Beyond Downloads: How to Measure the ROI of Your Brand’s Podcast, the Doctor Strange Way
Ah, the funnel. What was once a fringe form of frat bro stunting came to mean, well, something much different once we became professional marketers. This looming V-shape over everything we do inevitably warps how we approach the work. Take the measurement of podcast ROI at our brands: pain in the butt, right? But(t), maybe it doesn’t have to be. Rethinking what we’re doing ever so slightly can help us avoid making a terrible mistake, one that plagues a lot of well-intentioned content marketing: killing something that’s actually working purely because we’re measuring it all wrong.
So, how can we show measurable ROI from our podcasts? First, we need to start with a fresh perspective on where a podcast fits in the funnel, which of course leads us to a shocking revelation about just how strangely we’re measuring our marketing thanks to the shape of a funnel. In the end, we’ll land on something even more strange — Doctor Strange, the Marvel superhero. Turns out he had something to say about podcasting measurement and success. Like, kinda.
So yeah: the funnel.
The funnel has been around more than a century. A guy by the name of Elias St. Elmo Lewis invented it in 1898. (Or “E. St. Elmo Lewis” as he was more commonly cited. Because Olden Times.) The funnel made so much sense back then that it persists even today. It’s inescapably logical, after all: We need to reach way more people than we actually need to buy from us since, at each step of the buyer’s journey, we’ll lose some people. We just accept that. I’m not here to challenge it, either. It makes total sense: more people will be aware we exist than will buy from us. However, what we shouldn’t accept are the reasons why we lose people along the way. We should fight hard to fix them, and, luckily, podcasts can help, provided we know how to measure their effects.
Let’s start there: Why do we lose people in the funnel? I think there are two root causes, and everything else is just a symptom of one or both.
The 2 Underlying Reasons We Lose People
Either (1) they lose interest, or (2) we push them away.
Losing interest is about the audience’s choices. They arrived voluntarily (‘inbound,” in Ye Olde Marketing Parlance), but then decided to head elsewhere, wandering off into the endless wilderness of content.
When we push them away, it’s because we’re presenting them with something they didn’t choose themselves, and they don’t like it. That’s not to say we shouldn’t proactively share or ask our audience to take action. We should. It’s just that, the subtle art of knowing when to do it, and how often, and what to share or say … that’s a whole big thing, isn’t it? I think we most commonly push people away when we introduce more friction than they’re ready to experience. We ask something of them before the relationship has reached that natural point, because we’re impatient. (e.g. We want them to take a product demo, but they’re about two hours of time spent with us away from being ready.)
Look, I get it: It all feels unavoidable. OF COURSE some people will lose interest over time. Maybe they self-select out of our funnel, or maybe another thing just wound up being better suited for them. That’s inevitable. But what if it was LESS inevitable? What if we could better hold their attention over time?
And OF COURSE we need to act at least a little pushy if we’re going to turn passive traffic into an active audience or qualified leads, customers, or brand evangelists. We have to introduce some friction along the way. But what if our calls to action felt like LESS friction to them? What if we could increase the odds that they’d say yes to taking that next step with us?
That’s the power of a podcast executed and measured well. We hold attention, because a show is built with that exact goal, and we create a deep relationship more quickly, increasing the odds they’ll act. As a result, let’s rethink where podcasts fit in our marketing funnels.
Podcasts don’t sit at any one spot in the funnel. Instead, they straighten the entire damn thing.
Shows of any kind are built with the express goal of keeping people around over time, both inside one episode and across a series. That type of experience and time investment accelerates the formation of a true relationship, deepening it along the way. We can make the inevitability of losing others from our funnel just a bit less inevitable, and when we ask something of the audience, they’re more likely to feel the trust and positive feelings towards us to say yes, whether our requests are implied (like we published new content and hope they find and consume it) or it’s overt (like we’re delivering an actual CTA). What feels like a high-friction ask of a bunch of passive visitors to our site feels far more palatable or even welcome to a passionate audience.
We haven’t changed our asks. We haven’t had to rethink the entire funnel. We’ve just embraced podcasts for what they are: accelerants.
Thus, podcasts shouldn’t be measured as top of funnel activities any more than we should expect direct bottom of funnel results right away. Podcasts are about velocity. They make that dang V look a lot more like a couple I’s chilling on a park bench.
