Are Podcasters Digitally Sharecropping Without Realizing It?

The extreme emphasis on iTunes as the most important distribution channel for podcasts means that some podcasters are inadvertently becoming digital sharecroppers.


Over about 30 minutes, Jerod and Demian discuss the following:

  • The big mistake many podcasters are making
  • A reminder about the importance of building and owning your own platform
  • How iTunes is like Google (and should be treated as such)
  • The importance of headlines for podcast episodes (and how to create podcast headlines that drive listens)
  • Is there any benefit to numbering podcast episodes?
  • The importance of having a big idea
  • How to use social media the right way to drive engagement … but without becoming a digital sharecropper

We hope you enjoy this week’s episode!



Are Podcasters Digitally Sharecropping without Realizing It?

Demian Farnworth: Is that a wise thing to do?

Jerod Morris: Yes.

Demian Farnworth: If you have any gripes on that.

Jerod Morris: Yes, I would highly recommend people not use the word ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ in their podcast headline.

Demian Farnworth: All right. Okay.

All right, Jerod. Welcome back to … this is The Lede, right?

Jerod Morris: It is. This is not Rough Draft or The Showrunner. We are now on The Lede.

Demian Farnworth: And we are on, I would hope to think, the better half of 100, having celebrated 101 episodes. If anybody has not listened to the last episode, it’s a must-listen. It’s a celebration of 100 episodes of The Lede with the special guest interviewer hitting us hard with some pretty serious questions, like do we prefer be in a swimming pool or swim in the ocean, and what was our best concert experience.

Jerod Morris: Whatever you do, do not go to the show notes. That’s all I’m going to say. Do not go to them. Do not share them. Do not view them. Do not click links. Just pretend they don’t exist.

Demian Farnworth: Particularly the links where we’re singing songs, right?

Jerod Morris: Yeah, especially those.

Demian Farnworth: Right. All right, so The Lede is interested in content marketing, and we want to tackle issues that are on our minds and on our listeners’ minds. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot, Jerod, is this idea of podcasting becoming or being a type of digital sharecropping.

A Reminder about the Importance of Building and Owning Your Own Platform

Demian Farnworth: Digital sharecropping is when someone builds content, or publishes content, and builds an audience on someone else’s rented land. For example, instead of having your own website, you use Facebook. That’s where you publish your content, or you use Medium, or you use Tumblr. This is not on your own domain. This is on someone else’s.

We don’t encourage that practice at all, because you’re at the whim of that particular social media site. They can change their policies, as Facebook has many times, and hurt people’s business models because of it. You don’t really own the content. They own the content. Facebook and social sites are making money off of you because of your content and the audience that you’re building. Besides, you’re not creating a media asset, an asset that you can use, ultimately, as leverage down the road.

For example, Brian has been offered seven figures for just the Copyblogger content on the site — not the product line, not anything else. Seven figures. So we’re talking millions of dollars people have offered because they know all the content that’s there and the traffic that it generates itself, just from the blog.

So that’s digital sharecropping. We don’t encourage it. I was thinking, Jerod, with this podcast thing that we’re doing, when people podcast, it all goes to iTunes. And I’ve seen some people like create these podcasts and that’s all they have. They drive traffic to the iTunes shows on there so that people listen to it on iTunes. I get that iTunes is the biggest place to do that, but is there a problem there?

How iTunes Is Like Google (and Should Be Treated As Such)

Jerod Morris: Not inherently, but there can be. The thing with iTunes — you say it goes to iTunes. It can go to iTunes, if you choose to submit your feed and put it into iTunes. Now, certainly people should. I think people should think of iTunes like they think of Google, and unless you have some very specific reason to do so, you would not hide your site from Google’s robots. You wouldn’t want to hide from being discovered in iTunes either. A mistake that some people make is they have a podcast, and they throw it up in iTunes, and they think that’s all that they need to do.

iTunes is simply a tool, a distribution channel for you to use, to get people to listen to podcast content, which is audience attraction content. If we talk about those circles of belief and wanting to move people closer and closer in, a more intimate relationship, it’s on the outer edge. Not the total outer edge, because people can still subscribe to your podcast, but it’s still there on the outskirts. You need to keep pulling people in, and that means having a platform that you control, that you own, and getting people there either to subscribe to your email list or whatever it is, whatever your model is.

