Breaking through the noise.
How Relay FM used marketing and memberships to amplify their podcast network.
Relay FM, an independent podcast network, describes itself as a place for people who are creative, curious, and maybe even a little obsessive - just like its hosts. The network was founded four years ago by Myke Hurley and Stephen Hackett, and like many creative endeavors, Relay FM started with a desire to improve on what other podcasting networks were doing by giving hosts a direct connection with their listeners, creative control, and the ability to produce the shows themselves.
“My business partner Myke and I had been podcasting for several years under another network,” shared Hackett. “Beginning in 2014, we started talking about what it would look like if we did that for ourselves; if we controlled all of it, managed the ad sales, and produced the shows we wanted to produce our way. It was a natural extension of what we were already doing since we were already recording podcasts in the space we still exist in, but the idea was doing it under our mantle the way we want to do it. We had the experience and the skill set to go out on our own with it, and there was room in the market for the shows we do, conversational tech shows. We both had full-time jobs, and Relay FM started as a side project between the two of us, and it’s grown a lot since then. We’re both in it full-time now.”
Now, Relay FM is home to countless influential and unique voices who host well-produced nerdy podcasts and share the common goal of creating powerful content every week. But, as Hackett shared with us, growing a successful podcast network wasn’t as simple as just pressing record.
Amplifying brand recognition.
As of February 2018, Apple had more than 500,000 active podcasts, so how do you stand out to listeners when there is so much noise clogging the airways? One way is brand recognition, making sure listeners know just by viewing your content that it’s attached to a high-quality offering. Hurley and Hackett knew this early on, so as they grew their network, they built a cohesive brand that would help them break through the noise.
“One of the things we focused on was making sure everything produced by Relay FM felt and looked the same way. Podcasting is obviously an audio product, so there’s nothing physical or tangible that our company creates. But, the way that you search and find podcasts is almost completely visual. You’re scrolling through the Apple podcast directory, or you’re reading a roundup about the podcasts a blogger listens to, and they include the artwork or the names of the podcasts.” These visual standards can be seen in the artwork for popular network shows like “The Pen Addict” with it’s clean bolded font, illustration-style graphics, and the ‘R’ in the corner that tells listeners it’s a Relay FM podcast.
"From talking to our listeners, I know the brand is strong enough that people who are familiar with it trust it. That’s a huge honor."
“If you look at all of our artwork even though we have a lot of shows now, they all feel cohesive. They all have their personality, but they also all have a common mark in the upper left-hand corner. They share similar color palettes and similar visual identities. Our goal was that when someone is looking for a podcast, and they see that little ‘R’ in the upper left-hand corner, that if they are familiar with other Relay FM shows, that’s an indication that they may enjoy this show. They will know there’s a certain level of quality both to the content and the production and that the show has in a way earned the right to have that branding on it. I think that speaks to people, and from talking to our listeners, I know the brand is strong enough that people who are familiar with it trust it. That’s a huge honor.”
Airwave focused advertising.
One of the biggest issues creators run into when successfully growing online businesses this day and age is monetization because frankly, advertising doesn’t work. That is, unless, you’re in the business of podcasting. In a Wired article aptly titled, “Podcast Listeners Really Are The Holy Grail Advertisers Hoped They’d Be” written after Apple made listener analytics available to podcasters, writer Miranda Katz shared “It seems like podcast listeners are the hyper-engaged, super-supportive audiences that everyone hoped.”
Luckily, Relay FM’s audience also fits that description. “The majority of Relay FM podcasts carry advertising; we sell those ads in-house, we have relationships with all of our sponsors, we do business with people we trust, and who we think bring value to our listeners. We turn down people we think are bad fits, we turn down all sorts of crazy pitches for things, because we value that relationship with our listeners. Podcasting enjoys a very high CPM (cost per one thousand listens) compared to other forms of content. I can’t speak industry-wide, but I know for us at least the vast majority of listeners listen to our entire episode, they listen to the ads, and other people in podcasting have spoken to similar things. People remain engaged with the advertising in podcasting, and that’s the reason the CPM has remained so high. We’re in a good position for the long haul for advertising to be a viable business model for podcasts of a certain size.”
Broadcasting quality content.
One of the reasons listeners are keeping their headphones on during Relay FM’s mid-show ads is because of the quality of the content the network provides. “You have to care about your content. Podcasting is exciting, and there are a lot of things you can do with it. I think a lot of people want to play around with the medium but don’t have the idea.” Hackett advises to not just focus on timely topics but on areas of discussion that last. “We’ve got shows that are three and a half years old, we have shows that pre-date Relay FM, and we have a weekly show that’s about to hit 300 episodes. What makes those shows work are hosts that are extremely passionate about their area of content and broad discussion topics that make it, so there’s always something to talk about.”
“You have to care about your content. Podcasting is exciting, and there are a lot of things you can do with it. I think a lot of people want to play around with the medium but don’t have the idea.”
Another often overlooked but important aspect of quality content Hackett shared was consistency. “Having a schedule and sticking to it whatever that schedule is, whether you’re going to show up once a week or twice a month, whatever it is, but you’re going to show up and do the work. Really, you’re trading content for someone’s time, and if you’re loose with the schedule, it’s not respectful of the time someone wants to put in.
Mixing in memberships.
Even though Relay FM drives most of their revenue through advertising, they still needed a way to support smaller podcast and connect directly with their listeners, that’s why they decided to implement memberships. “The membership program lets us support shows and hosts who don’t have advertising because it doesn’t fit for all of our shows. Plus, a lot of shows that do have advertising still have sizable memberships because people want a way to support the content that they love.”
Before jumping into providing memberships, they grew their audience organically, focusing on providing good content worth paying for. “The membership was only going to work once we had some critical mass. People who have creative work sometimes want to monetize it immediately. I don’t think that’s always the right answer. I think sometimes you’ve got to make something just for making it.”
By the time they decided to launch memberships, they’d already had a backlog of emails from listeners looking for a way to support them. “We were getting emails from people saying, ‘I listen to your ads but I’m not in the market for what's being advertised, but I want to feel like I’m supporting the stuff that I’m listening to’ it was incredibly humbling.” For Relay FM, membership is less about monetization and more about connection. They get to support hosts, and in exchange, they receive extra content available only to our members.
"Membership creates a bridge of communication back and forth between listeners and hosts, something we’ve come to treasure since we launched it.”
Memberships give Relay FM hosts something they wouldn’t have otherwise—a way to directly connect with and build relationships with their listeners. “Podcasting is a strange medium, you can know that tens of thousands of people are listening, but you don’t always hear from them. Some people may email you or Tweet you, but lots of people listen to a show and then move on. Membership creates a bridge of communication back and forth between listeners and hosts, something we’ve come to treasure since we launched it.”