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Promoting a podcast like TV - when a download isn't a download

· By , from his I Hear Things newsletter · 11.2 minutes to read

I put out a podcast to newsletter subscribers on this topic this week, but I wanted to expand on the topic here because it has broad ramifications on podcast programming, audience development, and a potentially sinister side of “the download.”

Do you remember “Must-See TV?” NBC owned Thursday nights in America for a good two decades—they essentially put 3-4 flagship shows together in one evening, with the goal of owning a destination night lock, stock, and barrel. The programming was genius—it wasn’t monolithic, but a mix of comedy and drama that brought viewers on a journey from a quick laugh over dinner to prestige drama before the evening news. Some of the greatest TV shows in history occupied that Thursday block: Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, LA Law, and ER were amongst the brightest lights.

What made the strategy a masterstroke is that it short-circuited traditional cross-promotion (advertising Friends to Seinfeld viewers, who were ostensibly also fans of sitcoms) and instead funneled Seinfeld viewers directly into ER, building trust in the Peacock network along the way. It wasn’t a “bait-and-switch”; you could always turn the TV off after Friends. But millions of Americans did not switch the TV off, and instead allowed themselves to float down the lazy river from comedy to drama without so much as a whimper.

Must-See TV worked, and it worked because most of the time, NBC delivered high-quality programming that mattered. Also, and this cannot be understated, NBC removed from our lives that bane of our current pandemic existence, Netflix Paralysis. “What do you want to watch tonight?” was not a question we asked in our house on Thursdays. We didn’t even have to think about it. The psychic RAM being devoured in quarantine by two questions (“what do you want to watch,” and “what do you want to eat”) could probably power the Large Hadron Collider, or at least the Medium Hadron Collider.

Building Thursday nights was also a way to ensure a safe slot to nurture a big, future bet on a potential new prestige show. In 1997, NBC bet big on a new Kirstie Alley (Cheers, forgettable Vulcan science officer) vehicle called Veronica’s Closet, and they sent it off in style by installing the new show in the coveted 9:30 PM time slot, directly between Seinfeld and ER, where it lived for two seasons. The downside of this, of course, is that you get a false sense of the “draw” of a show that way. For the third season of Veronica’s Closet, NBC moved it to Monday nights, where it met a most ignominious demise. Which, of course, begged the question—was Veronica’s Closet any good? Or did America just leave the TV on between the Georges Costanza and Clooney while they went to the bathroom and cracked a nice cold Zima?

I’ll give you the answer: Veronica’s Closet actually was pretty good. It was Monday that sucked. If Thursday was “Must-See TV,” Monday was “Maybe Sit This One Out During Football Season Mondays.” But the point stands—the power of NBC’s Thursday nights wasn’t simply in cross-promotion, it was to provide a guaranteed safe harbor in which to launch new prime-time programming—an incredibly risky venture!

I can tell you as a researcher—in general, we don’t like new things. As much as we may give lip-service to variety-seeking behaviors, our bent is to gravitate toward what we know over what we don’t. But media properties need to continue to develop the “new,” or their audiences will degrade. Luckily, there is a tried-and-true way to do this, and it is as old as Aristotle himself: the “known-new contract.”

In a previous life, I taught Rhetoric and Composition at Penn State (yes, this is a true story), and part of my charge was to teach freshmen how to introduce a new point or argument in a manner that their would-be audience would be receptive to. It turns out, the best way to introduce something new is to precede it with something familiar and easily agreed-upon. This concept, the “known-new contract,” is a rhetorical practice that increases the receptivity of a new point by first introducing it wearing familiar clothes. For example, if I wanted to make a bold point about podcast discovery and audience strategy, I might introduce it by first talking about Seinfeld and ER. You see what I did there.