Podcasts don’t sit at any one spot in the funnel. Instead, they straighten the entire damn thing.
So how can we prove this? If that’s what a podcast is for, then how can we tell if it’s working? To answer those questions, we need to look the biggest issue the funnel creates when we try to measure ROI, and we need to look at it right in its big, dumb face.
Why the Marketing Funnel Prevents Us from Measuring Podcast ROI Correctly
(Side note: It’s not just podcast ROI. It’s a lot of projects, content, and campaigns. But you’re busy, and I’m hungry, so we don’t have time to save all of marketing just yet.)
Here’s the foundational issue underscoring it all: We’ve become measurement extremists. The very shape of the funnel causes us to bifurcate how we measure our marketing into two groups, top and bottom. Something must either be built for broad reach, and so we look to measure “more,” or it must generate a lead or sale in the near-term, at the bottom of the funnel. Approaching our work with this mentality, we lose a ton of crucial nuances in between, and this kills off a lot of potentially powerful work, including many podcasts.
Think of an actual funnel. If you described it to a child, you’d probably talk about the top and bottom only, right? “Here, Sam, I’ll show you: See? You pour water in the top, and then, oOoOoh, the water comes out of the bottom!”
As marketers, that’s where we focus, and so that’s what we measure.
This. Is. Broken. It’s Broke Phi Broke. (Yes, that’s a super old Kanye reference, and yes, I thought of it because I opened with a reference to college. You’re welcome, America.)
Allow me to go full-on Shark Tank contestant for a second: “There’s got to be a better way!” And there is. There’s a much better way to actually show a return from our podcasts, but we can’t rely on the nice, neat reports most podcast apps give us. This one’s on us marketers. (I feel good about that, quite frankly.)
How to Actually Measure the ROI of Your Brand’s Podcast
Since podcasts don’t sit anywhere in the funnel in particular and, instead, straighten the whole thing, we need to measure the effects of that straightening. Don’t get me wrong: There are definite benefits at the very top and bottom, but these are helpful and specific byproducts that don’t tell the whole story. At the top, a podcast can reach net-new audience or help you own a theme in the market. It also gives brand and content marketers endless content, creating efficiencies across channels. At the bottom of the funnel, a podcast can equip sales with endless great examples of a team’s thought leadership and helpfulness. But measuring a podcast solely for these top and bottom benefits would be taking a narrow view of the overall impact of podcasts on a brand. Remember: They hold attention for 10, 20, 60 minutes per episode, and hours per month. That’s insane by marketing standards! They accelerate relationships, and thus keep people in the funnel and increase the odds they’ll take action down it.
Podcasts straighten the funnel for people who listen.
So how do we measure that?
First of all, we need to get beyond downloads. A download really just means a file was taken offline, which often happens automatically without a listener knowing it thanks to their podcast player settings. Downloads also don’t show listens, which makes them a crude metric at best. They’re signal of success, like putting a finger to the wind. If all we look for (or show our bosses) are downloads, we’re stuck optimizing for a faulty metric with one way to showcase success: More!
Showing subscribers to our shows would be better, though right now, podcast apps don’t release that data. Even if they did, it’s tough to hang our hats as marketers on growing a list we don’t own. Just ask anyone who’s built an audience on a third party platform and had their mini-empires come crashing down when an algorithm changed or the third party platform decided to make more money off their users: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Medium, YouTube, and LinkedIn have all restricted or experimented with the organic reach a brand or a creator experiences when posting something to their followers or subscribers.
No, we need something better than downloads, and even better than the slightly-more-helpful time spent/dropoff stats (or subscribers, could we see that data). As with most content marketing, we need to rely more on a little something called e-…WAIT FOR IT... mail.
You knew I was going to say e-mail. I got carried away and I’m sorry.
To measure the efficacy of our podcasts, we need to rely more on email.
By getting people off third party apps, we not only avoid a whole slew of potential issues down the road, we can begin to measure success a lot more easily today. There are a few ways to pull this off, with the simplest being to survey existing email subscribers from your master list to ask who listens. Separate those who say they listen from those who don’t, and, if all things emailed to them are equal, compare the engagement levels and conversion rates of each list. Theoretically, someone who chooses to spend hours of their life with you every month should be more productive for your brand than those who don’t.
(Additionally, you can use a more advanced tool to track their activities away from the inbox, as many marketing platforms today can see which people in your database took which actions with you across your website and social media.)
