Ads are the best-known way to monetize your podcast. They work well for some established shows, but they can be time-consuming, distracting and unpredictable.
Thankfully, there’s an increasingly popular alternative to podcast advertising: You can convert your listeners into paid subscribers. You get a sustainable, recurring source of revenue (that can exceed advertising income!), and provide more value for your biggest fans.
“Podcasters in China can make over $8m a year with just 250 thousand listeners [via audience support]. In contrast, Serial, America’s most popular podcast ever, made about $500k in ad revenue in its first year.”
– Andrew Wilkinson, Howard Stern is Getting Ripped Off
The best part? It doesn’t require much work!
Productizing your podcast with a premium membership
If you want your audience to pay you more than the low, low price of $0/month, you need to give them something they find valuable. The best approaches to premium content deepen the podcast-listener relationship. Fortunately, it’s as simple as giving listeners more of what they already love — and what you already have.
Step 1: Package up content you’re already releasing
If you already have a successful podcast with an established audience, it’s likely you could create a compelling subscription offering today without a single second of new content.
Here’s some content you’re already releasing that you could immediately start offering to your subscribers as a paid product through a monetized, private RSS feed:
1. An ad-free version of your show
A paid, ad-free RSS feed is easy to set up, doesn’t require any additional content, and it pleases both your subscribers and your advertisers.
The former get to avoid hearing you peddle meal boxes and socks, while the latter still gets to reach >95% of your audience
One successful example is former U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who offers an ad-free version of his show Stay Tuned With Preet as part of a $5.99/month Cafe Insider subscription, which also includes bonus content, a members-only newsletter, and SMS alerts on breaking news.
This approach can work for all kinds of shows, though, ranging from independent podcasts like Twenty Thousand Hertz ($3/month to remove ads and access the show’s archive) to more comprehensive subscriptions like Slate’s Plus membership ($59/year for ad-free versions of Slate’s shows, bonus content, and other member benefits).
2. Your back catalogue
Shows like Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History and WTF with Marc Maron have had great success with paid archive access, which is a great way to keep both your paying and non-paying listeners happy.
There are different ways to go about implementing a paid archive:
- Hardcore History keeps a few recent episodes of their show up on a public podcast feed and sells the rest on their website and the iTunes Store (at $1.99 per episode, or $74.99 for the complete catalogue).
- WTF’s entire, ad-free show archive is available exclusively as part of a $4.99/month Stitcher Premium subscription.
- Patreon-supported podcast Strangers offers archive access as a kind of “starter” perk, granting access to patrons who donate as little as $1/month.
Regardless of which approach you go with, keep things simple. Make sure to always keep a few episodes available for free on your public feed, and that your paywall doesn’t prevent your show from growing. If there are popular past episodes in your archive that continue to drive lots of traffic to your show, consider keeping them public too.
3. New episodes
If putting most of your back catalogue behind the paywall isn’t an option, why not try the reverse and put just the most recent episodes back there?
Charging for access to a new content is certainly not a new idea. One of podcasting’s first success stories, Ricky Gervais, released several seasons of his wildly popular podcast as audiobooks over a decade ago.
Back here in 2020, lots of shows are experimenting with variations on this model, including The NoSleep Podcast, a popular horror fiction show that offers their first two seasons for free. Listeners who want to hear new seasons can buy a $19.99 Season Pass.
4. Early access
If putting new episodes behind a paywall is too much of a change, why not try experimenting with paid early access instead? It won’t affect your non-paying listeners, and is likely something your most passionate listeners would be more than happy to pay for.
Alongside monthly AMAs and other exclusive benefits, FoundMyFitness Premium members get pre-release access to Rhonda’s latest podcast episodes.
Podcasters like Dr Rhonda Patrick, who offers her FoundMyFitness premium members early-access to new episodes, have had a lot of success with this model (disclosure: Rhonda is a Supercast user).
5. Your community
If you have an audience already, why not give them a shared space to connect and talk about your podcast?
Offering paid subscribers access to a community space is as simple as starting a community Discord or Slack. Channels for discussing episodes and sharing resources or fan content can be run entirely by listeners, and collecting all your biggest fans in one place gives you a valuable source of feedback.
