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Money for Nothing

Podcoin, an app that promised to “pay you to listen to podcasts”, shuts down today. It began operation in December 2018 and claimed to hit 10,000 active daily users in April of this year, before being added by The Meet Group in May to its network of mobile apps (albeit seemingly without money changing hands, perhaps not surprising since the CEO of Podcoin and the CEO of The Meet Group are brothers). Now, because it “just failed to sustain momentum”, it is going offline less than a year later.

The mechanism behind Podcoin was questioned by users right from the get go (as in this Reddit thread, for instance), but here’s how it was supposed to work: for every ten minutes of podcast that you listened to via the app, you earned one “podcoin”, which could then be redeemed against rewards such as Bose headphones and Amazon gift cards. In their FAQs, the company refers to the act of listening as “podcoin mining”, positioning their product as a kind of hybrid podcatcher and cryptocurrency, I suppose. On that page, they also detail various checks and balances put in place to ensure the listens were genuine, rather than generated by bots.

I’ve been ambiently interested in Podcoin since the first time I saw someone post about it in a podcasting Facebook group that I belong to: it seemed to me to be the perfect distillation of some of the more questionable ventures that crop up every now and then in the podcasting space. It was created by Geoff and David Cook, siblings from the family who made, and then sold it in 2011 for $100 million. The more I looked into this venture, the more intrigued I became. For instance, this passage from their website, part of the answer to the (not unreasonable) question “how is it possible to pay me to listen?”, is wild:

“What is wrong with the larger app ecosystem that the idea of rewarding you for your time is so strange. Why is that some corporate overlord should aggregate all your time and leave you even unhappier than you were before while they resell your information to the highest bidder?”

From what I could see, Podcoin had no visible means of generating revenue, although there was a long-term plan to charge podcasters to have their shows featured. And while there were various streak incentives that would deliver more “podcoin,” it would still take hours of listening a day for years to earn enough for most of the rewards, a fact that was quickly picked up on by most of the people I’ve seen discussing whether to bother using the app.

That said, some people were obviously engaging with the app, if the user figures were to be believed. I went in search of these Podcoin users, and ended up speaking to three different people who had experimented with the app, to find out how a system like this looks from the inside.

Suzy Buttress, who makes The Casual Birder Podcast, told me that she was “thrilled” when she first heard about the app, since it sounded like a way for her to spread the word of her show to more listeners without having to spend money (she’s an independent podcaster with a self-described “very limited” marketing budget). “It felt like a win-win situation. Here were people who already listened to podcasts, being encouraged to listen to more,” she told me over email. Podcoin offered a free two week promotion after a podcaster “claimed” their show on the app, and Suzy had seen others posting about “incredible uplifts in listeners, of thousands at a time,” she said.

However, her own experience was somewhat different. “During my two week promotion I received 76 listens and 20 subscribers — far fewer than I was receiving via my other efforts (as evidenced through the podcast destination listening stats that my host provides).” After that initial fortnight, to continue to be featured, a show needed to insert ads for Podcoin, and based on the poor showing Suzy decided against promoting the app and instead chose to stick to the “traditional ways” of raising the profile of her show.

David Couto, who makes the Sleepy Time Tales podcast, said he became intrigued by the app both when he initially saw it ranking fourth in the user agents for his show (he used Chartable to see this) and when, like Suzy, he saw other independent podcasters posting on social media about their Podcoin successes. He similarly saw little return from claiming his show on the app, but told me over email that he was intrigued by one aspect of the analytics offered, which allowed him to see what other shows his listeners were listening to.

Scott Ertz, Editor-in-Chief of Plughitz Live and host of F5 Live: Refreshing Technology, told me via Facebook Messenger that he also initially heard of Podcoin via an online podcasting community, when another member was asking for the group’s opinion of whether an invitation he’d received from the app was “a scam.” Scott decided to look into it in more detail, and reached out to CEO David Cook for answers.

“After talking to him via email, I no longer believed that it was a scam (though I also didn’t believe it was a good idea), and decided to give the platform a shot as a podcaster and claimed my shows,” Scott said. However, the promised two week featured periods for all of the 11 shows he runs never materialised, and he feels like the app had little to offer. “The idea of ‘paying’ listeners is a cute way to get media coverage, but it never had any real-world value for either listeners or podcasters,” he added.

I sent out a lot of inquiries, but I couldn’t find anyone who was a dedicated user of Podcoin as a listener to tell me about what rewards they might have earned in the nine months or so the app has been active. Although based on some rough calculations and the fact that there was a 6 hour a day “mining” limit, I would be surprised if many of those Bose headphones actually shipped.

And now, Podcoin shuts down, its superficially attractive promise of payment for podcast listening revealed to be untenable, just like everyone who looked closely at it thought it was. (Although it might not be gone forever, the company’s post about the closure says “We did learn A LOT, and we’ll be applying it to a future app”…) However, before I wrap up this small dispatch from the venture-funded fringes of the podcasting tech scene, I must just share with you this quote from the company’s FAQ page:

“We think it’s odd that nearly every venture-backed app today burns money hand over fist and gives nothing back to their audience, and yet, our model is the strange one.”

Make of that what you will.

Nick’s Note, to the kicker above: 🌶🌶🌶🌶🌶🌶🌶🌶🌶🌶