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How to Turn a Profit with Your Podcast – Ben Shapiro
The Agents of Change

How to Turn a Profit with Your Podcast – Ben Shapiro

Podcasts are gaining in popularity. As a business owner, does that mean you should care? According to Ben Shapiro, “Absolutely!” There’s no better way to tell a story and connect with your audience than through the power of a podcast. Even better, there’s really no set “rules’ when it comes to podcasting, and there’s very little needed to get started.

Imagine the power of positioning yourself as an expert in your field, all while reaching a new, targeted audience, and giving them the ability to consume your content in such a convenient way. And with so many great tools out there designed to help take the guesswork out of podcasting, you really have no excuse not to get started. So what are you waiting for?

Rich: My guest this week is a brand development and marketing strategy consultant. He left a successful career in business development at eBay to become an entrepreneur, and has run a bootstrap startup, multiple marketing teams, at early stage VC companies, and an independent consultant business.

He specializes in helping growth stage companies understand how to identify the overlap between corporate identity and customer needs to build an effective marketing strategy. He was also the producer and host of the top rated MarTech Podcast. Please welcome, Benjamin Shapiro. 

Ben: Rich, great to be here. Thanks for having me on the show.

Rich: I am glad you’re here. You know, we should have some welcome noise so it sounds like there’s an entire crowd. I mean, obviously people are at home now or in their car listening, and I’m sure they’re cheering you on, but you can’t hear that.

Ben: You know, I appreciate the kind words and the introduction. No applause required, I’m honored to be on the show and it’s great to connect with you. I’m a big fan of what you’re doing.

Rich: Well thank you. And of course I loved being on your show a couple weeks back. So let’s talk podcasting, that’s always a favorite subject of mine. How did you arrive at podcasting form that background that I just described?

Ben: Yeah. You know, I got into podcasting kind of a funny way. I went to a party and maybe had one too many beers, and was feeling a little talkative and sat up front in a Lyft on the ride home and I started talking to the driver. And as it turns out he was a defector from North Korea.

Rich: Wow!

Ben: And I was asking him about his story and it was just this amazing tale of how he escaped from North Korea and got captured brought from China to North Korea and back and escaped a second time and defected to the United States. And I was so taken back by his story, that I asked him if he wanted to tell it to someone else an offered to help him. And we decided that we were going to turn that tale into a podcast. And that podcast is called, A Long Road Home, which tells the stories of how Uber and Lyft drivers get to where they are and why they’re doing the job they’re doing. Because there’s a lot of interesting people you can meet just through the technology-driven, on demand community.

So it really started off as kind of an art project. I didn’t have an agenda for The Long Road Home, but I wanted people to hear his story. And then later on as my consulting business started to hit an inflection point, I just decided I want to create a content asset and started doing some experiments, and that’s really the genesis of the MarTech Podcast.

But I got into podcasting originally on a whim. Kind of a fun little project that I wanted to work on just for the sake of producing something good for the world.

Rich: That’s an awesome story. Also I would argue that MarTech is also something good for the country and for the community as well. Tell us a little bit about the MarTech Podcast.

Ben: I think the main difference between The Long Road Home and MarTech for me, is that the MarTech Podcast was originally designed from a business perspective to be a lead generation tool for my consulting practice. We tell the stories of great, innovative marketers – like you, Rich – who have done unique things or are subject matter area experts, who have interesting careers.

Everything is interview-based and it’s a daily show, so we’re pushing out 15-25 minute episodes once a day. The show has been around for about 14 months, and after about 3 months when I was still in the experimentation phase, I realized that the audience was growing at a fast enough clip that I thought there was an opportunity to not necessarily use the MarTech Podcast as a lead generation tool for my consulting practice, but to actually scale the audience.

We got great metrics starting out, but I thought there was an opportunity to turn it into a content business and help sponsors meet people interested in marketing and technology. After about a year, we’re kind of really focused on scaling the monetization portion, while also producing consistently high quality content.

