Counselors, Not Order-Takers – The American Academy of Diplomacy Podcasts Case Study
In early 2018, the Academy of Diplomacy (AAD) and the Una Chapman Cox Foundation started producing two podcasts, American Diplomat: Stories behind the news and The General and the Ambassador: A conversation with the expressed purpose of providing new avenues for the American public to understand what diplomats do for them. These podcasts had a following on the East and West coast but few listeners in the heartland. The AAD, Cox Foundation, and the podcast team wanted to expand their reach and provide a revenue stream to allow the podcasts to become self-supporting.
In their RFP, the client was focused on increasing downloads and engaging Midwestern audiences. The client told us in discussions as we prepared to respond to the RFP that their goal was to increase downloads in the Midwest tenfold (to 20,000 downloads) in 12 months.
The basics of the request per the Scope of Work were:
- Review and analyze the two podcasts as they currently stand and how Midwestern audiences would receive them.
- Identify and engage a broad range of potential organizations that serve key podcast target groups in the Midwest to promote the podcasts.
- Identify key media outlets for promotion of and engagement with the podcasts.
- Prepare and implement an action plan to increase downloads and subscribers.
- Develop and track metrics beyond downloads and provide monthly reports.
However, in our professional opinion, meeting this expectation would require at least 18 months. We were also concerned with their focus on social media numbers, a short-term versus a long-term strategy that looked for immediate results and lost sight of the big picture. There was no brand consistency for either podcast and they were just a product (podcast) not a program or brand at that point.
We also realized we needed to do significant research to understand how to respond to the challenge before us. Three main goals guided our research efforts:
- Understand the podcast listening habits of respondents in the Midwest.
- Gage the interest of respondents in the Midwest in the American Academy of Diplomacy podcasts.
- Define the primary and secondary stakeholders for the strategic communications plan.
After significant secondary research, we opted to use triangulation as our overall strategy to accomplish the research goals above. The primary quantitative method used was an online survey using Qualtrics Panels. we contracted with Qualtrics for a panel of 400 respondents from Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Wisconsin and Wyoming between the ages of 18 and 55 who listened to podcasts more than 3 times a week for their news.
A total of 417 people responded to the survey. Three cases were removed for having completed less than half of the instrument and a fourth one was removed after a data cleaning examination revealed great potential for an extreme outlier that would heavily skew the data. The 413 cases that remained were examined for missing data points and other outcome issues that would undercut the sample’s reliability. The results were based on a data set of n=413.
Qualitative research consisted of six focus groups (one in-person and five via video conferencing software).
The key to developing our planning was understanding our stakeholders. The survey helped shine a light on which stakeholders to target. We discovered that our stakeholders listened to an average of almost seven podcasts per month and subscribed to about 6 podcasts, connecting via social media with three.
According to our data, once users show interest in these podcasts, they are likely to engage substantially with them. More than half of the respondents stated they would listen to the full episode of the podcast once they began it, with another third stating they would listen to at least half of it. They saw the optimal length for a podcast as 21- to 30-minute
Those who rated social media as a key element to connecting with podcasts were asked to rank each social media platform in terms of how important it was for them in connecting with the content. They ranked Facebook as its dominant social media connection. Instagram came in a somewhat distant second with YouTube coming in much further behind. The lowest ranking was given to Reddit.
When asked to rank five items in terms of what they most value in their podcasts, nearly three-fourths of participants said the quality of the content was most important. The hosts themselves were also shown to be important and the least important element was the production quality of the cast.
Participants in this sample appeared to understand the financial aspects of sponsorship and advertising as it related to the podcasts. One-third stated they were highly likely to listen to (not skip) an advertisement in a podcast, with an additional 20 percent saying they were “likely” to listen. In addition, they stated positive intentions toward the advertising messages, indicating they were either highly likely or likely to listen to an ad, recall a sponsor, “like” a sponsor, visit a sponsor’s website and purchase something from the sponsor
To determine the overall interest in consuming podcasts related to diplomacy and foreign affairs, participants were asked to rate a series of seven items related to interest in hearing podcasts involving ambassadors and their work, diplomats and their work and general podcasts in these types of areas, collectively. The items were used to create three variables: Ambassador Podcasts (The General & The Ambassador: A Conversation), Diplomacy Podcasts (American Diplomat: Real Stories Behind the News) and “Mixed” Podcasts, which represented general content of both podcasts.
Participants showed high levels of interest in all three podcasts. Surprisingly, demographics did not show up as a crucial element in assessing the overall approach to these podcasts. Knowledge of the topics didn’t correlate to interest in the topics, except for a significant, albeit small, correlation to The General & The Ambassador: A Conversation.
