Episode 54: Podcast Saga Part 7 - Luminary Part 2


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            Last week, I think I the spent the episode answering a bunch of questions that had not been asked but had somewhat already been answered, hoping to add a bit of nuance to a long settled conversation. Which isn’t a great use of my time, but this entire show has the unspoken premise of being somewhat of a hot mess, so it makes sense on that front, at least.

            But to start this episode, I have a question of my own that I doubt anyone is going to answer or really think is worth answering. And that is: who is Luminary’s target audience. Or who do they think is going to pay eight dollars a month for the “Netflix of podcasting” when podcasting has been established as a free medium from the very beginning.  That’s the concern I want to address today. According to Luminary, who would be willing to pay for this service? How are they trying to entice these customers? And is this the best approach for their business model?

            To that last question, I think the answer is unfortunately, no. I don’t think this is the best approach for them. With the exception of The AMA Archives, which I think was them accidentally stumbling on the more reliable paying model for podcasting, Luminary is missing the mark when it comes to bringing in paying customers. The mark as in the starting point. They can always change to a different model later. Ultimately, it might be the heaviest consumers of this free content that could be persuaded to put money into this hobby of theirs. And, yes, there’s a lot to unpack there, so let me explain.

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            Hi. It’s M. Welcome to Episode 54.

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            Ironically, because of very targeted advertising, I think I got a very good glimpse of how Luminary is trying to bring in customers. See, I made the mistake of not doing the research for the last Luminary episode in incognito mode on a browser I seldom use on my computer that has a VPN. Instead, I did it on my phone during my lunch break, so now whenever I watch YouTube on my phone, I get at least one Luminary ad or more per hour. And while it’s incredibly annoying that this is happening—largely because I know exactly why this started and what it was that caused this—I’m going to look on the bright side.

            I now know how Luminary is trying to present itself and can confidently say that I think they’re doing it wrong.

            All the video Luminary ads I’ve seen have followed a particular pattern. There’s a series of about three people playing up to a particular stereotype in their presentation; you’ll see a bodybuilder working out, an overworked and underappreciated mom folding laundry in her kid’s pink bedroom, or an older woman drinking tea at a nice-ish venue. Nothing too expensive. I mean she is on a fixed income, but it’s definitely not just a typical fast food place. And then, while they’re sitting there, they tell you what they’ve been doing—cooking, hunting serial killers, or hanging out in a football locker room, respectively—to create a sense of cognitive dissonance. And then, bam, it’s revealed that they’re talking about podcasting. And their favorite podcast genres to listen to.

            Now to me, those felt a bit like a callback to ads for a certain audio book service. In fact, the first time I got one of those ads, that’s what I thought I was seeing. And I mean a very famous one that could sponsor an episode of this podcast in the future but until then, I’m not giving them the free advertising. You probably know what I’m talking about anyway.

            And that would suggest that Luminary is casting as a wide net as possible. They want to convince members of the general public to buy into their business model, a claim that draws further evidence from the lineup of exclusive shows and the many celebrity headliners in that bunch.

            Also, there’s common sense, probably. You should have as many potential consumers as possible if you want to maximize profit, which obviously a $100 million dollar start up would want to do.

            The problem is none of that logic really works in the podcast space.

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            The podcasting space is defined seemingly by chaos and absurdity. Also variety. You can find a show on pretty much any topic, and while it was once always free, it’s still free 99% of the time. That isn’t to say that Luminary exclusives aren’t interesting. For the record though, I had to seek out this information, which is incredibly wasteful on Luminary’s part. But I went on their website and looked up their exclusive content. And it’s a good line up. They’ve got a lot of shows from marginalized voices for example. And some of them are pre-established shows that Luminary made exclusives, giving them much needed funding to thrive, I imagine.

But then there’s the show The Rewatchables 1999 which looks incredibly promising to me. It’s a podcast with people rewatching iconic movies from the year 1999.

