One of the hardest things about marketing is this:
There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
Cut and paste the tactics that are wildly effective for someone else onto your show, product, or business and they rarely get anywhere close to the same results.
If you’ve ever bought a set of sales email or social media post templates, you’re well aware of this reality already.
The problem isn’t the tactics themselves.
In most cases, the tactics you’re either considering or actively using are sound in theory.
But for them to work in practice, they must first be heavily customized and molded to your work, audience, brand, and—perhaps most importantly—yourself.
Beyond the granular molding of individual tactics, however, there’s a bigger macro problem that prevents tactics and strategies from growing your show, even if you’ve heavily molded them to your work.
Applying the right tactic at the wrong time.
Chances are, you’re already aware of all the major tactics and strategies you could use to grow your show.
In fact, you might have even implemented some or all of the following:
- Podcast guesting
- Collaborations (including promo swaps, feed drops, newsletter swaps, cross-promos, etc)
- Social media
- Paid advertising (podcast apps, other podcasts, newsletters, Meta, Google, etc)
- Traditional SEO
- Speaking Engagements
All of these tactics and many more have been proven time and again to work when it comes to growing podcasts.
But there’s a catch.
The results of each tactic are highly dependent on the size of your show and the growth milestone you’re currently aiming for.
Together, I think of these milestones and the route of progression through them as the Phases of Podcast Growth.
Overview of The Four Phases of Podcast Growth
There are four distinct Phases of Podcast Growth, as follows:
- 0–100 dl/ep: Validation
- 100–1k dl/ep: Traction
- 1k–10k dl/ep: Scaling
- 10k+ dl/ep: Diversification
Each phase presents a specific set of challenges that must be overcome for you to advance to the next phase.
Which means for your marketing to work (and your show to grow) your strategy needs to be aligned with the challenges and requirements of the phase you’re in.
Unfortunately, most podcasters aren’t aware of the Phases of Podcast Growth.
As a result, they spend a ton of time and energy doing all the right things—the things everyone says you’re “supposed” to do to grow a podcast—but at the wrong time.
And no matter how much time they spend on marketing their shows struggle to grow.
The good news is that the phases are incredibly clear.
Which means you already know exactly which phase you’re in.
And when you know exactly which tactics and strategies are most effective in that stage, you can align your marketing with the phase-specific challenges.
And you can start growing.
Podcast Growth Phase I: Validation (0–100 Downloads/Episode)
Prior to launch every show is developed based on a series of assumptions.
As a creator, these assumptions cover everything from your:
- Market: Is there existing interest in the topic you can tap into? Is it enough to sustain your show and/or business? How can you stand out from the competition?
- Idea: Is it as compelling to others as it is to you? Does it have legs? Are you communicating it effectively?
- Concept & Format: Is there a clear hook that draws people in? Does your concept explore the topic in a unique and compelling way? Is it fun to both create and listen to?
- Potential Audience: Who are they? Where/how can you find and reach them? Does what they want align with what you can provide? Can you build your business around them?
- Strategy: Is this show the one that will most effectively nurture customers/clients or achieve whatever other goal(s) you intend it to do for your business?
- Self: Do you have the bandwidth to produce this show consistently? Can you sustain long-term interest in the topic? Does this show make the best use of your finite creative energy? What about you and your story, quirks, and curiosities makes you a uniquely compelling host for this show?
Depending on your level of prior experience in business, marketing, content, and podcasting the accuracy of each of these assumptions will vary.
Regardless of experience, however, you should fully expect that some of your assumptions will be correct and some—perhaps most—will be somewhere between a little bit off… and flat-out wrong.
And it’s these misguided assumptions that will keep your show stuck in place, no matter how exhaustively you market it.
As such, your goal during this early phase of your show’s existence is not in fact to grow or market it.
Instead, it’s to do the necessary research that will enable your future promotion and marketing to be effective.
So how do you do it?
Phase 1 Challenges Your Podcast Marketing Strategy Must Address
Before diving into specific tactics and practices, it’s worth clearly identifying the challenges facing you in the Validation phase (Phase 1).
As the name suggests, this phase revolves entirely around validating the assumptions your show is built on.
But it’s also about doing research and collecting feedback which often isn’t easy to do before your show has launched.
So what exactly are you looking for?
In short, your goal during the Validation phase is to validate (duh) a handful of specific assumptions about your show that will entirely dictate its ability to succeed.
Specifically, your challenge is to validate your assumptions around:
- Demand: Is there (verifiably) sufficient interest/demand in this topic to achieve your goals around the show?
- Core Idea: Is the core idea interesting/resonant to your target audience? Or, if you’re coming at your show from the Art side of the Content-Art Spectrum, can you identify an audience that finds the core idea interesting/resonant?
- Audience Access: Assuming there is an audience for your idea, are there existing congregations of them that you can consistently engage with?
- Messaging/Pitch: There’s almost no chance you’ll truly lock in your messaging until you’re 100+ episodes in (if ever). But in this early stage, you want to find some of the core themes and phrasing you can use when talking about the show that gets people’s eyes to light up.