We then divided the sample into segments, based on their overall interest in these podcasts. Low interest was seen as anyone rating the podcasts as 3 or less on the 1-7 scale. Anyone from 3+ to 5 was seen as having a moderate interest. Those individuals higher than 5 were considered high-interest people with significant interests in engaging with the AAD podcasts. Here is a composite look at the target stakeholders, based on this sample:
High-Interest Ambassador Podcast people
- Age: 31.86
- Number of podcasts they listen to in a month: 6.68
- How much do they listen to any given cast: 2.55 (between half and all)
- Optimal Length: 4.12 (21-30+ min)
- Subscriptions: 6.67
High-Interest Diplomat Podcast
- Age: 32.07
- Number of podcasts they listen to in a month: 6.56
- How much do they listen to any given cast: 2.53 (between half and all)
- Optimal Length: 4.09 (21-30+ min)
- Subscriptions: 6.26
High-Interest “Mixed” Podcast
- Number of podcasts they listen to in a month: 7.71
- How much do they listen to any given cast: 2.59 (between half and all)
- Optimal Length: 4.04 (21-30+ min)
- Subscriptions: 6.04
In general, focus group participants mirrored the podcast uses and preferences of the survey participants, though they listened to fewer podcasts for their news averaging 2-1 podcasts a week with a few “power users” who listened to podcasts for their news 4-5 days a week. Nonetheless, the focus groups offered both confirmatory information and unique insights.
All but two of the focus group participants listened to the entire podcast; the other two listened to 80 and 95 percent of the podcast.
- Word of mouth was the primary source for discovering podcasts; cross-promotion on other podcasts (such as NPR) was also mentioned often
- The optimal length of podcasts was 20-30 minutes, though all of the focus group participants demonstrated tolerance for shows that were 45-60 minutes in length.
- Quality of content was the most important characteristic of driving podcast loyalty, followed closely by the host(s). Frequency of new episodes, show length and production/sound quality for of low or moderate importance.
- Most focus group participants were likely to listen to the sponsor’s ad and have a positive impression of the company sponsoring the ad. Recall of the sponsor’s name was slightly less likely and participants indicated a low likelihood of visiting the sponsor’s website or purchasing the product.
- The biggest barriers to a subscription to a new podcast were not being interested in the topic and too many commercial interruptions. Several participants indicated they had a finite limit to the number of subscriptions and that a new podcast would have to beat out a current subscription. Interestingly, limited or erratic show schedule was NOT seen as a barrier
- Participants across these industries showed moderate to high interest in the AAD podcasts
- Messaging and wording of those messages matters. Universally, interest in the AAD podcasts increased dramatically when the content was provocative (“I would be interested in a podcast that pulls back the curtain on one of America’s biggest secret to its foreign policy success”) or with a storytelling element (“I would be interested in listening to a podcast that helps me understand the impact on the personal lives of diplomats serving on the front lines of war, crises, and conflict around the world”).
- Participants suggested stressing the non-partisan nature of the podcasts and that they should sound like propaganda.
- Participants suggested that their interest in the podcasts came down to good storytelling and something you can’t get elsewhere.
- Several participants noted that a lot of folks in the Midwest were skeptical of international relations but that they are intelligent, don’t like being talked down to and expect to be treated with respect.
- Several participants noted that broadband internet isn’t a given in rural America, which could be a limiting factor in growing the audience in the Midwest.
- Several participants suggested finding a news organization (i.e, state public radio affiliates) with whom to partner to provide that third-party endorsement and make the podcasts feel less like the organization is pushing an agenda.
- The ideas of relevance and connection were mentioned broadly
As counselors, we knew we needed to offer a better way to achieve success for the client beyond their focus on downloads. Our response to the RFP concentrated on building community, creating consistency within the podcasts and driving audience development and engagement, with an emphasis on subscribers over single downloads. Because this project sought engagement with a very specific audience, we knew the plan would require very personal and intentional outreach efforts. We also realized we needed to help the client read the measurement data correctly.
