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Trouble in the Club(house)

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Plus, Bad Blood: The Final Chapter download numbers

Image: Clubhouse

Hello, hello. Welcome to week two of Hot Pod under The Verge, although I should probably count this as the first official Tuesday Hot Pod, given that last week was all mission statement and little fun. Today, I go deeper into a story I published this morning about Clubhouse’s sponsorship woes and look over some quick news. Let’s get going.


EXCLUSIVE: Where are the sponsors? Inside Clubhouse’s creator program

This morning, I published a story about Clubhouse’s Creator First program, an initiative where Clubhouse offered creators a stipend to make 12 episodes of a live audio program. As part of the deal, the platform advertised that it would match these creators with sponsors so they could turn their idea into a “profitable creative endeavor.” Spoiler: that didn’t happen. I’d encourage you to read the full story, which I’m linking here, but for this newsletter, I figured I’d pull out a couple details that feel particularly pertinent to the podcasting world. Plus, some details I couldn’t include in the story because, although the internet is infinite, I don’t want you scrolling forever.

The biggest thing I want to point out is how similarly Clubhouse feels to early podcasting in its current monetization efforts. There’s no real ad targeting, hosts are doing host-read ads or sponsored rooms featuring brand guests, and the best way to determine sponsors’ ROI comes in the form of promo codes or affiliate links on outside platforms. Plus, as I learned in reporting this piece, Clubhouse creators aren’t receiving detailed analytics on their shows, nor are they given any demographic information about their listeners. (For its part, Clubhouse says it doesn’t collect that demographic data, so even if it wanted to share them, it couldn’t.)

In podcasting, Apple started providing analytics — a major move — in 2017. Then, Spotify burst into the market with not only better analytics and massive show deals, but also the intention of making it easier to advertise on podcasts, both through targeting and more data than ever about a show’s specific listeners. We’re starting to see that podcast ad vision play out. I wonder if Twitter, Facebook, Spotify, Amazon, or any of the other countless platforms attempting live audio might beat Clubhouse to the ad targeting punch. Succeeding in the space is about good content, true — which Spotify has attempted to conquer in podcast land — but also who can help people monetize the fastest. Nothing makes someone want to create more than the incentive of getting paid for it.

One other theme that continued to come up in my reporting was the lack of promotion done on Clubhouse’s end. To pull a popular podcasting refrain: Clubhouse has a discovery problem. To solve for this, it primarily relied on its own team members, who have lots of followers. (When they enter a room, it populates in all their followers’ hallways, or the app’s main landing page.) This might give creators a boost, but one creator program participant tells me even that promotional tool’s power appears to be waning.

When Stephanie Simon, Clubhouse’s head of community and content, joined Cyndi Pham’s room one time, it jumped from 60 attendees to around 600. But later that summer, the boost dropped to only 300 listeners.

“Even the value of their mainstays were diminished over a period of three months,” she says. “When Steph jumped on a room, it would be a 10x increase, and then it became a 3x increase.”

Cross-promo, yall. It’s what everyone from podcasting has mastered — except, in Clubhouse’s case, it needs to somehow cross-promote shows you can’t listen to off-platform since there’s not yet a recording function!

Okay, on to the next news bit. Speaking of Spotify ads…

Spotify makes a bigger push for the sponsorship $$$

The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that Spotify is making a concentrated effort to court more advertising revenue. Specifically, it’s renaming its ad business to Spotify Advertising (very creative), instead of Spotify for Brands, and is looking to “attract more podcast publishers and creators to its ad marketplace, after saying earlier this year that its advertising growth has been hindered by limited inventory.”

I don’t know how much branding can help Spotify recruit new advertisers and podcasters, but some arm-twisting could go a long way. The article briefly mentions Streaming Ad Insertion, Spotify’s proprietary ad technology that targets podcast ads against shows streamed on Spotify and is only available through Spotify’s own hosting platform, Megaphone. Basically, if you want access to all Spotify has to offer, you have to be on a Spotify-owned property. Convenient for Spotify! The real question is whether Spotify can get local businesses to advertise through audio, along with the typical direct-to-consumer brands we love and know. Well, I guess we’ll see if the branding change-up can do it.

Another check-in on Apple Podcasts subscriptions

My boss Nilay Patel hosts an interview podcast called Decoder, and in today’s episode, he spoke with John Carreyrou of Theranos reporting fame. Carreyrou hosts Bad Blood: The Final Chapter, a show from the Three Uncanny Four that takes listeners into the trial for Theranos CEO and co-founder Elizabeth Holmes. In his chat with Nilay, Carreyrou gives us the numbers we want to know for a show that’s destined to be a hit.

“I think the narrative podcast, the one that’s free, is approaching 2 million downloads, and we’ve got about 6,000 subscribers to the bonus episodes,” he says.

Those “bonus episodes” are only available through Apple Podcasts subscriptions for $3.99 per month. You could read this as a terrible return — only 6,000 people subscribed out of the perhaps hundreds of thousands of listeners, but it’s still $24,000 per month. (Granted, these are ad-free episodes, so that’s the only revenue they generate, annnnnd they require more production and labor, but!) Given that Apple Podcasts is only one app, and subscriptions are a new thing, both in the behavior sense and as an in-app feature, I’m impressed.

CAA buys ICM Partners

CAA is buying ICM Partners, meaning the talent agency world is getting smaller. Of course, the takeaway for us here is that, presumably, some blockbuster podcasting deals will come out of this merger. Caroline Edwards is ICM’s director of podcast initiatives and has brokered deals with Spoke Media, Pantsuit Politics, and Flyest Fables. CAA agents brokered the SmartLess deal, among others, so I feel like this just helps CAA build an even stronger foothold in the podcast agency world. We love to see the deals.

What in the heck is happening at Ozy Media??

New York Times media columnist Ben Smith is always a must-read for me, but this week, he delivered a story about Ozy Media’s co-founder and chief operating officer impersonating a YouTube executive to impress Goldman Sachs investors. There’s a lot happening. Ozy operates six podcasts, apparently, and has raised money from iHeart Media. I’m mostly fishing here, but if Ozy is willing to play fast and loose with fake pageviews and impersonation, maybe there’s more going on here in the notorious land of squishy podcast download numbers. If you want to share anything about your Ozy podcast experience, please do reach out.


Okay, that’s all for now! As always, you can reach me at ashley.carman@theverge.com — or even ashley@hotpodmedia.com! I’m also on Twitter at @ashleyrcarman. I’ll be back on Thursday with more news and reporting for you paid folks, and if you want to see what I’m cookin’ up over there, feel free to switch to the paid tier over here. See ya!