As a podcast aficionado, I’m grateful that so many creators have found sustainable ways to develop their shows. By virtue of being cheap to make and free to enjoy, podcasts typically don’t use up too much time on ads. Even branded podcasts are geared toward an entertaining listener experience, and brand awareness takes a backseat.
So, how do producers measure and prove ROI? There are several ways to make a podcast worth your time and effort.
I’ve hosted my own podcast for a year and a half now, and our ROI model is pretty rare. We’re a SYFY WIRE podcast, which means NBCUniversal pays for my time and all expenses. We’re a single show in a cluster of branded podcasts, each reaching a niche target audience. Currently, we track downloads, listens, iTunes reviews, and social engagement on Twitter, and SYFY WIRE is launching an event series for our podcast this year.
But just because your brand has a podcast doesn’t mean its ROI model needs to fit the one SYFY developed. Some podcast producers divide content over a paywall and use a partial subscription model. Some run ads. Others just strive to break even during their first year of production until a network picks them up. A few use the podcast as a foundation for other possible revenue channels like merchandise, live tour dates, or a blog.
The point is there are many ways to cobble together a path to ROI. For this story, I spoke to three podcast creators about their different processes. They were candid about their methods, but most importantly, they all shared their insights on how to measure podcasting ROI.
Run ads and shout out sponsors
For Joe Caporoso, a podcast felt like a great way to grow as a creator. In 2010, he founded Turn on the Jets, a content network devoted to New York Jets fandom, and before long, he began to feel the pressure to include new forms of content.
For years, he had received emails and tweets from readers asking for a podcastexpansion, and in 2016, he decided it was time. But he didn’t want to launch any old show without a schedule. “We forced ourselves to stick to at least one show per week with a consistent format, introduction, and length,” Caporoso said. From the beginning, this structure allowed him to include the podcast in sales packages while pitching to advertisers.
The cost to produce Turn on the Jets is minimal, and advertisers are hungry to associate their names with sports content. “Over the past few years,” Caporoso said, “we’ve made money through sponsorships with local bars and restaurants, and [by advertising] professional sports ticket companies and fantasy football gaming sites.” Caporoso and his team are able to choose advertisers whose brands feel similar to Turn on the Jets, like Willie McBride’s, a bar and restaurant in Hoboken, and Gameday Tailgate Experience. They’re confident that products and service sold to listeners will feel relevant. After all, if you’re listening to a New York Jets podcast every week, there’s a good chance you might be interested in finding a local bar to watch games.
When he’s tracking the podcast’s ROI, Caporoso focuses on weekly download numbers of each episode. Turn on the Jets averages roughly 60,000 downloads per month. Caporoso has found that inviting guests with large social media followings—NBC Sports analyst Evan Silva, ESPN NFL analyst Damien Woody, and Jets player Quincy Enunwa—bumps up the weekly listener number, so he keeps that in mind while booking.
“Our listener numbers have been on a steady incline in the past twelve months,” he told me, “which has pushed us to expand our number of episodes and episode length.”
Offer content behind a paywall
Alright Mary is one of three podcasts I support on Patreon, primarily because I listen to it every single Monday morning without fail. The weekly podcast, hosted by Colin Drucker and Johnny Atorino, is technically an episode recap program following RuPaul’s Drag Race, but over the years, it has expanded to include content on queer history, pop culture, and meta-textual patterns the hosts call “nuances.”
The show began when Drucker and Atorino were looking for a new creative outlet. “At first, we didn’t have any intention of advertising what we were doing,” Atorino said. “We just wanted to put ourselves out there and see if anyone would listen.”
Before long, the hosts were getting hundreds of opinionated personal emails from listeners, and they saw their podcast popping up on social channels and discussion boards. Feedback from listeners became longer and more detailed.
“They’d explain the effect our podcast had on listeners all over the country,” Atorino said, “They didn’t have a community of people to talk about Drag Race in the way we were talking about it, on a deeper, more queer-centered level. The podcast was no longer just for us, it was for a lot more people. More people than we ever imagined.”
As the audience ballooned, Atorino and Drucker began to realize a subscription model would help them sort their content into tiers based on listener profiles. Though they kept producing a free episode every week, Atorino and Drucker decided to add two additional segments called “Hot Takes” and “Nuances.” The former format is a short, reactionary episode posted to Patreon immediately after a new episode of Drag Raceairs. The latter is a longer recording focused on couching a particular moment from a Drag Race episode in its cultural context—those are available free on iTunes. Paid subscribers get the short “hot take” episodes, early access to all episodes, an email newsletter, and videos.
As far as promoting paid-access content, the Alright Mary hosts limit themselves to one mention of Patreon per episode. “We’re new to this world and honestly struggle to make sure people are getting something worth their money,” Atorino told me.
Currently, Alright Mary has 246 patrons a month, which earns the hosts a little more than $500 per month. They’re hoping people pay to support their work “because they appreciate the consistent free content for the sake of the conversation.” The additional content that comes with a subscription is just meant as a bonus. Next up, Atorino and Drucker are planning to record a longform video series and book more live events.
Generate referrals and leads
Since podcasts have low upfront costs, a producer might start a show before developing an ironclad ROI model. Some people can wait until they hit their groove with an audience and piece together business goals over time. Most podcasts start as awareness content, but if there’s a very specific target audience, it can even function as a lead generation tool.
For New York Magazine columnist Simon Owens, his podcast The Business of Contenthelps him connect with other marketing professionals—and get content out of the interaction. He interviews digital marketing leaders like MoveOn.org’s Sara Kenigsberg and Substack cofounder Hamish McKenzie about their challenges and successes. Then, he edits the interviews into short podcast episodes and transcribes the interviews on his website, a process that does wonders for SEO. As a bonus, Owens found “a surprisingly large number of people will read and share the interview transcripts without listening to the episode.”
The Business of Content offers a unique lens into content marketing—episodes feature some of the more intimate conversations I’ve heard in the space, and Owens interviews guests from both the tech and content creation sides of digital marketing.
“With my writing, I didn’t feel like I was forging a strong enough relationship with my audience, and I thought a podcast would generate a lot more loyalty for my work,” Owens said. “I ended up launching the podcast in January 2018, and almost immediately I wished that I had launched it sooner.”
In terms of measuring ROI, Owens has one documented goal: drive leads. “All content I create that I’m not directly paid for I view as a loss leader to generate leads for paying clients,” he explained. “I get a few of those each month. The more busy I am with client work, the less content I can create that month and the fewer leads I get.”
A good month might bring in three leads. “May not sound like much, but if just one of them turns into a $5,000 a month client, then that can have a huge impact on my income,” he said.
You just have to align your podcasting goals with a distinct purpose as Owens did. He may not dive into subscriber numbers every week, but that’s because subscribers don’t directly affect his bottom line. He wants to generate leads on new content production opportunities, and as long as that number stays in the black, he’s in business.
This story first appeared on The Content Strategist.