Most podcasters are familiar with using subscription platforms to help them monetise their audience directly, rather than relying solely on advertising or sponsorship. This model has been the lifeblood of many podcasts, providing income and engagement for shows large and small. I teach courses and workshops on how to make money from podcasting, and this subscription process, particularly with Patreon, always features prominently in the session, as it does work.
There are a variety of different platforms which offer this functionality, but they all work on the same principles. First, you set them up with your exclusive membership benefits - whether that’s bonus episodes, an exclusive newsletter or early access to events - then share the link in your podcast episodes and on your socials at a cadence that you are comfortable with, encouraging your listeners to subscribe without appearing "pushy".
Podcast listeners are accustomed to hearing hosts promoting their Patreon pages. Many subscribe, partly to support the podcasts they love, partly for the engagement with the hosts and partly for the exclusive goodies.
Patreon is the most well-known platform for podcast subscriptions. Still, while it’s a popular and robust platform, there are other options out there, and I'm here to encourage you to avoid making the same lazy mistake I made: don’t sleep on Apple Subscriptions.
Apple Subscriptions launched in June 2021 to give podcast listeners another way of supporting podcast creators. Unfortunately, as a podcaster, I ignored this opportunity for 18 months. I was already using Patreon and ignored Apple Subscriptions because I wanted to avoid engaging with and managing a new platform. I also didn’t want to bombard our listeners with plugs for another subscription on top of what we were already doing.
After meeting some of the team behind it, however, I decided to give Apple subscriptions a go. They explained how it works and, crucially, that they didn't want to take away from our existing subscription channels; only that they wanted to give podcasters more revenue options. One of my podcasts, The Wire Stripped, has a Patreon page with 45 Patrons spread across three tiers, each offering different exclusive benefits.
It's not a huge number, but we're proud of it; primarily because 100% of the money goes to supporting The Ella Thompson Fund, the Baltimore charity set up with support from The Wire’s creator David Simon to help tackle some of the issues addressed in the show. I started to wonder if my dismissive stance on Apple Subscriptions was taking money away from the charity we support, and decided if we could help out more kids in Baltimore, it would be worth trying.
We launched The Wire Stripped's Apple Subscription channel in January this year to coincide with the launch of our fourth season. We included a 30-second plea in each episode, as well as in the Patreon call to action, to promote it. We didn't expect much from it - but we were wrong.
Over the first ten days, we gained 60 subscribers, outstripping our existing Patreon members and doubling the number of subscribers across both platforms. The number of subscribers continued to rise, and as of the first two months of the year, the tally of subscribers stood somewhere between 250 and 350. So even with our subscriber report's most conservative reading, we increased our total subscriber count by well over 500%.
I was stunned by the reception, and truth be told, I'm still gobsmacked that adding a second subscription option had that much of an impact.
So why did it? I have a few thoughts. First, one of the main reasons we initially chose Patreon is that it doesn't matter which podcast app people listen to to get the benefits. However, while this theoretically makes it more accessible, the challenge is the friction between the listener hearing about your Patreon page and then subscribing to it.
They must remember your Patreon link (or copy it from your show notes or social media), then visit the page and decide which of the subscription levels suits them best - while wrestling with the options some podcast creators offer, which can be overwhelming. They have to sign up for Patreon, if they haven't already, then enter their card details, and finally, they have to perform the steps required to add the new podcast feed to their existing podcast app - or revisit the Patreon app or page whenever they want to access their exclusive benefits.
Each step is relatively small but taken together, they quickly amount to a substantial roadblock for many. Apple Subscription works because it removes all these points of friction. For example, the Apple Podcasts app notifies you of a new episode of your favourite show. If it is for paid members only, the app makes it easy to subscribe and listen at the touch of a button using the same debit or credit card you have already entrusted to Apple.
All these steps were removed when we set up Apple Subscriptions, and the more than 500% increase in subscribers that we saw speaks for itself.
The benefits of Apple Subscriptions are straightforward, then, and the results are self-evident. However, the platform has some notable downsides, especially in comparison with its biggest rival.
Firstly, setting up your subscription page with Apple is more complicated and goes through a tedious approval stage, and uploading content to Apple Subscriptions is clunkier than on other platforms. You can also only set one subscription tier versus the multiple levels offered by Patreon, which makes it easy to provide different subscriber benefits and price points.
The subscriptions to your podcast are anonymous, too, so you can’t engage directly with your subscribers, which is a shame, as we've gained a lot from connecting with our fans on Patreon. It also locks you into Apple’s platform, to a certain extent, as we could theoretically take all our Patrons’ contact data with us if we wanted to move to a new system.
It's not easy to know how many subscribers you even have with Apple - my best guess for The Wire Stripped is 250-350, but the fact that I even have to guess in the first place is crazy! When I asked Apple how to do this, they recommended downloading the report and creating a pivot table in Excel - I hold a master's degree in engineering, and even I find it difficult. I'd love a simple dashboard that tells you when you log in. Because you don't know how many subscribers you have, you don't know your revenue either, which is a problem for forecasting and planning. Also, on the money side of things, Apple takes 30% of the subscription for the first year, and it’s supposed to drop down to 15% after that. This is higher than Patreon, which maxes out at a 12% commission.
One important point is that only people who use the Apple Podcasts app to listen to their shows can subscribe. If you only use Apple Subscriptions to monetise bonus content, you will be missing out on (and potentially alienating) a significant proportion of your audience. For this reason, I recommend that you use Apple Subscriptions to complement another platform.
The Apple Subscriptions team is aware of the challenges in setting it up. They hold regular "Setting Up Your Subscription" sessions, which I'd encourage you to attend if you’re even half interested.
Cons aside, I’ll undoubtedly add Apple Subscriptions to my following courses and workshops about podcast monetisation. Based on our experience, if you’re already creating content for another subscription channel, such as Patreon, I'd recommend setting up Apple Subscriptions as soon as possible. You don’t have to create entirely original content for each platform, so feel free to reuse existing assets across both channels. Once set up, the additional work isn’t significant, but the benefits could be.