In the last part of our blog series, we grappled with the issue of websites. Should history podcasters use them, and if so, what pitfalls are there to avoid and be on watch for? This time, in what looks to be the final part of this series in Pros and Cons, I’m examining the question of monetisation, which for some is a bit tricky to address. Hopefully, this article will give you a bit of perspective, and remember to let me and others know if you enjoyed the read! Let’s get started…
When we speak of monetisation, I mean anything from history podcasting that has a potential to earn you money. This could be advertising, it could be donation systems like Patreon, or it could be affiliate programs like those that Amazon offers. Broadly speaking, to qualify for any one of these aspects of monetisation, you need to already have something of a following, and you need to have been doing this for at least a little while – normally a year is a good point to launch any kind of money related gimmicks. A small podcast isn’t going to draw in enough interest from advertisers, and a small podcast is unlikely to have the kind of listener to patron conversion ratio that the podcasts with a larger following enjoy.
In short, this is a straight up piece of advice – you should NOT be entering into the crazy world of history podcasting if money is something you have in mind. It will be you, the creator, that is spending resources – your time, your patience and often, your money. This is why those that do launch any revenue related ventures normally present them as something which will help them to break even. However, in my mind, there’s about three different levels of monetisation.
Level 1: you’re not really there yet, but you plan to make monetisation an aspect of your podcast eventually, when it reaches a certain degree of notoriety. Level 2: you’ve begun your monetisation campaign, however large a scale it may be on, yet you’re keeping your expectations low, and you present it to your listeners only as a way to cover costs and help you break even. Level 3: you’ve passed the threshold of breaking even, and your podcast is actually put some uniquely earned money into your pocket. Nowhere near the amount which could justify the time you actually spend on the darn thing, but enough to make you look at the figures and think to yourself ‘hmmmmm.’ My hope is that this article here will be able to appeal to history podcasters on each one of these levels. Listeners, perhaps you may learn something too!
You don’t need to be any kind of genius to see that making money through your podcast is quite wonderful. Something that began as a hobby, which people said you were crazy to begin, is on the verge of reaching that point where you can consider looking around for sources of funding, or maybe it’s on the verge of breaking even, or maybe it’s even making you something of a profit. In my case, thanks to the keen ears my listeners have for history, and for the rampant generosity that comes with it, I’m able to make this podcast my part time job – something which I believed impossible, and akin to a dream situation only a year ago. What changed for me was that, after much prodding from the wife, I took the plunge and began to ask people to support me on Patreon. Since then, we’ve never looked back.
There is a danger that this article could become something of a worship piece for how great Patreon has been for WDF, but one needs only to look at the podcast feed and listen to an episode to see that everything is on the up and up. If you were to look further – to the fact that we’ve been able to release more content, invest time in things like this website, this blog, and in monthly collaborations with people in the world of history, then all across the board, you’d see happy signs. Patreon has been absolutely life changing, and without the listeners I have enjoyed having on board for so long starting to give me their money as well as their attention, none of it would be possible.
My listeners get extras in return yes, but there’s no compulsion on them to sign up for the $2 or $5 packages. I rely to a large extent then on their generosity, and businessmen will tell you that such a business model is absolutely bonkers. Had I listened, WDF would still be stuck in a rut, and I’d be no wiser about how much the willingness to help out from my listener base could change the whole listening experience. In addition, had I relied on the affiliate program I signed up to with Audible a few years back, or the t-shirt deal I worked on with historytees.net to bring in some monies, then I’d still be sunk. WDF is not the biggest history podcast out there, but these ventures, combined with the revenue I get from ads as a part of Acast, bring me a little bit of money every month. This, you could say, is the breaking even point – level 2 as we called it.
What I found was, you could do well with these ventures, and if money making (or profit making) isn’t your goal (and it isn’t mine!) then you would likely be happy to stick with them. I was, for several years, and it wasn’t until I began to actually think about my future, about where I wanted to be in my career and with this podcast in a few years, that I felt it was time to go to level 3. It wasn’t a decision I took lightly, and I had a good few emails from podcasters and listeners alike saying they wanted to support me on the likes of Patreon, but I had resisted the call. I have to emphasise, that unless a history podcaster is able to get Dan Carlin levels of downloads and attention, it is highly unlikely you’d be able to make a good living with the level 2 streams of income. They simply were not high enough, I found, to sustain anything.
What was more, as anyone with a YouTube channel will know, ad revenue was a complex beast that chopped and changed on a monthly basis, sometimes leaving me with far less than the previous months. In short, if you want to avail of the final level of monetisation, I really believe that Patreon is the way to go. Failing that, if you have some kind of independent subscription model, that would work too! So long as you’re not entering level 3 from the moment you begin your podcast, and so long as your work quality justifies the cloud of dollar signs that hangs over it, I don’t personally see a problem in charging people for extra content, provided you aren’t mean about it of course.
I’ve seen many a listener describe their frustration (and protest hitting of the unsubscribe button) after discovering that the main portions of the story are behind a paywall. That’s something I’ve committed never to do, and by setting yourself rules like these you can also save yourself from those accusations which make history podcasters very uncomfortable. Being ‘only in it for the money’ is something history podcasters never want to hear, and yet, to some listeners, no matter what way the pitch is presented, resentment ensues. Thankfully, those listeners that do hold something of a grudge against their favourite show for ‘selling out’ are few and far between, and the vast majority of listeners are mercifully patient when it comes to withstanding yet another ad for those trusty razors. They did, after all, buy their own razor blade factory.
