people feeling great and with action items and excited about putting something into play. That’s always the goal.
We do have a couple shows where the goal is more like “let’s get as big as we can and monetize” but that is much rarer for us. It’s much more important to us that the show’s audience is growing over time. Again, slow and steady is better when you’re going after a very targeted or niche audience, but when they’re sticking around, they’re staying till the end, they’re finding value. Qualitative feedback is just as important as quantitative. So those are more of the things that we’re looking at with our clients and our shows.
SS: James and I talk about measuring the value of a podcast with time listened and percent completed as two metrics. Those are much more important than downloads, because we all know that downloads don’t always equal listens. Would you go international? Would you take VC money? Would any of those two routes be something you do?
RK: We have done a few projects in the UK and in Germany. Being a small company, the taxes and logistics make it a challenge, so it has to be a really large project for it to be worth it. I do think that a strategic partnership with a company in Europe would be really interesting, and I would say that’s probably a 2025 ambition as opposed to 2024, just because we try to focus on one thing that we can do really well each year and blow that out before we move on to the next.
I’m not as interested in VC money. I don’t want to give up control, my team doesn’t really want to give up control, and I’m afraid that you know they would be like IP, IP, IP, and we’ve gone down the original route and we know how much it costs to make something fantastic and then, more importantly, put it out into the world, especially as an indie platform that doesn’t have the distribution of an iHeart or whatever built in. I think we’re too small maybe for that at this point, but 2025, who knows?
SS: Watch this space, Rachael. Thank you so much. It’s been fascinating talking to you.
RK: Thank you so much.
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