7 Lessons from the Road to 21 Million Podcast Downloads

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So you’ve got a podcast, or you’re thinking of starting one.

How do you begin?

When you’re starting out, podcasting can seem overwhelming. 

After all, there are currently over three million podcasts in the world. That’s not podcast episodes, but podcasts. And over 50 million episodes.

Another sobering fact: 1% of podcasts receive 99% of all downloads. 

All that said, there’s hope. I think my Leadership Podcast is a case in point that making an impact can happen to anyone.

After all, my podcast started as a hobby for me back in 2014. Since then, it’s grown into something far bigger than I ever imagined. It recently passed 21 million downloads and is in the top 1% of podcasts globally, which still surprises and amazes me daily.

In this post, I’ll share 7 lessons I learned on the road to 21 million downloads.

A little more perspective though before we get to the 7 lessons.

While 21 million downloads are a lot of downloads, some podcasts like The Joe Rogan Show, The Tim Ferris Show, Office Ladies, and True Crime have hundreds of millions, if not billions of downloads. 

Success is relative.

According to Axios, however, the median podcast has 124 downloads per episode.  

If you’re wondering where your podcast lands, here’s the breakdown of downloads per episode in the first 30 days of releasing an episode according to Axios.

The top 1% of podcasts receive 99% of all downloads.  Click To Tweet

That Said, Don’t Get Discouraged

You might feel a little overwhelmed and discouraged after looking at those statistics whether you’re a wanna-be podcaster or you’ve already launched one.

Naturally, it’s not easy to get into the top 10% or 1% of podcasts.

To be totally transparent,  I’m not sure that if I started over again today that I’d see the success I’ve seen. Yes, there has been a lot of hard work. Yes, I had and have a strategy. But there’s a lot of grace and just a little bit of chance in the mix.

All of that said, there’s a lot of hope.

There are great reasons to jump into podcasting if you want to serve the people you lead better.

Although radio still dominates podcasting in terms of listenership, over 60% of Americans now listen to podcasts, and the demographic – while diversifying – is younger, more affluent, and more educated than the general population. In other words, through podcasting, you’re more likely to reach the influencers who follow you as well as other thought leaders. And, for a local podcast, you’ll reach the people who are really engaged in your mission. 

So, don’t get intimidated. Yes, there are a lot of podcasts out there, and yes, finding new audiences is hard. But jumping into podcasting is a little like planting a tree: The best time to do it was years ago, but the second-best time to do it is today. 

I’ve launched or helped launch some other podcasts in the last few years, and they’ve all made it into the top 20%, including people with small platforms. 

So, how do you do it? 

Here are 7 insights I’ve learned along the way.

Jumping into podcasting is a little like planting a tree: The best time to do it was years ago, but the second-best time to do it is today. Click To Tweet

1. Pick a Format

 The first thing you should do is pick a format.

I picked a format I knew I could do—long-form interviewing.

At the time I launched my podcast (back in 2014), the long-form interview podcast was almost unheard of in the church space. I’d listened to business podcasts for years and loved the interview format many business podcasts had.

The interview format felt scalable and sustainable to me. Interviewing someone would take preparation, but probably not as much preparation as me teaching into the microphone week after week after week. My sermons (I was still preaching regularly back then) were already being shipped in podcast form, and I wanted to do someone new in the leadership space. 

So the interview format just made sense.

A second formatting question you need to ask is whether you should do long-form or short-form podcasting.

The reality is both work.

At the time when I launched, everyone told me I should go short. But when it came to interviews, I disagreed.

I found every great conversation I’d ever had personally was never 10 or 20 minutes long.

So I trusted my gut and dove into long-form interviewing. At first, I did 40-minute interviews, nervous that it would be too long (like all the experts said).

But, people showed up. And the long-form format played to my strengths and the guest’s strengths. 

These days, the interviews I do can last as long as 2+ hours. And yes, people listen to the whole thing. (And some of the most popular interview format-style podcasts routinely cross the 3 hour mark).