Rich: Before we get to that phase of your podcast career, where you’ve basically turned this into a content platform you can sell sponsorships or ads against, let’s talk about how you used it for lead gen. Did you have strong calls to action or was it just about positioning yourself as an expert? How did you try and get somebody from listener to client, or at least prospect?

Ben: You know I didn’t do a great job of that, and it’s one of the reasons why I decided to focus on the different monetization strategy. I think that my philosophy going into this for the first three months was to just focus on understanding what type of content people wanted first, and build an audience. And then once I had a sense of how the audience was going to grow, start to build in some call to actions.

Originally I started doing a once a month episode at the end of each month, which talked about what we were doing and how we practice what we preach in the creation of the podcast and the marketing of the show. So it’s really like my month in review business strategy, which we publish where you can follow along, where we’re totally open and talk about everything from what channels were invested, to marketing and how we’re building our content production.

So there’s one once a month at the end of every episode. And that’s really where I was going to be starting to do the soft sell to get people to engage with me and start to talk about brand development and the marketing strategy consulting practice that I was running.

What we found was that there wasn’t a tremendous amount of engagement initially after the first three months, and in fairness that’s only 3 impressions, it was only three episodes. And the audience was still relatively small, only a couple thousand downloads a month, which felt huge at the time but now we’ve actually grown a significant amount since then.

I just saw that there was a trajectory where it was easier to pick up new listeners than it was to try to get them from the podcast to my consulting site. Because honestly, if my consulting site wasn’t super differentiated – and it’s hard to tell what I do as a consultant without having worked with me before – that is different than every other marketing consult. And so now that I’m more focused on podcasts I feel like we have some points of differentiation.

But really like my consulting practice, I was just another good marketer so it was mostly focused on my personal network and we weren’t very successful getting people from the podcast. We were more successful getting people to listen to the podcast than we were getting them from the podcast to my consulting practice content.

Rich: So let’s talk a little bit about that transition phase. So at some point you said alright, I think that we’ve built up an audience that other people may want to get in front of. So what did that look like? How did you decide what you were going to charge, how did you approach sponsors? I’m curious about that whole part of your business.

Ben: So I’ll take it back a step and sort of talk about the three phases to get to that point. The first phase was a testing phase, trying to figure out what content made sense. The second phase was about scale. I felt that it was important to have a testing phase, try to figure out what content made sense.

The second phase was about scale. I felt that it was important to have 10,000 downloads a month before I went to sponsors. I used to be able to say, “You should give me money to reach my audience.” That’s always kind of the gray area of podcasting is what is the level of size that actually matters. And I thought that credibility was 5 figures of downloads, 10,000 or more. And so I waited until we got to that point to go and reach sponsors.

And just like when we were trying to figure out what our content format should be, I just started with an experiment. My thought was that people that were doing brand-style advertising were going to understand the value of reaching a podcast audience. If you’re paying to be an event sponsor, you understand the sponsorship model, so why wouldn’t you be interested in being a sponsor of a digital asset like a podcast.

So what I did was I found a list of all of the digital marketing conferences and I hired a person to go build a list of contacts from the people that were running the marketing conference, or the sponsors of these shows. So for example, one of my clients is the MarTech Conference – we are unaffiliated with them other than they’ve run ads on our podcast and sponsored the show – but we went through and found all the people that sponsored the MarTech Conference and we reached out to them and said, “Hey, if you’re sponsoring this event that is trying to reach the MarTech community, we feel like you’d be a good fit to be a potential sponsor of the MarTech Podcast. We have 10,000 downloads a month.” 

We had hired an agency to get us into the app store, so we had good ranking in terms of the business shows and peaked at #5 on the business charts. But the email outreach was to the point where, “We have over 10,000 downloads, we’re a Top 50 show for business in the U.S. for Apple iTunes, and the show has been growing 20% more month over month, or 100% quarter over quarter. And we’d love to talk to you about becoming a sponsor of the show.”

