Attracting your tribe and keeping them is no mean feat. And in truth, it's not always about the numbers.
Sometimes it's as simple as just knowing a handful of fans love you, regardless of whether your listener figures are in their hundreds or thousands.
But how do you build that community in the first place?
From rough-round-the-edges weekly sports series, to scripted storytelling box sets, to perfectly polished branded content... I've produced and worked on 15 podcast series over the last 6 years. Along the way - as a producer and presenter - I've made plenty of mistakes. But I've also been amazed...
Because when your listeners really love you, they'll shout about you from the rooftops to all their friends, they'll send you birthday cards and even remember your wedding anniversary. In short, having a loyal fan base means they'll do the hard work of marketing your series for you.
So whether you're starting out making your first podcast series, or feeling a little deflated that your listener figures aren't quite what you hoped - I've gathered ten tips of where to start when it comes to building loyalty within your own podcast community.
Do what you say you will. If you don't, listeners won't return the favour and stay with you.
It can be as simple as promising to publish your podcast on the same day at the same time every week. Once listeners begin to love you, they'll plan their weekly routine around your release. No, really...
I've had listeners say their weekly bath is a Wednesday, so they always saved my ice hockey podcast for bath time. Others say they love knowing the new episode will be ready by the time they get up early and walk the dog.
And for one of our series about weight loss, having 20 minutes of bitesize mojo first thing on a Monday morning means that our listeners can crack back on with their diet, regardless of how off the wagon they fell over the weekend.
Get to know who your listeners are, and how they digest your podcast. Don't break your promises.
If you've only one or two episodes out, it's unlikely you'll be getting much attention right now. (Unless you're a mega celebrity...)
My best tip when starting out is to hit the market with multiple episodes on the first day. Ideally 3-5. It'll really give listeners a chance to hear what you're about.
If you're opting for a 'boxset series' approach rather than a weekly/episodic style, then my advice is to smash all the episodes out at once.
Apple Podcasts loves activity - i.e. lots of people listening to multiple episodes, rating, reviewing, subscribing...so give your listeners as many opportunities as possible to want to do this.
Chancing it by publishing one episode per month might be realistic in how you manage your time, but it's unlikely to get much traffic. Releasing 6 episodes at once every 6 months might be more productive in generating activity.
And yes I know when you first start out it feels terrifying at the thought of having 10 episodes, let alone 100... But give it time, follow step one and before you know it you'll have built up a huge chunk of content. Then when time gets tight, there's always the option of a 'best of'!
3. Ask for...
Ratings, reviews and subscriptions.
Yes I know, most of you reading this are probably British. And frankly it's just not cool to ask for people to 'like' you.
But if you do want your series to get noticed, if you do want to reach more listeners who share the same passion as you and if you do want to build loyalty - then get used to feeling uncomfortable in asking for these, because it really does work.
A note on how the two major podcast platforms work:
a) Spotify is all about listener numbers therefore it boosts the big names and well-established series.
b) Apple Podcasts looks at activity, as mentioned above. Therefore regardless of whether you have a million listeners or not, if your activity is high then you will get into the charts for your category and you will be featured in 'new and noteworthy'. Sometimes algorithms work in your favour - yes, even for us lowly folk!
I know this because I've tried and tested with my own series on multiple occasions.
Our Slimming World Food For Thought Podcast series was featured in new and noteworthy within 6 weeks of release, and is now a regular face in the top 200 health podcasts for Apple because we have over 100 listener reviews and 500+ subscribers. The knock on effect this had on our listener figures was instant. From a podcast we started recording in my kitchen at Christmas to now 7 months later, 85,000 people have listened to our weekly series of 35 episodes. I was amazed.
When we started our NHL Fans From Afar podcast we started with zero followers on social media. It was just a pipe dream for my co-host Jolon and I to connect with other bedroom ice hockey fans across the world. We picked the name of our podcast strategically in a bid to get lucky on people searching for podcasts made especially for NHL fans living outside of North America. But initially when I typed in 'NHL' + 'fans' into Apple Podcasts search we were wayyyyy down the results list - position 26, barely noticed. I asked just 6 listeners and former guests to leave us a review and rate us on Apple Podcasts. Within 24 hours we were third in the same search results, we went on to attract listeners from Poland, Taiwan, Belgium and Australia... Again, proof that the little man can win.
I'm not exactly talking Cilla Black. (Google her if you're American) But when series become boring and predictable, it's likely your listeners will walk away.
Plus, keeping things fresh is just as important for you as it is your listeners.
Have a think how can you boost creativity in your series?