- Personal Obsession: After getting into the production flow, do you find the show personally energizing? For the show to succeed, you’re going to need to keep it up far longer than you can keep up with willpower alone. The show should pull you forward rather than you having to push it.
Note that these are far from all of the assumptions we initially discussed.
The other assumptions are important and will eventually need to be addressed as well. But for the time being, this limited number of assumptions is enough to prove to yourself that the idea has potential and is worth pursuing further.
So how do you actually validate them?
Phase 1 Podcast Marketing Tactics & Practices
It’s tempting to use analytics as the primary gauge of your show and marketing’s effectiveness.
And at some point, data and analytics will be wonderfully useful tools in your marketing toolbelt.
But during the Validation Phase, they’re pretty much useless.
What’s much more valuable is 1:1 interactions with existing and potential listeners.
In fact, these types of conversations—whether virtual or in person—are the only way to truly validate your assumptions about your show, especially when you don’t have a large audience.
The good news is they’re not hard to initiate (though the first couple do take some courage).
The easiest way to get started is by integrating yourself into an existing community.
Almost every topic imaginable—no matter how niche—has an existing community that has organized itself online.
And when you’re in the Validation Phase, these communities are your single greatest resource.
Integrating yourself into an existing community (as opposed to starting your own) allows you to skip the years of work required to attract the community members.
It also frees you from the hefty ongoing workload of facilitating a community, while (if you do it right) getting access to many of the benefits of community building.
The first step is to pick your community.
Online communities exist in a couple of distinct forms including clearly defined communities like those found on:
- Facebook & LinkedIn Groups
- Paid Communities
But looser, less clearly defined communities also exist, such as:
- Communities that form around specific Instagram, YouTube, or other social accounts where you see the same people engaging on a regular basis.
- Communities that naturally organize around topics on more open, fluid platforms like X (Twitter) and LinkedIn.
Either type of community works during the Validation Phase of your show.
What matters is you have regular access to engage with a large collection of people who are already discussing your topic.
My recommendation is to try out a couple of communities and then pick one to spend all of your time in.
The goal at this phase is to develop a small number (~10) of deep connections in your space, not get exposure to anyone and everyone who might be interested in your show.
In fact, you’re goal during this phase is not to promote your show at all.
Instead, your primary community integration goals are as follows:
- Make connections & build your network: With people who are interested in your topic. This could be with other creators and potential collaborators, but it’s more likely (and perhaps more valuable) to focus on building connections with people who represent your ideal target listeners.
- Set up regular connection calls: As you begin to make connections in the community through comments and DMs, make a point of regularly setting up connection calls over Zoom to chat in more depth with people you feel represent your ideal listeners.
Note that the goal here is not to promote your show but to learn more about them and their experience with your topic.
In any discussion about your topic, your show will almost certainly come up naturally, which will give you a chance to assess the resonance of your show idea, messaging, and format… and often result in a new listener!
- Participate: This might mean starting conversations in the community. But it’s often better to be a regular contributor to the conversations other people are starting. Set a goal to contribute at least one thoughtful, helpful comment to a community discussion every day.
- Listen & learn: This will come naturally through participation, but it helps to go one step further and keep a document of the language people use to describe their problems, pain points, desires, and objections (excuses), as well as notes on other content they consume, how they describe themselves and more. This document will go a long way to setting up all your future marketing for success.
Over time, a number of benefits to this type of community integration will begin to play out.
For one, the more real relationships you build in the community the more listeners and advocates you will create.
In fact, almost every host I’ve ever talked to that has grown a million-plus total download show says that the first few hundred (or in many cases few thousand) listeners came entirely from making personal connections in online and in-person communities such as these and mentioning their show when relevant… along with making sure their social profile made it unmistakably clear that they had a show that was a perfect fit for their target audience.
This is the manual legwork work that everyone wants to skip but is unavoidable if you want to build a foundation for future growth.
Beyond growth, ongoing community integration will naturally bring your content, messaging, and even show format into closer alignment with what resonates with your ideal audience members.
Finally, it’s hard to overstate the amount of the friction of listener-acquisition that is reduced by permeating a community to the point where everyone in it has at least a general awareness and recognition of who you are and what you do.
The result is a huge boost in efficiency to all of your future podcast marketing activities.
General Guidance on Validation Your Podcast Idea
As you’re participating in your chosen community and having conversations with potential audience members, keep in mind:
At this phase, you should be worried less about your show itself and more about the idea.
The show can always be tweaked and improved, but if the core idea behind it doesn’t resonate with people, there’s nothing you can do with the show from a technical, production, or marketing standpoint to make them care.
The best way to gauge resonance is through visual, real-time conversations.
People generally want to be nice and will regularly tell you your show sounds interesting and they’ll “definitely check it out…”
What they mean of course is that it’s not interesting and they have no intention of ever checking it out.
Over a Zoom call, however, you’ll be better able to catch any genuine “Eyes Light Up Moments” that arise during the conversation, a clear indication of interest, either in the show or a specific topic.
A real-time conversation also allows you to muddle your way through what is almost certainly at this stage some less-than-ideal messaging until you (hopefully) stumble upon some phrasing that piques their curiosity.