There isn’t a right or wrong here, but you do need to make a choice.

Maybe shorter is better for you. Maybe longer is. Or, maybe the interview format isn’t good for you.

Doesn’t matter.

Choose what is sustainable and natural for you, and do it.

2. Choose your Publication Frequency CAREFULLY

I’m not an all-caps guy, but choosing your publication frequency should be done CAREFULLY. By that, I mean will you post monthly, twice a month, weekly, or more often?

Making a poor decision on frequency is the graveyard of so many podcasts.

Here’s why: So many podcasters launch their show with enthusiasm, overestimate how many episodes they can produce, run into calendar/scheduling/guest issues, and then stop after eight episodes.

I realized this was an occupational hazard, so I banked (or pre-recorded) about a dozen episodes before we launched the first episode publicly.

We launched in the fall of 2014, so during the summer, I started recording episodes. The first interviews were with friends, so if I botched it, I could call them back and redo the interview. (I had to call in that favor once or twice.)

But by the time the fall hit, I knew I had a dozen episodes in the can in case a future guest canceled, I got sick, or something else happened. 

Working ahead that far led me to turn what I thought would be a biweekly show into a weekly show and eventually a show that produces six episodes a month.

I worked so far ahead it was embarrassing to tell guests that an episode that was recorded in October would air next July, so we started publishing new episodes weekly and then eventually six times a month when we realized we could handle the workload. 

We’ve since built a podcast network (check out The Art of Leadership Network shows here) and will be launching a daily leadership podcast in the summer of 2022. Stay tuned.

But we didn’t start that way. It took us a few years to build up the kind of systems and team that could sustain that level of output.

When it was just me, I set much more modest goals.

So many podcasters launch their show with enthusiasm, overestimate how many episodes they can produce, run into calendar/scheduling/guest issues, and then stop after 8 episodes. Click To Tweet

3. Don’t Break the Bank

A big budget won’t get you a big audience. But great content might.

I started my show in my home office (a converted bedroom) and continue to do the show from my home office, which these days is in my basement.

I kept costs low, spending less than $1000 on gear to launch my podcast. Most of that I spent on a $500 microphone. I also bought a boom arm (for my mic) and a small mixer.

I decided to use the simplest configuration I could, because I knew complexity doesn’t scale.

Complexity doesn't scale. Click To Tweet

21 million downloads into the show, I still record my intros and extros with Garage Band (free software that comes with any Mac computer), and I’ve only upgraded my mic once.

When I record on the road, I use $79 mics that sound almost as good as my studio mic. 

I did all of my early interviews using Skype. It got glitchy at times, but the price was right (free).

These days, we use Riverside to record our interviews (it’s a reasonably priced subscription).

We rip the audio for the audio version of my podcast and post the video to YouTube. 

If you’re interested in more, here’s my gear guide with recommendations on inexpensive, quality gear that will get you started, in addition to the studio I use today.

A big budget won’t get you a big audience. But great content might.

A big budget won't get you a big audience. But great content might. Click To Tweet

4. Get Your Dream Guests Later. Start With Who You Know.

If you choose to do an interview format, it really helps to land a ‘dream guest’ for your first episode—an influencer or someone well known to your audience. But for most podcasters, that’s out of reach.

The likelihood of a dream guest saying yes to being Episode 1 of your show is slim. Most influencers understand all too well that many podcasts never make it past a few episodes (see point 3) and they’re unlikely to say yes.

Feel free to cold call dream guests all you want, but a much more practical strategy is to start with fascinating people you already know.

That’s how I launched my podcast—I just tapped into my network of friends and people who would return my texts and emails and asked them to be my guests.

If you scroll back to Episode 1, you’ll say “Wait Carey, you had Andy Stanley as your first guest, doesn’t this violate what you’re telling me here?”

Andy is a dream guest, and he’s been on my show many times. But I’d known Andy personally for nine years prior to launching my podcast.

