The Magic in Podcasting’s Long Tail with Jeff Vidler - S3E01

Apr 6, 2022
Jennifer Tribe

Podcasting’s long tail is a great place to be. Jeff Vidler of Signal Hill Insights shares his data on the listening & spending habits of podcast audiences, and what the numbers mean for you.

I’m Jennifer Tribe and this is Supercasters, the show for podcasters who are serious about growing their audience and earning revenue from their content.

Is your podcast in the Top 100 list, one of the biggest podcasts in the world? Probably not. And that’s totally fine. Podcasting’s long tail is a great place to be, and a viable spot for making money.

That’s what we’re talking about today with my guest Jeff Vidler, founder and president of Signal Hill Insights, a podcast research company based in Toronto, Canada. Jeff spent years in radio as a station manager and program director before moving into the research side of things and podcasting.

In this episode, we discuss why even though podcast and broadcast rhyme, they are definitely not the same thing and shouldn’t be treated the same. 

We talk about how long tail podcasters have an advantage over the Top 100, the #1 reason listeners get into podcasts and how you can play that to your favor, the latest stats on people who support podcasts through donation or subscription, how smart programmatic advertising could change podcasting's long tail for the better, and where long-tail podcasters should focus their attention in the next 12 months.

I’m excited to share it with you. Let me know your thoughts. Tweet us @supercast and let us know you’re listening and what you think of this episode.

Jennifer Tribe, host: Hi, Jeff, welcome to Supercasters.


Jeff Vidler, guest: Hi, Jennifer, pleased to join you.


Podcast is not broadcast

Jennifer: There's been a lot of discussion stirred up by Lucas Shaw's article in Bloomberg in January about the lack of new podcasting hits. And I do put air quotes around hits because I think the definition of a hit is part of where the controversy over the article comes from. Clearly, there are more podcasts than ever before. I don't think anyone disputes that. What's being debated is whether it's becoming even harder to make it as a hit or to break through. What's your take on that?


Jeff: I think the article misses the point, frankly. I mean, I don't know Lucas Shaw, but I read it and I get the feeling of a business reporter who's trying to apply broadcast standards to podcast. And yes, there are some big hit podcasts and they make lots of money. And they certainly deserve a place in the podcasting pantheon, but podcast is not broadcast. The magic of podcasting is that there are so many podcasts out there. There are more than two million podcasts out there now. That means there's one that's just right for you, which is different than what a broadcast might be able to deliver. I mean, the lower barrier to entry for podcasting makes that possible that there are so many. There's an opportunity there to put something together, a piece of content, that will find some audience somewhere in the world for what you're doing and your vision for that podcast. And that is not only where I think the magic lies, it's also where the bulk of listening lies as well.


Jennifer: It sounds like it's a function of the industry trying to take traditional mass media dynamics and apply them to this new art form. And it's just it's not a fit.


Jeff: And what's beautiful about this art form is it's not mass media. My favorite podcast host, and I think everybody has a favorite, is Dan Carlin, who does amazing podcast called Hardcore History. He's been around for, doing it for 15 years. He's an old radio talk show host originally. He has a very good understanding of the audio medium from his history doing radio talk shows. His podcast, which, by the way, it's actually neither subscription nor advertisers, it's really based on donations and selling his archived podcasts, but he, in an interview with Jeff Marek in Hardcore History Addendum, which is one of the sort of sidebar podcasts that he puts out, he made this what was really hit it for me was that you can do a podcast about Mexican sci-fi comic books in the 1950s and somewhere out there in the world there's somebody who's been waiting all their life to hear that podcast, and that really is a lot about the magic of what podcasts are. It's a long tail medium.

The numbers on podcasting’s long tail 

Jennifer: Your company Signal Hill Insights, you've got a lot of good data on this long tail. So tell us a little bit about what you're seeing in the numbers.


Jeff: I'll explain a little bit about the long tail first. Clay Christensen came up with the term, I think about the same time podcasting got started back in the early 2000s. And he was making the observation really looking at Amazon book sales and how online media has this long tail of activity and Amazon was really making it possible through its recommendation engine for books to get discovered that were way out there in the long tail. And again, same kind of dynamic is at play for podcasts as well. So really, long tail refers to any scenario where small but numerous activities collectively account for a larger proportion of the overall activity, more than those few hits at the head of the tail. And we see that in the study that we do for Triton, Triton Podcast Metrics Demos Plus is the study.