Like it or not, this is the only reliable way to test and improve your messaging, and the more real-time conversations you have, the faster you’ll find the messaging that resonates and the easier growth will become.
Closing Out Phase I of Podcast Growth
If you’re stuck in this phase of 0–100 dl/ep, the most likely reason is that one or more of your key assumptions about the show is wrong.
And until you find out what it is and correct it, there’s literally no way to market yourself to growth.
While it might not always be visible, every show has to go through this phase before it can gain traction and grow.
For many network and studio-produced podcasts, this validation takes place over (often) several years before the first episode ever drops.
So while their first episodes might seem to hit all the right notes immediately out of the gate, that finished product is the result of a long process of focus groups, demos, testing and tweaking—often with the benefit of an experienced team of producers, storytellers, and marketers.
For most of us, this type of process isn’t realistic.
And that’s fine.
In fact, it’s much faster to work through the Validation Phase when you’re actually building the show in public and can make tweaks and updates on a week-to-week basis based on feedback and conversations.
As you work through this phase, you’ll naturally work your way to one of two outcomes:
- You validate or correct your assumptions and quickly pass the 100 dl/ep mark and graduate into the Traction phase.
- You work through the process outlined here and realize that the show you want to produce is incapable of growing to the level you might have hoped.
This is a hard realization to face, but personally, I’d rather have all the facts on the table and then be able to make an informed decision about what to do next.
In some cases that might mean continuing to produce a show you love but lowering your expectations around audience growth.
In others, it might mean deciding that the show isn’t worth the ongoing effort and it’s better to sunset it to make space for something else.
The truth is that there are no guarantees that there is a sufficiently large audience for every topic, and none of us are entitled to an audience, simply because we’ve put in the work to create something.
Building an audience almost always requires some form of compromise and adjustment to our initial strategy, and it’s not until we’ve recognized and made those adjustments that we can graduate to the next phase of growth.
Podcast Growth Phase II: Traction (100–1k Downloads/Episode)
If you’ve graduated from Phase I and moved into the second phase of growth, it’s because you’ve checked at least one of the following two boxes:
- The core idea your show is built on has potential
- You previously built an existing audience elsewhere and now have an audience that’s just happy to hear from you
Either of these are positive indicators of the potential of your show. But in and of themselves, they’re not enough to grow past Phase II.
To move past the thousand-download-per-episode milestone, you’re going to need to get savvier with your marketing, both in the way you position and create your show, as well as how you get it in front of new potential listeners.
If Phase I was about validating that the raw materials you’re working with are capable of building with, Phase II is about intentionally focusing on how you use, mold, and shape them to achieve your goals.
Here’s what you’re up against in Phase II.
Phase II Challenges Your Podcast Marketing Strategy Must Address
Phase II is a transitional phase characterized by a blend of both the challenges and tactics/practices from Phases I and III.
At a high level, your goals in Phase II fall into two distinct categories:
- Build out your foundational marketing assets
- Transitioning from the non-scalable one-to-one marketing approach of Phase One to more scalable exposure tactics
Given the split focus, the greatest challenge of this phase is resisting the urge to run before you can walk.
At this stage, your show is still in its formative stage (regardless of how long you’ve been doing it) and likely not yet a truly Marketable Show.
While the core idea might have been validated, there’s a lot of work to be done to refine it into a show makes the most of your marketing.
So while it’s tempting to jump ahead to more scalable exposure strategies the minute your show gains even a bit of traction, be warned:
Jumping into scalable exposure strategies before building out your foundational podcast marketing assets will make marketing harder, more expensive, and more time-intensive.
Which is the last thing you probably want.
To avoid this, and to set yourself for a much easier marketing future, focus on developing the following assets in Phase II:
- A unique & compelling show concept: With a clear & obvious hook that clearly and immediately differentiates it from any other show on your topic
- Distinctive packaging: That stands out from other shows in your space, communicates instant legitimacy, and sets the tone for the experience of your show
- Clear Messaging: That communicates immediate relevance to your ideal listener by answering: Who is it for? What is it for? What makes it better than the alternatives?
- Podcast SEO: Optimizing your show title, author tag, and description to give yourself maximum visibility for your top 1–3 keywords. Then, doing the same for your past and future episode titles and descriptions.
Most shows that get stuck in Phase II are stuck not—as they often believe—because they don’t have an effective promotion strategy but because they haven’t adequately overcome these challenges
And it’s no surprise.
Dialling in these foundational assets of your show is without a doubt the hardest part of podcast marketing.
As such, don’t be surprised if it takes some time and experimentation to lock in what works best for your show.
In fact, expect it.
Phase II Podcast Marketing Tactics & Practices
The day-to-day activities of the first Phase of Podcast Growth centered around one-to-one research and validation of the core assumptions your show is built on.
Phase II is about shifting your focus to the mechanics that make up your show and your marketing.
Locking In Your Foundational Podcast Marketing Assets
By this point, the core idea behind your show has been validated.
But the show itself remains unproven.
Locking in a truly unique and compelling (in the eyes of an audience) concept requires you to experiment heavily—both with ideas as well as execution.
This means pitching potential variations on your show concept—still centered on your core topic—to members of your target audience.