So I just found that list and sort of enriched it with sponsors and eventually made some nice contacts and talked to them about what we were doing on the show. And that’s really sort of how we figured out who we were going to target and we got a really astounding response.

Just to give you some data and try to make this actionable as a benchmark. I think our open rates were something like – and it was a 3 email series – it’s something like 75% of people who we reached out to opened our emails. And of that, like 30% responded. When we reached the first 40 people I’d probably set up 10 meetings and signed 4 sponsors out of that. But it wasn’t really a scientific process. But reaching out directly and talking to them about why we thought they were going to be a fit for the sponsor. That was really the outreach strategy.

Rich: So I just want to clarify. A lot of people I know who are looking for sponsors for their podcast will just go to one of those middle men who finds sponsors and the podcast will put them together. It sounds like you decided to go straight to the source, correct?

Ben: Yeah. There’s a couple different reasons for that. First, my show was too small at the time to get attention from one of the enterprise level podcast ad sales companies. I’m sure that there are agencies that do sales for smaller companies, I just didn’t know who they were. And I have enough experience doing sales from earlier in my career that I just felt like I wanted to give it a crack myself, and that I would have a better conversion rate as the host of the show trying to sell my podcast because it feels a little bit more personal.

Everything that we do is very customized in the scope and we want to help the sponsors reach their specific marketing goals. And that means that I have to understand what those goals are to create compelling ads and find the right placements for them in our show.

So I felt that it needed to be personal for me to figure out what worked, as opposed to going and asking somebody else to sell the inventory first. We were just too small. The other reason why I didn’t want to go to the shows is that we don’t sell on a CPM basis. The average podcast when you’re an enterprise level and 1 billion downloads a month show, is somewhere between a $25-$50 CPM. Well when you only have 10,000 downloads, and I was spending 50% of my billable hours working on the show, if I was going to sell it at a $25 CPM, I’m going to make $250 a month.

That obviously was not going to pay the bills, so we needed to be able to put together a program where I could charge more and obviously provide more value for the sponsors. And so what we ended up doing was creating a few different products, we have host ready advertising and were able to use dynamic insertion. And that means that we can put ads into every episode of our podcast instead of just the new ones that we’re launching. So when a sponsor comes onto our show and somebody listens to an episode that was our first week of content, we have the ability to swap out an ad unit in that episode that they’re listening to with an up to date ad.

Rich: Wait, stop. Ok, so how is that possible? I don’t need to get into the weeds on this one, but I am kind of curious about the technology.

Ben: Yeah, yeah. Our host is Art19, I cannot recommend them enough, they are wonderful. And they are incredibly responsive and they have a great set of technology, and they basically charge on a CPM basis, it’s something like $1 per thousand impressions. If we have 10,000 downloads and they’re charging us $1 CPM, that’s $10 a month. It’s not a ton.

So they are our host, and whenever somebody goes into our contact, their technology has the ability to swap out the ad units. So we’re essentially going into our content and saying here is an ad unit – and we went through every piece of content so the ad unit has been marked as, “this is a pre roll”, or “this is a post roll” – and then we can go into an ad account and say this week for all the pre rolls we want to play this specific ad or these specific ads. So we actually run 2 ads per episode. And yeah, they can swap out the ad. So we’re not recording the ads into the content, we’re actually just leaving a place where the ads go. And then we’re dynamically inserting them so we can sell all of our inventory at once.

Rich: That’s very interesting. I was curious to see, you said you provide more value and that certainly sounds like it. Any other way that you’re kind of providing additional value for those clients?

Ben: Yeah. So we don’t have a ton of inventory, we still don’t to this day. Last month the podcast generated 37,000 downloads in the month. Which obviously coming from our first quarter when we were excited to have 2,000-3,000 downloads, is a significant jump. The show has grown 20% month over month, we’re doubling basically every quarter. But in the grand scheme of things, that’s not a ton of ad inventory.

