Unlocking the benefits of paid podcast subscriptions

Before monetising your listeners directly, here are some factors you need to consider

Subscriptions have become a popular monetisation strategy for podcasters seeking to grow their revenue, which they can use to offer additional content and benefits to subscribers in return for a regular payment. Key players in the industry such as Apple and Spotify have introduced show-level subscriptions, with the former seeing a 300% increase in subscribers since June 2021 according to DigiDay.

With podcast advertisements, the average podcaster with 10,000 downloads per month will receive over $1,000 according to Buzzsprout. In comparison to that, Improve Podcast says the average creator on Patreon can make up to $1,300 per month through subscribers.

Not only can this create a strengthened relationship with those listeners who are dedicated enough to your podcast to want to support it financially, but it’s also a great way to explore adding different features to your show that can be both fun and creative. 

Choosing the right platform 

As podcasting platforms continue to expand and develop new subscription features, it can be confusing trying to work out which one is best suited to your particular podcast.

Apple Podcasts Subscriptions gives you the option to create bonus and ad-free content. However, that content will be accessible only to Apple users – effectively locking out any Android users from subscribing to it. Apple also takes a 30% commission from any incoming subscription revenue; a significantly higher chunk than other platforms like Patreon (5-12%) and Substack (10%). Spotify also introduced paid podcast subscriptions in 2021 for creators, with zero platform fees until 2023, when it plans to introduce a 5% fee to access the feature. 

Jack Rhysider, host of cybercrime podcast Darknet Diaries, usedthe service for 45 days in 2021. Alongside the high commission percentage, one of his main gripes was that it only allows podcasters to offer one subscription price, rather than the tiered model offered by services like Patreon. 

“I think this is a great service for giving your fans ad-free episodes, early access to episodes, or bonus content,” Rhysider wrote in a blog post. “Unfortunately it's only available to Apple users… So it can't be your only solution for offering bonus content; because of this, I still plan on keeping my Patreon alongside this.”

Former BBC Radio One controller Matthew Bannister now hosts award-winning musical podcastFolk on Foot, and has monetised his podcast through a “band of generous supporters” across Patreon. Bannister is able to offer a range of tiered subscription benefits, including badges and newsletter shout-outs, Zoom Q&As and exclusive access to video podcasts.

“It creates a direct relationship between us and the people who support us, and has rapidly become a Folk On Foot community,” says Bannister. “The feedback has been really positive, with patrons relishing the intimate conversation with their favourite artists and the chance to feel more connected to the Folk On Foot family.”

According to Patreon’s senior partner manager Tom McNeill, having the freedom to set up tiered subscriptions at different price levels allows the creator to make their own decisions about what they feel comfortable offering to their audience, and the value of each of these levels. 

“As we see from major consumer experiences, this is a great way to build somebody from like a fan to a subscriber, to a super fan, to the biggest version of a community member that they can be,” said McNeill. “And that's something that I really like seeing in the customisation of Patreon is how creators use it to build those amazing relationships and businesses.”

Realistic expectations

One of the potential downsides of a tiered subscription model, however, is the implicit requirement to provide appropriate additional content for each level. Running a podcast can be incredibly time-consuming, so podcasters need to be realistic about what kind of subscriber-only content they’re capable of offering. 

Acast is another company investing in subscription models. Its Acast+ offering allows podcasters to offer bonus content and ad-free listening, and Acast’s senior partner manager John Harris advises podcasters to think about what they’re realistically able to offer. He points out that creating weekly bonus content isn’t the only option; Irish History Podcast, for example, opted to charge listeners a one-time payment in exchange for its full-length ‘The Black Death in Ireland’ audiobook. 

“For some of these shows, it’s as simple as helping us keep the lights on, which is an amazing thing to know your audience is willing to throw some money to help keep the podcast afloat,” says Harris. “If you’re going to make something where you’re giving people extra content for that service, it’s definitely worth thinking about the exchange of money that you’re asking for from the amount of bonus content. You’re giving them extra content so if you’re going to do something where it’s a weekly thing, you need to be willing to do that indefinitely.” 

Imriel Morgan is the CEO of Content Is Queen, a podcast community for emerging creators that provides podcast consultations and marketing advice as part of its services. Her advice to podcasters who are considering adding subscriptions to their show is to consider the additional work they will be committing to and make sure they have the time to see it through, so they don’t risk disappointing their subscribers. 

“There's no harm in starting with something small and manageable - such as a shoutout on the podcast versus monthly bonus episodes or a newsletter - and then increasing the value you offer as your subscribers grow. You can feel good about the additional work you put in as it’s well compensated,” she says. “There's nothing worse than promising the world and not quite reaching your target revenue goal.”

Bannister also advises podcasters to think carefully about what rewards patrons would be most attracted to, and to be cost-effective by making that content a by-product of the work you’re already doing.

“Special access and contact and additional premium content seem to work well for us,” he says. “We always take a filmmaker with us when we’re recording on location so we can use the footage to promote the podcast on social media and YouTube – but we also film the songs our guests perform on location and give that premium visual content to our top-tier patrons.”

Thinking beyond revenue

While generating revenue is often a big incentive for podcasters to create a subscription option, there are other benefits, such as helping build relationships with listeners and refining the target audience. 

According to McNeill, one big advantage that Patreon has seen for podcasters besides making revenue is the ability to collect data to oversee who their demographic is. Platforms such as YouTube or Spotify don’t share subscriber details, meaning creators have fewer options for building meaningful relationships with them outside those platforms.

“Something that we've done from day one is making sure that when somebody becomes your member, you get their email address, so that you own the relationship,” said McNeill. “It's not mediated by Patreon; they're your listener, they're your member… and that means that the creator can leave Patreon whenever they want.” 

Harris also points out that this can be an excellent way for communities to support podcasts that may not be able to leverage advertising for monetization, such as shows that are in a niche space

“It's definitely a really, really great way to help support and show your appreciation for these shows,” he says. “The beauty of podcasting is that there's a podcast for everything and subscriptions are a really fertile ground to encourage those niche shows to continue to do what they do and show them that you appreciate what they do.”

Morgan sees subscriptions as a first port of call for podcasters and believes its primary purpose for the majority is as an income generator. However, she also points out that they can create a dedicated community that will continue to be engaged over a long period of time.

“If you have an always-on podcast, subscriptions are a great way to bring your community together and have them invest in the future of the content,” says Morgan. “If you see growth in your audience weekly, then it's worth trying a subscription model and turning your highly engaged fans into super fans.”