Lessons in Monetizing Content from Marc Maron
Last week at INBOUND, a wide variety of speakers and subject matter experts converged to share their wisdom with the 13,000+ attendees who journeyed to Boston for the annual digital marketing conference.
The usual suspects and industry thought leaders filled the stacked speaker roster (more than 270, to be precise), but a few additional high-profile names (Aziz Ansari, Chelsea Clinton, Berné Brown, Jon Ronson, to name a few) left some people wondering what in the world they would have to say that’s relevant to a room full of digital marketers.
One such speaker was Marc Maron, comedian and host of the wildly popular “WTF” podcast. Maron wasn’t the only comedian at the conference and he certainly wasn’t the only content creator who took the stage, but he was one of the few big name presenters who publish long-form content on a regular, recurring basis—making what he had to say incredibly significant to just about every person in attendance.
If I could have predicted that his session would prove to be the best presentation that I saw all week, I would have shouted from the rooftops not to miss his talk at INBOUND. But I didn’t have that foresight and there’s a good chance you weren’t there, so I want to share a few highlights from Marc Maron’s hilarious (and insightful) spotlight session:
Creating Long Form Content in an Attention Deficit World
Maron began by telling the story of how he got started with his now-famous podcast, “WTF”. After spending a year and a half on political talk radio supplementing his life as a comedian, he recognized that he really liked the medium and wanted to stick with it.
“I liked that mic,” he said of his decision to start podcasting on the regular. “And when you’re in radio, once you learn how to talk alone, [it’s] mind-blowing to be able to sit and talk to nothing for an hour.”
He had just lost his radio job, but still had a security badge and thus access to the studio (it was a liberal station, and they allowed him to complete his contract before giving him the boot). So, as we discovered, the first 10 or 12 episodes of the podcast were recorded after hours at the station before he finally packed up and moved from New York to LA.
Admittedly low-tech, Maron started recording (and still records) the podcast from the garage of his home twice every week. He then sends it to his business partner in New York who edits it and puts it online.
“If you were to ask me how to put up a podcast on iTunes, I would have nooo idea,” he disclosed early on in the interview.
The moderator pointed out that his podcast tends to run 70 to 80 minutes long, then cited an NPR study that found people tune in to the radio to listen no longer than an average of 11-13 minutes at a time. How then, she asked, does he get away with putting out 70 minutes of content twice weekly?
“I don’t know why we have to accommodate peoples’ drifting attention spans,” Maron replied without missing a beat.
The audience applauded and he continued, “That study may be true, but what you have to realize is that there’s a lot of shit going on! When you try to keep up with content coming at you that’s available, you’re going to exhaust yourself. I mean, if I’m on Twitter for four minutes—I literally have to lay down. I can’t…”
The crowd laughed out loud. He paused to take a breath, and then continued, “I used to be into it, but everything becomes like crack. Content is like crack. And so, depending on what your habits are, you just want more and more things. And then, with that addiction, everything gets diminished. There’s no journalism anymore. There’s nothing but clickbait and predatory tabloid garbage.”
Creating Humanistic Content for a Narcissistic World
Maron reflected on the earliest episodes of the podcast and pointed out how mentally, emotionally and spiritually broken down he was (“If you listen to the first 100 episodes, it was really [just] me asking celebrities to come to my house to help me.”) and then largely credited that precise vulnerability for the initial connection that he was able to make with his audience.
“When you have this need to connect, I think that people—because of a lack of that connection in most of our lives just because of the way we manage our time—to eavesdrop on a conversation that is just natural and sort of unfolding and not sort of like “Who are you? What are you selling?” that people engage on a level that they forgot they had.
“There’s something amazing about conversation—about people talking about their problems, their issues, their careers, their creativity, whatever it is—because people just don’t do it anymore. It used to be something that you had time to do, but now it just seems that people don’t have the time.”
He brought it full circle by returning to the original question and suggesting that he expects a lot of commuters listen to half of the show in the morning and half at night, or perhaps some other way of breaking it up and digesting it over time, before concluding:
“Hopefully the conversations are compelling enough that you wanna get back to it. So I don’t really think in terms of—I don’t have to think in terms of surveys and whatever anyone thinks of anyone’s attention spans. People crave to connect. And there’s a difference between connecting and just getting your content fix.”
Listen to the clip below as Maron compares the world of corporate radio to the lackadaisical podcasting life, plus the reason why he shifted focus from political talk radio to podcasting about “existential struggle and day to day life.”
Monetizing Content in a Freemium World
Maron mentioned at multiple points in his talk that there was never a financial incentive driving their work.
“It was about building an audience,” he explained. “So, coming out of radio, once I alienated the pissed off liberals that used to feed on what I did, and many of them went away—which was fine with me—we were starting with a listener base that was maybe 1,500 or 2,000 people, and we were excited about that. When we got up to 8,000 people that was like, ‘We are fucking winning!’”
Then, as more high-profile guests started to appear on his podcast and the press started to pay more attention to what he was doing, the show started to reach its tipping point.
“The great thing about journalism being so horrible right now is that when I interview somebody, I would basically be doing someone’s job for them. So, there were certain sites that would cite [what people said on] my podcast. It was like free content for them.”
For anyone considering following in his footsteps, it’s also worth noting that Maron initially leveraged the community of comedians that he was already embedded in. Once WTF became a popular thing to do inside that community, people from outside the comedian community started to get involved and it started to spread even faster.
Ultimately, Maron chalks a lot of his success up to good cosmic timing. He was doing good work that he truly enjoyed, which ensured quality content. The medium through which he was working (podcasting) was also gaining momentum, which worked to his advantage. And yet, he reminded us, making money from the podcast was still never a huge priority, though they did eventually start making strides towards monetization.
One way to make money, he advised, is through advertising. Listen to the clip below as he talks about one of their earliest (and rare) attempts to monetize:
The other way to monetize, according to Maron, is to create a membership platform, which he cautions against doing, because “you wouldn’t be able to grow your audience if you put a gate up and they have to pay for access.”
Here’s how he and his team have solved that problem:
Creating Authentic Content in a Numbers-Obsessed World
Maron lives a modest life, despite his growing fame. He blames it on his anxiety—wears the same type of plaid shirts all the time, recently purchased a new car that’s just like his old one, lives in a two-bedroom house with just his cats—but seems content with the life he’s built for himself. He’s aware that his podcast is growing in popularity, but never lets that go to his head. And rather than stress about hitting numbers and percentages, he makes it clear his focus is always on creating good, entertaining content.
Closer to the end of his presentation, Maron described his process for interviewing people (essentially, very little preparation, which he believes leads to the most raw, candid conversations). His approach again illustrates his passion for his work and is thus testament to the quality of the content he produces.
He also drew distinctions between radio and podcasting numerous times through his talk, eventually noting (if not mocking) radio’s inaccurate and nebulous way of quantifying the size of the audience. With podcasting, meanwhile, you have exact download numbers—vital information for advertisers looking to partner with the podcast.
Maron spent the last 15 minutes of his time on stage telling the audience, in incredible detail, what it was like to have President Obama visit him at his house to record an interview for the podcast in his garage. Funny anecdotal stories aside, Maron says that he feels that if you listen to the interview you hear a different side of Obama.
Plus, now when he gets pushback from someone he’s asked to interview for the podcast, he has the ultimate rebuttal: “You can’t make it to my garage? The president has been to my garage!”