As such, one of your primary marketing activities during the early stage of Phase II is to continue regular interaction, conversations, and connection calls with potential and existing audience members.
If you’ve followed the steps in Phase One to develop your initial listenership, you should have a core group of loyal listeners who you know personally and can reach out to for feedback.
Personally, I like to develop what I think of as an informal Listener Advisory Board made up of a small number of listeners who get the show and represent the people I want to attract more of.
This group could be as small as one or two people or as big as ten, and they’re one of your greatest assets when honing and sharpening your show concept around your core idea.
As with Phase One, your North Star when pitching ideas and tweaks to your Listener Advisory Board is identifying Eyes Light Up Moments that indicate you’re onto something resonant.
Once you’ve landed on a resonant idea to tweak some part of your show, run an experiment with it and see how it feels and performs in practice.
It will likely take many iterations of this process to get to the heart of the real essence of your show and the concept that best brings it to life, so be patient, and lean on your Listener Advisory Board for ideas and inspiration as you dial in your concept, packaging, and messaging.
You are the visionary behind the show. And while it’s worth incorporating the feedback of others, don’t discount your own intuition.
Great podcasts are as much (or more) art as they are science, and great art is rarely created by committee.
While it may take some time, if you follow this process, over time your foundational marketing assets will be molded into shape.
Then (and only then) it’s time to start ramping up your exposure.
Scaling Your Podcast Exposure Strategy
The non-scalable, relationship-based Legwork Marketing in Phase One is enough to build a solid foundation of listeners.
But while you can use it to build up an audience of several hundred or perhaps even several thousand listeners, it has its limits.
Specifically, the time it takes to earn each new listener.
What’s more, the more traction you gain, the more demands of your time begin to add up.
More email, more DMs, more clients, more opportunities—and often… more headaches.
So while Legwork Marketing is hands-down the best strategy to get started, you can’t keep it up forever.
This is where more scalable exposure strategies—that allow you to gain dozens or hundreds of new subscribers for the same amount of effort—come in.
And the second half of Phase II, once your concept, packaging, and messaging have begun to coalesce is the time to add them to your marketing repertoire.
There are many types of scalable exposure tactics, including:
- Organic social media
- Traditional (website) SEO
- Paid advertising
- And more
All of these may one day have a place in your podcast marketing strategy, but during Phase II, I recommend sticking with just one specific scalable exposure strategy: Collaborations.
Scaling Your Podcast Exposure Through Collaborations
Collaborations are the best scalable exposure strategy to start with for multiple reasons:
- They’re free
- They can be highly targeted
- They meet podcast listeners where they’re already at (other podcasts)
- They’re win-win for both creators, which makes them easy to pitch
Oh, and they’re highly effective.
In fact, when it comes to actual subscriber acquisition (as opposed to the one-off listeners that often come from paid advertising) collaborations and cross-promotions are widely regarded as one of the only podcast marketing strategies that consistently works when it comes to growth.
And while you might eventually add additional exposure strategies to the mix in Phases III and IV, collaborations will always be one of the backbones of your podcast exposure and growth strategy.
Types of Podcast Collaborations
There are dozens of ways to collaborate with other creators and brands, but during Phase II, I recommend starting out with some of the most basic:
- Promo Swaps: Where you and another show cross-promote each others’ shows during an ad break on your own show. Can be done as a one-off or on an ongoing basis.
- Podcast Guesting: Where you guest on other shows with an audience that overlaps with your target audience. Can be done as a guest swap where the other host comes on your show or not.
- Feed Drops: Where you and another show each publish a full episode (either a teaser or a full episode) of the collaborator’s show on your own feed.
I recommend starting with promo swaps as they’re the lowest effort, least risky, and the easiest to successfully pitch.
If the initial collaboration goes well, it may then be worth looking at additional, more in-depth collaborations going forward.
It’s worth noting that while some collaborations have an immediate and significant impact (I’ve seen several shows double their listenership through a single highly aligned promo swap), these results are the exception.
In most cases, the real value of collaborations comes from running them consistently over time with a large number of brands and creators that are in and adjacent to your niche.
In most cases, listeners require multiple touchpoints with a show before they click play for the first time.
One of the best ways to get those touchpoints at scale is to show up, through strategic collaborations, in as many places they’re already directing their attention as possible.
Closing Out Phase II of Podcast Growth
Phase II is where the vast majority of active podcasters get stuck.
And it’s a particularly frustrating position to be in.
The fact that you’ve built up a few hundred listeners suggests that you’re onto something.
And yet the fact that growth has stalled makes you question that.
The reality is that with each successive phase, the competition increases, and you need to become savvier with both your marketing and your show.
In Phase II, the primary crux of this dynamic centres on taking a promising core idea and molding it into a highly attractive show.
The ability to analyze and develop attractive shows isn’t a skill anyone is born with, nor one most people pick up in other business or marketing pursuits.
As such, Phase II requires a significant amount of education around—and more importantly, observation of—what makes great podcasts (and other content formats) truly magnetic.
This skill takes time to develop.
But once you build it, it’s a superpower that will pay massive dividends to not only your current show, but all of your future marketing and creative endeavours.
