Elisa Graf is both a writer and an editor and has started a podcast called Mystic Takeaway. She loves stories about the transcendent and the everyday world colliding, and the surprise, joy, and wonder that ensues. Her podcast showcases extraordinary stories of mysterious encounters and miraculous healings.
In our conversation, we found ourselves talking about podcast show statistics. They come up often when people first dive into podcasting. Everyone quickly realizes there’s an array of numbers that can be tracked. But what do those numbers mean? What numbers should we be shooting for? What does a “download” or “listener” even mean? But rather than dive into techno-babble, I was curious about what first surprised Elisa about podcasting stats when she published her podcast.
When you open a Simplecast account, they have this little section called analytics. They tell you all the countries where downloads have come from. A download isn’t necessarily a listen, but it’s a good chance that people are listening if they download it. Simplecast shows you the total download numbers, what times of day, your most-downloaded episodes, and which podcast players they’re being downloaded on. I’ve gone back and forth between being addicted to looking at that, and trying to keep it out of my sight.~ Elias Graf, 2’10”
While there remains some contention around the topic, consensus has formed around the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) efforts to uniformly define podcast statistics. (The IAB’s mission is to, “Engage a member community globally to develop foundational technology and standards that enable growth and trust in the digital media ecosystem.”) Through several revisions, an industry-wide standard has been created as a set of podcast measurement guidelines. If you want to dig into podcast statistics, and the IAB’s efforts, (and the controversies,) I suggest beginning with Podnews.net’s IAB articles.
If a show is going to try to sell advertising, then someone needs to understand the statistics because that’s how advertising is sold. But if we can avoid it, I’m with Elisa and I don’t want to overthink it. But even without diving into the specifics, there’s a lot we can learn from just a high-level look at the statistics.
I’m an analytic thinker and I love to run little, (or not so little,) experiments to try to answer questions I have. In March of 2020, I started a simple, daily podcast reading short quotations from my collection. My question was: What would happen if I put up a simple episode every single day for 365 days? What would happen if I did nothing else, and simply published it? It’s been nearly 500 days and it’s coming up on 16,000 downloads. It’s averaging more than 100 unique listeners per week, and has been downloaded in significant numbers in more than 10 countries.
My first take-away from the experiment is that listeners will discover podcasts. I don’t know if that’s from the podcast directories or podcast player applications recommending them, or from other listeners sharing. But my little experiment definitely got discovered by listeners. Even more interesting is that—related to Elisa’s comments about what countries are people downloading from—I find it inspiring to see all the different places where my work is being heard. This tiny little bit of work that I’m doing to create each episode is reaching people all over the world.
Elisa and I agreed that it’s important not to get overly focused on the stats. She has so many good reasons for what she’s doing, and it’s not about how many people are listening. At the same time, people have been popping up telling her they love all her episodes, or that they’ve been listening since the beginning. They’re mostly people she already knows in the meditation space. None the less, it’s fun to hear that other people value one’s work.
Many podcasters talk about posting audio clips, even short videos made from those audio clips, and getting good results on various social networks. But Elisa and I both know that if we aren’t paying for something, then we are the product being sold to the advertisers. The social networks are motivated to use algorithms to not show our posts to everyone that wants to see them, until we pay.
There’s much better success—more people see it and more people interact—when someone else shares something we’ve posted. Which leads immediately to the idea of asking our podcast guests to share what we’ve created.
I’ve found that it’s really hard to get a guest to share their episode of your show. First, we’re asking them to put their name behind our work. If I’ve created an hour-and-a-half podcast episode, and then I say, “please share this,” the first thing someone thinks is, “I need to listen to it.” Instantly, my simple, “please share this,” request has become a request for a large chunk of their time. In effect, I’m asking for another chunk of time, (in addition to the time they gave me when we recorded the podcast.) Worse, even if the guest enjoyed the recording process, they may still not want to hear themselves for fear of how they might sound.
(Here, I’m going to break from the narrative of my article a bit. I’m writing this article months after recording the episode with Elisa. Just before I started working on this article, a podcaster asked me to share an episode we’d recorded about a month prior. All my suppositions above were perfectly revealed in my own thinking. “Share it? Well I’d have to listen to it first. And how long is it?” followed immediately by, “and do I really want to hear what I said?” I believe asking a guest to share is an enormous ask. Caveat emptor.)
