Your Podcast As A Stand-Alone Business Model

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(By Tanner Campbell) Patreon is becoming ubiquitous among independent creatives of all kinds, but only 2% of those who do utilize Patreon for generating revenue have managed to make a living doing so. Part of this disparity is, of course, a function of the density of talent on the platform (or lack thereof, if you wish) and/or the individual artist’s ability to market themselves effectively — things Patreon doesn’t control. But part of it is also, almost certainly, the monetization philosophy that Patreon has built its platform on:

Make something cool and some fans will want more. Now make more cool things and charge those eager fans for access to your exclusive cool things.

Patreon concedes that what you make in the first place has no value beyond its ability to create demand for additional, exclusive material.

I don’t know about you, but I feel that if your podcast has enough value to create demand for exclusive content, then it follows that it must also have enough value to create a desire to pay for it in the first place.

Producing a free podcast for 1,000 people which converts 2% of listeners to patrons, is the same as creating a premium product for 20 people.

But the people who listen for free spread the word and help find the people willing to convert!” – You, right now, probably.

I don’t have the data, but I have a lot of anecdotal experience collected from nearly 20-years in the Internet marketing trenches which tells me that people do not share free products (or podcasts) without a very clearly stated incentive or strong value proposition. Very few people are sharing your podcast, I promise. Most people are looking for your podcast by topic, or are happening upon it as they browse a particular category. The problem of getting a podcast in front of the people willing to pay for it is a marketing problem, not an availability problem. 

All monetization issues come down to marketing and content — all of them. Patreon works for the 2% it does because those creators have unique content which people want and they market it well. That 2% treats its art like a business and that’s good, because: podcasting is a business.

With all this in mind, let’s talk about what I believe to be the most successful way to monetize your podcast. A one-two-punch combo: a content jab followed by a marketing haymaker.

Punch One: The Content

If you expect a podcast you produce at your kitchen table, in an acoustically barren room, with amateur editing, no writing, and no solid marketing plan to be successful, my friend, you better be selling the alchemic steps for turning lead to gold because lead is what you’re working with. Ugly, boring lead.

Repeat this to yourself: My podcast is a business.

Again: My podcast is a business.

Now imagine how successful your attempt to open a bar would be if you spent $200 on building materials, only sold well liquor, threw your grand opening in a sandlot, and never told anybody about it.

Again and again: My podcast is a business.

The days of putting out crap content and making a fortune off of it, are gone. They are gone. The bar of quality has been raised so high that bad audio combined with the absence of structure, research, and writing, is totally unacceptable.

We have Gimlet now. We have NPR. We have Slate, and Nerdist, and Panopoly, and Radiotopia, and Wondery — your kitchen-cast stands as much a chance of making it big as the Millennium Falcon had of making it through that asteroid field.

And you’re no Han Solo. You’re a rank and file Ewok that can’t reach the pedals.

You’re competing with beasts in beast mode, and so, if this is your chosen profession, you’re going to have to prepare to compete with those beasts. You need the armor, the weaponry, and the strategy to hold your own in a world overflowing with great content. But that’s okay, you can do this, affordable technology has given you the means of production!

First Things First

Sit down and create your show. Write it. What the heck are you delivering? What is the plan? What is the value? Who is hosting it? What is the format? Why in the name of Stephen Hawking would anyone give you money for this thing you’re making? Answer these questions before you invest a single penny of your money or solitary minute of your time.

Next, invest in the sound. You don’t need a Neumann TL103, but you need something professional. I recommend the Shure SM7B, the Heil PR30, or the Shure 87a Beta. These are all high-quality mics with fantastic pickups that will give your voice a great sound.

But it’s not just the mic, it’s the room, too. You need an acoustically treated room. It doesn’t have to look like Orfield Laboratories’ anechoic chamber, it just needs $150 worth of 1″x1’x1′ foam acoustic panels (Amazon) and a few handmade base traps. That’s a better-than-good start.

You can outfit a 10×10 room for less than $500 if you’re willing to do a little manual labor. There is no shortage of video tutorials showing you how to do these things. Spend an hour on YouTube and then do the work.

You need a couple of other important things. You need some artwork (try Fiverr Pro), you need a media hosting provider that provides a website (try Simplecast.fm), you need some cables, stands, and shock mounts, and you need a recording device (start with a Zoom H5).

At this point, for a two-host show, you’re looking at a buy-in of around $2,000.

Think that’s a lot? Name another viable business model with startup costs that low. Pyramid schemes cost more.

Punch Two: The Marketing

Now you need to package this content in a way that reflects its quality — and it needs to reflect that quality in a quality way. I cannot tell you how to market your podcast, I don’t know your brand, but I can turn you onto some services which will make it a little easier and which solve some of the technical learning curve.

For promotional images: RelayThat.