Podcast Growth Phase III: Scaling (1k–10k Downloads/Episode)
Few podcasters ever reach the Third Phase of Podcast Growth, but it’s the phase where things start to get interesting, specifically from a business perspective.
With more than a thousand downloads per episode, you now have a strong audience foundation for:
But while the business opportunities for many shows blow wide open during this phase, opportunities for further growth begin to contract.
In fact, the vast majority of shows will never make it past this phase and reach the 10k download/episode milestone.
There are a number of reasons why, including:
- Network saturation — Exhausting the potential of your personal network of collaborators and advocates
- Niche saturation — Reaching the point where pretty much everyone in your core niche is already aware of the show
- Increased competition — The broader your audience aspirations, the better your show concept, content, production, and marketing need to be to stand out
- Resource constraints — Some outlier shows manage to grow past 10k dl/ep based purely on word-of-mouth growth. Most shows, however, will require a heavy investment of time and money into their marketing efforts in order to scale—both of which are almost always limited.
These challenges present a steep hill to climb for any show looking to grow beyond Phase III. Most shows will never make it.
But there’s a silver lining:
- With the right business model, it’s entirely possible to build a 6- or 7-figure business around a show with a few thousand downloads per episode. In fact, countless shows you’ve never heard of and never will are quietly doing it right now.
- While few shows will make it out of Phase III, there is still significant growth potential for many shows within this phase. And, if you’re willing to put in the work, there are ways to overcome the formidable challenges this Phase presents and move past it entirely.
Let’s explore how.
Phase III Challenges Your Podcast Marketing Strategy Must Address
Phases I and II revolve primarily around the big-picture foundational assets of your core idea, show concept, and show packaging.
Phase III is about getting granular with the refinement of both your:
- Episode mechanics — Your blueprint for creating consistently compelling episodes
- Marketing Mechanics — Your blueprint for systematically finding and converting new listeners
In addition to these micro improvements, Phase III is the stage where building out your larger brand beyond the podcast takes on greater significance and value.
Finally, Phase III presents several mental, emotional, and strategic challenges that should not be discounted, including:
- Having the patience to stick with your marketing strategy when growth is slow (the typical show in Phase III has published 127 episodes)
- Identifying your Spiky Points of View and getting comfortable making the bigger, bolder assertions with your work that will form the backbone of your brand.
- Balancing the need to both create a better show than you previously have and spending more time marketing than you previously have.
- Potentially making significant changes to your show and larger strategy if it becomes clear you’ve reached the limits of your current topic, format, or audience.
In short, Phase III is about looking beyond your show as a standalone content channel and getting specific—and strategic—about the role it plays in your larger business and marketing ecosystem and how it can best fulfill that role.
Phase III Podcast Marketing Tactics & Practices
One of the biggest mistakes keeping podcasters stuck in Phases I & II is spending too much time marketing a show that hasn’t been properly validated.
In Phase III, it’s the reverse.
While a resonant big idea, compelling show concept, and distinctive packaging will amplify your marketing efforts, you still need to spend a significant amount of time marketing it.
In this phase, that marketing means:
- Doing more to increase awareness of the show itself
- Increasing awareness of you and your brand, which are infinitely more discoverable than the show and will in the long run become the primary on-ramp to the show.
But while outward-facing audience acquisition plays a big role in this phase of growth, before committing significant time or budget towards acquisition, it’s essential to ensure that you’re retaining the new listeners you acquire.
Otherwise, you’re wasting time, money, and effort pouring water into a leaky bucket.
This is where tightening up your episode mechanics comes in.
Dial In Your Episode Mechanics
Most shows start off with a general, loose structure (if any) that guides and governs their episode creation.
But to grow within and past Phase III of growth, that structure needs to be tightened and codified.
Your goal is to create a set of guiding rules that all but guarantee that every single episode you publish is a banger.
These rules, or Episode Mechanics, guide every aspect of your creative process including:
- The topics you do and don’t cover and how you frame them to engage your listeners
- The guests you do and don’t have on and the types of questions you do and don’t ask them
- How you hook listeners within the first 30 seconds and keep them listening through the first 3 minutes
- The narrative and emotional arc your episodes follow (this applies to educational/informational shows as much as story-driven shows)
- How you reduce the Average Time to Value and maintain a high overall Value Density of your episodes
- How you consistently incorporate the 8 elements of truly great episodes
- And much more
The reality is there’s a lot more that goes into consistently creating truly great episodes than meets the eye.
And in the Third Phase of Podcast Growth, it becomes essential to address them.
It’s the dedication to dialling in these Episode Mechanics that separates shows that continue to grow past the 1k download/ep mark and those that don’t.
An objectively better show not only gets more people to talk about and recommend it, but it also increases the efficiency of your listener acquisition efforts.
It’s the difference between a show that converts 6 out of every hundred people who press play on one episode into ongoing subscribers… and one that converts at 27% or 56% or 73%.
Said differently, tightening up your episode mechanics has the potential to amplify your listener acquisition efforts by 10x or more.
And it’s only then that listener acquisition becomes your priority.
