I was intrigued back at the start of June when lifehacker extraordinaire Tim Ferriss announced that he was experimenting with a business model switch: he would try shifting his popular podcast from an ad-supported model towards a direct-support model — an audio variant on the composition favored by popular individual-driven blogs like, say, Kottke.org.
Ferriss’ show has a large audience; he says the podcast has recently passed 400 million downloads across the over 370 episodes that it has published since launching in April 2014. In his version of the direct support model, he offered six tiers, starting at $9.95 a month, which gave paying subscribers access to an exclusive monthly Q&A video. Nick broke down the model in more detail at the time in an Insider issue, but suffice it to say here that Ferriss had originally planned to run the experiment for six months, citing his main motivation as the amount of time and effort it typically takes to organize and implement all the ads.
Flash forward to the present, about a month or so after the start of this trial period, and Ferriss has apparently stopped stopped the experiment and reverted to his previous ad supported model. He explained the move thus: “It turns out that most of my listeners have a strong preference for an ad-supported model compared to other options. Many folks have come to use the podcast. . . for discovering new products and services, and that has been reflected in the comments since launch. After weeks of consistent feedback from my audience, it’s now loud and clear that my vetting and sharing of sponsors is better received and a better fit.”
In his post on the subject Ferriss went on to say that it should have been obvious to him that the direct subscription model wasn’t going to work — at least for him. “The really comical part is that I should have known, and I could have known. Actually, one could argue that I did know,” he wrote. Ferriss notes that he had always received good feedback on the ads, and that many listeners said they couldn’t afford to support multiple podcasts directly, preferring instead to help out by hearing the sponsor reads and following up on products they were interested in. Viewed from this perspective, removing the ad reads actually meant removing the way that this (very large) section of the audience had long supported the show (albeit passively, for the most part). Additionally, it took away a product recommendation service they valued as part of the podcast.
Ad-free access is something I see offered a lot by podcasts that invite direct contributions from listeners, whether Patreon or a similar platform. (I do it myself for my own show and I can only speak from that experience, but for my show, the allure of an ad-free experience had never been a big driver of sign ups — people say they come rather for the bonus content or the community.) The value proposition of an ad-free repackage is predicated on the assumption that adverts are inherently annoying and a necessary evil, and that those who choose to stump up extra cash would rather not hear them. And that does hold true in some cases, without a doubt.
Yet before I saw Ferriss announce that he was stopping his experiment, I’d been mulling over a different phenomenon around this. Several podcasters I’ve spoken to who offer ad free versions of their shows said they had been contacted by paying listeners frustrated that they were now missing out on the discount codes and promotions offered to free listeners in the sponsor reads. One host said that they’d gone as far as to start posting all of the sponsor promotions in their supporters-only Facebook group, so that the paying listeners could still benefit from the deals.
Could it be that the assumption that everyone would rather not hear adverts is incorrect? I conducted an ~extremely informal, unscientific~ poll of podcast-listening friends while I was thinking about this, and most of those I chatted with said they would always rather support a show by listening to a few sponsor reads than make a direct payment, pointing out that if you listen to lots of podcasts, it’s just not practical to support more than two or three directly. This makes sense to me — I think a sizeable minority of listeners are aware of the fact that they are otherwise getting something that costs money to make for free, and are perfectly willing to pay with a few minutes of their attention as a fair exchange.
Of course, not all adverts are created equal. My tiny focus group had good things to say about ads where a degree of artistry and effort keeps them brief and entertaining. (Special commendation was singled out for the in-universe mattress ads in Wooden Overcoats, the Squarespace singalongs on Answer Me This, and the early Pod Save America host reads). Long, rambling, or unprepared host reads were less popular, which makes total sense. Nobody likes to feel that their time is being wasted.
Advertising is what makes this industry tick, after all. We would be nowhere without the ads. Listeners by and large understand the role they play in the audio ecosystem; creative work should be paid for, and it isn’t diminished by covering its costs. I occasionally encounter a podcaster who feels guilty for including commercial messages in their show, and I wish I could smooth their worries away. If Tim Ferriss’s experience is anything to go by, plenty of listeners aren’t just tolerating the ads, they’re enjoying them.