Why is launching a subscription programme so scary?

Paid membership can be a goldmine for podcasters, but it’s a daunting prospect

There’s an element of cognitive dissonance among podcasters that’s always niggled me somewhat. Fundamentally, anyone that puts out a podcast believes, on some level, that people are interested in their opinions and what they have to say; however, a disproportionately low number seem to believe that those people are willing to pay to support it.

It’s easy to see why, of course. Launching a subscription platform takes a certain amount of guts. You’re asking people to give up not just time, but money, and the fear that your efforts will be met with silence and indifference is powerful, playing on the anxieties around self-worth and rejection which are common among creatives. On a more practical level, an unpopular subscription plan also means you’ll be putting effort into additional content for little or no material benefit.

However, these anxieties aren’t necessarily warranted. What many podcasters seem to forget is that, for most people, time is a far more valuable commodity than money, and if people are willing to give up the former for you, then they’ll likely be willing to give you the latter. We’ve spoken to quite a few independent podcasters that have launched subscription models to fund their operations, including Evolution of Horror host Mike Muncer and David Law of The Tennis Podcast, and they’ve universally expressed their initial surprise that people actually signed up to them.

One of the most common reasons podcasters launch a subscription programme is because they’re unsatisfied with their advertising revenues, which is unsurprising. Not only is recurring revenue from subscribers more reliable than ad revenue, based on industry-average conversion rates and download numbers, it also outperforms traditional podcast ad models for creators.

Let’s assume each new episode of your podcast gets around 1,000 downloads - which puts you just shy of the top 5% of shows globally, according to Buzzsprout’s data. Let’s also assume that you’re currently monetising your show through spot ads on a CPM of $5, meaning that your monetisation partner pays out $5 for every 1,000 ad impressions.

That works out to between $10 and $20 per episode, depending on your podcast’s ad load and the placement of ad markers within it. For a weekly podcast, that’s around $80 per month. 

Now let’s compare that to a subscription strategy, which for podcasts generally start at an entry price of $5 for the basic tier. Most marketers will agree that 2-5% is a pretty good conversion rate for getting an audience to sign up for a paid product; even at the low end of that, you’re still making $100, compared to $80 for spot ads.

OK, that might not be enough to live on, but it’s enough to cover most indie podcasters’ costs, with a bit of pocket money thrown in for good measure. It’s often easier to scale than ad revenue, too; subscriber revenue isn’t dictated by the whims of the wider advertising market, and converting a couple more listeners to paying members is generally easier than adding an extra thousand downloads. 

Podcasters will also likely find that paying subscribers will turn into evangelists for the show (thanks partly to psychological effects like post-purchase rationalisation and the principle of commitment), shouting about how good it is and helping to bring more listeners in. 

The big sticking point - aside from the concerns that no one will actually go for it - seems to be the question of what bonus content to offer, and how much. There are a number of ways to juice that particular lemon though, and in many cases, it can be done largely with existing content. 

For example, if you’re running an interview or chat-based podcast, it’s likely that there’s a significant amount of footage that ends up on the cutting-room floor, but simply releasing the full-length version as bonus content is an easy way to bulk up a subscription service. Early and ad-free access to episodes is also a popular tactic, as is early access to event tickets or discounts on podcast merchandise. 

For documentary podcasters, you can also explore the possibility of giving subscribers access to your research and source materials for further reading - a strategy which has been used to great effect by The Telegraph’s investigative podcasts such as Bed Of Lies

Alternatively, you may not even need to offer anything at all. Many podcasts have an entry-level subscription tier where the only benefit for supporters is the knowledge that they’re helping keep the podcast going, and while these generally aren’t as popular as the more fleshed-out offerings, there are usually some fans for whom that’s enough.

The idea that someone would give you money just to support your work is, for many creators, a somewhat alien concept, however - after all, they can get endless hours of entertainment or enrichment from a thousand other places for free. It’s an attitude that I’m well familiar with from the world of media, where writers and publications have somehow convinced themselves that maximising your reach and relying on display advertising or affiliate revenue for income is the only viable model. 

This is not, in fact, the case; subscriptions offer a sustainable way to make a living with audiences of any size. I understand why podcasters can often be reluctant to make that leap of faith, though. It’s a big step into the unknown, and that’s a scary prospect. However, it’s a trail that’s been successfully blazed many times over, and while there are never any guarantees, if you have faith in your content and your audience, you have nothing to lose by trying.