You can’t just stop at iTunes, and if you do that, then it can certainly be something that resembles digital sharecropping, which is what you don’t want. Because the same thing, the same fear with Facebook — it’s the same thing with iTunes. You’re building an audience over on iTunes, but you don’t necessarily own that audience. You don’t own those reviews. Those could disappear at any time.

So yes, you can get into a digital sharecropping issue, but you’ve just got to make sure with your strategy, with the way that you’ve organized your funnels and the way that you are moving your audience step-by-step, turning them from listener to audience member to subscriber to customer, that you’re making sure that does not happen.

Demian Farnworth: You don’t have to go to iTunes. I guess what you’re saying is you could do both. I know what we do on the Rainmaker Platform is we publish them on the blog sites. People can listen to them there, but they can also listen to them through iTunes. We more encourage them to listen to them on iTunes. Is that what people should be doing? Is there an advantage or anything?

Jerod Morris: Sure. I think if you’re smart about it. You want to use iTunes to your advantage, and most people who listen to podcasts are on iTunes, so naturally, you want to work to increase your rankings in iTunes and build your stature there because it will get you more attention. It will get you more listeners.

But those listeners are not an end in of themselves. So just because you have 10,000 downloads from iTunes and people listen, that’s great, but then, what are you doing with them?

It can’t just be about driving up iTunes. It’s got to be about, you’re driving up iTunes for what? To get people to subscribe to an email list, to get people to buy a product or buy a service, whatever it is. It’s got to be leading to somewhere, not just to attention on iTunes.

Demian Farnworth: It’s a top of the funnel, as far as lead generation goes.

Jerod Morris: Yes. For podcasters, a very effective one and necessary one to use. I mean, it’s silly to not use it. Again, it’s just about being smart about it and not stopping there and thinking that being number five in ‘What’s Hot’ in iTunes is some kind of victory in and of itself. It’s not.

Demian Farnworth: Even if you’re not rating very high, but you’re still able to lead that audience and to elevate the relationship — like you talked about, the ability to lead — from being a passive listener and then to subscribing to an email newsletter and then working them down through the funnel at that point. The best advantage of iTunes is this discovery, like finding a new audience. Is that what we’re talking about?

Jerod Morris: Yeah. I think it’s discovery, number one, because that’s a big place for people to go discover podcasts, and plus a lot of the different podcatchers and podcast apps that people will use basically take directly from iTunes. Being in there exposes you to the most people, and then of course, where people subscribe too so it’s both discovery and connection in that sense of people subscribing to your show. You just got to then take it that next step.

The Importance of Headlines for Podcast Episodes (and How to Create Podcast Headlines That Drive Listens)

Demian Farnworth: Okay. I know we’re talked about this before, but iTunes is sort of like SEO, too. There are ways that you can optimize the use of iTunes. One of the questions that I have, and I’ve been thinking through this. When it comes to headlines — and I’ve asked this question before — like headlines are all the more important, as important, for podcast episodes as they are online for content.

The reason we say that is just because you’re subscribed, does not mean you’re going to listen to them. You could be subscribed to 40 different podcasts, and there’s no way you can be able to listen to all those, but usually what we do is we scroll through and look for a meaningful, compelling headline and say, “Okay, I think I’ll listen to that.” That’s pretty much the case, right?

Jerod Morris: Right. That’s actually why — I hate to burst people’s bubbles who get really excited about download numbers — your podcast can be downloaded and often is without people listening to it. I mean, based on settings, some people can download the three most recent episodes of a show. That doesn’t mean they ever give it a listen. There’s no real way to track that with a third party like iTunes. Being discovered and getting subscribed to is one thing, but then like you said, you’ve got to use that headline to entice the person to actually go through and listen, click play. It’s extremely important.