For audiograms: either Simplecast.fm (provided as part of your hosting) or Headliner (free).

For a subscription portal: get a Fanlink via ToneDen (free).

With those three tools (btw RelayThat has a lifetime option, which I suggest you take advantage of) you can create compelling artwork that reinforces your brand, audiograms which make your audio more engaging, and subscription portals that convert listeners to subscribers like magic (here’s an example).

Now make every spare minute of your day all about the following three things:

1. Engaging your fans, in a genuine way, on the platforms which you find it easiest to engage on (do not create social accounts you won’t use, this is not helpful).

2. Writing and planning your episodes. This is your job now.

3. Promoting your episodes, recruiting guests, and participating in the broader community that your podcast serves (even, and especially, with those whose members who have no idea who you are).

And what about paid marketing?

The answer is Facebook and Instagram. The answer is ALWAYS Facebook and Instagram. Google AdWords costs a fortune and Twitter’s ad platform is ineffectual. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, please take my advice here: there is so much low-hanging fruit on the Facebook tree that you would be remiss to worry about Google and Twitter before snatching it all up.

Facebook ads are fairly straight forward, though there is a learned art to utilizing them well, but for the most part, as you home in on learning that art, remember these four things when you first get started:

1. Limit your geography to major cities. This isn’t because you don’t want listeners from Nowheresville, Idaho, it’s because you have a marketing budget and you need denser populations to drive lower cost conversions.

2. Target using the “AND” qualifier.

3. “Like” campaigns attract new subscribers while “Boost” campaigns market your content to existing subscribers. Likes bring them in, boosts deliver your content to them regularly.

4. Video converts better, but only if it is less than 20 seconds, oozes with a genuine representation of you and your brand, and ends with a clear call to action. Video doesn’t have to be fancy — use that $1,000 smartphone in your pocket and invest in a $30 light from a photography supply store… or use a drop light from Home Depot and throw a plastic bag over it for some diffusion.

Last Piece: Your Monthly Overhead

Notice I said “overhead” because…

“My podcast is a business!”

You’ve got roughly $2,000 worth of startup costs, so let’s talk about the monthly costs now.

Roughly $450 per month.

That’s $150 for Facebook and Instagram ads and $300 a month for podcast editing (you’re a producer, not an engineer, don’t try to do this yourself, it takes away from the time you can spend producing, engaging, and growing your audience).

Think that’s a lot of money? Here’s some perspective: I once worked for a five employee, local IT shop in northern Florida. The overhead was $1.3M a month.

Hunker down and prepare to spend that money every month for at least a year before you break even.

Does it seem like too much work? Here’s something to chew on: you are trying to make a living creating art that nobody needs. Think that sort of success is just going to be handed to you?

It’s a lot of work, for sure, but if you invest the time, money, and effort, and do the things I’ve suggested above, your chances for success are astronomically higher than they would be otherwise.

Confession: Free podcasts will still work and the monetization platform doesn’t really matter so long as you’re creating unique, high-quality content.

My purpose here, if you haven’t already figured it out, isn’t to have you abandon the free model, it’s to motivate you and to spell out exactly what you need to do, and be, in order to create a successful, money-making podcast.

Regardless of whether you’re premium or freemium, if you put all you’ve got into creating your art, it’s going to find success. But “all you’ve got” doesn’t just mean effort, it means money and risk as well.

Work hard, work smart, be genuine, and you will find success in podcasting.

Good luck.

Tanner Campbell is the owner of a small commercial podcasting studio in South Portland, Maine. Contact him by e-mail at tanner@portlandpod.com or the old-fashioned way, 207.292.1155.

6 COMMENTS

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  2. Great article. I’m planning for the next evolution of my podcast. This has given me a TON to consider as I continue putting together my plan. I think it was mentioned in a more recent article you wrote for Podcast Business Journal that you can focus on 1,000 devoted listeners for a niche podcast. Seems like that, combined with the budget and tools laid out here is a reasonable plan for small businesses or creators. Thanks for giving me so much to think about. I’d love to chat about this further.

  3. This is an interesting contrast to Dave Jackson’s column, “Get Real. Your Show is a Hobby.” They both appeared the same day on PBJ, and probably leave some readers asking themselves what success really looks like. Tanner has stated some appropriate expectations for what it will take, at minimum, to start a podcast with the intent of making it a business. Dave has made a good case for having fun along the way, and focusing on content first. What ultimately ties the two together is how much your listeners value your content. That can happen over time and by accident, or more quickly through research and design. What’s certain is we’ll see more examples of both in 2019!

    • Paul, I think there are three incarnations of podcasts: the hobbycast, the product/service funnel, and the stand alone show. I think to cover all the nuance I’d need to write a book but you you’re right about one thing: 2019 is the year of the podcast! And hopefully 2020, 2021, 2022… 😉

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