Dial In Your Podcast Marketing Mechanics
To this point, the extent of your listener acquisition strategy has been focused on community engagement, one-to-one networking, and collaborations with other creators.
In Phase III, your job is to refine and focus the marketing activities that got you this far while building out a larger, more scalable acquisition strategy.
There are a few specific areas to focus on.
Community Engagement & Networking
In Phases I & II, your community engagement and networking has revolved around audience research, idea and concept validation, and forming relationships with potential and existing audience members.
In Phase III, you’ll maintain much of your community engagement and networking, but with a different focus.
Instead of focusing primarily on engaging and connecting with current and potential audience members, your goal is now to spend more time cultivating relationships with other creators and potential collaborators in your niche and adjacent niches.
By this point, you should have some recognition and clout in your space which will open increasingly more doors to build relationships with established creators and brands with overlapping audiences.
The playbook for cultivating these relationships is identical to that of connecting with potential listeners:
- Engage with them publicly through their content on a regular basis
- After a number of positive exchanges, send them a DM and chat further
- After one or more mutually enjoyable exchanges, propose a 30-min connection call
- (Become BFFs)
- Continue engaging with their public content
In some cases, the benefits of this networking will be immediate.
More often, however, this process of making friends in your industry is an investment in your future growth—while impossible to forecast—is almost guaranteed to be transformative.
It’s worth noting that part of the challenge of this stage of growth is to expand your network beyond your immediate niche, which you will likely eventually (if you haven’t already) saturate.
With that in mind, be mindful of adjacent niches with varying amounts of overlap to yours and start building your connections there.
Even if you have no plans to diversify your content, diversifying your audience exposure can open up significant growth opportunities for your show.
Getting More From Your Podcast Collaborations
In Phase II, we introduced collaborations as the primary vehicle for podcast growth.
In Phase III, you’ll maintain that focus on collaborations while amplifying the impact.
One of the core dynamics to understand about collaborations is that the more you have to offer, the more you have to gain.
If you have a show with 100 dl/ep, you’re likely going to be collaborating with other shows of a similar size, meaning your growth potential is limited.
As you grow, however, you open up opportunities to collaborate with ever-bigger partners, which offer the potential for ever-more growth.
Grow big enough, and collaboration opportunities start coming to you instead of you needing to seek out and pitch them.
This is one of the flywheels of podcast growth.
In Phase III, with a growing network, greater recognition in your niche, and more to offer potential collaborators based on the growing size of your own audience, you’ll have greater access to more meaningful collaborations than have previously been available.
Your job is simple:
Continue to methodically pitch and execute a regular stream of collaborations with highly-aligned creators and brands.
Even the biggest shows in the world are driven heavily by collaborations and there is no time in the existence of your show where collaborations will not be a central part of your strategy.
One wrinkle worth noting:
As you grow additional content platforms around your show, such as your social channels, email list, and/or YouTube channel, you’ll be able to take advantage of non-podcast collaborations as well as the podcast-specific collaborations discussed in Phase II.
While non-podcast collaborations will have a less immediate effect on podcast listener growth, they’re a highly effective way to grow your brand as a whole which will—over time—trickle down into more listeners… and more importantly, more customers, clients, and sponsors.
Building Your Marketing Machine Beyond Your Podcast
Networking and the collaborations that organically come from them are more than enough to fuel significant growth of your show.
But if you’re looking to move beyond Phase III, it will require you to build out your larger brand and marketing machine.
- Systematizing your show processes to free up time to invest elsewhere
- Building out additional high-value content channels, specifically email
- Thinking strategically about your content funnels and setting up systems to move audience members through your content ecosystem from one platform to another
- Experimenting with additional audience discovery and acquisition channels to identify what works, then doubling down and systematizing it… before repeating the process
If you’re serious about moving onto Phase IV, your job is to start thinking like a media executive rather than the on-air talent.
You need to define what your larger brand stands for, the experience and emotions you want your audience to associate with it, and how each “brand property” (podcast, Instagram account, newsletter, etc) contributes to that.
In addition to listener acquisition, building this machine will require you to get serious about sales and monetization.
Because in order to scale to Phase IV, you’re going to need help.
And in order to get help, you need to be able to pay for it.
As a result, a core Phase III activity is dialling in a revenue model that can fund your future growth.
For most shows, this is some mix of products & services and brand partnerships, both of which can be highly lucrative—even with relatively small audiences.
That said, even with an audience of a few thousand listeners, generating consistent and sufficient revenue is far from a given, making this yet another challenge that makes Phase III so difficult to break out of.
Closing Out Phase III of Podcast Growth
Perhaps more than anything, the Third Phase of Podcast Growth is characterized by an intense squeeze.
On the one hand, you have traction, broader recognition, and more opportunities available for both growth and revenue generation.
On the other, the competition becomes increasingly fierce and you likely don’t have the bandwidth or financial resources to compete toe-to-toe with many of the shows and brands you’re vying with for attention.
For many shows, these competing pressures are too much to reconcile and they ultimately get squeezed out altogether.
Others—while they might reach the upper limit of their show’s growth potential—find ways to build highly profitable businesses within the confines of this phase.
