How to reach a million podcast downloads (for zero spend) when you’re not a celebrity…
As someone who has been podcasting since 2012 without any particular notoriety or fame, it was always a bit of a pipe dream to witness my listener count creep over that 1,000,000 figure.
But as of this month - that dream became a reality.
And yet we’re not celebrities.
We're not household names.
We pay nothing towards paid advertising spend.
We have no ‘big name’ or ‘big podcaster’ type guests to help boost listenership.
We have never been written about or featured in any press.
And we have no monetisation deal with a major podcast host.
So not surprisingly, in the last few days a number of friends and fellow podcasters have sent me private messages asking - how did we do it?
With my podcast coach hat on, let me be frank that sometimes it’s a case of simply getting the presenter chemistry right and the right niche at the right time.
But in my opinion - it’s never about luck.
Podcast success is about consistency.
Consistently putting in the hard work, turning up even when you don’t want to, learning and growing your knowledge to cover your weaknesses, and constantly asking - what else?
This is the story of the Slimming World Podcast’s rise to one million listens.
How we started
Back in 2018, I saw a gap in the health and fitness world.
I felt, as someone deep in a war against my own emotional eating, muddying my way through the trenches of yo-yo dieting - that there was very little listening material for those undertaking such a weight loss journey. I was searching for an audio offering of someone walking in my shoes.
Instead, there were plenty of experts telling me what to do - but not really feeling the empathy about a) how I got there and b) what it’s really like in the middle section of a weight loss journey - aka the grey murky bit between the before and after instagram photos. The part where you want to quit, hit a wall, or worse still - start going backwards and gain.
And so just before Christmas 2018, myself and my co-host Anna Mangan made a pledge to ‘give it a go’ recording a podcast every Monday for 6 months, documenting our own weight loss experiences.
We called it ‘Slimming World Food For Thought Podcast’. There was no pressure and no expectations.
We were just two (then) acquaintances bonding over the microphone, openly discussing our struggles with mental health, our sabotage triggers and how we were trying to enjoy the process of losing weight.
For me - that journey was a quest to lose 6 stone. And not just the weight in pounds, but also lose the shame and guilt that comes from gaining so much weight in the first place.
I knew in order to reach my target weight and stay there, I’d require a complete rethink about how I was living.
That meant quitting alcohol, going back to therapy and learning to love the gym.
To do all of this so publicly and in real time was never something I’d planned for.
In fact - if you told me in December 2018 that within two years we’d be one of the top 10 most listened to health podcasts in the country - I’d have probably quit there and then out of terror!
Our method - was via the Slimming World programme, one of the leading weight loss organisations in the UK. A company which we credit and thank for changing both of our lives.
On air we talked about how the plan worked for us, as well as weight loss issues on a wider scale so that it didn’t really matter which programme listeners were following. At the heart of our conversation was something practical or thought-provoking that anyone could relate to.
Most importantly, we wanted to create a space where listeners would be nodding their heads, laughing or crying, feeling understood, feeling like if we can tackle our bad eating habits - then they could too.
Within weeks of releasing the first few episodes, we were bowled over by the response. In less than two months we’d received hundreds of emails from ‘strangers’, late night DMs from new friends from afar and we revamped space in our schedule to record a monthly Listeners’ Questions episode. A place for others to shout about their wins, their lightbulb moments and ask for support. These LQ podcasts are still our most popular episodes every month.
But more intriguingly, we were featured by Apple Podcasts as ‘new and noteworthy’ (at this stage our logo was made on a phone app for £2.99!) and we’d started climbing the health and fitness podcast charts as a series to watch.
How we make the series
I mentioned in the title that we have zero spend on this series.
At the start, we used a free podcast host (anchor.fm). Now we pay a monthly fee to use Audioboom.
We still use a handheld stereo recorder I bought for other work I do (an Olympus LS12), so that we can walk and talk, and are free from the expense of a posh polished studio.
Location wise, we record our podcast mostly in my car (looking like doggers haha!), sat in parks, on benches in high streets, walking through supermarkets, my kitchen, and even in pubs or coffee shops.
I edit using Audacity (which is free) or Adobe Audition (which is part of my paid-for Adobe creative cloud package for other work).
For the most part - we don’t have guests. It’s just Anna and me, like two old friends chit chatting away.
Time wise - we batch pre-record a couple of weeks in advance. Pretty much our podcasts go out as they were recorded, very little is taken out content wise to keep it conversational and natural. (And easier to edit)
Social media wise - we don’t have a lot of resource or much time above our day jobs. So we stay targeted and focused. Using only email and instagram as ways for listeners to connect with us.
That’s the practical elements. As you can see - very basic, and very simple*.
But there is more to it, and I’ve spent a few days pondering over the ‘how’.
What we've learnt
If you are curious, and want to fast track your podcast success - here are a few bullet points of things to think about if you’d like your series to go on to attract the same kind of numbers:
Be reliable: When you turn up every week without fail, your listeners start to make you a permanent fixture in their routine.