- The data from our primary and secondary research led us to several specific recommendations:
- Focus on content and capitalize on guests, especially their positions and titles
- Emphasize the credentials of the hosts, especially Ambassador McCarthy
- Keep the podcasts between 20 and 30 minutes, which they were already doing for the most part
- Think long-term relationships not short-term statistics
- Be a value-added partner for sponsors
- Create partnerships with organizations including college and university International Relations & Political Science departments, ROTC units, government agencies like the State Department, the Foreign Service Institute and the National Museum of American Diplomacy
A fundamental part of our strategy was to use all marketing channels, not just a few, adapting our tactics for each channel. Key to moving the needle was a more robust website for the podcasts, which included more information on hosts and guests, cross-promoting podcasts on the AAD and Cox Foundation websites, including a newsfeed of relevant and topical information and heavy SEO-related efforts. Our plan provided strategic guidance on and updating the podcast website, content creation and distribution (audio, video, text, graphics, etc.). We also provided regular website maintenance of the site and periodic reports to the client on website analytics.
We knew keeping the podcast front-of-mind would take effort but this project was perfectly suited for digital initiatives. With the irregular timing of the podcast schedule, it became particularly important to use digital tools to direct listeners/viewers to new shows. Our strategic plan included execution and aggregation of appropriate content across multiple channels utilizing a combination of digital tools and platforms. Our strategic plan also included appropriate measurement and evaluation tools and metrics.
In terms of community building, we used several tactics to help develop communities around the podcasts, including, but not limited to, segmented email newsletters, live/streaming events, counsel on show content/structure, audience surveys, engagement campaigns and promotional posts. We also planned to develop smaller, loyal groups of “super fans” to be brand ambassadors via private groups (Facebook, LinkedIn). Value-added memberships, professional collaborations and cross-promotional opportunities were planned to increase communities around the podcasts. We also counseled taking the podcasts on the road to meet the target stakeholders “where they are.” Much like a traditional book signing or concert tour, this tactic was intended to create success in different geographical areas. This approach also opened new/different opportunities for promotional content, fan-focused events and mainstream media presence. All of these efforts were supported by traditional marketing and public relations strategies.
Finally, our plan included suggestions for alternative revenue streams. We knew that committing to actual community building and not just surging download numbers could create multiple revenue streams beyond advertising. Examples of these alternative revenue streams, important to reach self-sufficiency for the podcasts, include merchandise, paid events (roadshow/tickets), appearance fees (where appropriate), and fees from advertisers who would see the client as social media influencers. Once a solid, loyal community of 20,000 people on social, email, podcast subscriptions, etc., is built the client’s economic value becomes much more than just getting advertisers to pay for sponsoring the podcast. The alternative revenue streams suggested above are just the beginning of the revenue potential of the podcasts.
The strategic plan called for a “measure, adjust, measure” measurement approach using the baked-in measurement and evaluation tools and metrics.
Full Year Analysis Summary
- Overall growth for the podcast audience
- Midwest is the fastest-growing segment
- 78% of Top 50 Download Cities are in Midwest (34)
- 33% of Downloads Come From Midwest (19,913 in 2020)
- Previous average downloads per episode (60) 2/1/18 – 2/28/19 = 934
- Current average downloads per episode (54) 3/1/19 to 2/26/20 = 1,816
- Average download increase of 94%
- Solid content consistency, including bonus material and content in specific response to the audience
- Month over month growth (between 15% – 30% each month) on the “hockey stick” as expected
- Adapted program format and length for full advantage, best use of time with guest and regular posting schedule
- Creating a partnership with the National Museum of American Diplomacy and US Department of State
- Facebook was the most effective tool for audience development – great tools for geo-targeting
