The End of Podcasting's Direct-Relationship Model Is In Sight
“Own the relationship!” is practical podcasting advice that works today. But it might not tomorrow in a world with less guesswork about what people want from their podcasts.
Spotify and Pandora are coming to podcasting with more than just bags of money. They're coming with teams of data scientists and fiduciary responsibility to make money. That's going to upset the Apple cart.
As podcasters, we have a lot of choice. We choose what we want to say and how we want to say it. If we’re a podcast with a large enough audience, we get choose which advertisers we allow on the program.
Of course, listeners have a lot of choice as well. But right now we're guessing that our choices are going to resonate with our audience. We’re forced to guess a lot because we have an incomplete understanding of what people want.
For 16 years, we’ve had only the most tenuous of grasps on the actions and desires of our audience. We put our content out, try to get people to subscribe, check to how many downloads we received on various episodes, and go about our business with a vague unease that our understanding is incomplete.
Advertisers know our understanding is incomplete, so they make us use special coupon code unique to our show. Yes, they want our download counts for episodes where their ad ran. But advertisers care more -- much more -- about the number of times that special code was used to redeem the offer.
But At Least We Owned Those Direct Relationships, Right?
That model may be on its last legs, thanks to Spotify and Pandora. Until now, the “keep people listening” incentive hasn’t been a big factor in any of the podcast listening apps/services/directories. But with Spotify and Pandora, “keep people listening” is directly tied to their bottom line. Those two firms need you keep listening and using their app. And not just once-in-a-while. They are financially incentivized to suggest different content to you depending on location, time of day, interests, even your current mood.
You could argue that we podcasters have been trying to keep people listening to our shows all along. And I’d argue that we’ve largely failed at those attempts.
Barring the occasional binge-listen (which I’ve certainly done), we just don’t get much support from the current app offerings. Yes, we can (and do) create compelling content our listeners want to keep consuming. But ultimately, it’s up to the listener to decide if we’ve succeeded in our efforts.
Today, Podcast Listeners Have All The Power
You really can’t go wrong putting the choice in the hands of the listener, can you? Well… maybe we should analyze that. It’s worth remembering that ultimately, the listener will probably always have the choice to listen or not. They get to choose if they subscribe (whatever that means tomorrow) to our show or not. They get to choose if they actually listen to an episode of ours or not. Many of us working podcasters are so dedicated to this idea of listener choice that we ourselves become choice-loving listeners, gravitating toward power apps that give us extreme control over what and how we consume other podcast content.
We take this choice-first approach when it comes to advertising too. So much so that podcasters often own the direct relationship with their advertisers. We seek out new advertisers (because growth) via direct outreach as much as we can.
Or we lean into the choice-first approach when cultivating the most direct of direct relationships with our listeners, spending our precious time making extra content or merch that we directly sell to our listeners, either as one-off sales or recurring memberships. Because that’s what we think we want as listeners too.
But Are Listeners Wielding That Power Correctly?
Every aspect of that power dynamic will be impacted once the data scientists from Spotify and Pandora dig into actual, real consumption of podcast content. They don’t have the same limits as podcasters. They don’t have the same limits as podcast hosting companies. They don’t have the same limits of other podcast listening apps.
Because they’ll own the entire stack from hosting, to directory, to listening app; their data scientists will have unique insight into the behavior of listeners -- actual listeners -- across a myriad of podcasts and episodes.
The power of that extensive graph should not be underestimated.
A Podcast Recommendation Engine That Just Works?
It’s an inevitability that a significant portion of podcast consumption on Spotify and Pandora will not require a conscious choice from the listener. Heck, I wouldn’t be surprised if choice-less listening is how most listening happens on those platforms.
Isn’t that a scary thought?
Choice-less advertising is probably also coming, a Holy Grail-like concept that requires the new model being deployed by Spotify and Pandora. I don't think it's crazy to assume content creators would be incentivized with a share of ad dollars. And if they can help podcasters make the kinds of ad-friendly content that attracts even more advertising dollars, rest assured they’ll work with podcasters to determine what sorts of content we should be creating to maximize our revenue. And theirs.
This effectively means the industry will shift away from the direct relationship with listeners or advertisers to a direct relationship with Spotify and Pandora. Talk about a different model.
For those successful podcasts clinging to the notion that big acquisitions for exclusive content will mean less competition and therefore a chance for even more and better direct relationships with advertisers; they’re right. For now.
But it's going to be easier for those advertisers to spend their monies directly with Spotify and Pandora. Less friction and a bigger share of voice is a part of their future decisions. But their proprietary, network-wide data will be the one thing a single podcaster will never be able to replicate.
So cash your checks now, because direct relationships with advertisers might dry up tomorrow.
You Say That Like It’s A Bad Thing
There are lot of ways this could go bad, as I’m sure many people will soon tell me about on Twitter. But what they see as bad might actually be seen as good by the choice-less listener.
But painting an inevitable future as good or bad isn’t helpful. It’s still coming. And it will be different than what we have today.
I know this is a challenging thought-exercise, pondering a world where data mongers Spotify and Pandora fundamentally change how people listen to podcasts and how content for podcasts are created. You might need help thinking through it with a fellow podcaster in your circle. So please share this episode with them. Even if you think me a crazy person and want to use my thoughts as a punching bag. Go for it! Helping spread the message about Podcast Pontifications to other podcasters is always appreciated.
And if you don’t think I’m crazy and would like to give me some direct support while it is available, you can go to BuyMeACoffee.com/EvoTerra and... buy me a coffee. Monthly contributions are available and appreciated since neither Spotify nor Pandora are likely to be lobbing bags of money at me anytime soon.
Enjoy the rest of your Monday! I shall be back tomorrow with yet another Podcast Pontifications.