I get it. Driving podcast discovery is hard. The podcast app space is fragmented, with your potential audience spread out across a dozen or so different platforms. Podcast episodes don’t go “viral” in the traditional sense, and instead rely on word of mouth recommendations. And the space is crowded, with hundreds of thousands of shows producing new episodes each week. For even a large media company, it’s difficult to scale the listenership for a new show.
And that’s why many podcast networks have embraced a number of marketing “growth hacks” to speed up audience growth and drive more downloads. Some of these strategies can be incredibly effective. For instance, in the final season of Gimlet’s Startup, host Alex Blumberg revealed that the company saw success by running short ads that promoted shows across its network. So an episode for Reply All would have a promo for Heavyweight, and vice versa.
But publishers, as they often do, have grown too greedy in their quest to drive certain KPIs, and just as you saw lots of web publishers embrace auto-play videos a few years ago, many podcast networks are adopting marketing practices that create poor user experiences and potentially alienate listeners. Here are three of them.
Trick them into listening to reruns
Re-releasing episodes in your podcast feeds sometimes makes sense. Because podcast apps display episodes in reverse chronological order, older episodes get buried, and newer listeners might be unfamiliar with some of your best archival content.
What creates a bad user experience is when the show doesn’t do a good job of differentiating the new content from the old. The How I Built This podcast is a particularly bad offender, in that it regularly re-releases old interviews, and I’m often five or six minutes into an episode before realizing that I’d already listened to it months ago. This can be a frustrating experience for someone who only has, say, a 20-minute window to listen to a podcast.
Some podcasts do a great job of designating in the title that an episode is a rerun. Planet Money, for instance, displays the number of each episode so it’s relatively easy to pick out which ones have been plucked out of the archives.
Trick them into listening to other shows in your network
This next one is particularly irksome. Podcast networks with a large roster of shows have taken to promoting new podcasts by sticking an episode into the feed of an already-existing podcast. The thinking here is clear: “We already have a large audience with show A, so if we get them to listen to an episode of show B, then some percentage of them will be enticed into subscribing to show B.”
You know what’s worse than being tricked into listening to a rerun? Being tricked into listening to a completely different show than the one you were expecting. Recently, I went to listen to Vox Media’s The Weeds, a roundtable show that goes deep on wonky policy subjects. I downloaded an episode titled “The four words that will decide impeachment,” and instead of being greeted by the dulcet voice of Matt Yglesias, I was told that what I was actually listening to was a new impeachment-themed podcast hosted by Ezra Klein. This is essentially the podcast equivalent of an auto-play video — a bait and switch in which a user is lured in by one content experience only to be force-fed a completely different content experience.
I think these podcast feed swaps provide little net value to the user, but if you are going to insist on running them, then at least do everything you can to signal to the listener that they’re downloading an episode from a completely different podcast.
Constantly switch up the format of your show
For the most part, I know what to expect when encountering a new episode of a show I regularly listen to. Each episode of This American Life consists of about an hour of highly-produced, narrative journalism. An episode of Peter Kafka’s Recode Media will be a half-hour Q&A with a media executive.
But sometimes shows, in their desire to produce a constant stream of content, will phone it in. They’ll run a few highly-produced, narrative episodes, and then they’ll drop in some “bonus” episodes that include unedited Q&A interviews — basically all the tape that didn’t make it into the scripted show.
There’s probably a subsection of that podcast’s most dedicated listeners that enjoy this bonus content, but the more casual listeners — which, let’s be clear, likely make up the majority of the audience — will feel like they were promised a gourmet meal and were served microwaved Hot Pockets instead. Don’t deliver a substandard product just because it will generate a few extra downloads you can sell ads against.
If there’s a consistent theme to this article, it’s that you should never mislead your audience, even if it results in a short term burst of downloads. Building a listenership for a new podcast is hard work that rewards consistency and is likely to be devoid of hockey stick growth. The most successful shows will be the ones that treat that listenership with respect.