Neil Patel and Eric Siu, the online growth maestros, combined forces in 2016 to create Marketing School, a daily podcast offering just a couple of minutes of actionable marketing advice. The bite-sized episodes cover the full marketing spectrum—from Facebook ads to SEO to content marketing.
Along the way, they’ve applied everything they know to draw an audience for the podcast, and they’ve experimented with new tactics to grow to about 750,000 downloads per month. Now, they’re shooting for their first one million download month.
But it’s not about growth for the sake of growth. On the very first episode of the podcast, they talked about paying it forward to up-and-coming marketers and how learning from others was instrumental when they were just getting started.
In fact, back when Eric set out to learn about online marketing, he became an avid reader of Neil’s blog Quick Sprout. He was reading up on link blending and sent Neil an email with a few questions.
“There was a lot of stuff I didn’t understand, a lot of concepts were foreign to me,” Eric said. They had some back-and-forth and eventually got on a call together. The relationship flourished from there.
Similarly, Neil revealed that when he was getting his online marketing start, he learned a ton from Patrick Gavin. Neil struck up an email relationship with Patrick who was working on Text-Link-Ads.com at the time.
Call it community, network, audience or whatever, Neil and Eric are clearly invested in the interaction from getting to know people through their podcast. They love it, and it has helped them build some of their most important relationships. They see the podcast as an investment. Podcasting is about the people it helps them reach.
They’ve put in the work for more than two years offering lots of insight about podcast growth along the way. I’ve combed through their 800+ episode archive so that I can show you every critical tip they’ve shared on what has enabled them to grow Marketing School and reach more people.
Distribute and Tweak
Distributing the podcast to multiple platforms is the gateway to growing your podcast. This is a little bit 101, but it’s key. “Not all people are hanging out on iTunes all the time,” Eric said of podcast distribution.
Eric and Neil use Libsyn to host their podcast. They take advantage of some of the automatic publishing options Libsyn provides even though sometimes the formatting doesn’t translate well between platforms. They use Libsyn to publish to SoundCloud, for example. Initially, they also used Libsyn to automatically publish to YouTube too (here’s an example from back in the day), but these days they’re doing a video recording so that there’s a more interesting visual element than a static image.
The idea behind distribution is to be in all the places where people might be listening or have an opportunity to discover you. The next step, as you can see from their approach with YouTube, is to tweak things appropriately for each platform. They went from having the audio with a static image to high-quality video where you can see them talking in the podcast studio. This made a huge difference overnight, but small tweaks can produce big results over time. Occasionally, the effect is immediate.
That’s what happened with iTunes. It defaults to showing your last 100 episodes, but Eric and Neil changed the setting to show the last 300 episodes, which is the cap. Once they did that, the podcast download rate doubled over the next 24 hours. “When you produce a ton of content and you index it really quickly, they just give you more love on iTunes. You get so much more search traffic,” Neil explained on an episode about improving podcast reach.
Hone Your Titles
Eric and Neil said they think about episode titles like blog post headlines, which means yes, they should be clickbait-y. “I’m not saying you should get people to click for the sake of it and dupe people, but if your title is not appealing, you’re not going to do well,” Neil explained.
Good titles won’t do much to affect subscriber numbers day-to-day. But it will help individual episodes stand out.
“If one day, we have a really appealing title, sometimes we can get double the amount of listens,” according to Neil.
They’re not just giving the title thing lip service. Before each episode, they spend about 15 minutes refining each title. They might even change it two or three times. For title inspiration, they type keywords into BuzzSumo and/or YouTube to see what else has done well. They consult traffic stats from their blogs to see what topics held readers’ interests, and they check out their Libsyn stats to see exactly what podcast listeners prefer.
Serve it to the Inbox
If there’s a dirty little secret about how Marketing School was able to get one million downloads in their first four months—having a massive email list is it. Except it’s not actually a secret. On several occasions, Eric and Neil have acknowledged the role that Neil’s enormous email list—he gets about 1,000 new email addresses per day!—has played in their success.
But even with a modest list, email promotion is a “quick way to get instant subscribers and traction from day one,” according to Neil. Every time they send an email and point people to the podcast, they get a spike of listens. They relied heavily on email in the beginning, and leveraged their own individual lists of email subscribers.
