Reaching Podcast Success While Staying True to Your Vision with Allison Horrocks - S2E06

Nov 10, 2021
Jennifer Tribe

How American Girls attracted a deeply engaged audience of followers & paid subscribers, along with sponsors and a book deal.


Jennifer Tribe, host: I’m Jennifer Tribe and this is Supercasters. On this show, we interview world-class podcasters and industry experts about practical podcast growth strategies and how to build sustainable independent businesses that thrive on a strong relationship with your listeners.


My guest today is Allison Horrocks. In her day job, Allison is a historian and park ranger. On the side, she co-hosts with fellow historian Mary Mahoney a pop culture / history podcast called American Girls. The podcast started in 2019 and has quickly blown up, attracting a deeply engaged audience, sponsors, subscribers, and most recently, a book deal.


What I love about this conversation with Allison is how clear she is on her and Mary’s vision for the show. It reminded me of the conversation I had with Espree Devora in episode 2, where Espree talks about the 3Ps of podcasting: purpose, process, production.


Allison and Mary have got a lock on the 3Ps for American Girls, which you’ll hear about in this interview. And what it lets them do is buck some of the commonly held wisdom about what it takes to succeed in podcasting. Clearly it is working for them, and they’ve managed to build a strong show with a very loyal fan base and multiple revenue streams.  


Let’s hear the story.



Surpassing expectations


Jennifer: Hey, Allison, welcome to Supercasters.

 

Allison Horrocks, guest: Hi, thank you so much for having me.

 

Jennifer: You co-host a podcast called American Girls, which is this delightful mashup of pop culture, nostalgia, history and feminism. Would you say that's accurate?

 

Allison: I think that's absolutely accurate.

 

Jennifer: For those of our listeners who aren't familiar with what American Girls are, can you tell us a little bit about what they are and what the podcast focuses on?

 

Allison: Yeah. So I co-host this podcast with my friend Mary, who is also a historian, and we go back through this thing that was a juggernaut in our childhood. We review books from the American Girl universe and look at the fandom. American Girl was launched almost at the same time that we were born. So we are basically the same age as the brand. And it was created by a woman who wanted more tools and toys for young people to learn about women in history. So we read the books that are associated with that brand, and we also do things like reexamine the dolls and other kinds of toys essentially that were part of this world.

 

Jennifer: And to set some context for our listeners, too, so you're about 75 or so episodes in, creeping up on 900,000 downloads, over 700 paying subscribers and 10,000 plus Instagram followers. So I would say it's going pretty well.

 

Allison: I think so, yeah. We really had no idea who would be interested and both of us did this on the heels of graduate school, where, for what we do, if you get 30 downloads of an article, you might be doing really well. So metrics obviously differ depending on what you do. But yeah, it's way surpassed our expectations. And I think one of the coolest things has been the consistent engagement. We knew we wanted to look back at things that were part of our childhood, and now we've gone past that and people are still with us. So that's actually really cool.

 

Jennifer: What was the impetus for launching? What was the inspiration?

 

Allison: We knew we wanted to do something about American Girl. It was hugely influential in our lives. It was definitely formative for us, and we knew that we liked giving public presentations. We also knew that we liked to write, but neither of those was kind of exactly what we wanted to do. Mary brings the technical know-how of podcasting to the show, and I am really interested in social media. That's something I do at my day job as well. And so we kind of looked at everything we wanted to do with it. And frankly, finding how we were going to podcast was a challenge. How were we going to break up this massive brand into something digestible? And this was early 2019, when a lot more book podcasts were coming out and recap podcasts were coming out. So we did a few episodes of us just kind of rambling about one character and realized that would last six episodes. So we decided to go back and literally reread the books, of which there are hundreds. So that also gave us a nice kind of format to work with.

 

Jennifer: Did you ever release those early rambling episodes?