Making Email Worth Their Time
The best approach, I believe, is creating a separate email list only available to listeners. The key here is to make those emails worth a listener’s time. They’re already getting your show after all. They’re already loving it and you. So why should they leave the comfort of their aggregation app where all their other favorite podcasts reside to join your email list too? This is, indeed, a high-friction ask.
We have to make that email list irresistible.
This works best if the list is exclusively found via your podcast. In other words, you know with certainty that anyone who joins came from the podcast, and you segment that list as separate from your master list or other segments in order to better track activity. After that, there are three ways to create an irresistible email list for podcast listeners:
1. Use ONE call-to-action in your episodes.
Here’s a scene from the movie Avengers: Podcasting War. (18% on Rotten Tomatoes.)
Dr. Strange: “I went forward in time, to hear all the possible CTAs of the coming episode.”
Tony Stark: “How many did you hear?”
Strange: “14 million six hundred and five.”
Stark: “How many should there be?”
Podcasters have a way of stuffing episodes too full of disparate CTAs. We ask them to rate and review (and open a specific app to do so, usually Apple Podcasts, where the bulk of listens happen). We want them to share our show with a friend, to tweet us @ThisHandle and @ThatHandle, or follow us on Instagram @ProbablyTheSameHandles. We share our emails in case they have feedback, alert them to our upcoming annual conference, and don’t forget to subscribe to get all future episodes right in your podcast player of choice. If we want to prove ROI, the focus of any requested action before, during, or after an episode should be singular: subscribe to the email list.
We give them 14 million six hundred and five options. They should hear one.
Yeah but what about–Nope! One.
Okay, but we still need–One.
So you’re really saying we–One.
2. The email must provide discrete value.
In other words, listeners need a reason to want the emails. No longer is it enough to “get updates” via email. We already have infinite alert systems to content across endless channels. “Discrete value” means the email itself is valuable. We need to minimize the steps our audience needs to take to get value. They open the email, and BAM, they’re learning and enjoying themselves.
One approach is to act as curator, rounding up industry resources or your own content. Finding lots of education or entertainment collected all in one place is a time saver and helps audiences discover new or better things to consume. Better yet, copy and paste some great content right into the body of the email itself. But the BEST emails provide content that isn’t copied from anywhere else…
3. The email’s discrete value should also be exclusive.
Lastly, the email should provide something found nowhere else but that email. Yes, this means some of your best work should go to one of your smallest audiences (likely most valuable though) via one of your lowest-visibility channels. This exclusive value can be original content or other exclusives, like access to people, events, beta features, or something else, something only you can deliver, and you only deliver it via email. (My vote is always to “smooth the edges” by providing exclusive content. If someone is excited about a show, they probably want more content before taking any deeper action with us.)
If subscribers are your VIPs who volunteer to spend significant time with you, then your podcast email list is like a VIP section inside another VIP section. What do we give VIPs? Exclusive stuff. And what do we give the V-est of VIPs? The most exclusive of all the stuffs.
A singular focus on email list CTAs, adding discrete value, which is also exclusively found via email: These are the three pillars of true podcast measurement. Once we have an email list of listeners, measurement becomes far easier — not to mention, we reap the rewards of a healthy, growing email list, which goes far beyond simply monitoring activity and genuinely helps grow our businesses.
Podcasts are relationship accelerators. Are we measuring accordingly?
Ask yourself: What if you could lose fewer people at every step in the funnel? What if the friction you introduced when you call someone to act felt juuust a little bit easier to handle? What if your job was to market to people who already adored you? Wouldn’t all of this stuff get easier, and our return on investment higher?
As marketers today, we have a new marketing mandate. We can’t just grab attention. We need to become masters of holding it. Great marketers care about time spent, not clicks; subscribers, not views; audience, not traffic.
In theory, this should be how every brand measures their podcast ROI. We can escape the vague notion of downloads, or at least supplement it, in favor of something that is both more concrete and more helpful to our businesses. That’s the theory anyway. The only question is, will you put it into practice?
Podcasts are uniquely suited for a unique new era of marketing. They don’t sit anywhere in the funnel. They straighten the entire damn thing.
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, author of Break the Wheel, and host/producer of docuseries about creative work. I’m a believer that exceptional work happens when you find and follow what makes you an exception. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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