Finally, a select few shows manage to navigate the many pitfalls of Phase III and make their way into the rarified air of shows earning more than 10k downloads/episode.
Which, along with additional opportunities, presents a uniquely frustrating set of challenges to navigate.
Podcast Growth Phase IV: Diversification (10k+ Downloads/Episode)
Almost no one makes it to 10k downloads per episode.
Statistically, only a fraction of a percent of shows ever launched make it to the milestone.
For established shows, the news is a little better, but daunting nonetheless.
Our research has shown that 10% of shows that have been publishing consistently for a minimum of a year are averaging 10k dl/ep, with the typical show in this phase having published 286 episodes.
For a weekly show, that’s 5.5 years of consistent publishing without missing a week.
So no, you’re not going to hit this milestone overnight.
And for most shows, it’s virtually impossible for all the reasons outlined in Phase III.
Despite the long odds, however, some shows do make it to this milestone.
And while revenue-generation opportunities continue to open up in this phase, opportunities for additional; growth become even harder to come by.
In fact, over the course of a year, almost half (46%) of shows we surveyed in this phase of growth shrunk on a downloads per/episode basis as opposed to growing.
It’s for this reason that 10k dl/ep represents the final phase of growth.
While there is still the potential for some shows to grow to tens or hundreds of thousands—or even millions—of downloads per episode, these are the true outliers, relying heavily on luck, timing, truly exceptional talent, and existing fame to get there.
Said differently, for most shows, it is utterly impossible to strategize and market your way to 100k or 1M dl/ep.
But if you’ve made your way to 10k and want to give it a shot, here’s what you need to know.
Phase IV Challenges Your Podcast Marketing Strategy Must Address
There are two primary challenges confronting any show in the fourth and final Phase of Podcast Growth:
- Increased competition
- Increased market saturation
And while both of these challenges have appeared in previous phases, in Phase IV, they are ramped up to 11.
If the competition for audience attention became stiff in Phase III, in Phase IV it becomes outright hellish.
At this stage, you’re moving into direct competition with the biggest media companies, celebrities, and brands in the world… not to mention the marketing & production budgets, elite teams of storytellers, producers, and marketers, and existing brand awareness, reputation, and audience they bring with them.
To continue to grow in Phase IV, then, your show needs to be nothing short of world-class.
And perhaps most important of all, you need to be a world-class host, including your:
- Insight & perspective
- And more
Achieving this level of content quality requires sustaining an obsessive focus on developing and honing your craft, likely for years if not decades (see: Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, etc).
Not everyone is up to (or even interested) in this.
And even if you are, there’s another significant, and unavoidable obstacle that will eventually cap your growth.
Sooner or later, every show has a hard cap, beyond which, it is literally or practically impossible to grow.
This cap is determined by a number of factors including:
- Global podcast listenership
- Topic relevance/interest
- Show format relevance/interest
- Affinity for you as the host
- Ability to reach potential listeners in a cost-effective manner
- And more
In marketing-speak, these limitations form the Serviceable Obtainable Market (or SOM), or the total number of people it’s realistically possible for you to acquire as listeners.
Every show has a limited SOM, ranging from perhaps a few dozen listeners for the nichest of shows up to tens of millions for the very biggest.
And while there are some factors you can influence to increase your SOM, such as changing up the content or format of your show, many are entirely beyond your control.
At some point in Phase IV, then, you are guaranteed to reach the upper limit of your show’s potential.
This reality presents two unavoidable challenges:
- How to know whether you’ve reached that hard limit or you need to shift your marketing or content strategies to tap into new audiences?
- What to do with a show when you’ve legitimately exhausted the opportunities for growth or they become too difficult, time/labour intensive, or expensive to be worth pursuing?
Here’s how to navigate them.
Phase IV Podcast Marketing Tactics & Practices
In Phase IV, you’re goals are three-fold:
- Squeeze as much growth as you can out of your existing show
- Diversify your brand
- Capitalize on the asset you’ve created
Let’s take a look at each.
Phase IV Podcast Growth Tactics
In Phase IV, growth becomes much harder to come by, especially as you near the limits of your SOM.
That said, you still have options, especially in the early stages of the phase.
Collaborations will remain a key part of your strategy, and will continue to be more impactful as you climb the collaboration ladder to unlock opportunities with other large creators.
At this stage, brand collaborations play an increasing role in your growth as well.
While many creators view brand partnerships primarily as a revenue source, they can also be a fantastic opportunity for gaining exposure to their audience, which should be a conversation you have with all highly aligned partners.
Depending on your niche and the content of your show, you may be able to continue to climb the collaboration ladder (and reap the rewards) for a substantial amount of time.
Eventually, however, you’ll reach a point where you’ve collaborated with all the relevant partners in your niche and those adjacent to it and your collaborations will yield diminishing returns.
At this point, there are a few approaches to consider:
- Run fewer, but more in-depth collaborations with partners you’ve had previous success with
- Build out a small, informal “network” of highly aligned complementary creators with similar growth rates to yours, integrating cross-promotion touch points into the fabric of your business and content (Post-subscription newsletter recommendations, email welcome sequence, website and show notes links, regular podcast/email/social swaps, etc). The goal here is that whenever a new audience member discovers one member of the network, they will automatically discover the other members as well.