 

Allison: No, but I do have them in my Google Drive. And a lot of it just we didn't know how to do it and we didn't know what would work. We edited… I say “we” — this is a royal We. Mary does the technical editing, but we went back and forth on how the first few episodes would sound a lot. Like the exact breakup of the episode. And it's interesting because we do have a formula. We talk about things in a certain order which is a hook, an intro, a discussion about something in our lives currently, discussion of the books, including a recap and then some kind of summative piece. And we've been encouraged by advertisers, others to release two different shows and to do a pop podcast show and to do a show about American Girl in history. And we've rejected that kind of at every turn because we wanted this to be history for people who don't study history and pop culture for people who love history and love other things.


Fan support was impactful

 

Jennifer: What was your goal coming into it? Did you think from the start that you would monetize it?

 

Allison: I will be honest, I did not really have any sense about monetization, but I also think that was kind of coming from a transitional phase, right? We both work in and around public history where you do so much for free and you are sort of lucky to get paid for a lot of things. And sometimes the challenge to get paid is so high it it feels insurmountable. There was advertising fairly early on. But I think the more impactful thing was when we launched a Patreon and people were able to say, I want to figuratively buy you a coffee, I want to support you. And we've had really generous patrons who give, more than they have to to get the base level. But they write us a note and say this is the thing I want to support, and that was something I never had on my radar.

 

Jennifer: When did you realize that this was a thing like, you were on to something here?

 

Allison: I actually think it was when people I knew but who I didn't expect to listen said, This is actually really good. I think that was a surprise to me because I didn't come from podcasting. But Mary did. She had years of experience recording. She'd worked in a studio and a radio station, so she had an awareness. I think for me, what was a huge change was I'm used to being with people in person. I do interpretation for the National Park Service and our whole deal is that we're there together in the place, we're in the space together. And so for me, one of the strangest things was hearing myself come through my car radio when my show happened to be queued up next and actually listening to it and not hating it. That was kind of strange. And if you have a podcast, you know that that's something you go back and forth on.

 

Allison: But one of the high notes was we happened to catch the ear of a TV critic for the New York Times, and she wrote a really kind piece about the show and that took it to a different place. But even before that, I was really pleasantly surprised that people were not just listening, but deeply engaging, and I think that was actually a more shocking element of it. We weren't getting DMs like “I love the show.” We weren't getting a ton of reviews right away. We were getting five-paragraph emails, and I think people think I'm kidding. It is still almost every day that we get a lengthy email or a very lengthy DM from someone two plus years out.


Cultivating deep engagement


Jennifer: That's awesome. How were people engaging with you? So in the early days, it was email that was the one avenue. How do people engage with you now?

 

Allison: The show still gets a good number of DMs, but we also have people who follow us individually. We also have a kind of mini database where we have people share their story, their connection to the brand, American Girl. That has been really rewarding to keep and to keep an eye on. 


Allison: I would say mostly through email. Instagram is definitely our most successful format. We do OK on Facebook. I kind of struggle with keeping up interest there. We also made a decision early on to not make a Facebook discussion group, and that was for a lot of reasons. And we chose to kind of pivot and have a Discord community on Patreon. And that was a huge decision to make because we have over 10,000 followers on Instagram, but over 10,000 people in a Facebook discussion group is often not successful, so that was something we actually thought a lot about. And we've been really lucky to never really have problems, to never really have kind of discontent or people being disrespectful to each other or to us. So we feel very lucky about that.

 

Jennifer: Tell us more about that decision not to go on Facebook, it was largely about the size and the moderation?

 

Allison: Yes. So we have a page that people can follow and we post there and it gets a few hundred impressions. Or some posts have done slightly better. I'm primarily still on Facebook because of my day job and because I follow fan communities for American Girl, just as an individual user. But I'm also a huge podcast listener, and I am a huge true crime podcast listener and have been for years. And I like to follow a lot of true crime podcasts that are real time investigations and people who are in those groups will tell you that they go off the rails very often. And there are also a lot of groups where — the shorthand is NTCR not true crime related. They're just groups about anything and everything, which is fine, but they require full time moderators. And that was not something we wanted to put on someone uncompensated, and it was not something that we could do ourselves.

