🤴🏼 "Marketing is not a real thing in podcasting." A mind-bending conversation with Magnificent Noise's Eric Nuzum 🪄
🤸♀️Podcast marketing: let's have some fun.🌈
I recently finished reading Eric Nuzum’s Make Noise: A Creator’s Guide to Podcasting and Great Audio Storytelling. Eric is the cofounder of Magnificent Noise and over the past 14 years, has made podcasts that routinely top the charts, appear in yearly “best of” lists, win awards, and generate hundreds of millions of downloads. I was blown away by Make Noise (my copy is completely destroyed with dog-ears and underlines) and was thrilled when he agreed to talk to me about podcast marketing. Below, an abbreviated version of our conversation (that was conducted over Zoom and transcribed.) I urge you to read the entire piece here. He dropped so many valuable insights about the future of podcasting, how marketing should really work, and specific tips for podcasters, that I think you’ll wish you could underline and dog-ear the webpage. (Maybe you should buy his book instead.)
Before we start, a few notes:
✍️The podcast partnership database is live! Remember to submit your show and browse the database often to search for potential people to partner with. New shows are being added every day! Learn more about the database here.
✍️Spotify Podcasts team has signaled their search for new shows to feature with a brand new Spotify Podcast Submission Form.
✍️Clare Wiley’s interview (for her newsletter The Audio Storyteller) with the show Blind Landing producers and how they built an audience as an indie podcast.
✍️Magellan AI’s article on How to find Podcasts to Advertise on.
✍️Sign up for my 6/6 podcast marketing class with Radio Boot Camp here.
✍️The second episode of Feed the Queue, the podcast I co-host with Adela Mizrachi, features mayyyybe my favorite podcast episode of all time. Listen here.
Eric Nuzum is the cofounder of Magnificent Noise and creator of iconic podcasts. He is also the author of Make Noise: A Creator’s Guide to Podcasting and Great Audio Storytelling. Follow him on Twitter here.
In your book, I really loved hearing about how you would sit down with people and talk about the important things to consider when they're starting a podcast. What are the first three things you want to know from someone hoping to start one?
The list always evolves and changes. I think the first thing we always want to know is: who are you trying to reach? Who's the person you're speaking to? Pretend it’s a podcast about the workplace. It will be different if you're trying to speak to white or younger people, older people, late career people, early career managers, non-managers, all these different people. So it kind of starts with: who do you think you're talking to and what do you want to say to them? What's your message?
We often ask people: what problem are you trying to solve? Successful podcasts solve problems for listeners.
There's a number of things that go into being a successful podcaster because out of the gate, they need to have a clear idea of who they’re talking to and what they want to say and what problem they’re trying to solve. A problem can be: 'there's something about me that makes me feel alone. I may be recovering from addiction, or I may be interested in a very niche hobby, and I need something that connects with my community, or I'm going through something that's unique, or I just want to laugh.’ That's a problem I have, I just want to laugh. Without a clear idea of what you're solving, it doesn't make any sense to me why you are making a podcast.
Back when I first started in radio, it was common practice to launch a radio show and not be expected to really accomplish very much for a couple of years, because it would take a while to find its footing and build up an audience. That’s changed. No one's going to fund a podcast for a couple of years to figure out how it can find an audience.
Ira Glass took years to figure out what This American Life was going to be. He has answers to all these questions. Some of them were instinctual, some of them he actually thought of and wrote out. You can take the route of trying to address that up front, especially when you're working with other people, whether it's a marketer, an audience development person, an audience, a social person, or other producers on your team. If you don't spell this stuff out, you are kind of assuming that they're going to figure it out. And how will that happen? Are they just going to magically pick it up? Are they going to learn it over time? Are they going to have their own conflicting version of what that thing could or should be? If you don’t spell this stuff out, you’re shortcutting and trying to avoid a lot of the self-imposed obstacles to get to your potential as quickly as possible. I think that's what these processes are set up to do. We don't have time to just let this go for a number of months to figure itself out. It's gotta kinda land knowing what it is. That's kind of like how that design process is set up.
I love This Is Dating, congratulations.