Radio programmers may not call it “the known-new contract,” but the best of them know this tactic intuitively. A Top 40/pop programmer might really believe in a new song, but they also know that a completely new song, played out of the blue, will be a turnoff for the average listener. So you play a Taylor Swift song right before it, and a big Ed Sheeran song immediately after, and you train your listeners to expect that they are just one song away from a big, familiar powerhouse. This is how you protect the new in a suit of familiar armor. Charles Duhigg wrote about this in his bestseller, The Power of Habit:

“Hey Ya!” needed to become part of an established listening habit to become a hit. And to become part of a habit, it had to be slightly camouflaged at first, the same way housewives camouflaged kidney by slipping it into meatloaf. So at WIOQ in Philadelphia—as well as at other stations around the nation—DJs started making sure that whenever “Hey Ya!” was played, it was sandwiched between songs that were already popular. “It’s textbook playlist theory now,” said Tom Webster, a radio consultant. “Play a new song between two consensus popular hits…Managing a playlist is all about risk mitigation,” said Webster. “Stations have to take risks on new songs, otherwise people stop listening. But what listeners really want are songs they already like. So you have to make new songs seem familiar as fast as possible.”

Reader, I was that Tom Webster. Duhigg came up with the housewives-and-meatloaf bit, I am compelled to add.

Anyway, we are starting to see these kinds of strategies being adopted in the podcast space. Millions of Americans now have the podcast habit, and many of them developed that habit with a short-run series, like Serial, or Dr. Death. And those new converts to podcasting then added, “what is my next podcast” to that list of psychic RAM-devouring questions. Podcast discovery has been built to date on cross-promotion, but now, smart podcast networks are taking that additional step—what if I don’t just promote the next show, but simply stick it in the feed of a show you already know and love?

That’s exactly what Serial and the New York Times have done with their recent miniseries, Nice White Parents. If you search in your favorite podcast app of choice, you’ll find all five episodes as a separate podcast, co-branded from both participating entities. But, if you subscribe to Serial, you’ll also find all five episodes in that feed as well. Serial is placing a bet that if you like the flagship show, you’ll also like this new one, so why not just automatically deliver it to subscribers? In essence, Serial is the Stairway to Heaven that precedes that new Greta Van Fleet song (which is a crap analogy because Nice White Parents is way better than Greta Van Fleet and I’m sorry but that’s a hill I will die on.)

We track the relative strength of the leading podcast networks in our Podcast Consumer Tracker, and there are absolutely some networks that have built enough trust in their overall brand to leverage that trust and move from cross-promotion to actual cross-programming. It’s just smart audience development. Sure, you risk some unsubscribes, but you also have to trust your content. NBC took a risk that a potentially terrible Veronica’s Closet might wreck the lead-in to ER. But it didn’t. Smart networks like NPR and Wondery have already been putting the trailers for new shows into the feeds of popular, related podcasts. This is just the next step in that evolution.

I think we are going to see more and more of this sort of thing as podcasting matures and begins to act its size, which has grown from 1/25th of radio to nearly 1/8th of radio in our Share of Ear® research over the last five years. It’s just good programming. But it does bring up a measurement challenge. For that, we need to take a trip to Times Square. The photo above was taken during one of my last trips there in The Time Before The Death Of The Land.

I haven’t been to Times Square in five months, because… well, you know why. One thing I have always wondered about is how the hundreds of people who are handing out flyers to take a bus tour or go to the top of the Empire State or see the afternoon show at Flashdancers actually get paid. Do they get paid by the hour? By the number of flyers they hand out? Or are those flyers coded with the identity of the flyer-hander-outer, so that they are compensated on outcomes, and not on effort? I genuinely don’t know the answer to this, and I am still a few months away from being able to take one of these jobs and going undercover to find out. Anyway, my next Times Square job will more likely be to put on my old Elmo costume and get pictures taken for tips. But my curiosity about this particular slice of Big Apple economy remains: if the means of compensation is simply the number of flyers handed out, then there is an economic incentive to hand these flyers out not only to people but also to car windows and trash cans.

What prompted me to think about all of this was an item down near the bottom of Monday’s edition of James Cridland’s daily Podnews newsletter (which you can and should subscribe to at that answered the question “Why did the podcast Serial bounce so high in Podtrac’s Top 20 Podcasts for July?