A little effort helps this tactic flourish. Greet new fans when they join the community, host office hours in premium channels, or solicit thoughts on the latest episode to keep the community active and growing.
With three kinds of premium access, Rude Tales of Magic offers access to their Discord at the lowest tier ($5/month), but the highest tier ($30/month) gets access to exclusive creator channels and permissions.
Rude Tales of Magic’s cast of writers, comedians, and artists quickly grew and monetized their community. Within three months of their first episode, Rude Tales of Magic achieved over $4,186+/month via paid subscriptions in addition to their ad revenue.
Farnam Street’s Learning Community sees 750 average active members per day.
Farnam Street’s forum and virtual reading group is another great example of an active, private community available only to members of Farnam Street’s Learning Community ($149/year).
Step 2: Sell your sawdust
When ’50 Acre Jim’ asked an online community of sawmill operators what they do with all their extra sawdust, he learned that he didn’t have to throw his production waste away — he could sell it to others.
“I pile it up & mix with horse manure. Best compost you can get,” suggested one user. “I sell mine primarily to potting soil [companies],” wrote another.
When you produce a podcast, you create a lot of metaphorical sawdust. A little effort can transform it into a treasure your biggest fans want to pay for.
- Do you have unedited interviews lying around? Consider releasing them to your premium members as extended or uncut episodes.
- Episodes that didn’t quite make the cut, but you know your diehard fans would love to hear? Release them as bonus episodes.
- Did it take you twenty takes to nail that ad read? Release the outtakes!
Next time you plan, record and edit an episode, think carefully about whether any of the material you’re throwing out at any stage of the process could be attractive to those fans who listen to every second of every show you put out.
Make sure to consider things like:
1. Show notes and production diaries
Regardless of your format — fiction, journalism, talking heads, etc. — you’re probably keeping track of the work you do for your show in some way, whether it’s in the form of a production diary, research documents, or interview notes. Why not clean those notes up a bit and release them to your subscribers?
Peter Attia’s podcast The Drive is the single best example of this. The show often features deep-dive interviews that touch on dozens of topics, studies and products, and paid subscribers get access to exhaustively detailed podcast show notes to help guide them through each episode. (Disclosure: Peter is a Supercast user).
Transcribing things can be a lot of work, but if your podcast audio was recorded with decent equipment and minimal background noise, automated transcription services like Descript and Temi can usually get you 90% of the way there.
Transcripts are great not just from a product perspective, but also because they can give your podcast an SEO boost (webcrawlers can’t listen to podcasts, but they can read text).
Numerous shows have successfully monetized the humble transcript. The Project Management Podcast offers simple PDF transcripts to its paying listeners. Shane Parrish offers members of his Farnam Street Learning Community get access to a back catalogue of interview transcripts.
3. Ask Me Anythings (AMAs)
Your audience is probably already asking you questions on social media, through fan mail and in real life. Why not answer the best ones on air and make an event out of it?
This is another thing that Peter Attia is great at. His video AMAs are a mainstay at The Drive podcast, helping drive interesting conversations, giving fans an opportunity to engage and shape the direction of the show, all while giving complex topics an approachable voice.
If you’re looking for a simple, effective way of engaging with your listeners and letting them feel included in your show, look no further than the AMA.
4. Videos and live broadcasts
Videos and broadcasts are getting away from “stuff that’s just lying around” territory and into the “lots of extra work” category. But if you’ve got the budget for it and you have an audience that is hungry for premium content, give it a shot!
If you’re already recording audio from in-person interviews, it’s never been quicker and easier to set up a camera and capture a quality video. Wistia has excellent tips for how to use an iPhone and a few accessories to produce high-quality video content, and live streaming platforms like Crowdcast have drastically simplified the process of setting up a live video stream.
For a successful example of the video podcast model in action, check out Lance Armstrong’s WEDU Season Pass product. It offers subscribers access to behind-the-scenes bonus content, production meetings, live Q&As, and live video broadcasts during Tour de France and other major endurance cycling events.
