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“I was terrified that it would be one of those crowdfunding campaigns where you ask for a thousand bucks and you get 12 and it's that person's uncle who did it. It's very embarrassing to fail, and I was really afraid of that failure.”
Those are the words of journalist and podcaster Jesse Brown, host of Canadaland. Jesse has built, not just a thriving show, but a whole network of shows on the strength of audience support. He’s been extremely successful.
But in the beginning, he was afraid to ask his listeners for money.
You might recognize the feeling in his words. Are you afraid?
Afraid of failure?
Afraid of public embarrassment?
Afraid of not being good enough?
You’re not the only one.
The meaning of listener support
What does it mean if you ask people for money… and they don’t give it?
For Zack Twamley, host of When Diplomacy Fails, his subscriber numbers—or lack thereof— skewed his entire sense of self worth.
“I had started to equate [subscriber] income with success,” he writes in a blog post. “If I got a pledge that day, it was a good day, and my work as a podcaster was validated, but if I got no such pledge then everything and everyone hated me, and didn't think me worthwhile.”
Conflating self-worth or the value of your work with the results of a subscriber campaign is an all-too-common trap for creators. But those things should not be conflated, says Mikel Ellcessor. Mikel is the co-founder of Radiolab, the former VP of Business Development at New York Public Radio, and has probably raised more money from radio and podcast listeners than any other person on the planet.
“There's so many other things that come into play,” Mikel says. “You may not have done an ask that spoke to the needs of the listener. The listener may not actually have the funds. It may have hit them at the wrong time. They may be in agreement with you, but they may not understand how important it is because you just haven't been emphatic enough. You maybe haven't been specific enough when you make that ask.”
Hear more from Mikel Ellcessor about his time building subscriber campaigns at WNYC Studios on Supercasters episode 5: How We Got Radiolab Listeners to Pay for $80,000 Episodes.
Ultimately, if you want to earn an income from your audience, you need to believe in the value you provide and push through the discomfort of asking people for their financial support.
Here are some tips from successful listener-supported podcasters to help you through.
Shift your mindset from what you’re asking to what you’re offering
Alie Ward, host of the popular fan-supported Ologies podcast, says stop thinking of it as going out, hat in hand, for charity.
“Don't think of [subscriptions] as a GoFundMe, where you're asking for donations and you're humbling yourself to say, ‘I really need this to make this thing.’ Think about it as, what are you giving to folks that is worth a dollar or $3 or $5 a month? What perks are you giving to them?
... [Because then] it makes you feel good about expanding your base, because you're thinking great, this is more people that are getting this cool premium content or getting early access or getting to have their name read on the show or whatever, instead of begging as an artist, as a creator.”
Hear more about Alie’s relationship with her subscribers on Supercasters episode 12: Ologies’ Alie Ward on Reaching 50 Million Downloads by Treating Scientists Like Rock Stars.
Believe in your value… and charge accordingly
“Creators tend to be so sheepish about asking people for money that they seriously undercut what they’re worth on the market,” writes Tamara Avishai, host of The Lonely Palette. “Or they figure, if it doesn’t cost them that much to produce, who are they to ask for support?”
But even if your show doesn’t have a lot of expenses, what about the time you spend on it?
Tamara has this challenge for you:
“Log the number of hours you spend on a single episode and imagine that you’re earning $15/hour, around minimum wage. The amount you come up with is the bare minimum of what you deserve to be paid per episode. So why, when most people set up their tiers, do they basically say, if you like the show give me $2 per episode, and if you really like the show, give me $5? Please. You’re worth more than that,” she says.
To that we would add that it’s OK to want more than compensation for your time. Could you create a bigger, better, or different show if you had the budget to spend on equipment or outsourced help? Those are valid goals too.
Remember, your listeners chose you
For Jesse Brown of Canadaland, what clicked for him was thinking about the intentionality of podcasts:
“At the beginning I was a little bit shy about it. It felt like I was busking. There's nothing wrong with busking, by the way, but a busker you didn't necessarily ask to hear. The amount of intentionality that goes into listening to a podcast—there's a million podcasts out there. You chose our podcast. You clicked on today's episode. You're here. You've opted in. So, yeah, this is how we make this possible and I'll tell you all about it.”
