Towards a Listener-Supported Network

[This is another post related to The Conversations Network’s 2008 business plan. Please join the discussion in our forum.] 

As a non-profit, we’re always in fundraising mode, beating the bushes for grants and sponsorships from foundations and corporations. It takes a tremendous amount of time and effort and the successes are only temporary. If you get a grant for one quarter or one year, there’s not reason to believe you’ll get funding from the same source next time. You’ve got to start from scratch. There are two more reliable sources: advertising and listener donations. One reason these sources are more reliable is that they come from a larger number of parties. If you lose ten listener/contributors, for exampe, you probably won’t notice the difference. But lose one major foundation grant and you could be out of business.

From the days when we first opened our tip jar more than three years ago, we’ve always been reasonably successful with attracting listener donations. In 2007 we raised $9,204 in paid memberships and one-time donations from a total of 110 people. ($84 average contribution.) And for that we did relatively little: just the pleas in our newsletters and the annoying requests in our program intros. We had about 3,000 “loyal listeners” last year — those who downloaded at least one program per month — so 3.7% of that group chose to support us financially. (Viewed another way, that’s 0.09% of our 480,000 unique listeners last year.)

Listener funding accounted for 11.6% of our budget in 2007. I think we have the potential to increase that by 4x over the next year to 46.4%. This is virtually the same as the percentage achieved by KQED-FM, the public-radio station in San Francisco, and other public-radio outlets in the U.S. KQED says that 9% of its listeners donate, but the math to figure out who counts as a “listener” is rather complex. For The Conversations Network, I’m proposing that we should be able to receive dues and/or donations from nearly 15% of our loyal listeners — that’s a 4x increase over 2007 numbers. I’m not suggesting an increase in the average donation. Our target, therefore, is to have 440 individuals donate during 2008 or be paid members by the end of the year, generating a total of $36,960.

Can we do it? I think so. But what will it take? Do we have to produce even more annoying pitches in our program intros? I hope not! Until now, there have been virtually no benefits to being a member or donor. You did that for the pure satisfaction of supporting The Conversations Network. But there are things we can offer our members and donors that will scale well for us. We don’t want to be in the business of shipping tote bags or t-shirts. Everything has to be virtual.

Here are some ideas we’ve had as benefits of paid membership. What do you think of them and what can you add to our list?

  • ad- and promo-free audio files
  • participation in the decision-making process of The Conversations Network
  • slideshows synchronized with audio (or should these be free to all?)
  • early access to programs
  • enhanced playlist (personal program queue) functions

How Should We Grow Our Traffic?

Another important topic, posted to our discussion forums. One of the keys to our future success will be our ability to increase listenership and visits to our web sites. As Dan Gillmor taught me, there are many more good ideas from the ranks of our listeners and producers than from within the management team. So I’m throwing this out to everyone: What should we be doing to increase the listenership to The Conversations Network?

Content: Do we need to improve the quality of our programs? Are we publishing the best events? Are our interview programs everything they can be? When podcasting was the hot new thing, we had more links from bloggers. What should we be doing to increase our relevance and hence the linking activity?

Slide Presentations: One thing we are doing that I’m confident will substantially increase the value of what we do for our listeners is to publish slide shows synchronized with the presentation audio. Real soon now!

Marketing: This is the big one. What should we be doing in the way of marketing?. I had this great idea to include postcards in the registration handouts at conferences. But when I did the math I was shocked at how much it would cost us relative to the number of new listeners we would likely acquire. What free or particularly cost-effective marketing programs would work for The Conversations Network?

More? You tell us!

Watching the Space Shuttle Dock

Nasa has a great live video channel. I’ve been watching the Space Shuttle Atlantis go through its Rendezvous Pitch Maaneuver (RPM) in preparation for docking with the International Space Station. The images are from the ISS, which is currently 600′ above Atlantis. Superb view of Earth zooming by below and audio that include the spacecraft radios and helpful narration. Gorgeous.

Website Redesign: Your Turn!

I’m trying to add comments and a few other features to our detail pages (such as this one) and I’ve just run out of real estate. There’s just nowhere to add comments unless I put them waaay down at the bottom of the page. I think it’s finally time for a full-site redesign. The current IT Conversations and SI Conversations sites are (IMHO) pretty damn ugly. Very “heavy”. Cluttered. Confusing.

Now it’s your turn. What media web sites do you like and why? What other recommendations do you have for the IT Conversations and Social Innovation Conversations web sites?

Please read and post comments on The Conversations Network Forum.

Podcasting Reaches 18.5 Million

eMarketer 2007eMarketer estimates that the total US podcast audience reached 18.5 million in 2007. Furthermore, that audience will increase by 251% to 65 million in 2012. And of those listeners, 25 million will be “active” users who tune in at least once a week. Driven by this audience growth, US spending on podcast-related advertising (including sponsorships) will rise to $435 million in 2012, up from $165 million in 2007. The situation might change in time, but for now podcasts are mainly a desktop phenomenon as opposed to a mobile or portable one.