Demian Farnworth: I’ve been toying with the idea of headlines and how to write headlines because one of the things that I noticed … I imagine most people probably listen to their podcasts on their phone. I have an iPhone 5. I know iPhone 6 has the larger screen. I don’t know how it looks on there, but on mine, it looks to be about like 40, somewhere around 40 to 45 characters is the total headline that you get. Sometimes if you have a long word in there, like, say, a 14-letter word, that will get bumped down to the second line, and rest of the headline disappears.

I’ve been doing some rough calculations thinking about, “Okay, so how do you write these headlines?” Again, it seems to be the shorter, the better, but the smaller the words, the shorter words, are even more important because you get more words per line. However, tell me if that so far is on track. Is that a wise thing to do?

Jerod Morris: Yes.

Demian Farnworth: If you have any gripes on that.

Jerod Morris: Yes, I would highly recommend people not use the word antidisestablishmentarianism in their podcast headline.

Is There Any Benefit to Numbering Podcast Episodes?

Demian Farnworth: Right, okay. Here’s my thought, and I wonder why people do this. They put the episode number at the very front of the title, the headline. It seems to me they’re robbing themselves of precious real estate. I know The Showrunner does that.

Jerod Morris: We do.

Demian Farnworth: Why is that?

Jerod Morris: There are some different schools of thought on this. I like the episode number up there. I mean, I agree, you want to try and do it in as short an amount of characters as possible. A subscription to a podcast, to a show, should feel like — from the audience member to the showrunner — an ongoing commitment. To me, there’s something about episode numbers and the sequences and 16 to 17 to 18 to 100, whatever.

I feel like there’s something powerful about that sequence and about what it suggests about the commitment — that we’re here this week, and we were here last week, and we’ll be here the next week, and we’ll be here the week after that. The reason why is that I’ve noticed that myself in how I search for and connect with podcasts, and I’m not saying that’s universal, I just know it from my own experience. And I think the other thing that it does when you put your episode numbers in there is it allows you to signify automatically to your audience what is a bonus.

We’ll do Showrunner Shorts, and those headlines break apart from this normal headline convention of episode No. 001, No. 002. Then there’s this bonus in there, and I like throwing in bonus episodes every now and then. If you’re every Wednesday, then maybe you throw in an episode on a Friday. It gives your audience something extra. It’s a little surprise, something they’re not expecting.

Demian Farnworth: Couldn’t you accomplish that? I mean, say, on Rough Draft, I just put in the straight headline, but if I put in brackets or just opened in brackets [Bonus], I mean, that would get flagged, as that’s abnormal.

Jerod Morris: You could. I guess, there’s something for me when you go look at iTunes and you look at a show for the first time. This is I think what most people do. You find a show that looks interesting. You click on it, and a lot of times, you can see the series of episodes. I think there’s something powerful, especially as the numbers grow and get bigger, of just seeing week after week after week this similar headline structure going across.

There’s this powerful symmetry on the page, and then you’ll just see a little break where it’s like ‘Friday Fan Mail’ or ‘Bonus’ or whatever it is. I don’t know. Again, this may be me, but it’s always had this powerful impact on me when I look at it.

Demian Farnworth: I think like you said, when you see there’s 496 episodes, because that’s what the latest episode is, there is a serious commitment and consistency with this particular podcast that you know, “Hey, this has got to be good, quality stuff to be around for so long and to do it at this level for so long.” Two, it gets serious attention. That’s when the numbers are large though.

When I see there’s been 11 shows, that means nothing to me at this particular episode, but when we’re at least past the hundreds, then that is pretty meaningful. I mean, would you encourage people to say, “Hey, the first hundred shows, don’t do it, but then after that …” Or is there a magical number? Or should you just do it that way from the beginning?

Jerod Morris: I think that you need to do what makes sense to you. I don’t think that there’s a right answer to this, frankly. I think doing what you believe in will help you stay committed to it in the long term. For me, with The Showrunner, one of the reasons we wanted to do it is, look — we’re trying to teach people by doing how to have a remarkable show. A big element of a remarkable show is showing up over time. We want to give that subtle hint that, “Hey, we’re only on episode 15 right now, but we’ll be here for 100, and we’ll be here for 200.” It’s as much a constant reminder to the audience as it is to us, and it’s just what we believe works. I’ve seen it work both ways, and I could probably argue it both ways.