For perspective, Serial showed up as the 11th ranked podcast in Podtrac’s monthly ranker, up 48 spots from June. Now, Serial is a huge podcast, even though there hasn’t been a new episode since November 2018. It’s still the gateway to podcasting for many, and likely the first podcast recommended to you by my pal Al G O’rithm if you’ve finished a more recent true crime show and are looking for the next podcast to binge. In fact, my company recently put out our Top 30 podcasts by reach for the one year period from Q3 of last year through the second quarter of this year, and Serial of course ranked well. But much of that rank was from a strong showing in 2019—it has naturally fallen off a bit in 2020 because, as I said, there hasn’t been a new show in over a year and a half. So why would Serial have dropped a bit in our ranker, which shows listening, and have spiked for the month in Podtrac’s download ranker?

First, I don’t doubt Podtrac’s overall finding—that there was indeed a spike in Serial downloads. Podtrac does a good job measuring downloads: not only are they certified by the IAB as adhering to their most recent standard for uniform download measurement, but Podtrac has themselves audited and certified Serial for transparency and compliance. Podtrac may not measure the whole podcasting space, but if they see a spike in downloads for Serial, I believe there was a spike in downloads for Serial.

So what’s the deal? Well. luckily, according to James Cridland, there is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this. He writes, and I quote:

It wasn’t anything to do with the news about the New York Times buying Serial Productions, it turns out - instead, it was that Serial’s feed had a promo in it for Nice White Parents, and the number of people still subscribed to the Serial feed kicked off all those downloads.

In fact, as I wrote earlier, the entire show is now available in the Serial feed. So it totally makes sense how Podtrac could register a spike in downloads, while we did not see a corresponding spike in reach or reported listens. But now we are left with this very uncomfortable situation in which three things are simultaneously true:

  1. Serial does everything right—there is absolutely no subterfuge here—the July episode is clearly labeled as a promo for Nice White Parents, and cross-promotion in the feed of one podcast is a common and even best practice for marketing new shows.

  2. Podtrac does everything right and correctly measures an increase in downloads to Serial, and

  3. It is highly likely that more people did NOT listen to Serial in July than in June.

Now, I want to be clear here—there is no fraud or malfeasance happening in this case. Most major podcast networks are using some kind of ad tech that demonstrates an ad was served, and there were no ads in the promo for Nice White Parents (except that the entire download was an ad for Nice White Parents, and not an episode of Serial.) It’s easy to understand and explain with a podcast like Serial. But when you start thinking about weeding all of this out with a network like, say, iHeart, which claims 470 shows on Podtrac, you start to wonder about how many completely above board downloads of a show are actually listens to that show, and how many are promos, trailers, and even episodes of entirely different shows. “Is a download a listen?” has always been the question with podcasts, but as networks begin to put more and more things into their feeds, there is a whole new dimension in play.

Now I am certainly biased towards measures of listening—that is what we are doing in our Podcast Consumer Tracker, but measures of actual consumption, like TV and Radio ratings, are always going to be estimates unless we can impanel the whole country into one big survey. There is always going to be a place for download measures, which I think can sit comfortably right next to measures of listening and reach. But I don’t want to end this podcast without restating what actually happened here, and not without a trace of horror: a legitimate show…legitimately a legitimate download measurement and the people who downloaded that show, did not listen to that show.

And this brings me back to Times Square and the legion of people handing out flyers for bus tours. Measuring flyers-handed-out is a process measure. Measuring flyers-turned-in-for-a-purchase is an outcome measure. The two can and should be compared, frequently. If the process measure differs dramatically from the outcomes measure, and does so erratically in unpredictable spikes, then a fair bit of uncertainly is injected into the system.

And this is not what we need right now, Elmo.

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The above is adapted with permission from Tom Webster’s newsletter, I Hear Things. Subscribe here, and get the whole thing, free, every week.

Tom Webster is Senior Vice President at Edison Research, and is co-author of a number of widely cited studies including The Infinite Dial, The Podcast Consumer and The Podcast Consumer Tracker. He lives in Boston MA, USA.

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