Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Adventures in Podcast Marketing

So here’s a thing you should know about me:

When I’m not nerding or improvising, I work in marketing. I am a marketer. More specifically, I am a marketing writer. So, I blog professionally, kind of. That’s my job. That’s how I put food on the table.

It’s kind of neat. Like, I take alot of pride in the fact that I make a living writing.

Roughly a year ago, my friend Chris Rathjen and I had a… let’s call it a come to Jesus talk. Basically, Chris pointed out that I’m a marketer and maybe I should treat our podcast (Improvised Star Trek) the way I treat my marketing clients. Like, put in the time and work to grow our listenership instead of just hoping people would stumble upon us on iTunes.

And so for a year I’ve been trying to do that. It’s been very frustrating at times, but also deeply rewarding. To kind of… bring you into my world for a minute, here are some things I’ve learned in the last twelve months.

Podcast Discovery is a Challenge. Recently, Apple announced that they had their 1 billionth podcast download via iTunes. Which is great! Lots of people listen to podcasts! AND there are a ton of podcasts! Like, everybody and their sister has their own podcast. If you can think of a topic, there is probably a really neat podcast you can listen to on it. This totally makes sense in that so many of us spend a ton of time listening to things on our smartphones and other devices. But here’s a frustrating thing: for the most part, people listen to the same podcasts. Like, everybody listens to “Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me” and everybody listens to “WTF with Marc Maron.” Generally, the really popular podcasts have some kind of institutional support- like, they’re produced by NPR, or Nerdist. Many popular podcasts star people who are already celebrities. Institutional support and celebrity names give those podcasts a huge leg up on smaller, independent podcasts.  They make it easier for listeners to find them. If you’re an indie podcast, it’s harder for listeners to find you. Only rarely will an independent podcast become popular.  So if you want your independent podcast to gain an audience, you have to do ALOT of work.

Podcasts are Less Shareable than Other Media. Social media is a great vector to get the virus of your creativity out into the world. However, social media is comprised mostly of the written word and images. Podcasts are made of sound. This means that it’s harder to share a podcast than it is to share a video, or an article. This means it’s important for any podcast to include some kind of visual element- photos, drawings, etc. so that they’re more shareable online. It also means you have to get good at writing descriptions of your episodes.

There are too Many Talk Shows. I feel like every single podcast is either an interview-based talk show (Hi, I’m Steve Johnson and today I’m talking to famous prop comic Reggie Snark…) or a bunch of people sitting around talking about a topic (Welcome to the Chuckaluck podcast, this week, the Chuckalucks talk about… climate change.) I should note that there are tons of good talk show podcasts- tons of them. But there’s SO much more you can do with the audio format. Like, it’s such a good format for storytelling. You can do ANYTHING on a podcast. Anything. Some of my favorite podcasts are narrative comedies or dramas including Welcome to Night Vale and the Thrilling Adventure Hour. It especially frustrates me when a fellow improvisor tells me they’re starting up a podcast and then tells me that it’s a talk show.

You Need to Play the Long Game. If you aren’t already famous, and you’re not part of NPR, you cannot build a big fanbase overnight. Building a fan community means you need to spend time everyday talking to people on social media, emailing people at conventions, and just generally doing work. You need to deal with the fact that even with all of this work, you will only see small short-term growth. Over time, like, years, you will build a fanbase if you put the work in.

But Sometimes You Do Get Lucky.  Every once in awhile you will get a big bump in listenership just from sheer luck. In 2012, Improvised Star Trek was featured in the AV Club’s Podmass and we had a HUGE increase in downloads without really doing anything. The thing is, moments like that are few and far between. Like, it’s nice when they come along, but for the most part luck isn’t a good marketing strategy.

Most Importantly: Make Something Different and Make Something Good. Of course the best marketing strategy is to start with a really good product. None of this other stuff matters if your podcast sucks. We put a lot of work into Improvised Star Trek. We use top-quality recording equipment, we have a team of editors who spend hours making every episode sound great, and we have some of the best improvisors in Chicago doing the show. The show might have a gimmicky name, but we try very hard not to do a gimmicky show. If IST wasn’t one of the best improv shows I’d ever been in, I wouldn’t want to be a part of it. All of your marketing needs to be an extension of the product you make. A good show is the foundation of everything else.

Finally, here are some podcasts I really like:

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