We can serve 50,000 ad impressions in a month. And if you think of that in terms of how many ad impressions can you get on Facebook in a month, you could buy a lot more. Now our inventory is much more valuable than a display ad, but that’s just not enough. I can’t go to people and just say, “Ok, buy some sponsorship ads.” Because I would have to charge way too much for them to be reasonable, and just need more inventory to be effective.

So what we do is we build out advertorial content for our sponsors. And this is something that’s maybe unique to the MarTech Podcast, but we call out when somebody is a sponsor to the show. Our sponsors will come on and say, “We want to do a week of content for your show.” So I will do a 1.5-2 hour interview with one person that’s a representative from a sponsor, and I will talk to them in depth about a specific area or industry that they want to be positioned as an expert in.

So CallRail is a company that is phone tracking and analytics. When somebody calls your business phone you need to figure out what’s driving that call and whether it was effective. They did telemarketing week on the MarTech Podcast. Sparkpost is an email service provider. They came in and did email marketing week on the MarTech Podcast. So these are people I’d be happy to have on the show, but I’m blocking off a larger period of time to talk in depth with them and allow them to position themselves as subject matter experts to prove to the MarTech community that they really know their stuff. And that when somebody is ready to consider telemarketing, email marketing, agile marketing, and any of these broad topics, that they are somebody that should be in consideration because they were experts on the show.

So there’s absolutely an awareness of positioning aspect to the advertorial content, and we supplement that with our advertising. So not only do you get a week of this content, but then the audience is hearing from you for weeks and months beyond that. That’s a great way to drive somebody to your content.

And then the third thing we do is content syndication. So when we have advertorial content for our sponsors, we can then take that content and market it in other channels to people that we know are marketers and that we know have engaged with the MarTech community.

So the podcast is obviously a critical part to the marketing plan for any of our sponsors. But it is not the only thing that we’re providing. We’re creating content for them that they can use to remarket, somebody else helping tell their story. We use our advertising platforms to help them reach out audience, and then we can go and find other audiences – or re-engage our audience – on different channels. That’s really the whole sponsorship program that we put together.

Rich: I don’t want to put you on the spot, but ads are usually pretty obvious that they’re ads. Advertorial content gets a little bit murky. Do you call out that this is one of the sponsors, or do you just without saying anything position then as an industry expert?

Ben: Oh I shout it from the rooftops.

Rich: Ok.

Ben: And for two reasons. One, I don’t want anybody to feel that I’ve been misleading. Two, I think that it provides value. The intro for an advertorial week goes something like, “This week we’re going to talk about email marketing with a very special guest and a sponsor of the MarTech Podcast. X company is a representative expert and they also engage with the community and they’re putting their money where their mouth is to help tell you this story and educate you on this because it’s important to them.” So there’s no reason that I would hide that anybody is a sponsor.

Now I don’t say, “Hey, this person is paying us for this!” That seems silly to me, but I’m absolutely calling them out as a sponsor of the MarTech Podcast. And I can appreciate the crap out of them. I try to tell everybody that they’re sponsors because the sponsors that we have are incredibly wonderful and generous people, but they’re successful companies and I want people to know the caliber of company that are coming on to sponsor the MarTech Podcast and other credible companies that might be a good fit.

Rich: Makes a lot of sense. I am curious, when you transitioned from a lead gen platform to an advertised based platform, suddenly there were ads on your show. I’m assuming there weren’t before then. What was the audience reaction? Was there any pushback when you suddenly started having 30 second intro and outro advertisements on the show?

Ben: Not really. I think people understand the positioning of advertising. I mean, if you’re not too heavy handed and you keep the ads relevant to your brand, if you keep them short and direct, then people understand. People can literally fast forward through the ads.