            But if I was really interested in that sort of thing, there’s the Wisecrack podcast network, including Show Me The Meaning!, which is about movies, but they have a podcast for South Park and Ricky and Morty too, and while none of those shows are focused on the year 1999, those guys are fun to listen to, and all of their shows are free, and I can show them whatever support I feel comfortable offering. 

            But Luminary also has Fiasco, a show that promises to dive into the day to day realities of historic events like—for season one—the presidential race between Al Gore and George W Bush, which would be harder to replace. But maybe a good history book on the aforementioned audio book service would do it. And that’s a one-time fee whereas—if I don’t take advantage the free trial—I might end up spending more money on Luminary.

            And yes, that’s the other aspect, there’s that free trial most services offer where you can use their service for, let’s say, the standard month, and if you don’t cancel before the end of that, they get to start billing you. And I could take advantage of that. I could just not use the trial until all the episodes of a show I want to hear have built up, maybe at the end of a season. Then I just take a week off work and binge anything I’m that desperate to hear, cancel the trial at the end of the month, and then just wait. When season 2 finishes, I can restart my membership for a month and then cancel it again.

            I’m not going to pretend that wouldn’t be a jerk move. I know for a fact it is, but it’s something I could always do. But even if I don’t do that, it’s also not like I don’t have plenty of other free content I could consume instead. So maybe I wouldn’t get around to abusing a free trial like that, if it’s even abuse.

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            Now, I want to say again that I’m not against innovation in the podcasting space. This isn’t coming from someone who wants Luminary to fail. I only mean this as a factual statement.

            For every exclusive podcast Luminary offers, a casual podcast listener can find at least one replacement potentially even dozens of free substitutions. In my opinion, a casual listener would be more likely to turn to the free alternatives than to the Luminary exclusives, especially if those exclusives aren’t being heavily marketed, which in my experience they aren’t.

            Now the free trial period might tip the scales in certain situations. Because some people are going to forget to cancel it. But all things considered, wouldn’t it be better to go with a guarantee over a gamble? Granted I’m sure it’s documented that a lot of people forget to cancel subscriptions after the trial period, but that sort of things doesn’t breed consumers so happy that they spread the gospel of your service. It just buys you a couple extra months of revenue.

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            I mentioned this in the last episode, but despite all the missteps in Luminary’s launch, even the ones that felt like direct attacks on the existing podcasting space, very few people were calling for Luminary to outright cash and burn. Did people mock it? Yes. That’s how the internet works. And a bunch of us pulled our shows off of the platform with sternly worded emails. But it always stopped short of an angry mob burning everything to the ground. Even now, the relationship between Luminary and the rest of the podcasting space is a bit tense but because Lauren Shippen had been tapped to make The AMA Archives on Luminary as an exclusive, we stopped short of wishing for Luminary’s complete and utter implosion. Because the simple fact was that if Luminary failed, she’d fail. And no one wanted that for that.

            We were all happy to rally on somebody familiar, someone who represented all of us, someone we genuinely liked and wanted successful for. In that sense, The AMA Archives provided some sort of safety net for Luminary when it came to the hard core podcast community who were most impacted by Luminary’s poor communication. And that poor communication raises another point. Most people in the general public wouldn’t have cared about anything that Luminary did; every misstep centered on nuances that (what I’m inclined to call their target audience) wouldn’t have understood.

            But then the complaints came from those who are knee-deep in this world, and they got enough traction that they couldn’t be ignored. That should have been a signal to Luminary to reconsider their approach because it was clear who had the power in this situation. Because, ultimately, you can’t rely on the general public to suddenly start paying for your service, buying media they could essentially get for free if they’re willing to make a few sacrifices here and there.

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            And this is where we join last week’s conversation. There is precedent amongst hard core podcast fans to pay for podcasts or for additional content related to their favorite shows—or content that builds off of it, just like The AMA Archives builds off of The Bright Sessions.

