Most podcasts have small audiences - and that’s OK

Why the industry needs to stop obsessing over download metrics

At some point in their career, most podcast creators will probably feel like they’re not getting the kind of traction they should be, and it’s obvious why. With smash hit podcasts like the Joe Rogan Experience pulling in tens of millions of listens per episode and celebrity influencers increasingly bringing their mammoth audiences to bear on the world of podcasting, it can be tempting to feel like your podcast is a failure if it’s not clocking six-figure download counts. Even if you’re producing excellent work that you’re genuinely proud of, and making enough revenue to cover your costs, at the end of the day, listener numbers are one of the few regular and consistent metrics that podcasters can use to measure how well their creative efforts are being received. 

With this in mind, it’s easy to see why many of us can get hung up on how many downloads we’re getting, and how to increase those numbers. It’s why many podcasters are now exploring multichannel marketing strategies to promote their shows, as well as embracing newer platforms like TikTok in an effort to capture emerging audiences. This fixation on big figures isn’t an isolated issue - the excellent team over at Media Voices has covered the problem from a publisher-centric perspective, but it can affect independent podcasters and podcast networks just as acutely.

However, while some podcasters (myself included) have a tendency to measure their self-worth by their download figures, we can’t lay the blame for this phenomenon solely on creatives’ ego. Much of the anxiety around listener growth and audience numbers is driven by external pressure. Whether you’re working with a commercial partner who requires a certain threshold in order to meet advertising KPIs, or you’re part of a wider brand that has set a specific (and often arbitrary) goal in order to establish ROI, podcasters are often under the cosh to increase the size of their metrics.

It’s important to maintain a sense of perspective, though. Although the top 0.5% of shows can boast hundreds of thousands of downloads per episode, the vast majority - I.E. the shows you’re actually going to be competing with - almost certainly can’t. In fact, according to the latest Muck Rack State Of Podcasting report, almost half of all podcasts have less than 10,000 listeners, and podcasting hosting platform Buzzsprout’s data for october shows that if your podcast has more than 1,000 downloads in the first week, congratulations - you’re in the top 5% of shows. 

Lower listener numbers also don’t have to be a barrier to commercialisation. As Media Voices’ Esther Thorpe notes, despite garnering around 250 listens per episode, DC Thompson’s Energy Voice Out Loud podcast was on track to make around six figures in revenue earlier this year, according to former head of podcasts Chris Phin. It was able to do this by leveraging not its size and scale, but the depth of its engagement. Energy Voice is a niche B2B title, and its audience - while comparatively small - is both highly committed and extremely valuable.

So how can podcasters apply this context to their own audio efforts? Well, the first step is to stop obsessing over downloads, and trust in the content; to paraphrase Kevin Costner, if you build it, they will come. When they do come, remember that, whatever the goal of your podcast, a small but devoted audience is always better than a large group that doesn’t really care. True fans of the podcasts will become evangelists of both it and its message, which makes them not only extremely attractive from an advertising perspective, but also opens up possibilities around alternative revenue streams such as merchandise and live events.

What they may not appreciate, however, is being reduced to a growth statistic. Aggressively targeting audience growth through methods like overpromotion, radical format changes or stunt-casting of high-profile guests may have the unintended consequence of driving a previously loyal listener away from your podcast, if they feel that their time and engagement isn’t being respected. 

Similarly, advertisers need to start considering the value in smaller audiences, and taking the time to adapt their thinking to the way podcasts operate - as well as their marketing plans. For instance, the sheer reach of a large celebrity-fronted podcast may seem enticing when planning, say, an activewear brand recognition campaign, but consider whether your campaign goals may actually be better fulfilled by channelling that £40,000 budget into a series of smaller partnerships with more engaged and more closely-aligned fans. It may be more work than a one-stop-shop, but what this approach lacks in convenience, it makes up for in targeting and customisation.