The biggest controversy we had as a staff was the font on the show art. I lost this battle. When you squish it down, it gets really hard to understand. But we hired an artist who'd never done podcast art before and that was deliberate. He knew we wanted to have something that worked in the space, but wasn't like the kind of cliche templates that everyone uses. Every single thing about that show is so deliberate. We spent 18 months putting this thing together, and we thought about every detail you can imagine, and debated it and went over and over it and just kind of figured out what worked for us and went with it.
Are reviews important?
You can't listen to those reviews and think they represent reality, but on the other hand, coming from Amazon, I understand the idea that every customer complaint is an opportunity to make a loyal customer for life. If they reach out to you and they say, ‘Hey, I hate this,’ the fact that you respond, the fact that you engage with them, the fact that you hear them out, or maybe even make a change as a result…people can't believe it. They're like, ‘wow, really?’ They’re just blown away that anyone would pay attention.
A great example of this was when I got a nasty note from someone a couple of weeks ago about the way that our transcripts were set up and the way we linked to them for people with disabilities. This woman just kind of came at us loaded for bear. I responded back to the email saying, ‘you know what you're suggesting we do instead of what we're doing is really smart. And we're gonna go back and change every episode so that it matches what your suggestion is.’ And she could not believe that was our response. She was like, ‘I feel seen, I feel heard.’ Podcasting is a social media. It is like Twitter, it is like Facebook, it’s an interaction with people. And so many people who are legacy creators forget that point. That’s the thing that made the primary reason that podcasting is different than radio, that it’s different than film or TV or whatever. You are creating a feedback loop with an audience. And if you're not there to catch them when they circle through, fewer of them are gonna keep coming around and you're eventually gonna lose this opportunity to create a community.
Marketing to me is not a real thing in podcasting. Audience building is a real thing. How do you build an audience? And part of that is from the jump from the very beginnings of a project. How do you build a community of people around it that care about it and are interested in it and want to know what happens next?
What success did you have marketing This Is Dating?
We had a feature in The New York Times, which was fantastic. We got it blown up, put on the wall in our office. It's got this amazing picture. Everything was great about it. But it generated no downloads. Zero. If you looked at the downloads from the days that followed it, they look exactly the same. It may have opened doors for us but it did not earn a single download.
So what does?
A number of things. I think that This Is Dating is an example of trying a bunch of very deliberate things and measuring the results of them and then doubling down on the things that did work. The only caveat I would say is that within each of these, we had things that “work” and examples of using previously successful tactics that did not work. We did four or five promo swaps and at least two of them turned out terrific, the others didn’t work. The ones that worked were the ones that were the least literal connection to our show. The Catfish podcast had huge conversion rates, but other things that were much more focused on relationships and romance didn't convert as well. Promo swaps sometimes work and sometimes they don’t.
We get a lot of traction from just making sure we are approaching the right people with the right material at the right time. The first day that This Is Dating came out, we had an earned feature placement in 14 different podcast apps and platforms. It was a coordinated effort, but it also was a concept that people were really interested in. We deliberately picked early January to launch for a number of reasons. One of them was it came out after the holidays. People are gonna be anxious for things to look at and talk about.
Do you think that it works when people send out a press release every single time an episode drops?
Probably not that kind of carpet bombing. But I've seen this happen a couple times over the years where you have a small target, you come up with a list of people who you really want to write about your show, a specific writer and specific outlet. And you come up with a small list of like 10 names, and then you have the normal PR effort, which has hundreds of names on the list, and when you look at your list of 10, you're like, okay, what do I know about this person and what do they like? And how do I tailor the pitch to them? Write the pitch specifically to them, send along links to listen to more than one episode. And really try to do something that’s not the generic pitch letter. Like, ‘when you wrote about X, I heard some frustration that you're not seeing more like this. And I think this show really answers that frustration.’ Really know the material. ‘Last week I read your review of blank. It's awesome.’ They can see right through that.
What do you look for in a good promo swap?
Don’t just think about the subject of the show, think of who's listening to it. What's the profile of the people? There's all kinds of different ways. You can figure that out. You can look at the Facebook group. What do those people look like? You can even get a little clues by looking at listener comments.
At least once a day, a podcaster asks me, ‘why aren’t my numbers growing?’ And often it’s because they started their podcast seven years ago, before there was a lot of competition. Maybe they got a huge spike from a 2014 Buzzfeed article and then plateaued. What would you say to these people?