It’s totally true. One of my guests, said some things that I didn’t know were uncomfortable for him, and then didn’t want to share it. He told me after it was published, saying, “I wish I hadn’t said that. Because if it gets around to one of my friends, they’re gonna be upset.” It wasn’t hard for me to take those details out, so I said, “I’ll just go back and I’ll scrub them and I’ll just put it back up again.” He was so grateful, and after that I got a lot more listens on that particular one. So I think he did pass it around after that. But it’s hard. He didn’t want to listen to it. I don’t think he wanted to listen to himself. He had regrets about what he’d said. Then it was a period of a month or something. It took some time before we ironed that out— That he finally told me and then I was able to fix it. And then it took him a long time to listen to that. So it’s a process.~ Elisa Graf, 9’33”
I believe we’re always going to have fans. The fans who listen to every episode. I could hide the podcast under a rock in the woods and they’d find it and listen. But settings the fans aside, I think most people who listen to my podcasts are listening to just one episode. We all know that as you build that body of work in the back-catalogue, the stories that we’re sharing don’t deteriorate. New listeners are going to find the episode via the topic that was talked about, or they’re going to find it via the person who was the guest. People will listen to that episode two, three or more years later.
I felt Elisa and I had come to the idea that we each simply have to do the hard work ourselves: I have to share my own things in a way I feel is appropriate and meaningful for what I’m sharing. I can’t rely on my guests. I can’t expect that just because I landed a really popular guest, that I can sit on their coattails. The power is in the value of the work even when it’s simply sitting there for years.
Elisa went on to share some experiences of encountering people who have become dedicated listeners to her show. Also that her first episode, where she describes her inspiration for beginning the entire podcast project, continues to be downloaded by new listeners. It is happening that people hear one, and then go back and listen to the older ones.
It’s amazing, really, the whole idea. This medium of finding your voice, and then ship. Putting something that you really care about out there in the world, and having it have its own life. It’s having its impact. It has no half life— it could go on for for a long time.~ Elisa Graf, 12’45”
There are so many possible ways to approach using social networks to make our shows known. It’s incredibly difficult to know on which platforms to focus, and what to do with our content. In my opinion, it’s difficult to get someone to change mediums. They are in their podcast player app listening, and they listen in a certain physical place or mindset. They are not in a place or mindset where they expect to interact. So saying, “rate my show” or “share with your friends” requires them to change contexts— to change place or mindset.
The same holds true for someone on a social network. If we put up an audiogram or cover-art image on a social network and say “subscribe” or “listen my show” it requires them to change contexts— to change place or mindset to the one where they listen to podcasts. But once someone “has” you in both of those “contexts,” then your efforts start to work. I’ve seen my social network posts of an old back-episode, to an audience of ~500 followers, generate a 40 download bump. That’s a huge response of 8%. But it’s arguably ~500 people who already had my project in both of their contexts. Then, my social network post reminded them of something in their podcast context.
Those of us who are podcast creators, we already know it’s a grind. The key lesson here is to realize that putting effort into social networks is entirely different from creating podcasts. It’s critical to be mindful of how much effort you’re going to need to do it well, and to then be sure you have that much spare energy and time.
Elisa and I wrapped up our conversation by touching on ratings. The evergreen question is do ratings help? Do they make our shows more visible, or attract new listeners? The issue I have with ratings of any kind is there’s always going to be a motive for whoever created, posted, or curated the ratings. When I see ratings like, “Number one show,” or “3.5 stars,” I zoom out and think: Who rated that? What does that rating tell me? What was the motivation for that rating being created?
That said, I think there’s more to be gained by asking the other side of the ratings question: If I ignore those ratings created by other people, what then am I interested in? What is success for my show? What is success for any episode that I create? For me, it’s if someone listens to an episode, and then can some day have a more meaningful conversation with the guest. That’s success. If an episode can improve that potential future conversation, for both the listener and the guest, that’s success.
Sometimes people come up to me in person and talk about a show (any piece of my podcasting work), or sometimes I’ve overheard people talking about a show, and that’s delightful. I love the one-on-one interactions. Elisa also shared her feelings about getting personal notes from people telling her how much they enjoyed a particular episode, or how they loved hearing a particular story. And I agree: That’s the part that is truly gratifying.
This written-to-be-read article is based on a transcript, my recollection and my opinions. Any mistakes or mis-representations are my own—but I’d love to have them pointed out so I can correct them. All of the quotations here are edited lightly for readability and clarity. Delivering insight in realtime, while being recorded in a single take is difficult, so I’ve edited only with the intention of highlighting the awesome parts.