Even if you aren’t starting out with a strong list, you can try to partner with people who have one. “The other interesting thing that we did—we got other people out there and begged them to promote our podcast,” Neil said of getting to 750,000 listens. Obviously, you can ask people whose audiences might be interested in your podcast to help you spread the word, but sometimes they just won’t be up for doing you the favor. In those cases, “you can always pay them to do so,” Neil notes. They didn’t do this kind of paid promotion for their podcast, but they’ve done paid email promotion for other projects.
Another recommendation for those who aren’t starting out with big email lists is to interview people who have established audiences. In reflecting on their first four months of the podcast, Neil talked about asking people you interview to promote their appearance on your podcast on Facebook, Twitter, and email. “If they don’t do the email blast, it won’t go as well,” he noted. “It may take some convincing and finagling to get them to do it, but it’s well worth it.”
He talked about how the Art of Charm podcast uses this strategy. At the time (they discussed this on a 2016 episode), the Art of Charm was getting about two million listens per month and had been around for about a decade. When Neil was writing his book, his book marketing manager looked into an Art of Charm interview to promote the book. The condition for doing an interview was that Neil would have to send an e-blast about the episode. Ultimately he didn’t think it made sense for him, but felt the strategy was smart. “If you can get people to do email blasts for you, you can skyrocket your growth,” he said.
They also use email for individual outreach to let people know if they’re talking about their tool or product. Since they naturally discuss the tools they use for marketing, they’ll often casually mention specific ones during the course of their conversations.
“If we let’s say mention, Ahrefs, because we know it’s a good tool, we may email someone at Ahrefs and say, hey we mentioned you … feel free to share it out with your visitors,” Neil explained. It’s a win-win because the contacts they’re reaching out to might get a new take on how their product is being used.
Eric and Neil started being more proactive about this outreach after a person at a company they mentioned on the show emailed them. “Someone who hit us up, we mentioned their product and they started promoting it to their email list,” Neil recalled. “Oh wow, this is a smart idea. We should go back to all the people we mentioned in our podcast, email the episode numbers and have them to do a free blast.”
Keep it Short
Consistency and frequency are major factors in building a podcast audience. It boils down to audiences favoring predictability.
Eric has his own podcast called, Growth Everywhere. He started the interview show a few years before Marketing School and says it took a lot of experimentation and about three years to get real traction.
Eric said he averaged about nine downloads a day over his first year. In his second year, Eric averaged about 54 downloads per day. After about three and a half years, he started averaging about 80,000 downloads per month for Growth Everywhere. To compare, Marketing School was able to get one million downloads in its first four months.
“After the first year, I really wanted to give up,” he said. But he stuck with it and credits Growth Everywhere with helping him and Neil achieve the fast growth of Marketing School.
A major difference between the two podcasts is episode length. Growth Everywhere shows tend to be around 30 minutes. When Neil and Eric decided to start Marketing School, they deliberately wanted to make shorter episodes so that people could quickly get daily marketing tips. “People are busy, they don’t have the time,” Neil observed. So they went for short.
It wasn’t intended to be a growth tactic, they say, but it became clear that having shorter podcasts more often was favorable for building an audience. “The people who produce the most amount of episodes— it doesn’t matter if they’re shit or they’re good—the people who produce the most amount of episodes, get the most amount of listens,” Neil noted on an episode about their early success.
If they’d done one or two episodes per week that were each an hour long, they’d have more minutes of audio. “But doing shorter episodes and more of them, gets you way more listens and downloads,” Neil said.
Shorter episodes also make production easier, which is helpful for releasing them on a daily schedule. Eric and Neil make time to record 10 episodes at once and aim to do about 40 per month. Batching it that way, helps a lot, according to Eric.
A Few Quick Hits
There are lots of other little things that have helped grow Marketing School over the last two and half years. On several episodes (like this one), Neil and Eric acknowledge that there was no single thing that made the podcast blow up. It’s a combination of things. Apart from the stuff above, here are other tactics that have contributed to the growth of Marketing School:
- Sharing old podcast episodes. Most of the content discussed on Marketing School is evergreen. Eric and Neil use MeetEdgar.com, which automates the sharing and repopulates their queues on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. They prefer this over Buffer or Hootsuite because they don’t have to keep manually scheduling posts.