Paid Podcast Listener Acquisition
Paid listener acquisition is an advanced strategy that is not worth pursuing for most shows.
But in Phase IV, it becomes one of your biggest (and often most essential) growth levers.
Paid acquisition allows you to get in front of virtually everyone who is active on the internet, something that would be tedious and time-consuming to do through collaborations alone.
There are a number of paid acquisition options, including advertising on:
- Podcast apps
- Other shows
- Services like Trailergram, Introcast, and others
- Meta (Facebook, Instagram, etc)
- Other social platforms (X (Twitter), LinkedIn, etc)
- And more
Keep in mind that the cost per listener from paid acquisition can range anywhere from $1–$10, with the cost per subscriber (who sticks with the show for more than a couple episodes) often ranging from $10–$400 (yes, seriously) depending on the show, advertising platform, ad creative, etc.
With that in mind, before adding paid acquisition to the mix, it’s essential to know your numbers and understand what a podcast subscriber is worth to you.
My recommendation is to not advertise your podcast directly but to instead direct your advertising budget to growing your email list.
The reasons are three-fold:
- It’s much cheaper to acquire an email subscriber than a podcast subscriber
- Once you have an email subscriber, you can send them regular, personalized, curated episode suggestions for as long as they stay subscribed to your email list
- If you have products or services you sell or work with sponsors, email is an essential tool for driving conversions
Regardless of which approach to paid listener acquisition you take, this type of marketing is heavily technical and difficult to make work without a high Average Listener Value.
That said, if you have the resources, revenue model, and skill to execute effectively, there can be significant growth to be had through paid acquisition.
Diversifying Your Brand Beyond the Podcast
While there may be a lot you can do to grow your existing show in Phase IV, the biggest opportunities for audience growth will come from growing the larger brand.
This can be done in a variety of ways including:
- Growing your reach on social media
- Focusing on traditional SEO to increase web traffic
- Creating a video-first version of the current podcast for YouTube
- Creating new content properties on the same topic but on other platforms to make your content and ideas accessible to non-podcast listeners (YouTube, newsletter, etc)
- Creating new podcast(s) on the same topic but with original premises (ie. different ways of exploring that topic)
- Creating new content properties on related but differentiated topics
It’s worth noting that while extending the brand beyond your existing show presents a significant opportunity, it also carries risk.
The original show has already defied the statistics to reach this Phase of Growth and it can be hard to catch lightning in a bottle twice.
Rather than attempt to replicate your current show, it’s often a better strategy to try something radically different, focusing on a new (though tangentially related) audience, with a new premise and new format.
Ideally, you want to create a show (or other content property) that makes sense in the universe of your larger brand, but allows you to expand into an audience you haven’t already saturated.
In addition to adding additional content properties to the brand, you can also expand your overall reach through:
- If your show’s concept allows it—opening up the breadth of the content you cover to attract new audiences into the fold.
- Language localization—ie. having your content translated (automatically or otherwise) into additional languages. YouTube is currently making big moves in this domain and YouTubers like Mr. Beast and Like Nastya have been doing this themselves for years.
Capitalizing On Your Creation
Of course, growth isn’t the be-all, end-all.
At some point in Phase IV, you may have no need or desire to continue to grow your audience, and your goal instead may shift to reaping the hard-won rewards of the work that got you here.
For many shows in this phase, this becomes the singular goal, with growth and marketing put on the back burner.
If your revenue model is based on product or service sales, this will mean:
- Building more efficient systems to
- Move podcast listeners to your email list where it’s easier to convert them
- Move email subscribers to your podcast, where it’s easier to nurture them
- Getting savvier with your conversion-oriented content strategy
- Improving your overall sales process
- Creating and marketing new offers
If your revenue model is based on sponsors and brand deals, this will mean:
- Opening up more podcast ad inventory, either within each episode or by increasing your episode output
- Creating additional inventory through other platforms (newsletter, social, YouTube, etc)
- Expanding and honing your sponsor research, networking, and pitching system
For many shows in this phase, these revenue generation opportunities are enough to sustain a sizeable business, even without any additional audience growth.
For others, churn—of audience members, customers, and sponsors—requires an ongoing focus on show and brand growth.
Your situation will be unique to you.
Closing Out Phase IV of Podcast Growth
When it comes to an individual podcast, Phase IV represents the terminus.
As such, there really is no closing it out.
Many shows that reach this stage continue to run popular, profitable shows for years at a time.
Some of those continue to experience slow and steady growth in audience, while others plateau and shift their attention to continuing to create (and capitalize on) great content for their audiences.
Neither is right or wrong.
Neither represents victory or failure.
If your show has made it this far you’ve already achieved something few other shows ever will, which is something to be proud of.
Of course, while Phase IV represents the end of the line when it comes to the Phases of Podcast Growth, when it comes to expanding beyond the podcast and growing a business, there is still plenty of room to grow and expand.
Whatever your goals—for your show and your business—and whichever Phase youu’re in now, I hope this guide has helped illuminate the next step in the journey and given you some actionable ideas on how to reach the next milestone.