So long as you are transparent and considerate when it comes to reaching level 3, there is no harm in seeing what your listeners may be willing to give. After all, the more that is given, the more time – theoretically at least – one can spend working on the podcast. For this reason Patreon fills a great niche, since it enables us as creators to justify giving you more of what you love, and who doesn’t want more? In summary, the important thing about monetisation is to not be afraid of it, to be realistic about its results, and to talk genuinely and openly to your listeners about why you’re doing it.
As your listeners, they want to know why you’re suddenly talking about razors, even if they have a suspicion of why. Sometimes, even the act of hearing your own take on the tired Blue Apron or Casper adverts can be immensely entertaining. As always with history podcasting, whether you’re delivering good news or bad, just be yourself, and remember the reasons why you started, and why you’re able to keep going.
As someone reluctant initially to engage with Patreon, I quickly became lost in its grip. The problem for me wasn’t so much the fact that nobody gave money, but that nobody gave enough. After a few days without a pledge, I’d become irritable and depressed, safe in the knowledge that nobody cares, that my formula is wrong, and that my show was unsuccessful. These are the very real dangers of monetisation – any changes in the way you do things can lead to an obsession which can then get out of hand if you don’t keep a tight lid on it. I did and still do have occasional bouts of self-doubt and depression, and I would be lying if I said these hadn't become more common since joining Patreon.
This is not, I have to emphasise, something that will happen to everyone. I suppose it’s like that famous cliché of the person winning the lotto and losing it all within a few years. After not getting money from the podcast for so long, suddenly getting money on a level I wasn’t used to was as exciting as it was jarring. It took me a long time to reconcile my feelings about this new change, but now that I am on better terms with it, everything has since run more smoothly. I do still have my moments, moments where I can feel glum for the day, until Anna asks me what’s wrong, and I tell her I haven’t had a new patron in a week. She then slaps me around (not literally) and reminds me what I do WDF for.
If you don’t have this person to slap you around, it can sometimes feel like a losing battle. If you’re like me, you’ll also obsess over the sheer possibilities of all the things you can do now that money is coming in, and you’ll write up some plans to go with them. Monetisation means taking your podcast to the next level, it means that more possibilities will now become available, but it also means that your show will change, and the way you look at it will also change. For example, I never even considered before that the reason why I’ve been stuck at a certain level of listeners was because of my subject matter. Modernise it a bit, a friend said, and more listeners, thereafter more patrons, would surely come knocking.
Incidentally, this advice happened to coincide with me taking a long hard look at the podcast schedule ahead and wondering, ‘is this what people want?’ Then, after accepting the fact that I can drop Louis XIV and pick him later, just as surely as I can pick up this EXCLUSIVE WDF BOTTLE OPENER and put it back down again, I decided to go for something different, and something topical. Thus, WDF’s plans for the Korean War was born. I am very excited about this of course, and I know my listeners will enjoy this fresh look at a new era, with incredible revelations and a revisionist approach on the conflict to match, but at the same time I do worry that I may be leaving my listener base behind, and that I may be ‘selling out’ in terms of content.
Perhaps because the podcast is now my job, and I have to think of it now partially as a business of sorts, I was more open to doing the Korean War. Yet, although this is the CONS section of the article, I do think that even though some may be turned off that I’m doing more ‘mainstream’ conflicts now, overall the decision will work to the podcast’s benefit. I have to take this risk, and sometimes risks work wonders, other times not so much. Every time I talk about Patreon I know it is a risk, because I know all the listener does is feel a bad taste in their mouth and wonder who the hell is this guy to keep asking for money.
Indeed, some listeners may leave and unsubscribe, and herein lies the danger. There is a school of thought out there that says history podcasters are doing a hobby, and hobbies don’t require an income. On this principle, rightly or wrongly, they will then leave your base, forever stuck with the impression that you have indeed ‘sold out.’ To a degree, there’s not much you can do for listeners like these. What you can do is be careful and conscious of how you present whatever monetisation campaign you have started. If you’re feeling brave, maybe ask the listeners what they think. This, believe it or not, is what Mike Duncan did before he started putting those Audible ads on his show.
Just as he was likely surprised by the response, I’m sure you will be too. Your listeners want you to succeed, and some will go to great lengths to ensure you do. What they don’t want is five plus minutes of ads in a twenty minute episode. Do monetisation right, and your listeners will treat you right in return. Do it wrong, and you may as well shut up shop right now.
If you manage to avoid the pitfalls of monetisation, and if you manage to traverse the fears and feelings of your listeners considerately, then monetisation need not hold any cons for you. In this day and age, when the cost of living is high, when life gets in the way and presents its own expenses, few listeners would be so naïve as to think the hours toiling away and providing them with enjoyment would cost nothing. At the same time, being wary of how people feel about your show, about you personally and about what monetisation means for these things is a very important asset to have. I’ve mentioned consideration a few times, but it is an underrated part of this whole process.
Monetisation can mean two different paths. One contains personalised, funny ads that aren’t too long but get the message across. They contain reasons why supporting would be sensible, but don’t throw it in your face if you chose not to. They treat monetisation as something sensitive, and treat their listeners with the respect they deserve. The other path contains painful ads of a ridiculous length, with an insincere host grasping at money and chastising those that don’t contribute to this thing you enjoy. The choice of which monetisation path your history podcast takes is always up to you.
Zack Twamley is a history podcaster, author and all round history nerd. For over five years he’s worked with When Diplomacy Fails, and every week he releases new blog posts just like this one. If you’d like to track Zack down, make sure to do so on his social media links, or to email him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanksss for reading, and I’ll be seeing you all soon.