Here's a few things I've learnt along the way.
The first 60 seconds really counts. Are you throwing that first minute away by reading boring scripts in a stuffy bedroom? Could you be using archive, music and sfx to capture the listeners' attention - a true headphone experience? Could your introductions be in a different location every week to create a sense of anticipation 'where will they be this week'?
Or if you normally do your episodes pre-recorded, is there the option to do one or two live - with your audience able to be a part of and interact with you during recording? (Social media lives if not physically in a venue)
Having a structure can work in keeping you focussed, having regular features means listeners know what they're signing up for - but sometimes it can constrain you. Allow some flexibility in your series and if in doubt, lean on listeners for their suggestions on content and features!
5. Choose your language carefully
Think singular not plural.
The secret about being a great radio presenter is the ability to speak to one person at a time. Not thousands of listeners at once.
It's that simple.
Listen back to your recordings - are you saying classic face palm phrases such as 'hello all you podcast listeners'?
Nothing is more intimate as wearing headphones, listening to your favourite podcast presenter talking directly to you 'inside your head' - asking for your thoughts on a particularly subject, asking whether something is just them or if the same happens to you.
Imagine your listener as the third person sat at the table in the pub with you. If you're recording out and about, imagine them walking alongside you.
That's how close you want them to feel to you. And if they feel like you know them, you understand them, they can imagine being your friend - then that's when the real magic of listener loyalty truly begins.
Also - don't over complicate things. Never assume your listener knows what you're on about - explain jargon, if your guest says something you're not sure about, then ask as there's a high chance your listener won't know either.
Social media helps, but don't spread yourself too thin.
Be choosy on which platforms you're going to use. If you've already a big twitter following, then lean on this and build upon it - don't worry about creating a new account.
Traditionally on social media, people follow people - not companies and campaigns.
Bear in mind that managing a social media account requires MORE time, energy and consistency. This is on top of organising, briefing, recording, editing and marketing a podcast series.
It's worth sharing out tasks amongst your team if there's a few of you. If one person does the guest arranging, the other does the tech of editing and recording, and another manages the social media accounts - it'll mean less chance of individual burnout.
I'll come back to my original point though - if you are only going to use one social media platform to generate interaction for your series, ask yourself which is best?
I say this because in the last year I've really streamlined my approach and instead think 'where are my listeners for this particular podcast niche?'
For ice hockey - my fans are on twitter, it's all about facts, figures, stats and scores...
For weight loss - it's all about instagram, endless photos of food, before and after pics...
By narrowing down the focus, it means I spend less time having to repurpose content for different platforms and in my call to action at the end of series I have less words to read! Much easier to direct all traffic to one email address and one social media platform than multiple places.
Once those comments start to come in, it's worth using them too. One thing for sure - PEOPLE LOVE HEARING THEIR NAME AND COMMENT READ OUT. Regardless of whether they're 7 years old or 37 years old, it still makes them feel famous. Use this your advantage, and give them some love back. And for even more brownie points, remember their name and their story to refer back to at a later date - not just as a one-off.
7. Think collaboration, not competition
Who can help you right now? Who could be that minesweeper guest, that fellow podcaster who's kind of similar to what you do who could cross-promote you to their listeners?
See the average podcast listener subscribes to 6 podcast series, often a few on the same subject or style.
So unlike our choice of radio station (usually we have 'our' one station and rarely flit around), podcasts are different in that listeners prefer to listen to several series about the same 'niche', e.g. for me - I've about 4 ice hockey podcasts I listen to every week, I don't choose one or the other - I inhale all of them.
Let me give you an example of how this can help your output and your soul all at the same time.
My first foray into proper podcasting was hosting Manchester Storm's podcast when the professional ice hockey team came back into existence in 2015.
I'll be honest back then a) I'd never done a podcast on my own from scratch before and b) had very basic knowledge and understanding of the sport other than enjoying watching a few games on the telly in my bedroom.
It was overwhelming and terrifying starting out, particularly as a lone female in a boys world - no team of people to help me make it, zero followers and zero contacts.
However - I'm not one for backing out a challenge!
Once I stuck my head above the parapet, I quickly realised there was already a warm and welcoming podcast listening community among other fans of the Elite League across the UK. As time passed, it was an honour to be supported by some of the other podcasters - many of whom who had been running for several years and already established a loyal following. Every week we retweeted each other's new episodes, we made guest appearances on each other's series and on one occasion - both I and the presenter for Belfast Giant's podcast, Patrick Smyth, co-hosted a 'simul rec' episode interviewing other hosts from all of the 10 teams across the league. Together we realised that an Elite League #PodcastUnion was far better than only focusing on our club and our fans.