 

Allison: So I don't think it's because it's paywalled that the Discord is different. I think it's because it's intentional. We charge $3 a month. We have a lot of people who've been in there a long time. I think it's the intentionality that people choose to be part of a community versus they've clicked on a Facebook group or they've stumbled upon a Facebook group. And I do think, particularly for our audience, which is over 90 percent women, 25 to 40, they're looking for something different. They're not looking for another Facebook discussion group, and they may not want to attach their actual profile to something like that. There are people who collect dolls who don't want people in their workplace to know that or don't want to have to explain that to other people. And Discord, I think, is kind of another space for that. So that was something also I was skeptical about. I did not think anyone would join it and I was wrong. So there's a lesson in that, too.

 

Jennifer: I wouldn't have thought that anonymity, for example, would be important to someone talking about dolls, but I can totally understand, you know, wanting to separate that work life from a private life. Now you launched with the podcast first, right, and then the social communities came after. Did you add them all at once or were they one at a time? And how did you pick where you wanted to focus?


A big moment of organic growth

 

Allison: So actually, well before I think we even recorded anything, we secured all of the handles that we wanted, and we actually have two very similar Instagram handles because I locked us out. So we had things like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, we had the Gmail all set up that we wanted, and we started posting a trailer. And we actually went to a conference several months before we launched and we played the trailer at the conference. And it's not that it didn't go well, but we kind of realized we might be on to something because a roomful of historians kind of shrugged and we thought, OK, this actually could be a good thing because we don't want to make a history pop culture podcast for historians. We want to make it for everybody.

 

Allison: And so we kind of did some retooling and, it's not that they weren't supportive, but we realized this is not our audience and that's OK because we'd been trained to think that's who we talked to. That's what we do. That's OK. So we secured all of those things and then started really pushing. Something that did actually give us a big bump is several months later, we attended a conference for public historians and we went to a panel very deliberately that was about American Girl at this conference and kind of put ourselves out there as, you know, we're the people who are making a podcast about this, and that's a lot of connected and passionate women who tell other women about things that they like. That was a pretty big moment of organic growth from us and then kind of went from there.

 

Jennifer: Have you gone to other events like collecting events or pop culture events?

 

Allison: We launched in 2019 and things kind of started to get big going down into later 2019 and into 2020. And the short answer is no. We have made far more of this show during COVID than I would have ever, ever expected. We were actually collecting offers from listeners who work at historic sites to come and do live shows and to come and do in-person programs. We've been invited to do in-person programs and they've transitioned to virtual.

 

Allison: So that has been something kind of where I think if our timing was slightly different, we would be having a different story. That said, I do think part of the intense connection that people have on Discord is that we were something to do during quarantine or we were something to do. I look back and prior to COVID 19, we recorded episodes on a girl whose best friend dies of cholera and completely apropos of nothing, no knowledge of what's going to come. We essentially did a whole episode on pandemics and a whole episode on trauma and grieving based on another doll character's experiences. And those episodes keep kind of coming back for people because that's provided this really wanted human connection that we never intended, right? We had no idea. That said, our listeners have hung out without us, which is cool. They have meetups, so people in other places have had that. So that's kind of neat, but that has not happened with us yet.


Making a show you want to listen to

 

Jennifer: What I'm loving about this story is that there was a lot of intentionality to it, you guys really did your planning and you knew what you were doing going in. You got all your handles. You knew where you were going to go and how you were going to structure episodes. You tested with a trailer, and yet it also took directions that you didn't expect and couldn't anticipate, and kudos to you for kind of seeing those things as they were happening and rolling with them and encouraging them. So one of the interesting things too that I find about your podcast is that it's every other week, right? So two a month and most of the accepted wisdom on podcasting is frequency. Frequency, frequency, frequency. Weekly for sure, daily if you can. So tell us about choosing to go bi weekly and whether you think that has hurt you.

