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The State of Podcast Merch

This weekend, I went to the PodUK convention in Birmingham. I attended, and wrote about, the inaugural version of this event last year, and my experiences on Saturday were largely similar, in that I found it to be a really warm and inclusive event rooted in the podcast fan experience, a far cry from other more business-orientated conferences I’ve attended.

As well as live episodes and workshops, there was a convention hall in the foyer with tables where shows could set up stalls. Walking around, I saw a profusion of merchandise on offer, everything from tiny crocheted octopuses and monkeys (an in joke from the D&D show Flintlocks and Fireballs, apparently) to branded kazoos as well as the more classic badges, stickers, posters, prints and T-shirts we might expect. Fans were browsing and making purchases, using the merch both as a way to support their favourite shows and to start a conversation IRL with creators.

I’ve known for a while that selling swag is one of the several ways podcasters can bring in revenue. This is perhaps especially true for those operating on a smaller scale, or as an independent project. It’s a well-established relationship borrowed from fan-creator relationships in other arenas; for as long as there have been podcasts and people listening to them, there has been merch.

Selling T-shirts (and so on) can typically be integrated with other forms of direct support, say by offering a badge in return for a pledge at a certain level on Patreon, or it can exist as a revenue stream on its own. Either way, it’s part of that portfolio of options available to podcasters who either aren’t yet attracting enough listens to make serious money from advertising, or who choose not to go that route. I wrote about some of the new startups aiming to capitalise on this push to monetise this connection back in September, and as a growth area in the industry it’s something that continues to interest me. While there has been plenty of noise around subscription platforms and private feeds recently, I’m not aware of any big effort to disrupt the merchandise space, although perhaps it’s only a matter of time.

I got to thinking: what is the best way to sell podcast merch in this, the year of our lord 2020? How are podcasters grappling with the challenge of converting interest in an intangible audio product into sales of physical goods? And what are the pitfalls of this as a revenue stream?

Over the past week or so, I’ve been talking to podcasters and Hot Pod readers about this cluster of questions, and from what I’ve been able to ascertain, there are still broadly two options available to the podcaster who wants to start offering merch, and both have their advantages and disadvantages. You can use a third party service, like Teespring or TeePublic or a whole host of other similar ones, and upload designs that they will then print onto products of your choice (usually T shirts or mugs) as people order them. The big pro of this dropshipping option is that you, the podcaster, do not have to be responsible for warehousing and shipping your merch, nor do you have to run the customer service operation for it.

The major downside is that you only receive a relatively small cut of the revenue, with most of the profit share going to the company that is making and sending your item. This route is high on convenience, and relatively low on financial return. Another downside is that (depending on your chosen service) you don’t necessarily get full control over the quality or sourcing of your products — so if things like a transparent supply chain and labour ethics are important to you and your listeners, a dropshipper might slip up in that regard.

There can be unexpected downsides too — Eric Molinsky, who makes the Imaginary Worlds podcast, told me that he decided to go the third party route with “a well established, mid-sized online print shop”, only to have his listeners baulk at the shipping costs. “My listeners were excited until they realized the cost of shipping can be half or a third of the price of the items themselves,” he said. “Everyone’s so used to Amazon prices, or even free shipping with Prime membership, that the sticker shock of what it costs for a small company to ship these items turned a lot of people off.” Ultimately, he managed to negotiate a discount on shipping for his Patreon supporters, but the higher rates remained for everyone else.

The second option is the inverse of the first one: you run the whole show yourself. You work with artists and makers to produce the products you want, and then you keep them in boxes in your home or office, packing and shipping each order as it comes in. The whole thing is flipped from the first option, with the main advantages being that you have full control over your merch and how much profit you take from it, but you also are essentially now running an ecommerce business alongside your podcast.

Ordering and handling your merch yourself also comes with a whole host of issues about stock levels and sizing. Chris Kelly, Partner and Creative Director at the Kelly&Kelly production company in Vancouver, Canada, got in touch to tell me about a major miscalculation he once made with T shirts:

“In 2016, we planned a cross-Canada tour for our former CBC podcast/radio show This Is That. We were playing some pretty large venues, so we decided to go big on merch. Or at least T shirts. We got sooooo many T shirts, in all sizes. We crunched the numbers and were convinced that we would maybe sell out half way through the tour. On that first tour we sold maybe 20 T shirts. It took us 3 years and 40 shows later to finally get rid of all the shirts. By comparison, we published a book in 2017, brought it out on tour and would sometimes sell 80 in one night. The take away for us was — CBC listeners DO NOT like T shirts.”

This was a recurring theme among those I spoke to who had gone the DIY route: you need to be prepared to have a lot of boxes of unwanted merch in your home, for a long time. Jeff Entman, who makes the Here Be Monsters podcast, told me that the trade off between the virtues of dropshipping and of keeping sales in house is something that he and his co producer go back and forth on every time they launch a new merch item.

“She’s been in the same spacious house for many years, so she volunteered to take care of our merch,” he explained. “That being said, she’s also talked about the downsides of living in a warehouse (I mean, I guess it’s not everyone’s dream to live in a commercial space), so we have been transitioning to drop-shipping for bulkier items or items which have an uncertain um, desirability.”

Amanda McLoughlin of the Multitude collective echoed this shift towards a combination of both options. Merch is a big part of what makes their live show tours profitable, bringing in about the same as ticket sales. After trying print-on-demand companies they now use DFTBA (the ecommerce company co founded by YouTuber Hank Green in 2008) to create and sell their podcasts’ merch. They also work directly with suppliers to create items for the collective’s members and fulfil those in-house.

In the end, it’s all about trading off the different limitations, McLoughlin said. “I researched every single option, and at the end of the day sacrificing some revenue for ease and a better customer experience was worthwhile. DFTBA ships merch items to the cities we’re performing in, we pay friends to work the merch table, and we take home or mail back whatever we don’t sell.”

From all the conversations I had, it seems like this is where everyone is up to on podcast merch right now: there’s no ideal solution on offer, but a combination of dropshipping and personal effort will ultimately do the trick and spread the risk. The big issue for lots of the podcasters I spoke to was design, since audio creators aren’t necessarily also graphic artists, and illustration can be a big outlay on top of the other merch costs.

Something else that came up a lot was how much time it all takes, beyond the time already spent making the podcast itself — whether that’s spent going to the post office multiple times a week or working with a designer for your drop-shipped shirts. Regular readers will know that this is a bit of a hobby horse for me, the fact that every monetisation option (especially for smaller shows) seems to require work beyond podcasting itself. It seems that the merchandise option is no different from providing bonus content or any other direct support mechanism: theoretically, the sky’s the limit on how much you can make, but it’ll cost you a lot of your own time.