Demian Farnworth: For the podcaster, do you feel like, “We’re only on show 11. We have a long road to go.” Is it encouragement for you?

Jerod Morris: What do you mean?

Demian Farnworth: When you see that number, when it’s numbered that way, does it encourage you? Does that psychological impact work on your end, too, saying “We’re only at episode 11? We‘re in for this long haul, and we need to strive and work towards it?” Does that make sense?

Jerod Morris: Yeah. You mean as the showrunner, as the podcaster? Yeah, absolutely.

Demian Farnworth: Yeah, right.

Jerod Morris: It does for me. I’ve started doing that on some of my other shows, like Podcast on the Brink, another one that I host. We didn’t have any kind of numbering convention. I realized we’re on episode 75, 76. There’s just something about the consistency of it. People know what to expect from the headline. They know when it’s going to come out. And we made that switch as soon as we said, “Okay, instead of putting out episodes haphazardly, we are posting a new episode every Wednesday at 8:00.” Again, I think it’s something that both subtly, yes, for the person who’s creating the show, but then just that overt, explicit communication to the audience, I think — that’s the big benefit of it.

Demian Farnworth: You’ve said this before: most shows crash and burn within a short period of time, like five, six, seven, even 25 episodes, maybe, and that’s probably the podcasting graveyard. It’s simply not a commitment there. This numbering thing could then benefit you in that sense of keeping you on track, keep you focused and moving down that way.

Any other thoughts about this idea — because I think we’ve covered it quickly — of podcasting and ‘don’t build on someone else’s rented land?’ Make sure you have your own site, too, that you’re blogging on, that you’re publishing the feed on also. Use iTunes as the discovery engine. Try to elevate that relationship to a newsletter so that you’re turning an audience into some monetary advantage. Any other thoughts about podcasting in this vein of things that you want to add before we close?

The Importance of Having a Big Idea

Jerod Morris: I have two thoughts. One, just to put a punctuation mark on this idea we were talking about with the numbering: it’s very, very important — and this goes along with the digital sharecropping idea too — that both you as the showrunner and your audience as the audience member believe they’re part of something bigger, not just, “Hey, I’ll listen to this episode this week, and this episode that week,” and you being like, “Hey, I’ll put this episode out.”

Whether it’s a naming convention, whether it’s a day and a time that you come out always, whatever it is, that helps to communicate that idea that this is part of something bigger. Because I think a lot of shows fail and a lot of shows lose momentum with audience members when it doesn’t feel like it’s going anywhere, when it doesn’t feel like there’s something bigger than this episode.

That’s what helps you take it from iTunes to a platform, to an email list, to a discussion group, whatever it is. It’s that, “There’s something bigger going on here. This person is taking me on a journey. I’ll be transformed in some way if I continue to listen.” The audience is never going to have that feeling if you don’t have that feeling yourself as the person creating the content.

That’s where it’s got to start. Even if it’s only to give yourself that feeling, I think it’ll help you in the long run to pull people from just listening to a few episodes on iTunes to, “Hey, I got to get more from this person. I want to connect, and iTunes is a great, convenient vehicle for me to listen to the episodes, but that’s only step one in my relationship with this person and their content.”

Demian Farnworth: Are we talking about really having a mission behind the podcast, like a vision or a goal?

Jerod Morris: Exactly. Some bigger idea that you want to take people to. With The Showrunner, we want people to think of themselves as bigger than podcasters. Yes, we’re going to teach you the elements of creating a remarkable podcast, but it’s more about building a platform, building an audience asset, and then building a business around it. There’s a lot more there.

With The Assembly Call, it’s not just about giving some post game analysis of an Indiana game. On a micro level, that’s what the episodes are about. On a macro level, it’s about creating a community for people who are all over the place that want to reconnect on a subject that they’re very passionate about.

