Summit Panel: Podcast Donations – Methods That Work

Public radio has mastered the art of requesting donations in live audio, but we need to develop a strategy for asynchronous, on-demand audio, which is becoming more and more prevalent – most visibly through the success of podcasts.

This panel will feature three successful case studies, as well as outline best practices and tips for engaging this unique audience. While we at WBUR have experimented with podcast donation, what impressed us about these panelists is that they’ve figured out the best practices for making the ask.

Panel Video

Moderator:

Panelists: 

Audience Questions

Our panelists provided written answers to audience questions not covered in the live discussion.

What/when is a good threshold for admitting you’ve failed & need to pivot, in terms of both total podcast listens and podcast revenue?

  • Rebecca (NHPR): I think it’s really important to understand why your podcast exists…if you’ve made something simply in order to make money or getting tons of downloads, that’s not enough. It’s also important to understand that some very small podcasts make a LOT of money, and some very big ones don’t. The most honest answer here is that I would have to know/hear more about the project you are asking about in order to weigh in with a solid opinion!

How do you measure success: downloads, impressions, donations, sponsors?

  • Kjerstin (KUOW): We’re still learning what success looks like. Yes, we track downloads, number of donors (and if they are new, renewing, lapsed rejoin, etc), revenue generated from events and other typical measures. But what we are seeing is huge progress in how our teams work together and the trust we are building between different departments that may typically fall into siloed behaviors. We are operating from a place of meeting individual goals to serve the overall mission of getting great, eye-opening content to our listeners and flexible in how to get there. That’s been a huge success that we are tremendously proud of.
  • Rebecca (NHPR): It depends entirely on the content of the podcast. Honestly…build your success metrics custom for each project you do, because you will make yourself crazy trying to replicate past successes of you don’t take that approach.

How do you communicate the call-to-action? How do you get someone to go from listening to engaging with their device to make the donation?

  • Amira (glow.fm): Be crystal clear in your call to action about how to give, and then include an easy link in the shownotes to the donation page. In the call to action, it’s helpful to say how easy it is to give: “It’ll take no more than 30 seconds of your time, and 3 taps. We’ll wait here while you go ahead and click on the link in the shownotes or navigate to www.station.org/donate.” We’ve actually seen massive spikes in giving when the hosts emphasize how easy it is to give and articulate the process for doing so. A lot of listeners anticipate a clunky road to donating, so they continuously ‘save it for later.’ Make it easy to give and tell your listeners how easy it is.
  • Kjerstin (KUOW): I second what Amira said!
  • Rebecca (NHPR): Think about the listener and make it AS EASY AS POSSIBLE. Put your donation link in your show notes and tell the listener to look there. ALSO put it on your website. Consider using PayPal, which is a platform most people who’ve ever bought anything on the internet use all the time, whether they know it or not. Think of it like buying a magazine or a pack of gum at the grocery checkout, and create that experience for the listener. Ideally, your listener shouldn’t have to remember to do it later, but should be able to hit pause right then and get it done quickly, without having to fill in a bunch of personal information on a donation form. Email is enough.

When in a podcast’s life cycle is the best time to start asking listeners for contributions?

  • Kjerstin (KUOW): I don’t think it’s ever too early, because it sets the expectation that this content they are enjoying takes time and resources to create. The earliest we’ve asked at this point for actual donations is the second episode, but we will do other asks like asking people to pass on the podcast to two friends, rate and review in their podcast app, or sign up for an email newsletter. We’ve basically taken the typical engagement ladder strategy for on-air and just sped things up. Our digital director likes to say that the time from dating to marriage in podcasts is a lot shorter than with on-air listening, so you could see a higher rate of return if you start your asks earlier.
    Rebecca (NHPR): It’s never too early, especially if you’re making something you think people will love (which should be everything, right?

Can you share some successful marketing techniques to drive listening?