The Pay-to-Play (PtP) Model

[This continues an open discussion on the Future of The Conversations Network on our forums, and we hope everyone will join us there and tell us what you think.]

When we started our second channel, Social Innovation Conversations, we began with a Pay-to-Play (PtP) model in which our partners not only provided the audio content for the channel, but also paid for our costs of post-production and distribution. It was financially sound, but we paid a price in editorial control. Those partners who funded our production of those shows reasonably expected that we would publish and promote them, but as you might imagine not all of the programs met our standards for content or audio quality. The result was that we either delivered lower-quality programs to our listeners or we pissed off our content partners. We abandoned the PtP model for all new content partners about a year ago for this reason. Now, as we look for new ways to grow and fund The Conversations Network, we’re reconsidering the pay-to-play model but on a slightly different basis. Here’s one way I think it could work for us.

The Conversations Network could offer its podcast post-production capabilities as a fee-based service to conferences, universities and other producers of spoken-word events. The fees might range from $75 to produce just the MP3 audio of a program to $300 to produce the audio, write the descriptions and publish on a Conversations Network channel (including bandwidth costs, RSS feeds, etc.). While we would offer this only to “acceptable” conferences, we would not exercise editorial control. We would produce and publish all submitted programs regardless of quality.

The content produced via this PtP service would not be promoted on The Conversations Network’s curated channels such as IT Conversations or Social Innovation Conversations. The programs would run on separate channels unique to each content partner. However, these channels would serve as a source for our Executive Producers. If they found a program produced on a PtP channel, our EPs could easily cross-publish it on our mainstream channels. We have that capability built into our system. It’s not much harder than checking a box.

What do you think of the PtP idea (a) for the service it provides, (b) as a way to generate revenues for The Conversations Network, and (c) as a source of content for our curated channels? I’m particularly interested in hearing from the members of TeamITC who produce our programs in their spare time, as they would be the one responsible for executing the plan.

Update: On his 2/4/08 podcast, Todd Cochrane said he was surprised that The Conversations Network had offered a PtP service to companies. My mistake for not explaining this. First of all, these arrangements were only made with a few universities and other non-profits. We have never produced a program from a for-profit company when that company provided funding for the program. Second, we didn’t offer this as a service to just anyone. We always initiated the relationships based upon what we thought our listeners would like to hear. We selected non-profit organizations and suggested that we could publish podcasts of their events if they were willing to cover the costs. But as I said above, we no longer pursue such relationships. Finally, we always acknowledged the content partner as an underwriter of the programs.

Traffic, Revenues and Costs

[This is an excerpt from The Conversations Network 2008 Business Plan. We’re starting an open discussion on the Future of The Conversations Network on our forums, and we hope everyone will join us there and tell us what you think.]

Fully burdened with our infrastructure expenses, the cost to produce each episode on The Conversations Network is approximately $200. In 2007 we produced 396 new episodes for a total cost of about $79,200. As far as traffic, we received 1.35 million website pageviews and 6.2 million MP3-file downloads. (Downloads are higher because of our RSS subscribers.)

Based on that traffic, we estimate we had the potential to generate $74,550 in net revenues from a combination of sponsorships and listener donations. That’s 94% of our costs. In fact, we didn’t generate that much in revenues, but that’s what we think we could have generated if we had done a better job of it. The difference between our actual revenues and expenses was funded by institutional grants and major private donations.

One objective for The Conversations Network is to become self sustaining. We’d like to be able to produce programs without depending on grants, which are notoriously difficult to renew year after year. To achieve this, we will have to generate the following traffic per episode, which ultimately translates into underwriting and membership/donation dollars:

  • 3,627 website pageviews, and
  • 16,596 MP3-file downloads

These are important numbers because they allow us to evaluate the breakeven potential of any new series or channel on the network. Any new programs that generate less than the above traffic will have to be subsidized by a surplus of traffic from other programs or by supplemental funding.

Server Backups to AWS S3

Are you running redundant database and web servers? You’re covered in case of a disk failure, etc., right? But what about a fire in your web-hosting facility? Or some maniacal sysadmin with a hacksaw? Suppose you lose *all* your servers? Off-site storage, right? Are you doing that daily and for all your files?

Here at The Conversations Network we’ve got a great automated solution. I wrote an rsync-style utility that copies any new/modified files in a directory tree to Amazon’s AWS S3 every night. I included a 7-day rotating copy of our databases, too. The cost is running a whopping $16 per month. Yes, you read that right: $16. That includes about 65GB of data supporting the more than 1,600 programs we’ve produced or that are in production including the MP2 originals and MP3 distribution copies.