It helps you in those moments when it’s tough to get up and record again, or you don’t have an idea, or whatever to keep that commitment to it. Then you keeping the commitment is going to help your audience keep your commitment to it. It’s just about having something bigger there, so whatever that is.

Demian Farnworth: Right. Let me give you two examples of my non-business favorite podcasts. One is called Theory of Everything. The other one is called Song Exploder. Theory of Everything, his basic tagline is, if you listen to the variety of the shows, you would wonder is there an overarching theme here, and the overarching theme is the guy wants to connect all the dots. That’s what he was talking about. He jokes that he’s connecting the dots, all of them.

He always has a theory about something. That’s the way he approaches each episode. “I have this theory about China and France and the relationship that they have with wine” or “I have this theory about Airbnb actually changing the way we live in New York.” That’s how each show is.

The Song Exploder, on the other hand, it takes a song and then it breaks it down instrument by instrument, and musicians talk about that particular song. I don’t think there’s any overarching … besides, “This is insanely curious.”

I found myself, after a while, tiring. After I listened to all, I think it was 40 episodes, I was like, “If I never listen to another episode, I really wouldn’t care,” because I felt like I got everything out of it. I really didn’t feel like there was any overarching — it could’ve been burnout, too — but any overarching need to continue. Maybe it’s my tendency not to join a community, but I didn’t feel like there was something larger. Each episode was just a self-contained episode, and there was no larger connection besides the love of music throughout the whole thing.

Jerod Morris: That’s interesting. Again, maybe other people felt that connection, and maybe you didn’t, and you explained some of the reasons why. But you wonder on behalf of the podcaster, the person creating that content, whether they think of it in that sense. And maybe they don’t. Maybe they think of it as these kind of one-off episodes, and that’s why that wasn’t communicated or that wasn’t translated.

Demian Farnworth: It could be. With Rough Draft, my thought, basically, the mission, is to help people overcome the two unique challenges of all online content, which are overcoming obscurity and neglect.

It helps my overall vision — when I’m thinking about content, when I’m thinking about what to teach people — to structure, even though each episode is a standalone. I always think of each episode as not only maybe a miniseries, but really as an entire sequential class, so that you could start from episode one and work your way slowly to every single one. There might be some discrepancies throughout there.

Jerod Morris: It’s interesting that you bring that up, though, because you look at what you’re doing with Rough Draft. You just gave that very specific idea of the journey that you want to take people on who are listening. But The Showrunner, our goal is teach people how to develop, launch, and run a remarkable show. I mean, it’s very specific, very dialed in. And then you look at The Lede, which is the one that we’ve been doing together the longest, and you even said at the beginning — it’s a podcast about content marketing.

You and I have even struggled. We’ve had conversations about what direction we want this to go in. I wonder now, as we move in to these second hundred episodes of The Lede, maybe this is a good opportunity for us to … I mean, yes, it’s about content marketing, but where specifically are we taking people? I think we have useful episodes, but they don’t always lead in the same direction. Maybe that’s something now where we have an opportunity to redefine exactly what kind of transformation we want people to go on.

We’re very blessed with The Lede, that we have very loyal listeners who give us feedback every episode, so I think we’re doing something right. But I would say for people who are listening to this, watching us go through the process with this, that’s probably one place where we could define it even a little better, I would think.

Demian Farnworth: This is true. It’s funny, just for a moment there, I had this really weird experience. I totally forgot which show I was on. I’m like, “Okay, we’re doing a Lede episode here.” It sounds like you’ve got your work cut out for you. I like that.

Jerod Morris: Okay. I had one more point I want to make, too, before we get to this, because I think sometimes it can get lost. I probably should’ve put this at the beginning when we talked about digital sharecropping.

Demian Farnworth: The first point you wanted to make to close out was ‘have an overarching goal.’ What’s your second one?

How to Use Social Media the Right Way to Drive Engagement … but without Becoming a Digital Sharecropper

Jerod Morris: The second one is, when we talk about ‘don’t digital sharecrop,’ it means ‘don’t build an audience asset on land that you don’t own,’ but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t host conversations other places.