I’ll give you some states. We have some tracking on how our ads are listened to. Our ad unit is roughly around 2 minutes, our pre-roll is roughly around 2 minutes into the content, not before the show, and 94% of the audience will not skip the ad. So only 6% of the people are skipping the ad. And then we have a post-roll that’s only 15 seconds long at the end. And something like 85% of the people listen to that ad that are still listening to the podcast. There is not a significant decrease in the number of listeners during the ad units, and there’ snot a lot of people that are fast forwarding through them.

We do two, 30-45 second ads in the front. So the max amount is going to be somewhere between a minute to two minutes of advertising for a 20-minute show, and then 30 seconds on the backend. So it is not a lot of advertising. By the time you pull your phone out of your pocket and press the ‘skip’ button, and then find the right place, the ads would be over.

So we just try and keep them short, we keep them direct. And really what the ads are meant to do is keep the sponsors top of mind, and most of the sponsors if not all of them are doing advertorial content, so it’s really just a reminder with the purpose of the brand. If you went ahead and listened to our advertorial content, you should already know who the sponsor is, because you’ve already heard a lot of their content of at least 20 minutes to an hour of them talking. And then there’s just a reminder of what the brand is, so you stay top of mind and that drives some engagement.

But no, at the end of the day, I don’t think people really frowned upon the ads. I think they understand that’s what keeps the show free and allows us to continue to create great content. And we keep the ads relevant to the brand so it’s something people would be interested in hearing about.

Rich: Now obviously to keep sponsors happy, one of the things you are probably looking to do is increase subscribers, increase listeners. What’s been working for you in that category?

Ben: There’s two questions to unpack there. One, how do we keep sponsors happy. And two, how are we growing the show. And they do overlap. I’ll talk to how we’re growing the show.

Primary growth driver – let me actually say it this way – there’s three or four growth drivers, right. One is the positioning of your show. When people are looking for a specific topic, are they able to type in what they’re looking for and find your show. We’re called The MarTech Podcast, people that are looking for “MarTech shows”, are going to find us in organic listings.

There’s virality, having the people that are on your show and talking about the content, building a community, getting new listeners to share your content. That’s all the free stuff, the basic blocking and tackling that you really need to nail in the first couple of months. If you’re getting a good signal and you’re not putting a lot of budget into marketing, you should still see growth when you’re publishing consistently.

When we realized that there was an opportunity to grow the MarTech community, I started investing capitol to grow. You’ve got to spend money to make money if you’re going to do this as a serious business. The two primary drivers of our growth in terms of paid acquisition, are the NIT, which is a dynamic ad insertion platform. And we’ve been doing a lot of advertising on the Inside newsletter marketing platform.

So NIT basically allows you to record your own audio ad, 30-60 seconds is the right length, and you can insert it into other really high quality content. And so in their marketplace you can buy ads; some political, some business shows, sports, comedy, there’s a whole wide array of shows that they have. They own all the rights to the CNN property. So mostly what I’m doing is I’m saying for the run of network – any CNN show – when the show is done I’m going to buy a post roll ad and I’m buying it for like peanuts. $1-$2 a CPM is not very much. But it’s my ad, not the host reading the ad, and it’s being inserted at the end of the show. My ad says something to the extent of, “Are you ready for your next great podcast? Are you interested in learning how great businesses grow? Check out The MarTech Podcast, which tells the stories of marketers who use technology to drive business results. Here’s a sample of the show”, that goes on for 15 seconds and then gives them some information on how to find the show.

From what I can tell, an attribution is always a hard thing in the podcast space but it’s getting better. It’s somewhere between $0.75-$1.50 cost per incremental download using the NIT platform. It is absolutely our bread and butter for growth. Anybody who is interested in growing a podcast, go buy ads on the NIT platform. It’s wonderful, they’ve got lots of inventory, it’s not very expensive, and my only piece of advice is, it’s not a direct response channel like Facebook where you’re super, super targeted. Because the inventory is relatively inexpensive, cast a wide net. And I’ll also throw out a caveat I had with a referral relationship with the NIT team, so take it with a grain of salt and tell that that I sent you. If anybody wants help getting in there, the NIT platform is set up and I am happy to help walk you through it and help you set up your campaign. But I also want to be up front, I’m not getting paid for any sort of promotion, and I use this because it is successful, but I don’t want anyone to feel like I’m kind of being shady about the sales.