  • Kjerstin (KUOW): Our marketing team has seen success using an audience engagement strategy that helps influence the algorithms. We ask listeners to pass on the podcast to friends as well as rate and review in their podcast apps. The team also develops robust social strategy and newsletter content that is easily shareable for listeners to help spread the word. We’ve also seen success with doing swaps with other podcasts in similar content verticals, and being selected for new and noteworthy lists has given us a bump.
  • Rebecca (NHPR): Buy ads/do ad swaps with other podcasts outside of your station (and maybe even outside public radio). This is, hands-down, the best way to drive listening to a show. Ask your podcast teams for ideas on what shows would be a good fit.

How much are you moving podcast supporters into “regular” members of your station? Does it work / not work?

  • Kjerstin (KUOW): We are still working on refining tracking mechanisms, so we won’t be able to evaluate whether our first robustly tracked group of donors from podcast donations renews until April 2020. But overall, when people give to “podcasts,” they are contributing to unrestricted KUOW funds so they end up in our regular membership pipeline. That means they get stewarded like the rest of our members, although we are hoping to do more customized messaging as we move into a new email marketing system that better links with our donor database.
  • Rebecca (NHPR): My question would be WHY do you want to do this with podcast supporters? Is it good service to push someone who lives in a different state to think of themselves as a member of your station, or is it a better service to have them support the show that connected them to you in the first place? Is the better answer to change your internal thinking around/definition of “membership?” And then to hyper/custom serve the folks who’ve opted in financially with you via that channel? I think so. That being said, at NHPR we do try to identify folks who live within or near our state and have donated to one or more of our podcasts and then communicate with them in a more membership-focused way. We have some work to do on creating systems around that across teams, however, because our opt-in/open rates for podcast email subscribers are very high, and we don’t want to abuse their trust by putting them in a membership funnel without serving them at the same time. One of the ways we’ve worked around this is to maintain those email lists in duplicate on separate sides of the firewall so that a person could, for instance, opt-out of fundraising messaging but still get podcast emails.

For Kjerstin: When your podcast donors get added into the membership funnel do you treat them always as a separate segment or send them general messaging?

  • Kjerstin (KUOW): In an ideal world, they would get a separate messaging stream. Once we have finished transitioning into our email system that aligns better with our donor database, I am hoping to customize messaging streams attached to the campaign codes that we currently use to track funds raised by podcasts. This would still include some education around the larger messaging about our station and how that podcast fits into our overall mission of creating and serving a more informed public.

Do you ever see content donation fatigue with so many asks, often at regular intervals?

  • Kjerstin (KUOW): I have not seen evidence of donation fatigue in our podcasts, and certainly not at the rate in which I receive comments about our on-air solicitations.

To the panelists working at public radio stations, does $ raised by a particular podcast go towards that podcast or into the station’s general money pot?

  • Kjerstin (KUOW): We are very clear in our messaging that their donations go to support “innovative content like Podcast XYZ.” It is unrestricted fundraising that goes into our general fund.
  • Rebecca (NHPR): Right now, we don’t have a dedicated pot, but we are looking at making a change there – I think it’s a good idea to invest directly in the business model when possible, but also know when it’s not.

How do you think about earning revenue off of your back catalog and/or a short-run series?

  • Rebecca (NHPR): This is where working with an ad agency and/or hosting your audio on a dynamic platform really helps. If you have the data to show that your back catalog is seeing discovery, that’s a great place to sell new campaigns – ideally, with the right technology, most ad campaigns you (or your agency) sell would be full-catalog, and then expire after a period of time or a set number of impressions/downloads have been reached. The exception here would be a presenting sponsor, which you might want to bake right into the audiofile and sell it as a “forever” ad.

Do premiums work? Branded items? Goofy one-offs?