 

Allison: You know, I think it could be a bigger, different podcast if it wasn't biweekly. We have been told that by lots of people. But I also know that we both have day jobs that we care about quite a bit, and I think that's part of the tension with what we do. We make a show about something that you maybe haven't thought about in 20 years, but you are willing to think about it now. I would say, much like the successful Babysitters Club podcasts and other things of that ilk, we are actually not making a show about a thing that we expect you to be thinking about all the time. We're not a contemporary books podcast. We're not a true crime recap podcast where there are endless shows being churned out. We're kind of inviting you to listen and to talk with us about something that you once cared about a lot.

 

Allison: And part of what this show has also done when people find it, people actually tell us that they have gone back literally through their closets or their childhood homes and pulled out things they haven't thought about in decades or connected with people or with parents in various ways that they haven't in a long time. And I think that might be why bi-weekly works. We could churn out smaller episodes faster, more frequently. And I also think that wouldn't make it this show. There are people who do other podcasts I would say peripherally around what we do.

 

Allison: There are people for whom there is too much pop culture. There are people for whom there might be too much history or too many tangents. And I think one of the challenges of making a podcast is you can't ignore all the criticisms, but we've done surveys and the results are so split. They don't change anything for us. We have people who are in there just for this combination that we feel good about the way that we do it. We end up making three episodes, sometimes four a month with Patreon, like November will be a three-episode month. And that plus we're writing a book about this material is kind of our upper limit. But I'm with you. I think it's kind of trite now to say make a show you would want to listen to. But I think that's kind of where we started and that's where we still are. I do listen to my own show and I try to listen to it as a person and to say would I want to consume this.


Alternate revenue streams

 

Jennifer: The book is a great spin off. We just did an episode with someone talking about how to extend your podcast into other media. Tell us about how that came about.

 

Allison: We actually got approached by an editor who works for an imprint of Macmillan, and she is now our editor. And she did something extremely responsible and ethical, which she said, I really want to work with you to make this a book. However, you need to think about getting other offers. You need to find an agent and you need to think about this in the context of what else might come your way. And that was amazing advice and we are still working with her. We are working with an editor that we found along that process partially with her help. But she told us to look, to interview multiple people.

 

Allison: And that for us was a very different process from coming from a Ph.D. program or coming from that kind of academic world where you are often for lack of a better word, begging people to publish your material or paying to self-publish or going through endless rounds of edits. We're now being paid to do this thing, which is a shock. And so that was actually really exciting. But I think we did talk to a bunch of agents and we ended up picking the agent who we felt to your earlier point would actually cultivate and develop us into not one book, but authors. And that was really exciting. A lot of folks have advice for you and for the show that they would make, and you have to kind of make the show that you feel comfortable making. I don't think we've ever gotten bad advice, but I think we've gotten advice that wasn't right for us. And knowing how to tell the difference, especially when you read your own reviews, is very hard.

 

Jennifer: Now between the advertising and the subscriber base, and now this book and I don't know - are there other monetization streams as well? Oh there's merch.

 

Allison: Yeah, so we do merch, and I will tell you if you pay artists for the merch, it is a long uphill climb to get that money back. However, that was something that we wanted to do,  we wanted cool individual designs, so some were made by us for the show. Most were commissioned by an artist and then because we work with TeePublic, we can also do affiliate links. We ran a contest and then people's designs stayed in our store and we each get a cut of that. We also have a partnership with Libro FM, which we love because we both actually like using Libro and it supports independent bookstores. And we've used that for, I think, close to two years now. So we've been with Libro for a while. And when people use our code, we receive something for that because we promote it.

 

Jennifer: You mentioned that you were keeping a database of personal stories from listeners. So how do you collect those? Tell us more about that.

 

Allison: We have had since pretty much we started we've had a hotline that people can call and they can leave us voice memos. We also have a Google Form, which so it's not terribly sophisticated, that's how it started, where people could click on a link on our website and tell us their story. And there is a full caveat that just because you want to tell us your story doesn't mean that we'll use it in anything. And we don't use material, ever, without asking.

