Paywalls, Podcasting, and Prejudice
Eventually, many podcasters have to make a choice between fame, fortune, and famine. OK, that last one less choice and more unfortunate reality. For the other two, there’s always the paywall option. Should you consider it?
The decision to put content — popular content — behind a paywall is always an agonizing choice for any decent person. Podcasters included.
Let me address the criticism I’m sure to get for this episode head on: There are those in the podcasting world out there who claim that once a podcast goes behind a paywall it ceases to be a podcast. I’m not going to debate that pedantic (and dumb) claim. Plenty of podcasters — successful podcasters — are using paywalls for some or all of their content. It’s an option that’s in our industry, so pretending it doesn’t happen or trying to alienate those who make that choice isn’t helping to make podcasting better.
I’d much rather discuss all the nuances you’ll face when making that choice. At the risk of oversimplifying, it comes down to the choice between fame versus fortune. Both can get you to commercial viability, so they are both worthy options.
I’ve talked a lot about viability in recent episodes of the program. There’s gotta be a get to your give for you to keep up the energy and effort it takes to keep podcasting as a viable output. And if that means commercial viability to you, then you’re looking for a money-flow. Once (if) your podcasting efforts bring in fame, you can sell ads and sponsorships as your primary and direct revenue source.
Or you monetize your audience directly by putting all or some of your content behind a paywall. That’s the fortune without the fame.
It’s not a binary choice. Nor is it a choice that any podcaster gets to make. Successfully implementing either is, for most podcasts, completely dependent on the size of the audience.
Here’s an easily busted myth: Every single person who currently subscribes/listens to your free podcast will continue to listen to (and therefore pay for) your content when you put it behind a paywall.
That’s categorically false. The question really becomes this; how many will, and how much can I make?
To help you understand that, I want to talk about an old co-worker of mine, Tony. Several years ago, Tony really got into making crepes; those little, thin, eggy, pancake-looking things that were (and still are) very tasty and popular back in the day. He became quite adept at making quality crepes. So adept that some of us in the office would buy Tony’s crepes.
As often happens, this influx of cash gave Tony an idea: Maybe he should try to sell crepes to other people. He was investing in more equipment and getting really good at this. Some people were paying him already. Should he make the switch from hobbyist crepe maker to paid professional, perhaps opening his own shop or food truck where he could ply his craft for serious money?
Ultimately, Tony decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Out of the hundred or so people in the office who were happy to enjoy Tony’s crepes during company functions and potlucks, Tony was only selling his crepes to maybe five or six people. And then only occasionally.
Practically, $20 or so a week wasn’t worth it. Mathematically, 5–6% is not a bad conversion (retention?) rate at all. You just need to scale it. If your podcast has an audience in the thousands, math starts to work in your favor.
How favorable? On average, you’ll be lucky to see 2% of the people who currently subscribe to your show for free switching over to the paid model. Sure, it can be higher. But it can also be lower. 2% is a good number from which you can do your projections.
Nota bene: Subscribing to a behind-the-paywall podcast isn’t any harder than subscribing to any other podcast, with the exception that (for now) these for-fee podcasts don’t show up in podcast apps or directories.
Let’s get back to that 2% number. If you have a thousand people listening to your episodes on a regular basis, you can expect 20 of them to make the for-fee switch. If you’re charging five bucks a month for access, that’s $100.
“Hey, I’ll take a hundred bucks! That’s more than I’m making my podcast right now. Evo!” OK, that’s likely true. But that’s not commercially viable, right? Also, think about the 980 people who are no longer listening to your show. Is that loss detrimental to you, perhaps evident in the intangible benefits of having a podcast? Remember, most people will not keep listening when you put all of your content — or even some of your content — behind a paywall. Are you OK with that?
There is no universal right or wrong decision to make here, so no one should be demonized for making that choice. Only, you will be. Sorry.
For me, going to a fee-based model doesn’t make sense for my podcast. I have roughly 300 people who listen to the episodes. 2% means I’d have six people paying. So, a paltry sum. But if I had 10,000? Or 100,000? I’d have to consider it.
But again, I’d need to carefully weigh other options and examine lost opportunities if I did put the show behind a paywall. At that scale, it might make sense to examine a hybrid model, a mix of paid and free content. But the decision would still be agonizing for me. As it should be for you.
If this episode has you thinking about paywalls differently, good. If it has you ready to jump on the paywall bandwagon, I’d advise caution and some math before you take the plunge. There are many, many things to consider. Choose wisely. This is something you shouldn’t rush into.
My advice? Check with your podcasting friends. See if your fellow podcasters are considering this as well, weighing the size of their audience against potential revenue gains to determine viability. And discussing the potential (real, actually) outcry from current listeners if there were to make the switch.
Send your friends this episode and blame me for your bringing up the conversation. That way they can listen to a neutral 3rd party’s opinion and not bring the judgment hammer on your head. I can take the heat!
What do you think about this? Email me at email@example.com and tell me where you stand on the topic of putting some or all of your podcast content behind a paywall.
Since you got this far (and going against what I just said), how about mashing that 👏 button a few dozen times to let me know you dig the written-word version of my thoughts on these podcasting topics? I’d sure appreciate it!
This article started life as a podcast episode. The 268th episode of my four-times-a-week short-form podcast called, oddly enough, Podcast Pontifications. It’s a podcast for working podcasters that’s focused on trends in our growing industry and ideas on ways to make podcasting not just easier, but better. Yes, you should listen. Here’s an easy way: 👇
Evo Terra (hey, that’s me!) has been podcasting since 2004, is the author of Podcasting For Dummies and Expert Podcasting Practices for Dummies, and is the CEO and founder of Simpler Media Productions, a strategic podcast consultancy working with businesses, brands, and professional service providers all around the world.