  • Amira (glow.fm): Premiums work, and evidence demonstrates that premiums and bonus content earn higher on-average conversions than asks for listener support. Of course, this has to be balanced with the investment required to produce and offer premium content. On average, we’ve seen asks for listener support convert at about 1-2% and premium content convert 4-6% of listeners to paid.
  • Kjerstin (KUOW): We’ve seen mixed results. I’d say premiums are a “nice to have” if you have a highly engaged audience who wants to show off that they are part of the community, but we saw that they weren’t necessarily a major driver of donations. About half of the donors to season 2 of one of our highly-engaged audience podcasts selected a thank-you gift, which is aligned with what we see in terms of people taking thank-you gifts for on-air drives.
  • Rebecca (NHPR): We have had VERY mixed results with podcast premiums. Outside/In has been the most successful, mostly because the team has had a heavy hand in creating the premiums and made EXACTLY what they knew their audience might want (buffs, custom wooden pins, etc.) They also created content around their premiums (like this cheeky video and this cheeky video). I think our station has also been afraid to do the kinds of premiums that would actually work for certain shows, because they aren’t traditional “public radio” – for instance, we had a brainstorm when we launched Stranglehold (which is very edgy) about creating merch or premiums featuring a quote from the podcast, “We don’t give a SH*T about Iowa!” I’m pretty sure listeners would have loved it, but it didn’t get off the ground here.

Do you make paywalled content available to members who are already giving to the station (as opposed to the podcast)? Or do you treat them separately?

  • Rebecca (NHPR): We tried this as an experiment when we launched Patient Zero. I don’t see a downside to doing this at all. We did it as an opt-in, however, by sending current station sustainers an email with a button to push that would indicate they wanted the content. If they did so, they received an autoreply with instructions on how to get the content.

A comment – many public radio stations deploy a paywall strategy with pledge-free streams.

  • Rebecca (NHPR): They sure do. This is a great “precedent” to lean on if you’re having a hard time selling the idea of early/exclusive content produced for donors.

Do listeners actually care about bonus (paywalled) or windowed content?

  • Amira (glow.fm): Your biggest fans absolutely care. It might be a small subset of your listener base, but the people who love your podcast and can’t get enough of it will pay for more of it and pay early. Podcasts that offer extra content in exchange for payment often see higher conversion rates to paid.
  • Kjerstin (KUOW): Yes, bonus content can be a huge driver for those fans who just can’t get enough. It does take a lot of work from the production team, however, so you have to work closely to make sure you’re all on the same page before you embark on producing special episodes. There are lower lift ways of producing special content (mailbag episodes answering listener questions, extended interviews, for example) and then there are more produced bonus episodes like recording a live event and making it available in the bonus feed. We bundled our bonus feed for one of our podcasts into a “Starter Pack” with an enamel pin and poster that was really popular, along with many people opting for the bonus feed itself at the $20 donation level. Where we see challenges is the technical side of getting the feed into the user’s preferred podcast app, so that is something to consider.
  • Rebecca (NHPR): Heck yes they do. This is why Patreon is a thing. And you don’t need a lot of people to make a lot of money this way…for instance, my own (non-NHPR) show has only 1550 or so Patrons on Patreon, and while that may not seem like a lot of people to make additional content for, that number of people translates to $8,500 a month. Not bad, right?

Are there any partnerships between Patreon and public media that the panelists are aware of?

  • Amira (glow.fm): I’m not aware of any, but glow.fm would be thrilled to chat about partnerships.
  • Kjerstin (KUOW): I’m not aware of any – we had looked into partnering with Glow.fm, but we are a university licensee so there are roadblocks to adding new payment processors and we couldn’t find workarounds in time for the podcast launch date.
  • Rebecca (NHPR): I haven’t seen any public radio shows using Patreon, but there are a small number of newsroom podcasts using it, including Accused from the Cincinnati Inquirer.

How do you blend donation ask with sponsor credits?

  • Amira (glow.fm): The easiest approach is simply to stagger them. For example, you could have a donation ask in the preroll and offer sponsorship for midrolls. Having multiple asks in one show is normal and doesn’t necessarily dilute the impact of the asks. Another approach is to stagger by episode: one week you might ask for a donation, and the next one only allow sponsorships, etc.
  • Kjerstin (KUOW): Our traffic manager has created an inventory tracking system for podcasts just like we use for on-air promos, so that we can clearly track which messages are going out in preroll, midroll and postroll. We have not run into any major conflicts yet, and usually only include one message per placement. The production and marketing team also maintain a shared spreadsheet that keeps track of ALL calls to action in each break of every episode. This is important because they want to be sure that we have consistent and simple messaging. So for example, we want to avoid accidentally pairing a donation ask back-to-back with a “leave us a review” ask.
  • Rebecca (NHPR): We do a preroll for the ask, and do sponsor ads as midrolls – we’ve also used an ask as a midroll when there’s no ad booked.