 

Allison: So there are people who've written to us and they just wanted to tell us a story or leave us a voicemail and they want anonymity. They don't want the material mentioned. They don't want their names mentioned. More common is people saying they don't mind us referencing their material or using their material, but they don't want to be named. However, most people who write to us who kind of want to share their story in an email way, we categorize things by the character that they're primarily referencing and or the episode that it fell under. So we kind of keep everything that way as well.

 

Allison: And Mary runs a Notion website, website on Notion, where, for example, someone tagged us in a Twitter thread over a year ago about women who became pen pals through American Girl. For our book project, we wanted to interview them, so we literally went on our Notion board and kind of plucked out that tweet and then wrote to them and then made a transcript of our podcast interview. So I think being historians, we think about that maybe like a little bit more than the average. That said, my notes files for show by show are a disaster. I date them, but they only make sense to me. We've been fortunate to have had people work for us through paid internships who actually do some of that organization, which has been a lifesaver.


Insourcing vs outsourcing

 

Jennifer: One of my next questions was whether you outsource anything. You mentioned Mary has a lot of technical expertise, but are there anything that you outsource?

 

Allison: Yeah. So when we first started getting offers for interns, that was another surprise that people wanted to work for us, actually. And almost every person who's written to us has said, You know, I'll do this for you for free. And the only thing that we have accepted kind of free services on was someone who needed to hit a transcript project word count. And so she did some of our early transcript editing. We have paid for a transcription service and we have paid individual editors to work on our transcripts. We have paid interns to do things like art and to work on book lists.

 

Allison: We decided that no one but us would ever edit our podcast, and no one but us would ever run our social media. So if you read a tweet, Instagram post, anything we've put out, there's a very good chance that I wrote it or Mary wrote it. 98 percent chance that it was something that I wrote on my computer or my cell phone and put out. And every, every single minute that's ever been edited for our show, it was done on Mary's computer. 

 

Allison: I think for both of us, it's that we see the podcast as having two voices literally, we are the two voices of the show. And then the show lives in audio format and the show lives on social media, and a ton of our engagement is people who follow us on social media. And I never wanted to be surprised by something that came out on our social or something that came out on the show. I actually don't even think it's a trust thing. I think it's that we both enjoyed those parts of the process. And it's something that we feel like that's how we keep the voice consistent. And I think being able to say to our listeners, like, we own it, we put this stuff out there and we own it. 

 

Jennifer: What do you think is the future for American Girls?

 

Allison: So the future definitely includes our book, which is a huge, huge part of the current workload, as we're really getting closer to finishing a draft, which is really exciting. I think the future is also looking, as we mentioned before, like talking with people about being at historic sites. I also hope that there is a kind of community that persists beyond what we started with. The people in our Discord channels and on our social media, they talk about American Girl, but they're not really talking about American Girl. And I think if this is a place where people have found some kind of community and people that they trust, that's really exciting. That is something that I would like to see continue.

 

Allison: I also hope that it kind of serves as a time capsule of a few... let's be honest, really challenging years of U.S. history. We've recorded this through some really difficult times. And I think part of the future of it is we're very aware that as we talk about American Girl books, they might be set in the 1770s, but they're published in 1992, and that's what they're really about. Our podcast is about these historical books. They're about these things, but they're also very much about now. And so I think they may not have, you know, kind of straightforward listeners forever, but they may have people return to these and say, that's what you know, look at how they're talking in April 2020. They have no idea. And I think that's part of the life of the show.


Jennifer: Allison and I are going to continue our conversation now in the private interview room for Supercasters Premium subscribers. In there, we’re going to dig into the specifics of the American Girl subscription program and how Allison and Mary promote it. 


If you’d like to hear those details, head over to premium.supercast.com, click the free sign up button, and in just a couple of taps, you'll have the extended episode in your favorite podcast player. 

 

Jennifer: Thank you so much for joining us today, Alison.

 

Allison: Yeah, thank you so much for having me.

Links