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Why I Paywall Podcasts
The "Red Scare Model" and other podcast approaches
A content business post for those of you curious about the space…
So this topic came up at the start of the Chuck Klosterman podcast. He wanted to know if it would be subscribers only, or open to all. He didn’t have a firm care as to either method, but was curious about which I’d choose, given that he’s a preternaturally curious person.
In the end we collectively decided to paywall Chuck, though the podcast is now open to all. What was the reasoning behind the initial limited release? And what’s the reasoning, in general, behind limiting a release?
Frequent paywalling is probably a suboptimal growth strategy, and yet I do it and don’t regret doing it. We’ll get into why down below, but first, let’s look at what is, in my opinion the best method for growing a profitable subscriber podcast.
The Optimal Red Scare Model
Based on what I’ve observed, the best subscriber based podcasting strategy is what I’d call the Red Scare Model (which may have originated with Chapo Traphouse, but who’s counting?). Obviously, this method works best if you’re actually the ladies of Red Scare, but I believe it’s a fine approach for anyone with talent and work ethic.
I’ve noticed that successful sub-based pods like Red Scare tend to go for a predictable rhythm of paid, free, paid, free, etc. Half the inventory compels payment, half the inventory helps spread the word, and the locked podcasts show up in your feed with a brief teaser clip.
Why give roughly 50 percent of your product away for free? Because discoverability is huge in the hyper competitive podcasting marketplace. There’s an abundance of audio options out there. You’ve far more to contend with as a podcaster than you have as a writer, since only so many out there want to knuckle down and type out thousands of words. Unlike with writing, most people actually enjoy talking and you’re up against everyone who does. In this environment, it’s incredibly difficult to draw a crowd absent free samples.
Since I’m one to use facile sports analogies, I’d say it’s a little like a football team mixing in the run with the pass. Running isn’t as rewarding, but its regular incorporation helps set up big defensive concessions on passes. It’s hard to trust the run, though, since handing the ball often leads to a lack of tangible payoff. The benefit of running is mostly invisible in those moments when you actually get “three yards/subscriptions and a cloud of dust.”
Put in podcast terms, my free pod releases will be lucky to gain five new paid subscribers, but the point of a free release is to set up those moments when the content requires subscription. Establish a nice free/paid rhythm with, say, two pods every week and your prospective customer gets hooked with consistent free content and also keeps smacking against the paywall on a weekly basis. The theory goes that eventually, the listener will have developed a habit with your show, and can’t abide having half the product withheld. They’re worn down. A paid subscription button is pressed. That’s the idea anyway. That’s the smartest way to do this. And yet, it’s not quite the way I do it. I mean, logically, I should do it this way, but I don’t do it this way. Why?
The Emotional Benefits of Paywalling
Instead of going 50/50, I paywall a strong majority of my podcasts, absent any real standard rhythm. It would be easy to attribute this frequent paywalling to my “pennywise, pound foolish” personal greed. In a vacuum, as suggested, you’re more likely to make money off a podcast you’re charging for than one you’re giving away. I’m not sure that’s why I turbo paywall, though. If I was just in this game for money, I’d be doing ads against my podcast, and hey, maybe I will one day. But it’s been two years and counting at House of Strauss LLC all without any commercials. Companies make their offers on occasion, but ultimately I’ve decided against the hassle. And that’s also why I tend to paywall: An aversion to hassle.
Okay, let’s shift analogies from sports to a different sort of live performance. A paywalled podcast is like a show in a theater for people predisposed to like the act. In my case, a paywalled podcast nets roughly 3-4K downloads, so maybe envision a four figure audience at the performance.
Perhaps the show doesn’t quite live up to audience expectations, maybe they’re very disappointed, but odds are that they’re there to have a good time. These people are, generally, predisposed to give me the benefit of the doubt, and interpret events in the spirt of charity. You can call that audience capture. I just call it a nice place to be.
A podcast you send out to the world, on the other hand, can more easily get excerpted and reacted to by people who either don’t get or hate the context you operate within. That’s not some massive tragedy, and it’s easily withstood by better podcasters than myself. But it’s a hassle. I don’t like hassle. I don’t want to be at the center of some aggregation storm. I don’t want to apologize to my guest on how this all became an issue for them at their place of business. When I have Big Wos on, I’m excited about his winning candor. I wouldn’t want that undermined because some unhappy hall monitor takes a snippet out of context and makes Wos’ company answer for it. And yes, all that could still happen with the paywall up, but the odds are exponentially less so.
What’s surprised me is how little my guests seem to care as to whether they’re paywalled. Chuck specifically preferred the smaller room, with its lack of hassle. Obviously, the value proposition of certain podcasts is a massive audience. A public figure goes on Joe Rogan with the understanding and hope that millions will hear it.
But I’m not Joe Rogan, and my guests aren’t coming on with the expectation that the experience will make them famous. Instead, I think they just want to have a good conversation, in front of a mostly reasonable audience. They don’t want the feedback or backlash from that conversation to change their life. They just want to bounce some ideas around in public, the way people used to do absent much neurosis.
When I was in college, I would see certain authors, professors and documentarians give talks. Nobody on stage seemed to be risking much. There wasn’t a palpable fear of saying the wrong thing. Those in attendance were there to enjoy themselves and maybe even learn something. It was fun, a sort of public display that wasn’t quite television, but offered more juice than a phone call. There’s a hunger for that sort of space, now that the smart phone has made the world its panopticon. A paywalled pod isn’t going back in time, but it is, in some instances, a return to a more manageable place.
Is it bad to restrict your audience quantity? That’s a tough question. There are all sorts of considerations, including whether you want to optimize for influence vs. optimizing for profit. Personally, I like money, but even more than money, I like peace of mind. Beyond the paywall, peace is harder to achieve. Inside the walled garden, though, it’s just profitable enough and just quiet enough. My method isn’t optimal. It’s not what you should do to maximize growth or impact. But, with thanks to the good people at Substack, it works for me. Go and see about what works for you.
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