            You can see this in a couple of ways. Most basically, Welcome to Night Vale has always sold recording of their live shows for a couple of dollars iTunes to anyone who wants to relive the show or who hadn’t been able to make it a live show. But there’s a model that more closely mirrors what Luminary needs to have happen. And that can be found on Patreon. When soliciting monthly donations from fans, offering more of the thing they love just makes sense. So it seems inevitable that this is a common tier amongst podcasters.            

            I mentioned Within the Wires last week. Quarterly episodes of a bonus series called The Black Box are offered at the ten dollar per month tier. And there are other shows that do this too. The Amelia Project, for example, offers minisodes at the five dollar per episode tier. And it’s not just audio fiction podcasts, though the bonus series for two dudes talking genre can be based on inside jokes. Like Dear Hank and John from John and Hank Green offers the This Week in Ryans Podcast at the five dollar per month tier, and Hello Internet from Brady Haran and CGP Grey has Goodbye Internet at a three dollar tier.

            The price and product being offered might fluctuate wildly depending on the audience and circumstance, but if you tap the right creators, it would be very easy to create an offering of bonus-not-exactly-bonus content worth the eight dollars a month price tag, presuming you didn’t want to break the transactions up into several smaller ones. A few dollars for this show, a few for that. Lowering the commitment might draw in more of an audience, but I completely understand if Luminary doesn’t want to do that and if they want to instead focus on mimicking the Netflix model. But if that’s the case, then they need to focus more on commissioning more series from well-established creators in this space who have not just a large fan base but one who would feel passionate enough to give money towards vaguely, tangentially related projects.

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            Now, you might be pointing out that Luminary did take over the distribution for more established podcasts, making the next seasons of these shows Luminary exclusives or taking on a new show or two from established networks. The problem is that isn’t the same thing, exactly. Particularly when it comes to commandeering established shows. Like I said in my other episode, this is where bitterness starts to come up. Because it’s taking something the audience is accustomed to get for free—and can replace—and putting it behind a pay wall rather than offering them additional content they can enjoy.

            At its core, the problem is that Luminary is trying to replicate the Netflix model too closely by creating a problem they can then fix. Or that’s what they want to do. Really they’re just creating more problems by creating a problem for the consumer.

            Licensing and distribution are completely irrelevant in podcasting. This is not the same void Netflix saw when it came to be. With movies and television shows, those were products we didn’t have constant access to that Netflix was then able to provide. It was a gap in the market they were able to fill and appeal to consumers with whereas Luminary had to create that gap by removing these podcasts off of free services. By creating that gap in the first place, they alienated some of their consumer base and created space that actually could have been filled in a variety of ways. Not just with their product but with competing products.

            In the end, creating a desire for a specific thing is a riskier venture than what I’m proposing.

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            Now this is a rough estimate, but let’s say you only wanted The AMA Archives out of all the exclusives Luminary is offering. That’s eight dollars a month for full length, weekly episodes  building off of a show you passionately love. That’s actually an amazing deal that a lot of fans would jump at.  

            When I look at Luminary’s Twitter feed now, they definitely seemed to have clued in that this is show has a lot potential to make them a lot of money, so I don’t think any of my suggestion is entirely out of line.

            By all means, continue to produce content that is consumable by the general public. Continue to make new originals with celebrities and podcast networks, but I don’t think that’s the only type of content Luminary should be focusing on, particularly in these early days when they need to generate revenue and momentum. Unlike Netflix, they really shouldn’t rely on existing content to carry their business model, nor should they focus on being ad-free.

            But that’s just my opinion as someone who is a passionate podcaster and podcast fan. Take it for what it’s worth.

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            By the way, I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to be doing next week. I think I might take specific examples and explain why those stories are so perfect for podcasting, but I guess we’ll have to see. It might be a nice surprise. Or not. But hey, look at all that extra time. You can check out that audio drama I’ve been pitching for a long time now: The Oracle of Dusk. I mean, you’ve got time, and those episodes are kind of short. Have fun!

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