Let's start with what not to do. Something that I have learned throughout the years is that every once in a while I get compliments from people saying ‘you did a really good job with the PR on this’ or ‘you did a really good job at getting This American Life to featured this show,’ which we've done a number of times. The bottom line is you can't get that level of opportunity unless you've got something that's worth that opportunity. You don't get a feature in The New York Times because you made a podcast that is heard elsewhere a thousand times a day. There has to be something different about this podcast.
A lot of times it’s having a very hard conversation with yourself about what you're creating. ‘Do I deserve more audience for what I'm doing? If I had time or treasure, is it with it to hire a marketing company or is it making the show better, or just kind of giving it more time to create something that's leveling up that direction?’ Because I think that the audience leveling up will happen as a result of that. If you're gonna hire a marketing company, you give them something to work with. That's a bigger version. What is the next chapter, the next level of your podcast? And put your effort into proving that out and making that work before you start thinking about that.
And then once you get to that point, there's a trick I tell people about that I see work time and time again. It's shocking that not everybody does this. Use the audience as an advocate for you. Ask them, ‘do you like the show? Could you do me a favor? Could you just tell one person about it? Just tell one person about this show. Tweet it out, put up a post, send a text message. Just tell someone about it.’ And it works because there's a community who love your show and want it to continue and want it to thrive. And if you phrase the request that way, if you say, ‘can you help us grow?’ They will do their best. You have to ask them to do something specific.
So many people from individuals to big companies come to us and say, ‘we want to make our podcast better. We want to increase the audience.’ And we sit down and talk to them. They're basically asking ‘how do we advertise?’ This is what they want. And that’s backwards. They're like, ‘oh, well, I can't invest in this podcast until I increase the revenue. I need to increase the revenue first and then I'll invest that into the podcast. And so how do I increase the audience so I can gain more revenue so I can increase and make the show better?’ And thinking that’s how that wheel works. And it's not how that wheel works.
The wheel works by creating something that's more sticky and attractive to a larger group of people. And then you grow that audience, then you're able to advertise somewhere and then you can reinvest. The first tactic is never a marketing question. It’s ‘how do I make this show stronger?’ So few people want to hear that as a response. They want to hear: ‘tell me where to spend my X number of dollars.’
Is there anything that big podcasters can learn from indies or vice versa?
I think the answer's the same, and there are very few exceptions to this. The stage that podcasting is in now, there is not a huge difference between the problems encountered by large organizations and the problems encountered by independent shows. It’s a different scale of the same problems and challenges. The ability to podcast is very easy. The barrier to access is really low, but the barrier to success is really high and it's hard. One time I went to a major news organization to talk to them about rebooting their podcast efforts and I listened to their frustrations and their concerns and what they were trying to manage. And then after that meeting was over, I went down to the first floor of that building to a coffee shop, to meet a friend of a friend who wanted to get into podcasting and was trying to figure it out. And I was just gobsmacked that I just had these two conversations, one on the 40th floor and one on the ground floor. One with a bunch of executives and one with a single guy who's struggling to figure out a podcast.
So with This Is Dating, you never thought, ‘we did it, that was easy.’
Oh my God, it’s an everyday struggle. Here we are, we paid for this out of our pockets. Literally we paid for it with profit from our company. We turned down deals from distributors. One distributor, we turned down twice. So now season one is a hit. And we're like, ‘but how are we going to pay for season two?’ We thought we were putting ourselves in such a better leveraging position, and I don't know if we have. I think we put ourselves in a different position where we have the same struggle. Okay. Now we have hundreds of thousands of people listening to this thing, and we still can't figure out how to finance it. It's a struggle. I've worked at massive, huge companies with virtually unlimited resources and it’s always the same.
What's something podcasters can ask themselves or an exercise they can do?
Ask yourself: ‘What problem am I solving?’ That's the big one to me. So many people get into podcasting because it's fun or because their boss told them they had to, or because it's a big initiative. The worst reason to make a podcast is because it's FOMO or because everybody else is doing it, or because we as an organization have a problem and a podcast is a way for us to talk about our problem. There needs to be a need in the world that only you can fulfill. A friend of mine, Priya Parker, said the question you should be asking is ‘what is the problem in my community that I am uniquely qualified to fix or to address?’ She made it in a much broader sense, but this very specifically applies to podcasting.