On December 5th 2019 I launched the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast.
I had no audience, no reputation, no budget, no team, and knew nothing about how to make a podcast.
On May 22nd, 5.5 months later, the podcast crossed 100,000 downloads.
Here's what I've learned in 6 months.
1. There is no playbook for growing a podcast.
If you were hoping this to be a guide that you could follow step by step, you'll be disappointed. I was when I was looking for the same thing 6 months ago.
For all the successful podcasts out there, there is no playbook, no 'this is how it's done' guide.
But these really are hygiene factors. If you're not doing them, you're doing something wrong.
From a marketing and growth point of view, podcasts grow from people telling their friends, colleagues and family.
The only way of making that happen is producing content that people want to talk to other people about; there are no marketing silver bullets.
2. Solo-podcasting is lonely
As a solo podcaster, it is a lonely world.
You are one person speaking into a microphone, the 2020 equivalent of a blind and deaf man on a soapbox, who has little idea about what his audience likes or dislikes about each episode apart from some download statistics and the occasional email or social post.
With most other types of businesses, the relationship with your customer or user is much more transparent.
You hear from them, you talk to them, there is a two way channel of communication.
Solo podcasting can often feel like a very one way street.
3. You don't always have to default to being ad-supported
Podcasting 101 suggests the following business model:
Step 1: launch your podcast & attract lots of listeners
Step 2: find an advertiser to pay you
Step 3: fill your podcast with just as many ads so that you don't lose listeners but you can sell as many ad spots as possible
(optional) Step 4: sell out to Spotify for 9 figures.
Now, for podcasts where the podcast is just a marketing channel for another product or service, the above evidently doesn't apply.
But for podcasts where the podcast itself is the product, podcasts have a tough time deviating from this model.
With the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast, I always wanted to avoid the advertiser route, instead offering a way for listeners to pay directly, and so we have a membership offering.
That's the business model.
The nature of the podcast makes it easier, because listeners are using it for learning purposes (and therefore is in the mental bucket of 'learning resources' as opposed to 'just another media subscription'), but the rise of subscription based services for podcasters suggests it should be possible for anyone.
4. Podcasting is beautifully anonymous (for the time being)
In a world where advertising pixels are plastered on every corner of the Internet, and every click or mouse movement is forwarded to data exchanges all over the world, podcasting is one of the last bastions of anonymity.
You can listen without anyone knowing who you are, being able to email you, being able to retarget you with ads, or sell your data to another advertiser.
From a user’s point of view, it's hard to argue that this is anything other than a beautiful thing.
If you don't know what data a podcaster can see, they can typically see the players (Apple Podcasts, Spotify etc), the country (or state in the US), and the episode that you have listened to.
5. Podcasting is intimate
If you listen to podcasts, you can probably imagine the sound of your favourite host's voice.
You've heard them speak for hours, right into your ear, and you might even hear more of them than your closest friends and family.
And it would be quite weird for you to meet them in person.
This is obvious on one level, but being the person who is now the host, and then having a conversation with someone who has spent hours listening to you is a strange experience. You know nothing about them, but they feel like they already know you.
I've found this with the members of our podcast that I've spoken to, and it just made me appreciate quite the level of intimacy that a podcast has with its listeners. No wonder that so many brands are starting their own, as a way to try to build trust and intimacy with current or potential customers.
If you are a listener of the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast, and you’d like to speak, then everyone who becomes a Learner member gets a 30-minute 1-on-1 call with me.
6. The best time to start a podcast is today
There are well over a million podcasts now available on Apple Podcasts. There were already a million when I started.
Common sense might say, does the world need another one?
But that doesn't mean that a small group of people, somewhere in the world, would like to listen to yours.
And the growth of podcasts doesn’t seem to be slowing down, especially outside the more developed markets of the US, Canada, and the UK. Brazil is now second worldwide in terms of podcast listenership, and the podcasting is still relatively new outside of Europe and North America.
The best time to start a podcast might have been a few years ago. The next best time is today
7. Podcasts for language learning are very underdeveloped
I started the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast because I wanted to create something that actually helped people learning English.
It amazed me that so many of the podcasts available to language learners were so uninspiring, and I knew that I could create something better.
Language learning companies over the past 15 years have broadly fallen into two categories.
Category 1 - we'll just stick to our old ways and teach as we have always done (perhaps we'll move it online).
Category 2 - we are going to be 100% app, gamify every aspect of user interaction and focus on daily active users, as opposed to learning outcomes. Our numbers and revenue might look great for a while, but people will churn when they realise that they aren't making the progress that they want.
Podcasts fall into a third category.
They expose learners to real natives, for free, whenever they want. They focus on listening, which research shows is of huge importance and always undervalued by language learners. They aren't prescriptive, so they are ideal for self-learners. And all that's required is a mobile phone.
I wonder why more language learning companies don't have podcasts, or at least don't put more of a focus on them.
Is it because they are afraid they will cannibalise their main business? Is it because they can't attribute the impact of them?
What's certain is that once a language learner clicks with a podcast, it's a magic moment. They realise that learning happens outside the classroom, and that it's them, not a teacher, not an app, and not even a podcast who is ultimately responsible for their learning progress.
Some other things I’ve learned
About podcasting, language learning, and delivering value to your users.
- Consistency is really hard - we make two episodes a week, complete with a transcript and key vocabulary. Everything is written and researched meticulously firsthand. Doing this twice a week, every week, is tough.
- Don’t try to be everywhere. Lots of people will say that you need to be on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, other podcasts, Snapchat, and a million other things. Doing all of this would be utterly exhausting with limited resources. Instead, we focus on producing great content.
- Show the value, not the features. Listeners can become a member of Leonardo English and get access to all of the learning materials and extra podcasts. From conversations with members, once they subscribe and join, they have told me they thought it was very cheap. Yet for someone who hasn’t yet done this yet, they can think it’s expensive. There is a lot of work we can do to better show the value of membership (like hearing firsthand from one of our members, Coté).
- Getting good audio is hard anytime. Getting good audio with a newborn baby in your house is harder.
- You will meet inspiring people, even if you don’t reach out to them. I got an email one day from a guy called Daniel, an English learner from Switzerland who started his own podcast to improve his English. I’ve had dozens of other inspiring messages from people from all over the world, and look forward to each and every new one I get.
It’s been almost six months since I launched the podcast. 100,000 downloads later, I’m still learning.
But it’s been an incredibly exciting six months, I’m thrilled that the podcast has helped so many people, and excited for the next 100,000.
If you’re interested in a more interesting way to improve your English, then I’d recommend thinking about becoming a member of Leonardo English.