Making a Business of Your Podcast: Building a Membership Program


You're reading a post from Backyard Media's Podcasting 101, a series of guides meant to explain podcasting and podcast advertising to new and current podcast creators. To see our other guides, click here.

Take a look at our first post, “Making a Business of Your Podcast: Developing Revenue Streams,” for other ways to make money from your podcast.

In continuing our discussion of how creators can turn their podcast into a sustainable business, we’re talking today about membership programs. The membership model is a newer trend in podcasting, and one that more creators are turning to instead of regular podcast advertising. As podcasts have taken off, creators have found they can find a reliable funding source in their own audience. And for many, podcast membership can out-raise all of the other revenues sources that we’ve mentioned so far. So what should you consider before staring a membership program for your podcast? What perks can you include to entice your listeners to join? And what’s the mindset you should have when planning to offer membership?

What Patreon tells us about membership programs

In our last post, we introduced Patreon as one way creators can generate revenue for their podcast. Patreon is a platform for creators who want to generate recurring revenue directly from their audience.

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The benefits of the model that Patreon has popularized is that creators can create sustainability for their project if only a small percentage, between 1-10% depending on the audience size, pays a recurring subscription fee. In turn, this stability gives the creator more time to spend on improving their work. Members on Patreon, or “patrons”, receive perks for their membership, and they can gain access to different quality levels of perks depending on how much they donate.

Patreon’s success in the mid-2010s was undeniable proof that audiences are willing to pay for creative content, so long as creators make the ask and can prove that their content is worth paying for. Of course, creators also need to deliver worthwhile perks for their members and show how membership funding is improving their content. Membership through Patreon has become a viable alternative to digital advertising for podcasters, vloggers, artists, and other creatives. As a platform, though, Patreon can be a bit clunky when it comes to podcasting. Setting up a separate, members-only podcast feed isn’t seamless, and Patreon pages only allow for so much customization. Some creators also might not like Patreon’s fees, which can top 5% per donation.

Thinking beyond Patreon: Podcast Sustainability through Membership

Let’s look at how podcast creators can take the idea behind Patreon—that of a member-powered creative project—and reformulate it into their own kind of membership program. Making your own program can give you total control over what perks you can offer paying members and how you deliver those perks.

Before going down the path of a membership program, though, consider whether your show’s size and frequency make sense for this kind of model. If you run a podcast that publishes many episodes per month (e.g. a daily industry news podcast, or a thrice-weekly fitness podcast) or if you have high download numbers (more than 100k listens per episode), then regular podcast advertising might be a better financial move for you. Consider three such examples below:

Podcast A publishes every weekday (20 episodes a month), averages 30k downloads/episode, and consistently has 1 mid-roll ad per episode (at a CPM of $20 per mid-roll):

(1 mid-roll ad) x ($20 CPM) x (30 thousand listens) x (20 episodes) = $12,000 gross income/month, or $144,000/year.

Podcast B publishes three times per week (12 episodes a month), averages 40k downloads/episode, and consistently has one mid-roll ad per episode (at a CPM of $23 per mid-roll):

(1 mid-roll ad) x ($23 CPM) x (40 thousand listens) x (12 episodes) = $11,040 gross income/month, or $132,480/year.

Podcast C publishes twice per week (8 episodes a month), averages 100k downloads/episode, and consistently has 1 mid-roll ad per episode (at a CPM of $27 per mid-roll):

(1 mid-roll ad) x ($27 CPM) x (100 thousand listens) x (8 episodes) = $21,600 gross income/month, or $259,200/year.

Basically, if you’re a high-volume podcast AND you have good listener numbers AND you have a consistently filled ad inventory, then membership might not be worth the extra effort. On the other hand, if your podcast has under 100k downloads per episode and it publishes weekly or bi-weekly, then starting a podcast membership program could generate more revenue for your business. Generally, a successful membership program needs to have between 1-10% of listeners pay for bonus content. For example, here’s how a membership program might work:

Podcast D is a weekly podcast that averages 30k downloads/episode. It starts a membership program at $5/month for members-only content, with a goal of 5% of listeners (1,500 people) signing up.

(30 thousand listens) x (5% membership uptake) x ($5/month) = $7,500 gross income/month, or $90,000/year.

Of course, you needn’t choose between advertising or a membership program for your podcast; you can have both. And as you grow your membership base, you can begin to decrease the ad load on your podcast episodes.

So that’s the math behind podcast membership. What can you actually offer your listeners with your membership program?

Things you can offer in a membership program

Membership offerings necessarily should be specific to each podcast. Take into account your podcast’s niche and the demographics of your listeners before deciding on what perks will work best for your show. With that in mind, here are some general ideas for what your podcast membership program can offer:

  • Special members-only merchandise (see our last guide for specific merchandise ideas)

  • Shoutouts or thank-yous to members at the start or end of an episode

  • Access to extended cuts of guest interviews

  • Episode transcripts

  • One page episode “summaries” for listeners to refer to

  • Member input on future episode topics (via forum discussion, online suggestion box, or a voting system)

  • Links to a YouTube or Facebook livestream of the podcast recording

  • Extra episodes using a private RSS feed

By far, adding extra episode content is the biggest benefit you can offer to potential members. If they’re considering buying a monthly subscription for your show, odds are they’re already big fans of the show. Extra episodes can be a lot of different things: ancillary content like a “mailbag” episode, where hosts answer listeners’ questions every few months, or a shorter, more conversational episode where hosts drill down on a niche topic. Take a look at our partner First Mondays, the Supreme Court legal podcast, which periodically releases one of its members-only “Amici” episodes to its broader audience. In this episode, host Dan Epps interviewed multiple district and circuit court judges at the Arizona State Bar Convention:

Here are some other “extra episode” ideas that various podcasts might offer to their members:

  • An investing and stock trading podcast features a bonus “lessons learned” episode, where hosts talk about their experiences working at a hedge fund during the Great Recession.

  • A fitness podcast does a 20-minute deep dive into high-intensity interval training as part of an athlete’s workout plan.

  • A comedy podcast does an end-of-year Ask Me Anything (AMA) episode, where hosts answer listener-submitted questions.

The idea behind membership programs: create high value, low effort content

As a creator, you might be worried about needing to create extra podcast episodes in order for your listeners to buy into your membership program. We’d like to stress that while having extra episode content is an important element of most membership programs, they’re only one part of a program. Podcast creators can often put less time into producing bonus episodes than they do regular content. Creators should view this bonus content as an opportunity for listeners to “peek behind the curtain” of the podcast, as if they’re getting to look at the podcast being made. So long as the content of the episodes provide great value to listeners, they won’t necessarily expect episodes as polished as the regular show.

Generally, creators should develop their membership programs with this in mind: focus on creating extra content and perks that are of high value to dedicated listeners, but that take relatively little effort to produce. Put another way, a membership program with 5% uptake might not be worth doubling or tripling your workload, especially if you’re a solo creator. The first iteration of your membership program might include podcast merch and member shoutouts on the regular show, plus unedited cuts of the interviews you’ve already recorded and an occasional extra episode. As you generate revenue and free up more of your time, you can expand your membership program to offer more perks, which will lead to more memberships, more revenue, and hopefully financial sustainability for your podcast.

Want to read more guides for podcast creators? Click here to see our other guides.