The other channel that we use is the Inside newsletter. This is a platform that’s been created by Jason Calacanis. It is newsletters that cover a whole bunch of different topics. What’s happening in your local city, what’s happening in marketing, what’s happening in Bitcoin, Google, Apple, a lot of really interesting newsletters. And because they’re newsletters they get people’s email addresses. And because they have somebody’s email address, they can use ClearBit to understand what that person’s job title is and some demographics on them. And so they have the ability to basically create segments for you to market based on somebody’s job title.

And so I buy ads against known marketers in their newsletters. And that’s been very successful. I think the CPAs for us are somewhere between $1.50-$2.50, so a little more expensive than NIT but also a better attribution. And we’re still working on fine tuning that. I have a much longer history advertising with NIT than I do with Inside, but I see a lot of opportunity and it’s proven to be high growth and a valuable channel for us so far.

Rich: You and I talked about NIT and it’s this thing where I looked at it and I wish there’s more business podcasts I could buy into, and marketing ones. I love your advice for how you’re using CNN, and I’d follow that same advice probably for Agents of Change. I do have a new podcast called Fast Forward Maine, which is really just targeting growing businesses in Maine, although obviously you have a group that might be interested, that feels a little bit too niche-y at this point for that platform.

Ben: Well you can always target based on geography using the platform.

Rich: Oh, so I didn’t know that.

Ben: I think they have some keyword targeting as well. I tested the keyword targeting, they might have actually taken the feature down, I’m not sure. But it was just too fine of a filter. Even though I was going for shows that were marketing shows, it didn’t necessarily mean that I was… there are marketers that are listening to other shows, and I’ll use the Inside Newsletter as an example. My ads are getting shown on non-marketing content, but it’s getting shown to marketers.

And so because the inventory on NIT is inexpensive, you can afford to market broadly. Think of it as an awareness driving channel. Like if you were going to buy a TV ad, you’re going to reach a whole bunch of people, and a lot of them are going to be marketers. You’re just casting a wide net. Now you wouldn’t do that because the inventory is too expensive on TV, but in this case, the inventory is really inexpensive because podcasting is still a new and growing medium. I don’t know if it’s a new medium, but from an advertising perspective it’s relatively new.

So this is an opportunity to find really inexpensive, high quality inventory. Honestly, it’s a diamond in the rough. I’ve been marketing for long enough that there are very few opportunities where you can get really high quality content for really low cost. I just couldn’t sing their praises enough and it’s one of the reasons why I wanted to have a relationship with them is I really believe in what their company is about.

Rich: That’s awesome. This has been very helpful Benjamin, especially about my own podcast, and I know that a lot of our listeners are also podcasters. Even those who aren’t, there’s certainly marketers, where can they find you online?

Ben: Yeah, my website is benjshap.com. Right now that’s where the MarTech Podcast, our web content is hosted. You can go to MarTechPodcast.com, we’re in the process of migrating away from the benjshap domain to our own domain. But just search for MarTech Podcast, or just MarTech on any podcast app store. And my social handle on LinkedIn, on Twitter, pretty much everywhere is @BenjShap – the first 4 letters of Benjamin, and the first 4 letters of Shapiro.

Rich: Sounds good. Benjamin, thank you so much for your time today, I really appreciate it.

Ben: Rich, I love what you’re doing, I hope we can stay in touch. Thanks for having me, I love the show. 

Show Notes:

Benjamin Shapiro specializes in creating growth strategies for tech companies, as well as hosts an innovative podcast that melds together marketing and tech.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing 

Resources discussed in this episode:
Inside Newsletter