I mentioned consistency earlier. And here’s why:
And a surge in the number of people subscribing is really what drives success to make a wave on the Apple Podcast charts - even without having a bizzillion listeners at first.
Also - don’t be afraid to ask listeners to subscribe or follow you. (I actually wrote a previous blog post about why this matters, read it here later if you wish)
Think when: I strategically chose early Monday morning as the publishing day.
See, for most people - they’re great at giving the diet thang a good go in the week. But come Friday and Saturday night - that’s when they come a cropper. And so Monday signifies the day most dieters ‘get back on it’. By publishing a new episode weekly, we proved to our listeners that whatever happened over the weekend, they could always rely upon a bit of bitesize mojo from Anna and I come the start of the week.
Think who: Getting into the mindset of understanding who your listeners are, when and how they will consume you is essential.
In our podcast, we often talk directly to our listener with intimate language. We tell them “grab your shoes, me and you are going for a walk”, or “get a cup of tea and some pen and paper, we’ve got some things you’ll need to think about today”. In return - our listeners send us all kinds of photos of where and how they’re listening to us - from the morning dog walk, to crocheting with friends!
Knowing what they’re doing whilst they’re listening is an essential part of planning your episode duration too. I know now that our sweet spot is about 30-40 minutes.
Collaborate: We never set out to make money. But we do, now.
We have always been called Slimming World Podcast, although initially it was more a case of practicality and ease, not about stealing trademarks.
It meant we did what we said on the tin - anyone searching the phrase ‘Slimming World’ would have found our podcast easily. And whilst SW HQ knew what we were up to, it wasn’t until a few of the directors starting listening and consultants starting talking about us that conversations began into how Anna and I could potentially work WITH them.
And so after many talks, scratching of beards and tapping on calculators, as of February 2020, our series became officially sponsored by Slimming World!
The contract didn’t require us to delete former episodes. Instead, via their blog, they celebrated our back catalogue and now share our new episodes with thousands of their consultants (who tell their members about us) every week.
They asked us to guest write on their blog, and even offered sneak previews of upcoming campaigns and potential podcast guests we may want to speak to.
If we’re not sure about a topic, a recipe or an answer to a listener’s question - we call them to check first. As a journalist - this is important to me, I want us to be fun but I also want us to be factually correct too. And now as influencers, we take our responsibility seriously!
We have a contract in place with them and a financial deal, of which obviously I’m not going to share figures of how much on a public post - but in the short-term it’s probably more than it would have been had we gone down the live read monetisation scheme offered by most hosting platforms.
We were already picking up good traction before the deal was in place, but collaborating with them has enabled us as just two relatively unknowns to be validated by a huge organisation, and to be marketed with a large network of potential new subscribers. The deal is exclusive, and is a great compliment from the company.
We really thank them for believing in us. And for supporting us as we are - not trying to make us be something we’re not for the sake of promoting their brand. This I think is something very rare, and a huge relief! (A big personal thank you to a lady who loves cool shoes called Rebecca!)
Know your community: Listen to your audience. When they say they don’t enjoy something, or when they reach out with ideas - consider taking them on board.
We’ve gone on to record some of our best episodes because of late night emails a few of our listeners have sent us! To them it might be just a ramble, but it could be just a handful of words that inspire us. It really is no mean feat doing a weekly podcast with no holidays - eventually you hit a wall with ideas, and you need to rely upon your community to help keep you motivated!
I think what sets us aside from other series, is that we know our listeners. We remember their names and their stories. We’re loyal to the scallop crew in Sussex who supported us from the start, to Benji for his biking updates and Billy for his recent dabble with yoga, for Tina and Sarah keeping us posted via email for their highs and lows with mental health, and for the anonymous messages which simply start with “I had to tell you first because you feel like my friend”.
In April 2020, in the darkest depths of lockdown we hosted a live listeners questions recording via Zoom with 100 people watching. They dressed up especially (our dress code was leopard print), they snacked on melon balls and the chat box never had a moment's peace the whole way through as they chatted with each other.
It was great for Anna and I to finally ‘meet’ our audience. For a few of them to share their stories on-air as-live with us. And for us to feel like we are on the right path. That our ethos, our tone and our content is still relevant according to our original mission: Allow those on weight loss journeys to feel heard and understood.
Speak your truth: Choose authenticity over perfection.
As a podcast producer, consultant and coach - I have made many podcasts with big brands, with artists, with theatre makers and the BBC. All carefully planned, polished series and of the highest quality. But rather bizarrely none have come close to the success of this series.
I’m not saying that the other podcasts were lying - they weren’t! But when something is so precisely put together, it can lose a sense of authenticity. And it seems what listeners really love about this series is that fact that it’s real. Real people, in real places - the erms, ahs and interruptions are left in - even after the edit.
So my most surprising discovery is that honesty, authenticity and passion will always outweigh perfected polished studio recordings.
