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The Paid Podcast Stack remains a hotly contested area

Yesterday, Memberful, the Patreon-owned membership facilitation platform, rolled out a new feature that enables publishers using its infrastructure to add podcasts into the pool of exclusive products that they can offer to paid subscribers.

In doing so, Memberful joins an increasingly crowded pool of private podcast RSS feed providers that also includes Supporting Cast, Supercast, Substack, RedCircle, and even its parent company, Patreon. It’s an area of podcast tech that’s become increasingly active as more podcast makers are grappling with the importance of diversifying away from purely relying on advertising, a state of affairs that’s only been intensified by the economic effects of the pandemic.

I should note: I use Memberful to manage paid subscriptions for this newsletter. However, I don’t produce a members-only podcast to test the feature with — though I will be launching a public radio podcast with LAist next month, more on that in a future issue — so I couldn’t really try out Memberful’s new podcast feature, or anybody else’s, for that matter. But flipping through the implementation doc, it strikes me as a pretty simple and straightforward affair: you can layer the feature onto an existing Memberful assemblage, including a close integration with an existing WordPress site and a relative ease when it comes to adding private podcast RSS feeds to existing subscription packages. Again, I don’t publish a paid subscribers-only podcast, but I imagine that if I did, it wouldn’t be too hard to get that set up on top of the existing Hot Pod business.

That said, Memberful’s paid podcast feature strikes me as not being terribly differentiated from many of its other competitors, which, in turn, haven’t really turned out to be terribly differentiated from each other. You have the same fundamental approach to the flow, the same kinds of awkwardness when it comes to listener-implementation. Occasionally, you’d get an interesting innovation here and there, as with the case of letting listeners subscribe to the private RSS feed via scanning a QR code, which is present in the new Memberful podcast feature, but I think was originally deployed by Stratechery’s Ben Thompson a few months ago as part of his emerging efforts with independently-facilitated paid podcasts.

Speaking of Stratechery, it’s been interesting to watch what Ben Thompson’s been doing with the category, which, at this point, includes distributing audio versions of his paid subscribers-only Daily Update newsletters as well as a whole new three-times-a-week paywalled podcast called Dithering, which he makes with Daring Fireball’s John Gruber. My understanding is that he designed and commissioned the development of the subscription back-end himself, building around the specific needs of his vision. The result is something that doesn’t feel like a round peg squished into a square hole.

Anyway, I think the thing for me about this segment of the podcast industry is that I’m having trouble seeing the pathways for differentiation, and therefore, the possible arc of how the competition for podcast paid subscription tech dominance might play out. Of course, to some extent, we’re talking about some advancements in overall user experience, and my gut instinct is to assume that much of this is going to come down to a crude battle over signing podcast publishers, which means that we might have think about these companies in terms of the strength of their respective slices of the podcast ecosystem that they end up supporting. But is there any path forward for a real leap in innovation within this category?

One last wrinkle in this area that stands out has to do with Spotify, which still doesn’t allow listeners to add custom RSS feeds and therefore can’t serve as a listening platform for paid-only podcasts. Not sure if they’ll ever move on that any time soon, but it sure seems like an interesting frontier to think about.