With almost two years of regular podcasting under my belt now, three things emerge.
- I really enjoy doing this. I would like to do it more and better.
- Despite my love for the work, or perhaps because of it, a larger audience would be rewarding.
- In the engine room, things need to change.
The three are, of course, commingled.
Audience is in some respects the toughest nut to crack, not just for me but for almost all podcasters. A very few can launch a new show and watch it become an instant hit not only because it is of good quality but also because they already have a name and a reputation through conventional channels. Many more are part of a podcast network in which cross-promotion can direct an existing audience's attention to new shows and new episodes. The vast majority of us, however, plough a lonely furrow, market ourselves as best we can and deal with the envy aroused by shows not nearly as good as our own that are doing much better than we are.
Solutions exist. Marketing -- once one overcomes the whole self-promotion anathema thing -- is just a question of making people aware of something that they might find interesting. Provided that I can deliver on that promise with some regularity, casual listeners may turn into an actual audience. And the more of them there are, the more often someone will recommend the show to a friend. Then too, the more people who listen , the more likely some of them will respond to plaintive requests to rate and review the show on iTunes, still apparently one of the most effective ways to bring it to people's attention. Audience, then, can snowball in a virtuous circle.
Opportunities for networks and cross-promotion are harder to manage. While I wait for the surely inevitable email from Gimlet Media or Radiotopia, I continue to think about some kind of curated platform that would allow people to discover potentially interesting podcasts. At the moment, thinking about it is all I can manage. If I ever manage to go full time, however, this discovery channel will be second on my to-do list.
And the whole point of all this marketing and abhorrent self-promotion is to reach the point where enough listeners place sufficient value on what they're hearing to enable me to devote more time to it. I'm at a point in my life where I don't actually need all that much cash to live a reasonable life. And that's another virtuous circle, where being able to spend more time ought to result in a better product that will encourage more support.
So, how about support? Around six months ago I joined Flattr, which simplifies to some extent the business of doling out micro-payments to content you value. I like it and I use it, but the truth is that in the greater scheme of things, it does not seem to be making that much of an impression. The thing is, you have to sign up both to give and to receive Flattrs, and that is quite definitely a barrier. Many people who have been Flattrd either don't know or don't care and have never bothered to collect the money they have earned. I've no idea how much unclaimed cash Flattr is sitting on, and have not been able to find out, but I bet it is a tidy sum. Even if creators don't want it for themselves, they could always use their earnings to Flattr others who might welcome it, adding to the general expectation that consumers will reward good content and creators can expect rewards for creating it.
Patreon offers a different model of support. Flattr is largely about individual things, although it does offer a way to subscribe by ensuring that a content creator receives a single, regular Flattr -- a micro-payment -- each month. Patreon is all about subscription, a commitment to give someone so much per month or per episode. The amount you pledge is variable, and you can cancel at any point. A lot of people and companies on Patreon use a tiered support mechanism whereby the more you pay, the more you get, from undying gratitude and love to your name inscribed in gold on a granite monument. Well, I made that last one up, but you get the picture. And people also promise to do certain things if they reach certain amounts. Hit $100 a month and I will buy a new microphone; hit $7500 and I'll go full time, that sort of thing.
So far, I have not yet joined Patreon in search of support, mostly because I cannot think of anything valuable I could usefully offer higher-paying patrons, and that kind of incentive does seem to be ubiquitous on Patreon. Undying gratitude and love for $1 a month can hardly be more undying for $100 a month. Maybe that would be a selling point in and of itself. You give me as much money as you think I'm worth, and I'll give you as much gratitude and love as I think you're worth.
There's actually room for both models. The internet needs something like Flattr so that people can spontaneously reward things they come across. And it needs Patreon so that we can offer long-term support to people who consistently produce things we value. Actually, maybe that's something Flattr could do relatively easily: tell you when you have Flattrd a particular creator more than, say, five times in a month. Then set up a somewhat larger regular payment, if you wish.
There is clearly a lot of scope for Flattr and Patreon and others to be used as ways to give people who make things our continuing support (as opposed to the one-off hit of crowdfunding). The real need, though, is for a sea change in attitude. That's why adoption matters.
In the engine room, the primary change needed is better to understand and make use of the RSS feed. This is the stream of information that alerts iTunes to new episodes and that enables people to receive the show in the pod catcher of their choice. This last is important partly because iTunes is not exactly a bloodhound when it comes to sniffing out stuff. It would be nice if the RSS feed delivered brief notes rather than, or as well as, the full text of an entry on the website. That would enable the summary that appears with iTunes to be more enticing while the show notes could be more comprehensive and useful. I'm pretty sure that this would not be difficult, although it is currently beyond me. Access to better information about listeners and how they listen would be useful too.
This post was actually written on 16 January, but my incompetence prevented me from publishing it. In the meantime I caught up with Dave Slusher's Evil Genius Chronicles Podcast for January 12 2015, which discusses many of the same issues.