Step 3: Set your subscription price
What’s a reasonable price for a podcast subscription? The answer depends a lot on your audience.
According to Graphtreon, the popular Patreon analytics site, the average price of a Patreon podcast subscription is $1.90. But we’ve also seen established creators charge $15+ per month, and offer different donation tiers reaching $100+ per month.
- Four months and less than eight episodes after it premiered, Rude Tales of Magic, a Dungeons and Dragons actual play podcast, had 397 premium subscribers paying an average of $9.45/each (earning the new podcast $3,762/month — a figure that continues to grow.)
- Xue Zhaofeng, a professor in China, offers his year-long course as a paid podcast subscription. Over 250,000 subscribers pay $32/each (earning him over $666,666/month — ain’t that slick?)
Educating yourself on how much comparable audiences are already paying for similar products will help you gauge a reasonable price.
That said, it’s also important to recognize that every content product—and their creator’s respective audiences — are unique. There’s a few other things you may want to consider when you’re calculating the price for a premium podcast or content subscription:
- How much time and effort is required to produce premium content for paid subscribers?
- How engaged is your audience?
- How much do you need to earn to break even?
And here’s some advice for answering those questions.
1. Calculating time and effort
Your premium content may not immediately justify your initial investment, but continually producing it will have a cumulative effect on its value. That said, you should assess how much you’re putting into creating premium content and how much you are getting out of it.
Whatever price you set for subscriptions should cover the costs associated with producing premium content.
2. Assessing audience engagement
The more your audience values your podcast, the more likely they are to become a paid subscriber.
- Do you have a core audience that’s been around for years? If so, this is the most engaged segment of your audience.
- How long have your listeners been following your podcast?
- How many listeners regularly comment on social media?
Having a robust podcast analytics tool helps a lot when asking these sorts of questions. For public podcast hosting, we recommend Simplecast (their analytics are great, especially the unique listener metric).
3. Determining your “break-even” cost
We’ve seen anywhere from 2–7% of podcast listeners convert into paid subscribers. Typically, the more engaged an audience is, and the more value is available to them in a paid subscription, the higher the uptake.
To calculate your break-even cost, let’s conservatively assume that 3% of your audience is willing to pay you for premium content. Divide your monthly operating cost by 3% of your monthly listeners to calculate how much you need to charge listeners to break even.
Break-even Subscription Price = [Monthly Operating Cost] ÷ [Monthly Listeners x 0.03]
Start with one kind of subscription
When you finally do implement a pricing scheme, start simple and offer one subscription tier and price. You can always build on it by adding more value and tiers later, but removing subscription tiers later is a lot harder to do.
Step 4: Set up your private podcast feed
Once you’ve decided what kind of product you want to offer your subscribers, you’ll need to set up a private RSS feed with a payment gateway so that you can deliver it to them.
Until recently, the tools for setting one of these up have been pretty messy and limited. You either had to force listeners to sign up for a third-party like Patreon, make them copy-and-paste private feeds between apps, or somehow hook a WordPress blog up to a bunch of plugins and PayPal. Yuck.
We built Supercast to remove all of that friction and make it super easy for listeners to pay for access to your podcast product. They don’t have to download any extra apps, it provides you with in-depth analytics, and it makes setting up a secure private podcast feed a breeze.
I’m ready to roll! How do I get started?
It couldn’t be easier — you could launch tomorrow if you wanted. All you need to do is:
- Sign up for Supercast 🚀
- Set up your channel, and upload your podcasts 🎙
- That’s it ✅
When you’re set up, just share the link to your landing page with your listeners. We’d recommend adding it to your free podcast’s show notes, and sharing it with your audience via email and social media.
When listeners visit your Supercast page, they can sign up for your subscription with a few taps, straight from whatever device they’re listening to your podcast on. That’s it. And, if you already have a website, and want to sell your subscription there, Supercast can plug straight in to your existing setup to power your private feed, too.
So, stop throwing away your podcast content, and start monetizing it with Supercast today.
P.S. Love all of these ideas, but want some help figuring out how to grow or monetize your show? Let me know — my agency DoubleUp would love to help.