Jeff: We combine data from surveys with the census level download data they have to be able to model audiences by demographics. We started doing the study back in April of last year, and to this point we've surveyed 9,000 more than 9,000 U.S. podcast listeners, and those 9,000 podcast listeners have named more than 10,000 different podcasts that they listen to in the past month. So that tells you about, yeah, they were talking about the Top 50 podcasts in the Bloomberg article. We're talking about 10,000 podcasts. And every time we go to field each quarter, do 3,000 interviews and we get another 2,000 or 3,000 podcasts added on to that. And when we break that down and look at how much of that overall listening is coming from the top 100 podcasts versus the rest, it's only little more than a quarter, 28 percent of all the podcasts that are mentioned from that study are to the top 100 podcasts. 72 percent are from all of those podcasts often way out on the long tail. Only about 30 percent of them have more than one mention.


Jennifer: In your definition, I think it's important for people to remember because I often forget this, is that the long tail is bigger than the head. Right. So as much as we talk about that top one percent, the head of the long tail, the big podcasts that are making all the money, that's not actually true, right? Like there are more listens and more money made in the long tail than at the top.


Jeff: Exactly, exactly. Yes, Joe Rogan gets $100 million or actually, they're now saying $200 million for his exclusive podcast. But again, that's a unicorn, right? You're just not going to see that for everybody. But collectively, there's and again, no one has really done the tally of how much money is out there, but presumably with that much listening activity, certainly the potential is there to to get that kind of monetization as well.


Jennifer: In the chart that you had in your article, and I'll link to this for everybody to have a look at because I think the visualization of it is really interesting as well. So you've got your long tail, of course, it starts up in the airy reaches of the top 100, and then it almost comes straight down as we drop and then off to the right into that very long tail. But it's important to remember that as that line comes down, there's a whole bunch of podcasts in there that I would say are very successful that are quote unquote hits, that have audiences of 10,000, 50,000, 100,000 that present great opportunity both for the creators and for advertisers.


Jeff: Absolutely. I mean, of the 10,000 podcasts that were named, they're all active podcasts and they're podcasts that you know have been active. You know, this isn't just sort of a one off or somebody's financial analyst podcast that they're talking about. These are podcasts that are presumed that they're making money and providing a living for the creators.


Is it harder to monetize in the long tail?

Jennifer: Do you think because of all the attention paid to the top 100, the market dynamics that that creates with the big platforms piling all of their resources behind those, the misapplication of mass media dynamics to the top of the list, do you think that that makes it more difficult for the rest of the tail to function and to monetize?


Jeff: I'm not sure. I don't think so. I mean, yes, there's obviously a battle for the listener’s time. And the more attention paid to the hit podcasts, then more listen that goes there, that could have an impact. But I do think almost it's a different world for those top podcasts. They are very mass appeal and they don't have that same personal connection that so many of those other podcasts have on the long tail. So I don't think they necessarily get in the way of podcasts that speak to you personally. It's really kind of a different thing. When we asked the question to new podcast listeners coming into the medium, Canadian podcast listener study that we do and we've been doing since 2017, and we say, what got you into listening to podcasts? The number one reason they give is because there was a specific topic on an area that they were interested in and wanted to find out more about it. So they weren't going there because they heard that Conan O'Brien has a new podcast or that their friends were listening to Canadian True Crime. They went there because there was some special interest they had. They found out there was a podcast for that special interest and they went and listened to that podcast. So that speaks to how powerful that niche is and how that really doesn't compete with necessarily those top 50 or Top 100 podcasts at the head of that tail.


Jennifer: It sounds like for the mid tail, I'll call it, and the longer tail that really understanding what your niche is and building that personal relationship with the audience is going to be key to success. Would you agree with that?


Jeff: I mean, whether you're talking about advertising, subscriptions or people donating to the podcast or building a community and the opportunities around building a community around your podcast, those to me, all come from really knowing who you are, who your audience is and be able to speak to them directly, super serve those fans.


Jennifer: You've also got some interesting statistics about podcast subscription and listeners who are putting money towards podcasts, so can you tell us a little bit about those numbers?

Almost 30% of people give money to a podcaster


Jeff: This is a study, we actually just came out of field a couple of weeks ago, and it's a part of a larger study looking at segmentation of podcast listeners. This is just under a thousand US podcast listeners. And we asked whether they donate money to a podcast using a crowdfunding service, if they have a paid subscription to an individual podcast that has special listener benefits, whether ad free or bonus content. We asked whether they had a paid subscription to an individual podcast that would be unavailable without the subscription. And we also asked whether they had a paid subscription to the service that was specifically for podcasts, whether that be Luminary or something like Stitcher Premium, right, where it's a paid subscription to not just an individual podcast, but a group. So in total, and this was a surprising number and this is monthly podcast listeners, so this isn't necessarily your power listeners or the people who are spending tons of time with podcasts. This is just all of monthly podcast listeners. 29% said they do at least one of those things. 10% say they donate money to podcasts they listen to through crowdfunding, and 23% said they have some variation of a paid subscription, whether it's through individual podcasts with special benefits, exclusive podcasts or to a service that is there specifically for podcasts.