During those first two years podcasting, I learnt a lot from the other podcasters. Of which I'm forever thankful, because there's no way I'd be doing this podcast thang as a proper job now if it wasn't for their help!
When it comes to collaboration - thinking sideways and big picture is vital.
8. Where's best to record?
Think content first, quality second.
I know this is probably a bit radical to hear from a professional media type, but it's really not about fixating on getting a perfectly polished high quality sound with the most expensive microphones you can afford and editing out every imperfection..
What you say matters.
Your message matters.
Your energy matters.
Your passion matters more.
So let go of the idea of perfection...
My motto to my coaching clients is to just get started, and work on perfecting things later.
Don't be afraid to mix things up - a decent handheld stereo recorder is about £100 which means you're able to be more mobile when recording - e.g. Adam Buxton's introductions are usually done whilst walking Rosie the dog or Anna and I are always in a different location every episode, like this one where we're swinging on the swings in a children's play park whilst talking about weight loss!
Make where you record a part of the process, paint the picture to the listener, help them imagine what's around you, make the sounds happening nearby a virtue..
I prefer podcasts which are in 'real environments'. Why? Because when you're building a loyal following it helps listeners to imagine themselves walking or sitting alongside you. If you're in a 'normal' location as opposed to some big fancy studio, it'll likely be a place they've been to before or know what it looks like. Bring your podcast to your people.
9. Call to action
What do you want your listeners to do as a result of listening? I think in hindsight, many of us throw this opportunity away.
Earlier this year, when George The Poet snapped up not one, not two but FIVE gold awards at this year's British Podcast Awards I was bowled over by hearing him explain his why during a BBC Radio 5Live interview. His aim had been simple - to generate dialogue between his peers, academics and politicians about key issues facing society - education, racism, knife crime to name a few. Winning awards definitely helped, but within weeks of publishing his series, one of the episode's transcriptions had been submit as part of a foreign affairs committee enquiry into irregular immigration. Talk about making a difference...
There are smaller simple things you can ask for though. Even rating or reviews - "help us get ten reviews and we'll give you a special mention on the next episode", sign up to our newsletter, visit our website, subscribe to our magazine using our special podcast promo code, email us with your recipe ideas right now, send us your before and after photos via instagram...
But what about the more fun stuff? How can you capture the crazy passion of some of your die hard followers?
I once trailed the idea of listeners leaving us voice messages. (FYI the host Anchor.FM has this as a feature now for all their podcasters.) Imagine some of the responses we had of fans driving home moments after their team had been knocked out of a qualifying cup game in the final seconds? Yeah, find a way to bottle that stuff - in the moment. Sometimes an email days later just isn't the same.
10. A word about passion, honesty and vulnerability
If you ignore all the other 9 points and do this one - I guarantee you'll instantly boost loyalty from your listeners.
As a professional broadcaster, that word 'perfect' haunted me for years. Yet when I started telling listeners about some of the things I really struggled with, when I 'outed' myself about depression, about being overweight, about my seemingly never-ending heartbreak - my listeners responded ten-fold with their love back to me. Because for the first time I was being real.
See sometimes it's not about saying the right words in the right order in the right tone.
It's just simply about saying something from the heart. About being truthful and honest.
And if you really love what you're talking about as much as you say you do, then the chances are that there will be a whole bunch of other crazies out there who do too.
Stop focusing on download figures and listener numbers.
Get to know your tribe and what they love, how they listen to you and when they listen to you.
Building loyalty happens one listener at a time, just like making one best friends does.
Grab a pen and some paper. Set 90" on a timer. Now write a dream listener review... If there's more than one host, do the exercise at the same time.
What do you want someone to say about you? About your message? About how they heard about you? What would you want them to do as a result of listening? About what they want to happen next or on a future episode?
After time is up, look at some of the key words and phrases you've written down, could these be part of your podcast 'values'. How can you tailor your content, your questions, your language to appeal to this kind of listener?
Keep this piece of paper nearby whenever you record, stick it on a noticeboard where you'll see it often. In the laws of attraction and whatever magical fate you do or don't believe in...give it time, and if you keep this 'dream listener' in mind these reviews will start to appear in real life. Stay focused on what really matters to you and your why!
Clare Freeman is a podcast coach, producer and consultant to individuals and companies across the world. If you need 90 minutes one-on-one support to get started podcast, book her time online here. For more about her podcast consultancy services read here.