Climbing the Listener Pyramid: The Key to Podcast Growth

Of the many challenges podcasters face, the biggest may be growing an audience. If you don’t have anybody tuning in, it’s really difficult to sustain your creative work — let alone make any money.

Over the last eight years, nearly 447 episodes, and nearly 15 million downloads at The Side Hustle Show, I’ve developed a podcast growth framework hosts everywhere can use to reach more listeners and have a greater impact.

It’s called the Listener Pyramid, and your job as a host is to climb it. Here’s what it looks like:

Listeners ascend from:

  • Strangers who’ve never heard of you or your show to …
  • Listeners who give you a chance to …
  • Subscribers who tune in often and get emails from you to …
  • Fans who listen to every episode, buy your products and services, and tell their friends how amazing you are.

The good news is there are some specific actions you can take — starting today — to begin (or accelerate) your climb.

Create with the Pyramid in Mind

First, keep this Pyramid in mind with every episode or piece of content you create. It should be intentionally designed to move people to the next step.

Every episode will be someone’s first time listening. What kind of impression do you make? Is it clear what the show is about and what’s in it for them?

Similarly, every episode will be someone else’s 10th time listening, or 100th, or 1000th, depending on how long you’ve been podcasting. What are you doing to build a deeper relationship with those people? What calls to action are you making?

From Strangers to Listeners

Getting someone to listen to your show in the first place is a huge hurdle to overcome — and before they can tune in, they have to know you exist.

Marketing a podcast is like marketing any other product, in that you have to figure out how to get in front of your listeners where they already are. 

Here are four ideas to consider.

1. Optimize for Search

Podcast apps like Apple Podcasts and Spotify are search engines, just like Google. If you can include your target keyword in the title of your show, excellent. If not, think of how to work in searchable keywords into your episode titles. 

Are your episode titles turning people off or making them curious for more?

Your episode titles are your first impression — this is what people see before they ever have the chance to listen to your amazing content. And you don’t get a lot of space. Are you turning people off or making them curious for more? For example, I think Authority Hacker does a great job with their episode titles in both capturing potential search traffic and human curiosity.

Another option (if you have well-known guests) is to include the guest’s name in your episode titles, like Dax Shepard does.

(Though I think there’s room for a little dose of “What’s in it for me?” in these titles. Guest names alone work for Armchair Expert, but you may want to give listeners a bit more context.)

2. One-on-One Outreach

In the early days of The Side Hustle Show, I didn’t have any audience or email list to speak of. But what I did have was several years of personal and business contacts in my Gmail archives. 

Email was a good excuse to reconnect and rekindle old relationships, and also to plant the seed of awareness about my show.

I went through and sent individual messages to the people I thought might be interested in the project. It was a good excuse to reconnect and rekindle old relationships, and also to plant the seed of awareness about my show. Even if they weren’t interested in tuning in themselves, it was a personal way to let them know in case any of their friends might be.

3. Guesting on Other Shows

I understand this doesn’t work in every niche, but one of the fastest ways to get in front your target listeners is to literally get in their earbuds through the shows they’re already tuning into.

Some of my biggest download spikes have come as a direct result of guesting on other entrepreneurial and personal finance shows. Do your homework, understand the host’s style and motivations, and craft a compelling pitch that makes it easy for them to say yes!

4. Consider Syndicating to YouTube

If you produce a video podcast, this is a no-brainer, but even if you’re audio only, I think YouTube is worth a look. Why? It’s a massive search and content discovery engine. If your target listeners might be searching for what you do on YouTube, consider testing snippet content (short questions and answers) or full episodes.

I’ve been using the free tool to syndicate some of my archive episodes, and to be fair, most don’t get a ton of traction. Still, some have tens of thousands of views. Even if I only pick up a few incremental listeners, engaging them is worth it.

Remember, you never know where your next fan is going to come from.

From Listeners to Subscribers

Now that you’ve got someone to give up some of their precious time to tune in, how can you keep them coming back for more?

Beyond creating a great show, the simplest way to turn an anonymous listener into a consistent subscriber is to ask them.

Beyond creating a great show, the simplest way to turn an anonymous listener into a consistent subscriber is to ask them.

Here are the two most important calls to action to consider working into your content.

Call-to-Action 1: Join Your Email List

What would be the most valuable thing a podcast listener could do after tuning in to your show? For most hosts, I’d argue that would be to join your email list. Your job is to determine the “What’s it in for me?” opt-in that would be most compelling. 

I’ve seen lots of different offers work, including:

  • Episode summaries
  • Exclusive bonus content
  • Full transcripts
  • Listeners-only newsletters
  • Mini courses
  • Workbooks or cheat sheets to apply episode content

Invite listeners to subscribe at the beginning and end of the episode (and in the middle if you can work it in)!

Test out different offers to convert listeners into email subscribers until you find something that resonates, but make it a point to ask often. Not everyone will opt in, but one thing is certain: If you don’t tell listeners how to subscribe and what’s in it for them, no one will.

Call-to-Action 2: Subscribe to the Podcast

The next call-to-action to consider is to subscribe to the podcast itself in their podcast app. There’s some evidence this sends positive signals to the various podcast directories, which can improve your organic exposure.

When a listener does this, your next episode is automatically pushed to their device. This instantly reduces friction and makes it easier for them to put more of your content in their earbuds.

From Subscribers to Fans

A podcast fan is a listener who: 

  • Consumes everything you create
  • Binges on your archives
  • Feels like they know you
  • Buys your products or services
  • Tells their friends how great you are

In short, these are the types of listeners we all want more of! But podcast fans aren’t born — they’re made. And you can make them, too. To do so, think of the shows you’re a fan of. Odds are they checked one or more of these boxes for you:

  • Taught you something you didn’t know before 
  • Made you laugh
  • Helped you make more money (This is the box The Side Hustle Show aims to check — if I can accomplish that for listeners I know I’ll have a fan for life.)

In other words, the shows you’re a fan of created something that was interesting, entertaining, or personally helpful in some way. 

If you can have that kind of impact on someone’s day, they’re very likely to share it with someone else. Once that word of mouth engine is spinning, you’ll have a new source of Strangers stepping up to Listener level on the pyramid, and the virtuous circle can continue.

Your Turn: Climb On!

With every episode, and even every segment within each episode, think about how your content will help someone climb this listener pyramid.

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