- Twitter and Instagram have been successful in sharing short video clips and behind-the-scenes content
- Apple / iTunes is the biggest, most important platform (60%) of all plays/downloads
- Focus on subscribers (show mentions, social media, website tools) has been key to success (updated of every episode via push notification or email)
- Website audio player second (10%) most important platform, good use of web tools for the convenience of users
- A late push by android devices, possible changes to Google Podcast platform
- Desktop twice as impactful as mobile =more people listening at work or home, not on the commute
- Life of diplomats and family
- Motivation to join foreign service
- Headline news
- Behind-the-scenes of embassy life
Expanded Online Presence
1/1/20 – 2/24/20
Query | Impressions
American diplomat | 1,277
diplomat | 604
American diplomats | 203
what is an American diplomat | 161
American diplomat podcast | 134
what is a diplomat | 115
diplomat definition | 70
Pete Romero | 66
slater download | 59
behind the news | 58
Page | Impressions
Device | Clicks | Impressions
Desktop | 174 | 6,339
Mobile | 133 | 3,066
Tablet | 8 | 81
FB Page Likes
51 Followers (start)
219 Followers (2/24/20)
41 Followers (start)
200 Followers (2/25/20)
102 Followers (2/25/19)
146 Followers (2/24/20)
Podcast Downloads from Midwest
- 1/1/19 – 2/28/19 (start) 2,740 per 9 episodes = 304 average (30%) of 9,076 total = 1,000 average in Top 50 cities for downloads (13,095 total downloads all cities)
- 1/1/20 – 2/25/20 (today) 5,499 per 11 episodes = 500 average (48%) of 9,010 total = 819 average in Top 50 cities for downloads (24,366 total downloads all cities)
- +64% from Midwest (Top 50) from 2019 to 2020
- +86% overall increase in downloads
- Unique downloads 97,950
- Feb 2020 11,162 (incomplete month at time of report) @ 14,888 +15%
- Jan 2020 13,202 +29%
- Dec 2019 10,220 +30%
- Nov 2019 7,821
A Student Of Leadership | 2/21/20 | 583 downloads (4 days)
Top 15 by Episodes by Download Total
- 02/06/20 | Foreign Service Test? Quiz Show? You Decide. 2,178
- 12/25/19 | A Life of Significance 1,578
- 12/18/19 | Immunity, Reciprocity, Espionage 1,485
- 12/12/19 | Diplomatic Immunity? 1,468
- 01/01/20 | War and Peace in Trade 1,463
- 01/23/20 | Who Lost China? 1,446
- 12/05/19 | When Ambassadorships Are for Sale 1,432
- 01/15/20 | Rohingya Genocide in Myanmar 1,431
- 02/14/20 | Could This Happen to Me? 1,370
- 01/08/20 | Perils of the Press, in Mexico-US Relations 1,341
- 11/27/19 | Thanksgiving with AmDip! 1,272
- 01/28/20 | Pedro Pan and the Guerrillas 1,255
- 02/12/20 | What is Nation-Building? 1,141
- 01/14/20 | Sidebar – Parsing Iran Brinksmanship 1,137
- 02/19/20 | All Peace is Local 943
- March 1, 2019 – 2/25/20
- 97,908 Downloads
- AppleCoreMedia 38,612
- Podcasts 15,802
- iTunes 5,500
= 59,514 Apple/iTunes (60%)
- Chrome 4,945*
- Spotify 3,909
- CastBox 3,553
- Overcast 2,938
- PodcastAddict 2,612
- Stitcher 2,147
- Safari 2,091*
- okhttp (Android platform) 1,798
- Pocket Casts 1,539
- Mozilla 1,410*
- Google Podcasts (Android) 1,318
- Podbean 818
- PodcastRepublic 786
- Lavf (Android platform) 784
- Dalvik 781
- Player FM 629*
- Googlebot-Video 534
- AndroidDownloadManager 529
- stagefright 448
- NSPlayer 356*
- Downcast 315
- Go-http-client 311*
- *Website 9,743 (10%)
Top 50 Download Cities
March 1, 2019 – 2/25/20
(97,950 Total 74,738 US 61,286 Top 50 / 19,913 Midwest 33%)
34 of Top 50 Download Cities ((78%) = Midwest (Highlighted in bold)
- Washington DC (Hagerstown) 18,529
- New York 4,386
- Los Angeles 3,403
- Baltimore 3,028
- San Francisco / Oakland / San Jose 2,811
- Chicago 2,435
- Atlanta 1,923
- Denver 1,827
- Seattle / Tacoma 1,545
- Dallas / Ft. Worth 1,535
- Boston MA / Manchester 1,474
- Philadelphia 1,289
- Houston 1,033
- Miami / Ft. Lauderdale 1,029
- Salt Lake City 830
- San Diego 697
- Cleveland / Akron (Canton) 659
- Minneapolis / St. Paul 639
- Detroit 618
- Phoenix 578
- Raleigh / Durham (Fayetteville) 578
- Portland 556
- Kansas City 556
- Tampa / St. Petersburg (Sarasota) 530
- Charlotte 529
- Grand Rapids / Kalamazoo / Battle Creek 520
- Albuquerque / Santa Fe 446
- Sacramento / Stockton / Modesto 445
- Hartford & New Haven 432
- Austin 424
- Nashville 416
- Cincinnati 402
- Yakima / Pasco / Richland / Kennewick 400
- Honolulu 384
- St. Louis 380
- Cheyenne WY / Scottsbluff 351
- Madison 343
- Providence RI / New Bedford 321
- Indianapolis 321
- Orlando / Daytona Beach / Melbourne 300
- Pittsburgh 298
- Oklahoma City 296
- Las Vegas 260
- Norfolk / Portsmouth / Newport News 237
- Charleston 225
- Columbus 222
- San Antonio 222
- Buffalo 214
- South Bend / Elkhart 207
- Richmond / Petersburg