Jennifer: Do you have any data from previous years that shows how that number might have been changing over the last little while?


Jeff: No, actually, we don't. In fact,we've asked similar questions to this over the years, but we are again surprised by the size of that market who say they subscribe to podcasts. We've refined that question, and that's we're breaking it down into so many individual parts of that. We really get a sense that we're measuring something that's real. So  this is the first time we've asked the question that way, but we're still getting... I mean does that surprise you to see almost one third?


Jennifer: It's a good healthy number, and it's very encouraging. And I do wonder, is that going to continue to grow as subscription becomes normalized, as people discover these podcasts that they're building strong connections with, I wonder whether you think that that number will grow?


Jeff: I think there's a lot of things that could happen there that could affect that. If it gets to be too much advertising on podcasts. Right now, that's not a problem for listeners. Listeners do not have a problem in general with the amount of advertising on podcasts. I mean, everybody's different certainly, but just looking at the bulk of listeners, one of the things is that podcast listeners do appreciate sponsors who make that podcast, their favorite podcast, available to them and even say that… usually see about 60% of podcast listeners say they're happy to accept a couple of extra ads so that podcast can continue. But, and I do see it now in some of the data that we're tracking, and actually Edison just put a super listener study as well in the U.S., showing a similar thing that as much as there's broad receptivity and acceptance of advertising, there is definitely awareness that there's more and more advertising in podcasts now.


Jeff: So you wonder if we will hit a tipping point at some point where that becomes a big enough problem that it drives more people towards subscriptions. Because podcasts really is one of the only on-demand medium that has advertising. Subscribe to Netflix or Disney Plus or Apple, there are no ads there. But for audio, there still are ads there. Even music streaming has paid subscriptions that are ad-free. But podcasting that really hasn't happened yet, and mainly because it hasn't been saturated with advertising the same way as other media. And we do see that people are less likely to say they would skip podcast ads than other media as well. But again, there's a huge advertiser demand for podcasting right now and how that's handled, it might change things.

The state of advertising in podcasting’s long tail 

Jennifer: Let's talk about advertising in the mid tail and the long tail. Because as you say, there's demand from the advertisers there. I think probably there is appetite on the podcaster side. They would love to have advertising, but of course, the problem to solve is how to connect advertisers and these smaller niche podcasters in an efficient way, and there are lots of people trying to solve that problem. But what are you seeing in terms of advertisers reaching those smaller podcasters?


Jeff: The one thing if we go back to Dan Carlin's example of the podcast about Mexican sci-fi comic books, if you can find the right vertical advertiser, you've got something magic. I mean, if you can find that vendor who sells Mexican sci-fi comic books from the 1950s, that's magic, right? And certainly a lot of podcasters are in that space. If you're doing podcasting about knitting well, you can reach out to someone who makes knitting needles. There's really nowhere else for them to advertise. And that's a real benefit. But that is still a relatively small chunk of those podcasts on the long tail. The other thing, I don't think anyone's figured this out yet, but this is one of the things that I think that is one of the potential frontiers for podcasting in general is finding a way to first of all, aggregate podcasts on the long tail. And that would typically be something like programmatic advertising that's used for websites and things like that where you just buy a bunch of impressions and they're from all over the place.


The problem with podcasting is though, and again, this goes back to when is advertising going to be a problem for podcasts, because podcast is a very different medium from radio, for example. Radio is a speaker. It's actually important for the ad to kind of shout to the back of the room so that you can hear it. An ad like that in your headphones or your AirPods would drive you crazy, right? And I think each type of podcast or podcaster has a certain sensibility, its audience has a certain sensibility, that it's hard to find an ad that works across all podcasts. So the opportunity there and no one's there yet, but is some kind of smart programmatic that's able to really effectively align the tone and content of the podcast with the tone of the content of that ad and that advertiser as well. Once that happens and that's an opportunity then for ads to find their way, way out on the long tail just as you can have a blog and you can have ads there from all over the place, even if you've only got a very small readership, right? But I think we're a long ways from that yet. 

Unfortunately, when you're down in the long tail, you're not going to be reached by the agencies or the people who are currently trying to buy  aggregate podcasts. They're looking for maybe at most 30, 40, 50 different podcasts because they want to do a host-read because host-reads are much more effective than any other kind of podcast. And it's not scalable to go much more than 40 or 50 podcasts. You have to get the copy points for the host. You've got to get the air check to make sure that you're comfortable with how the host delivered the ad. It's a lot of work when you're talking about a podcast that might only have even 10,000 downloads an episode, right? So that does make it difficult.