That doesn’t mean that you don’t want to build the following on Twitter and converse there and listen in a way that’s relevant to your audience. I know a lot of people are having success building private Facebook groups. We’ve got one for The Showrunner. I’m in others for other topics, and they’re great for conversation because it facilitates better conversation, a lot of times, than even forums will.

Demian Farnworth: Targeted, right.

Jerod Morris: That’s not your asset. The private group, it’s just a place. If Facebook shuts that down, you could go take everybody elsewhere because they’re on an email list or they’re in a course. That discussion is part of something bigger, but it’s not the audience asset itself. I do think there is the risk, sometimes, when we discuss digital sharecropping that people think we’re anti all of that stuff. Certainly not, because those conversations can be very valuable, but just make sure that the asset is built on land that you own.

Demian Farnworth: Right. Even in some Lede episodes, we talked about publishing content on Facebook and Medium, but again, we made it clear you still have your home base. You still have your website, your media asset. All these other places are simply what they call ‘third places,’ where you go and hang out, and you have conversations, and like Jerod says, the place to kind of chum.

It’s taking the place of the corner saloon that everybody congregated on. And Facebook and Twitter and all these places allow you to continue to talk and stuff like that.

Interesting question, because this guy from Song Exploder, I just saw him Tweet a few days ago. He’s like, “My main problem with podcasting is that there is no way to communicate with these people after you just listen to a podcast. There’s no way to immediately interact with these people.” I thought, “Hey, man, this guy is on my wavelength.” That was my same struggle. It has been my same struggle with Rough Draft. I’ve seen that there’s a disconnect between me and the audience and stuff.

I bring that up as a mirror observation, saying that I’m not the only one who’s thinking this thing. These other places like Twitter and Facebook can take place of that. Once you listen to a podcast, hopefully the podcaster has a vibrant community like this. If you’re doing a podcast, the encouragement is to create this third place, whether it’s on Twitter or Facebook, wherever you find that your listeners can then interact with you, because a lot of times they have questions. They might want to thank you or comment on the particular show.

Jerod Morris: That is interesting, too, because I feel that same way. I’m going to be really interested to see in the next two, three years how podcast interaction changes.

You record this episode. You’ve got to edit it, and you publish it, and that’s usually several days later, and then you don’t even know when people listen to it. It’s like a blog post. They may read it a year after, but with a blog post, there are posts and comments. And we don’t really have that yet with podcasting. Where do you provide that immediate feedback?

And I will say, with The Assembly Call, which we record as a live episode – there’s a live time when that show is recorded. The podcast goes out, and it can be listened to any time, but there is that live time that people can go to, and our real core, hardcore audience is there.

On that show, I never feel the lack of immediate feedback, because there are people there. They’re Tweeting questions. They’re Tweeting to us right afterwards. Even though it’s a very small part of the overall audience, I do think for anybody who’s really feeling that disconnect, try recording an episode live sometime, or host a live event with your people. With The Showrunner, we do the Huddles every other week, so we get some real-time interaction while recording with people.

It helps to bridge that gap of disconnect that I think is so easy to feel, that maybe one way to do it. Not every episode that you do, obviously, but maybe you do a live Rough Draft recording, or a live Q & A or something where the hardcore folks can be there to listen. I don’t know, just a thought.

Demian Farnworth: Engage. Right. Good stuff.

All right, we’ve covered a lot of ground on podcasting and content creation, audience building, digital sharecropping. Speaking of iTunes, folks, a great way to show support for this show, for The Lede, is to jump on to iTunes, and leave us a rating. Leave us a review. We love to hear from you.

You can also find us on Twitter. I’m @demianfarnworth and Jerod is @jerodmorris, very easy. Shoot us a comment. Shoot us a question. Shoot us your views on who sings better. I have a strong feeling though, that I know the answer. This is one battle I will certainly lose to Jerod. But we appreciate you guys listening, and thanks for another episode of The Lede, Jerod, and your keen brain on podcasting.

Jerod Morris: Thank you. This was fun. It always is.

Demian Farnworth: All right, folks. We’ll talk soon.