- Maintaining a blog and devoted podcast website. They both place the podcast on their personal websites using Smart Podcast Player. MarketingSchool.io is a separate website specifically for the podcast and they post new episodes to the blog with corresponding show notes. Podcast listening data is still sort of primitive, so the advantage of a blog with show notes is that you can get more detailed analytics and a more well-rounded look at your audience. “At least with a blog, you can see how engaged people are, how many pageviews, how long people are listening,” Eric explains.
- Cross-promote on other podcasts. Another way to get exposure for your podcast and grow your audience is to do mutual “reads” with other podcasts. For example, they created a partnership with Entrepreneur in which they read an ad on Marketing School promoting the brand’s podcasts. Entrepreneur did the same for them across a few of their different shows. Their podcast was also posted on Entrepreneur’s website. They did this for three or four months and saw a small bump from it.
- Work with a team. Creating a podcast is time-consuming, and that’s before you even get to the promotion and audience-building aspect. Neil and Eric have a team in place to make sure they’re constantly shipping shows. After they’ve created a batch of shows, they drop everything into a Dropbox folder for the team. “There’s multiple people working on this. The show notes, that takes time, making sure we have the right links,” said Eric. When he started Growth Everywhere he did all of it alone—production, show notes, editing, promotion etc. A single episode was about five or six hours of work. “Think about the time tradeoff.”
- Ask for ratings and reviews. “The more ratings and reviews you have, the better off you’re going to be. Especially when it comes to iTunes rankings,” Neil commented on an episode. Eric and Neil have used outros specifically asking the audience to rank and review the podcast on iTunes. “If you don’t tell them to leave a rating and review, you’ll get very few of them.”
Neil and Eric keep pushing the envelope with Marketing School’s growth—they’re consistently reaching for more. In September, they decided to set a goal of getting one million downloads in one month and they launched a plan to get them there.
“We want to get to a large number, not just because we want this number—yes, it’s a nice goal— but to be quite frank, it allows us to help more people,” Neil said. “At the same time, this is what most bloggers, podcasters, people who do video don’t ever discuss—the bigger your community, the more you learn.”
The plan to get a million downloads was adapted from an approach Neil used to grow his YouTube channel. On YouTube, Neil simply asked viewers to rate, review and subscribe, and “it has done extremely well for me,” Neil said. So Eric and Neil decided to activate the Marketing School audience with the promise of a free live event in Los Angeles once they hit their goal. People who can demonstrate that they’ve reviewed the podcast will get a reward like a premier seat or access to a bonus section.
“Think of it almost like a referral-based program,” Neil explained. “That’s a great way to grow your podcast.”
Newbies, Don’t Despair
Growing a podcast audience is a slog. Eric and Neil have acknowledged this over and over again. Even though they started out with a big email list to promote new episodes to, it wasn’t until they were about 80 episodes in that they felt like the podcast developed its own following (and they got to 80 episodes a lot sooner than most since they were publishing daily).
When they first launched Marketing School, there was some buzz, but Neil recalled that only after about 80 episodes did they start getting emails from listeners about the podcast. “I don’t think you’re going to get a big, huge bang for your buck from podcasting in your first 100 episodes,” Neil said. ROI picks up the more you create. “It’s the same thing with blogging, you have to stay consistent in order to see success,” Eric said.
Finally, there’s a time element that can’t be overlooked. “Time buys you listens and traffic,” Neil said. Your traffic will increase over time—even if you don’t create that many new episodes and you’re not super consistent.
While you’re waiting to get a return on the compounding effects of content marketing (or in this case, podcasting), here’s a recap of the things you can do to grow your podcast audience:
- Once you’ve built up more than 100 episodes, adjust the default setting in iTunes to display all your episodes.
- Send emails about your show. Tell your existing audience about it. Ask other people to email their lists about it (you might even want to pay them to do this), and if you talk about a company on your podcast, tell them about it and ask them to share it with their audience.
- Doing shorter episodes more often is conducive to faster growth. Shows can also be easier to produce that way.
- Take episode titles seriously. Start by typing keywords into BuzzSumo to get ideas about what people find appealing.
- If your content is evergreen, share archive episodes on your social media channels. Consider using MeetEdgar.com to continually populate your streams.
- Ask the audience to rate and review your show. They’re not likely to do it if you don’t ask, and more reviews and higher ratings helps new listeners find you in iTunes.
- Consider outsourcing some of the editing and post-production aspects of your podcast so that you can stay focused on producing new episodes.
- Posting podcast episodes on a blog can help you see more detailed analytics and help to get to know your audience better.
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