Podcasting is constantly changing 

Jennifer: When we spoke earlier, you said there was still a lot of whitespace in podcasting. There's a lot of things that people don't know about what sorts of things fall into that white space for you.


Jeff: One of the things, what we just talked about. What kind of ads would work on the long tail that provide that kind of scalable but sustainable solution and again, do give an opportunity for podcasts on the long tail to really take advantage of advertising revenue without having to chase it down and pitch it themselves. Nobody has the answer to that yet, and I don't think anyone will for a while but I'm sure that's going to become a much more important topic for the industry as a whole, just as advertiser demand keeps building up for it. And beyond that, the white space keeps changing because the industry keeps changing. We started the Canadian Podcast Listener study in 2017, and we see so many differences in the podcast audience, in the publishers, and and the types of offers that are being made to listeners that every time we go to field for that study, we have new things to look at. 


Everybody knows about consolidation. It looks like it's narrowing down and certainly among those hit podcasts to a few major companies and that's having an impact. You're seeing that whole move towards exclusive podcasts. What does that do? How does that help? What does that impact of that on the industry? Do people, if you have an exclusive podcast, does it hurt you or help you? Yes maybe you can get money from the platform, but is that cutting off potential audience that you should have. Are they actually going to go and find you on that other platform. Paid subscriptions, Apple and Spotify bringing in paid subscriptions. What's going to be the uptake on that from the consumer side as well as on the audience side?


And again, as the audience expands for podcasting, it changes. If you go back in podcasting, back 15 to 20 years when it first got started, it really solved a problem for people who listened to public radio, to CBC in Canada, NPR in the States. They had now a way that they could listen to their favorite show on their own schedule. They could listen to This American Life not Sunday morning at 10:00, they didn't have to wait for that. They could listen to it when they felt like they wanted to listen to it in the car on their commute, at home relaxing when they had the time. That has changed a lot since then and mostly in the last four or five years.


We look at the top 10 podcasts in Canada in 2017 and look at what they are today. The top 10 then, the hits then if you like the top of the top hits, I think six of the 10 were CBC or other public media podcasts. This American Life, for example, which was born out of public media. Well, now I think there's one out of the top 10. Joe Rogan was there in 2017, Joe Rogan's still there today, but you have Conan O'Brien, Smartless, true crime podcasts. There was only one on that top 10 chart back in 2017. That was Serial. Now, I think it's three of the top 10 are true crime podcasts, so that audience is changing, the shows that they're being provided. The audience is changing as well. So the white space is changing all the time and there's new things to look at.

What long-tail podcasters should pay attention to

Jennifer: Looking at the 12 months ahead, if you were a mid-tail podcaster, what would you be paying attention to?


Jeff: It's a great question. It's a simple answer, and I don't mean to sound glib, is pay attention to your audience. How can you super serve your audience even more? If you're a mid-tail podcaster, if you've got 10,000 downloads an episode, ask listeners to do a survey.  Do a very short survey and find out what it is among that most engaged audience that's going to respond to a call to action on the podcast that what is it about your podcast that they love? Why are they listening? Why are they so deeply engaged and really gives you an opportunity to double down on that for that audience.


Jeff: And you may find things in there too…you want to ask them what they love, but you also want to know what they think you can do better and you're going to get some feedback that's going to help you on that front as well. But paying attention to your audience because it all comes from your audience. The loyalty, the opportunity to build community, to get subscription dollars, to get donations and to get advertisers. That sponsorship of your podcast, it means something to that listener. Podcasts is one of the only medium out there where the audience says that they go out of their way to support someone who sponsors their favorite podcast. Now it's not all podcast listeners that say that, but a third of podcast listeners, particularly the power listeners who spend a lot of time with podcasts say that they actually make a point of going out to support those sponsors who support the podcast. You just don't see that in television or radio or print or digital, for example.


Jennifer: Why is it that you think we don't see that in those other media?


Jeff: I'm a big believer in podcasts and that connection that audio makes. I think that the intimacy that you're able to develop with a podcast audience by speaking with them, by being authentic, it makes a deeper connection than something you're watching on television. I mean, it’s the amount of energy that you put into listening to that podcast that takes it to that other level, that deeper level of engagement and the opportunity that's there to really make a difference for that listener.


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

That was Jeff Vidler, founder and president of Signal Hill Insights. For a full transcript of this episode, including links to the various resources that we’ve mentioned, go to

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Until next time, I’m Jennifer Tribe. Thanks for listening.