Mat Zucker is co-lead of the global marketing practice at Prophet, and has helped brands including Johnson & Johnson and CIT Group launch their first podcasts. He also produces two award-winning shows: Cidiot, about moving from the city to the country; and Rising, conversations with marketing leaders on the way up, with Direct Agents.
Two million podcasts. 48 million episodes. The podcast shelf is that crowded, according to October 2021 data.
If you’re investing in podcasting as part of your marketing mix, how can you ensure yours will break through? Let’s dive in.
Defining podcast success
“Breaking through” can mean different things depending on your objectives. If you’re looking to use your podcast to grow your customer base, then reach and metrics such as downloads are paramount. If, however, you’re seeking to shift brand perception, you might look for improvements measured by engagement and follow-up research.
Benchmarks for successful podcasts are lower than you might think. According to Libsyn’s stats, just 123 downloads puts your show is in the top 50 percent of podcasts. Reach 2,900 downloads, and you’re in the top 10 percent.
According to Brian Swarth, head of marketing for podcasts at Cadence13, Pineapple Street Studios, and 2400Sports—three podcast studios owned by audio powerhouse Audacy—listenership is the primary goal. In addition to downloads, success on Apple charts is a useful metric internally and with business partners. Swarth noted that while the chart algorithm is still pretty opaque, he believes one key to climbing up the charts is velocity: the rate at which people follow and listen to your show, not just the volume.
He also looks to see if the podcast is part of a broader conversation.
Just 123 downloads puts your show is in the top 50 percent of podcasts. Reach 2,900 downloads, and you’re in the top 10 percent.
“Is it relevant to the culture or propelling culture to progress?” Swarth said. “Our 70 over 70 podcast is a breakthrough not only because it was successful from a listenership perspective, but also because everyone I know is talking about it and media outlets have been eagerly covering it.”
Stories in podcast experimentation
Jered Martin, co-founder and chief operations officer of OnePitch, a public relations SaaS platform, launched his show Coffee With A Journalist in March 2019.
Since then, it has grown from 5,000 downloads to more than 40,000 over more than two years. Aimed at PR, marketing, and communications professionals, Martin promoted the podcast where they were most active. “A lot of our guests are on Twitter, and the people who work with journalists are on Twitter,” Martin said.
In addition to downloads, success on Apple charts is a useful metric internally and with business partners
“First we ran ad campaigns, which didn’t perform well. With a limited budget, our reach was stifled. We got traffic, but it wasn’t converting,” he explained. Recognizing that people were searching for the guests, he shifted efforts to organic means—including SEO—which worked. Tagging guests who have large followings amplified reach, as did posting in industry-specific LinkedIn groups.
By year two, OnePitch added a newsletter to promote new episodes and tease upcoming guests, all of which contributed to an uptick. Providing an advanced view “made it easy for people to say yes or no to listening,” said Martin.
Andrea Kilin, global social media manager and executive producer of Discovery Matters, a podcast by life sciences leader Cytiva, also found conventional tactics such as paid social didn’t work at first. She and her team rethought how to tackle word-of-mouth. The team tapped into Cytiva’s strong company culture and asked its thousands of associates to share new episodes and help source guests, which provided positive momentum.
“The podcast is an expression of our curiosity,” said Kilin. “It shows why we do our job.” Instead of barraging employees with more emails, the podcast has a dedicated and active internal Microsoft Teams channel.
For Stacey Simms of the Diabetes Connections podcast, success is not measured by numbers, but rather by the impact she makes on those with Type 1 diabetes. To market the show, Simms focused on events as well as social media groups, threads, and hashtags.
She recommends avoiding spamming these groups with episodes. Instead, authentically engage, understand the rules of each group, answer questions ,and then when relevant, share that you’ve done an episode on that topic. “As your show gets more established,” Simms said, “other people will even point out your show.”
Five podcast growth strategies for you
Here are five archetypal strategies, with example tactics. Each includes a likely outcome and level of investment ($=low, $$$=high).
Strategy one: The idea markets itself
Find an audience’s content need gap and the marketing will take care of itself. What do listeners want to know about? You could guess, or as podcast host and educator Will Francis suggests, use audience research tools such as Answer the Public, Buzzsumo, Google Trends, or Reddit.
One key early marketing decision is the show’s name, recognizing the difficulty of showing up in search results and directories. An unusual name, such as my podcast Cidiot, is easier to find than my other podcast about marketing careers I co-host with Josh Boaz, called Rising.
Other moves might be repackaging content as quotes and infographics, creating a trailer, and building an email list for organic pushes.
Outcome: Highly engaged, valuable audience; may grow slowly ($)
Strategy two: throw money at it
Media spend with paid podcast ads can be the quickest but most expensive approach. Swarth sees this working in tandem with other approaches. With higher awareness, he often sees higher conversion of paid ads. Many channels run paid advertising. Examples from an American Marketing Association training session I recently attended were:
- Overcast: Text ads
- Spotify audio ads: 30-second trailer
- Instagram: Teaser video for your next episode
- Reddit: Sponsored post in a relevant niche sub-reddit
- Twitter: Sponsored tweet targeted at followers of a similar, established show
- LinkedIn ads: Sharing what people will learn
Outcome: Large audience built quickly, will require sustained efforts ($$$)
Strategy three: be where the ears are
More and more shows and platforms are offering up options for other shows to partner with them. Groups like r/PodcastGuestExchange on Reddit can help you connect with other podcasts for appearances, and most podcast networks offer promotion tactics. PocketCast paid placements, for example, offer features that run for a week and charges $2,000.
Outcome: Medium-size audience, likely highly engaged, lower conversion ($$$)
Strategy four: be where the topic is
This strategy markets to the passion. If your show is about tech, then answer a question on Quora. If it’s music, then create content for TikTok or sponsored content in a music newsletter. There’s also growth of podcast promotion or distribution via YouTube.
For her insulin-related podcast, Simms is promoting an episode about handling Halloween candy in a parents forum.
Outcome: Larger audience with higher engagement ($)
Strategy five: third-party power
Indirect works. Accolades are a tactic with third-party endorsement. Cidiot numbers ticked up after winning best regional podcast in a local publication and whenever I’m quoted in media as an “expert” of moving to the country.
In addition to getting employees behind the podcast, Cytiva’s Kilin plans to generate word of mouth through giveaways with listeners.
Outcome: High quality audience, likely slow to build ($$)
Finding your formula
The answer for marketing most new podcasts will be a custom recipe made up of several of the above strategies. There are many benefits in the numerous low-cost tactics, as well as some of the higher cost investments, but it’s the nuanced orchestration of the right ones over time that will help your show break through.