Hear more about Jesse Brown’s journey to subscription success in Supercasters episode 3: Growing Canadaland Through a Deal With the Audience.
You have to actually ask
So you’ve decided you’re ready to launch paid subscriptions. Your show adds value! But it’s not the same as your self-worth! You’ve priced your plans sustainably!
Now comes another hard part. You have to actually ask for the money. Repeatedly. Everywhere.
As much as you might wish it to be so, your listeners won’t automagically know they can support you or where to subscribe if you don’t tell them.
Tamara Avishai’s advice:
“Commit to at least one tweet, Facebook post, and ‘gram per week to remind people that they can support your show and what they’ll get for it. Don’t assume that anyone will search for a “donate” link on your website that will lead them to yet another website. And don’t assume that anyone will find out about your campaign literally any other way than you telling them.”
And don’t forget your podcast itself. Mention your subscription options in every show—and remember to put the link in your show notes and transcripts!
Be specific with your request
You’ll have better success asking for financial support if you paint a picture for listeners of what their money will make possible. Will the fundsensure your podcast continues to publish weekly? Will you be able to buy a video camera and start doing a YouTube version? Fill in the details for them.
Saagar Enjeti, co-host of Breaking Points, started out with three levels of subscriber goals for his show, where each level enabled a higher production quality. He brought listeners along on the journey through those levels.
“We had a break even point for our bare minimum of the show. … Then there was the better version of the show. And here's the best part, which is that we told people. We were like, ‘Hey, you guys don't like the audio? Please subscribe because now we have to hire a full-time audio engineer, which is not cheap.’"
Now, thanks to achieving their third level of subscriber support, Saagar is excited to be pushing into innovations like full 4K video cameras for their YouTube show.
Mikel Ellcessor echoes that sharing the ‘why’ behind your request is key.
“Being clear and specific with folks about why you make what you make, what you want to accomplish in the world. Bring them in on your mission, bring them into your heart and let them understand what your stake in the matter is… so they really get what's in it for them. They can see themselves, then, as part of this larger endeavor.”
For Saagar and his Breaking Points co-host Krystal Ball, articulating their show’s mission was also a big factor in the success of their subscription campaign.
Their subscriber landing page headline blares, “Help Krystal and Saagar BEAT Corporate Media.” One of the benefits they list in every subscription plan is “Join At Any Level To Say SCREW YOU To CNN, Fox News, And MSNBC.”
There’s no mistaking what they’ve set out to do and people are literally willing to buy into that mission when it resonates with them.
Sweat the details
By now, I’m sure you’ve realized that preparing to ask your listeners for money is no quick and simple task. There’s a lot of thought and preparation that needs to go into it.
To close things off, here’s Mikel Ellcessor again, talking about his experiences at Radiolab and how he and the team pushed hard to find the best way to voice their requests for financial support.
“The thing that I think was really the breakthrough for us is that we decided that we were going to push hard on production. We were gonna sweat these things down like you would if you had the contract for Ford and you were going to make the F-150 commercial that was going to play during the Super Bowl. You wouldn't wing that. I mean, you really sweat every detail on that.
“I think we saw the first wave of really major results jumps start to happen when, across all of the shows but especially Radiolab, we upped our game on our production. We sweated the scripts and instead of however many—two or three or five edits—we were getting up to 10 or 12 or 15 edits. There was a script that Jad and I edited more than 20 times. So we really started sweating that at the next level.
Then we started saying, we're going to make this an extremely rewarding experience for the listener. We're going to make this audio sound fantastic. We're going to record it beautifully. We're going to score it. We're going to pace it. We're going to use sound. We're just going to make it cinematic as hell or whatever fits with the brand of that show.”
Gearing up to ask your listeners for financial support can be hard. But know that everyone struggles with it, and it does get easier over time. So take a deep breath, do the work… then go for it. You’ve got this.