A staple of on-air fundraising is matching gifts. Do matching gifts — be they from a major donor or foundation — amplify asynchronous giving on podcasts?

  • Rebecca (NHPR): We used a major donor match before the launch of Patient Zero to do a kickstarter-like “help us make this podcast” campaign. That worked okay-ish, but I don’t know how or if it would work on an actual podcast ask. I strongly believe podcast listeners see themselves as individuals supporting a thing they love, and that they don’t spend much time thinking about other supporters.

Are underwriting departments bringing podcast Sponsorship revenue to the table?

  • Kjerstin (KUOW): Our business support team is experimenting with overall podcast sponsorship as well as the traditional CPM model. The sponsorship package they are working on pitching includes preroll messages in all episodes, tags in on-air promo (promo and then sponsored by XYZ). There is a high price tag on this package because it involves broadcast and presence at any events held for the podcast, and is pitched along the idea of brand alignment/affinity just like for on-air revenue. This strategy is still in its infancy. We are also experimenting with selling preroll spots in podcast episodes of our on-air shows, which is having a slow start because our download numbers aren’t quite there. One big challenge is that many of our current business supporters are in the local area, and our most popular podcast, The Wild, has national reach. Our business support team has pointed out that willingness to collaborate in this space has been huge – we had one podcast host actually generate a list of businesses that may be good leads for sponsorship revenue because the host knew the audience and content so well, they knew what would best align to produce mutual benefit.
  • Rebecca (NHPR): Yes – we work with an agency to sell national ads, but our local underwriting team can also sell ads. The one challenge there has been working with that team on what podcasts ads should sound and feel like (not like public radio underwriting copy), and how to sell the value of them. I wish our sales team all listened to podcasts, but since they don’t, it’s hard for them to sell their value sometimes.

Are there any examples of securing grant funding for podcasts?

  • Kjerstin (KUOW): The only podcast we have received grant funding for is our RadioActive Youth Media podcast, which is a little different than the rest of our podcast content. We did receive a grant for an Emerging Platforms Producer, a position that does a tremendous amount of work on podcasts and smart speaker content. That’s who I work with regularly to evaluate donation data compared to listener/download data for our podcasts.
  • Rebecca (NHPR): Yes, Civics 101 is supported by a big grant from the CPB, and we are pursuing other grant opportunities for that show and some of our other shows.

Can you share best and worst attempts at raising revenue? ($$$ amounts, conversion rates)

  • Kjerstin (KUOW): Our best attempt so far was very low lift: our host asked for a dedicated donation form/link for them to share out, with one in-episode ask, that generated just under $6,000 in less than 60 days. We have not been able to replicate that success since, although I do think it was boosted during the calendar year-end fundraising period. Events have also helped generate revenue, we’ve held a few events related to podcasts and have seen success with including a suggested donation during the free RSVP process (ranging from $10-30), as well as using a DipJar system to quickly collect credit card donation in-person at the events. As far as worst attempts, we had one in-episode ask that sounded too much like the episode content itself, and it wasn’t clear to the listener that it was a separate ask from the content. We would have benefitted from a little more separation or maybe even having someone outside of the host team do the the ask.

Could you provide some examples of excellent independent podcasts who fundraise well?

  • Amira (glow.fm): A best-in-class example of this is Making Sense with Sam Harris. Sam’s podcast is entirely listener supported. There’s no ad revenue, but at the beginning of every episode, he makes an extended call to action (sometimes as long as 10 minutes!) explaining why he doesn’t take ads and believes it’s important to create a listener supported show. He has an entire staff that now helps produce the show and manage his website, and 100% of his income is from various calls to action where people either support the show or pay for additional content.
  • Amira (glow.fm) (continued): Acquired is a mid-sized podcast about technology that has generated over $40,000 this year through offering premium content. They’re a small show, where both the hosts put it out in addition to their day jobs. But, they’re diligent about releasing both free and bonus episodes regularly, and work creatively to promote their premium content subscription program.

Thanks, everyone!