Why? Have a look at some of the comments our listeners have sent to us:
“I lost my way. I was down beat, broken and ready to quit but then I binged listened to these wonderful and strong women who are relatable, honest and inspiring! You have picked me up again and and you have dusted me off! Amazing!” Ashley on Apple Podcasts
“There are so many examples of things you have both said that I 100% related to, I could be saying them myself. You have both taught me that so many people feel the same as I do, I’m not a total loner and more important I can do this, and there is no shame in having to rejoin and do it again.” Michelle via email
“I’ve got two new friends sat in my living room drinking non alcoholic gin and tonics, eating frozen watermelon balls who just ‘get me’. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” Bridgett via email
“I just wanted to say thank you so much for the ‘loneliness’ episode. It actually looks me a few days to listen to it as every single word spoke to me so much that it was really emotionally triggering and I kept getting too upset to listen as I heard myself in so much of it. But it has made me realise a lot of my eating comes from loneliness. Thank you so much girls. I love you both! (Is it weird that I feel I genuinely love you both!?!) Jayne on Instagram
“You help keep me (and many others) up during the week. Even the episodes when you feel like sh*t, it just shows us how real you are. Thank you x” Rob via Instagram
Have fun: Because life should be enjoyed.
On previous posts I’ve talked about the three c’s - these are consistency, collaboration and creativity. And for this post I’m going to rename creativity as fun. Why? Because I’m not sure people realise how hard it is to sustain a podcast for more than 7 episodes. (Something I call the 7 episode itch!) Or even how hard it is to sustain a podcast for over a year. Or even how hard it is to sustain a podcast when there’s money involved and the stakes have been massively raised…
And so the way Anna and I have coped with the added pressure is by doing things we wouldn’t normally do. That is keeping things fun, and sometimes - very silly. But we’re not everyone’s cup of tea.
They say you know you’re truly successful when others start hating on you. And with over a million downloads, it goes without saying - we do have our haters. Even if we are giving ourselves and our stories so openly and freely. The words of our critics are incredibly personal and sting A LOT.
So some days we have to push through the uncomfortableness and laugh through our fears and tears! Especially on the weeks where we’re not well, or a family member is in hospital, or even one of us is in hospital.
Despite all that - we always have fun. Anna and I barely knew each other when we first hit record nearly two years ago. Together over the last 22 months our listeners have witnessed us become close friends, overcome huge obstacles in our lives, smash mega milestones. We have laughed and cried together. Heck we have even got half naked with each other! (For the record, it was for this episode with a personal stylist!)
We have sat on concrete floors in the rain with soggy bottoms and nearly wet ourselves as Anna attempted to ride a bike for the first time in 32 years…
These moments have taught me a lot as a podcast producer and coach to others. That sometimes when we’re carefully planning for the perfect podcast series - we can forget to plan IN the fun, or simply delete them in the edit without a moments thought.
They say there are three reasons most people listen to a podcast: to be informed, to be educated and to be entertained.
It’s too easy for producers to take out these random ordinary moments because they don’t fit the agenda or series brief.
But the times where a huge butterfly interrupts your recording or you put too much chilli in a fish cake are what make your listeners smile, and want to listen to more of you.
I hold my hands up - prior to making this series, THAT is something as an award-winning BBC producer I had overlooked completely.
360 success: How will you measure your progress?
I add this as an ‘and finally’ point because sometimes listener figures don’t really matter. Sometimes the money doesn’t matter. Let me explain why.
I wrote a blog post last year about the truth behind listener numbers on podcasts: ie the average episode is listened to 124 times.
For most people, that wouldn’t be worth the slog of keeping a series going.
But there are lots of other ways you can measure your success without these attachments to numbers - by the reviews you have on Apple Podcasts, being nominated for an award, or receiving an email from someone saying you changed their life a little bit.
To be a part of a series downloaded a million times is incredible.
I am so proud of what we’ve achieved.
I am proud that by sharing our stories we are making a difference to an extraordinary number of people!
But in truth - my personal success is measured by the opinion of just two of those million listeners: my mum and my dad.
Both are avid listeners of my series, sometimes quoting back to me things I said months ago in passing conversation!
The last three years have been extraordinarily challenging for me.
It hasn’t been easy facing up to the depression, the heartbreak, the loneliness, the form of self-abuse I have put myself through over the last 15 or so years.
But I’m emerging the other side - and I feel it my duty to share my how with others who are in the same shoes I was back then.
I have found a safe space to share my story.
Audio allows for closeness and intimacy in a way TV doesn’t.
On mic I talk with Anna about things I’d have never had the balls to tell my family in person.
And to know they are listening and truly hear me, understand me, and support me is worth more than a million dollars, a million episodes or a million listeners.
I never thought my recorded ramblings in my car with a friend would be the catalyst to open up much-needed dialogue on why health matters with my family - let alone strangers around the world.
And that’s something I will always be grateful for - no matter the number of zeros on our listener figures.
*Disclaimer alert: This is the 8th podcast series I’ve created from scratch in the last ten years, so it’s taken a few lessons and bumps along the way to get it right.