Then, once you build a track record, build some download numbers, and you can approach dream guests.

Among other things, including a full session on podcasting, I share the exact template I use to land dream guests in my new Art of Online Influence Course. You can learn more here.

5. If You Interview People, Shut Up and Let the Guest Talk

If you listen longer than most people listen, you’ll hear things most people never hear. 

Most interviewers talk too much.

That’s my personal challenge: I love to talk, and often that results in interrupting the guest, cutting her or him off, or simply adding ‘my two cents’ every time I pose a question.

I realize that makes for a terrible interview.

My rule of thumb—unless I’m doing a round table—is to let the guest talk 95% of the time. On my good days, I follow that. On my bad days, I talk too much.

Why shut up and let the guest talk?

First, it puts the spotlight on the guest, not on you. 

Second, it lets the guest talk longer. Often the way you get unique insights and stories is because guests are used to being cut off. If you’re the quiet one, they’ll keep talking. There’s no cut to commercial. There’s no sparring between you and them.

They’ll feel safe, and they’ll talk.

Here’s what I’ve learned almost 500 interviews in: If you listen longer than most people listen, you’ll hear things most people never hear. 

If you listen longer than most people listen, you’ll hear things most people never hear.  Click To Tweet

6. Launch to Your Email List (Not Only Into the Black Hole of Apple Podcasts or Spotify)

With three million podcasts out there, it can be difficult to gain traction.

How do you get heard when there are three million other podcasts people can listen to?

Surprisingly, the best way to grow an audience for your podcast is not to simply launch a podcast.

No, the best way to grow an audience for your podcast is to tell your existing audience about your podcast. And the best way to do that is via email.

Social helps, and it brings awareness, but any online marketer will tell you email gets results more than almost any other forum.

In my case when I launched, I asked everyone who was interested in my podcast to join an email list.

We got 419 people to say they were interested.

I kept them informed about everything we were doing to create the show, giving them an inside scoop, and when it launched, I asked them to share online.

Those 419 people got us to #1 on ApplePodcasts in our category and to the Top 40 of all of Apple Podcasts.

I don’t know that we could repeat that today, but once again, your email or text list is the BEST source of traction you will get to launch anything new, including your podcast.

Your email or text list is the BEST source of traction you will get to launch anything new, including your podcast. Click To Tweet

7. Don’t Rush to Monetize (Build Trust and Build an Audience Instead)

You might be asking how you can make money in podcasting.

The truth is, podcasting is a little like publishing: You need to sell a lot of books or get millions of downloads for a podcast to generate income.

So, for most people, podcasting will remain a hobby or be a way to serve your existing client base or congregation. Podcasting is a wonderful way to do that, and more churches and businesses are starting podcasts every day for that purpose.

In the case of my podcast, I decided to build an audience and build trust before I monetized anything. And frankly, I wasn’t sure we’d ever hit the point where we could.

So, for the first few years, the podcast didn’t have any outside sponsors. I wanted to build an audience, knowing that down the road I’d hire my own staff and pay for it through sponsorships if the podcast took off.

Once we reached millions of downloads, I began adding sponsorships, carefully hand-selecting organizations and companies that I trusted because I wanted my audience to have a great experience if and when they purchased something from our sponsors. Many times, we said no to organizations that wanted to sponsor the show and even let a few sponsors go because our listeners didn’t have a good experience with them.

Any revenue loss you experience in the short term is worth it, because if trust is your brand, with each episode (and each sponsor) you’re either building or eroding trust with your audience.

Another way to look at it is that if you take care of your audience, the finances will take care of themselves.

And if it stays at the hobby level, no worries. A hobby should be something you enjoy doing, and if you enjoy podcasting, you’ve got a great hobby.

With each podcast episode (and each sponsor you adopt), you're either building or eroding trust with your audience. Click To Tweet

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Here’s the problem... you only ever find out if your sermon didn't connect after you've already preached it.

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What will change that?

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.