Critical Mass in Podcasting

Critical Mass in Podcasting

When I started out in podcasting I was obsessed with answering this one question. How big does your audience need to be, before it starts to grow all by itself? At some point it has to hit a critical mass, a tipping point, which once you get to, growth is automatic. I knew it would be a huge struggle to get there, but this would be the light at the end of the tunnel I could reach for. Knowing I just have to get that far, then it's all down hill.

Before I began podcasting I asked a dozen or two popular podcasters. They had no idea. The concept was entirely foreign to them. They weren't entirely sure how their podcast was growing themselves. So I scoured through podcasts about podcasting, podcasting news, marketing books, and more looking for the answer. There were clues but nothing solid.

But then I started my podcast. And out the gate I had about 200 downloads in the first week of launch, and was already seeing the word spread all by itself. Did I hit the tipping point already? After doing more research, I concluded a mere 150 fans is all it takes to get your show to spread by itself.

This is what 150 people looks like if you were to cram them all in one room.


It's both not very much and a lot at once. It doesn't seem like that many, even if you get 5 new listeners by begging random people on the street, you'd have this many listeners in a month! But at the same time, standing up in front of that many people and trying to speak confidently, eesh. Stage fright.

But, if you can get just that many people to listen and like your podcast, you could technically sit back and watch it grow by itself after that.

Why Though?

Ok there are 3 main factors that go into my theory of 150 listeners is all it takes to get to a critical mass and see automatic audience growth.

  1. My own experience. On my 2nd day of launching my podcast I was only at around 150 downloads per episode. I went to a conference that day, and within the first hour I ran into a total stranger who told me she listened to all 4 episodes on her way to the conference. A total stranger had binged my entire show! This meant that already at that low number, my show was spreading beyond my reach. I was able to get 150 people to try my show myself (because of my blog and Twitter presence). But those who tried it, were already recommending it to others that I didn't know! I asked her where she heard about it, she told me my friend that I knew very well. But she also told me she told another person who I also met that day and he told me he told everyone at his office to listen to my show. And from that point on, the show continued to grow word of mouth.

  2. The Rule of 150. In 2000, Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called Tipping Point. In it he explains our social circles almost never go above 150. There's something magic about this number 150. Less than this, and there's just not enough people spreading the word about something. The attrition may also be higher than the new listeners. But above 150, the cat is definitely out of the bag. The word is out. It's a whisper, but still, it's enough of a fire to spread on its own now. Tipping Point goes into more details about how little things can make a big difference and combining it with the rule of 150, it all makes sense.

  3. Average Stats. One of the largest podcast hosts out there is Libsyn. Each month they publish how many average downloads their podcasts are getting. Libsyn has about 50,000 podcasts hosting with it and they look at all of these to determine the average. So what does the average podcast get in terms of downloads per episode? It fluctuates between 120 and 140. Meaning half of the podcasts out there, get less than 140 downloads per episode, the other half are above that. This here tells me again that something special happens at 150. Most podcasts struggle with getting off the ground, they struggle getting to that critical mass. Getting your first 150 fans is probably the hardest hurdle to get over. It's hard to find them, reach them, coerce them to listen etc. And that's why so many shows are getting less than 150. Because they simply don't have any momentum at all to help them grow. The number just isn't big enough to have the word spread by itself. And it probably won't ever spread by itself. The podcaster has to get over this hurdle on their own.

I admit, this isn't hard evidence. These 3 factors are all weak by themselves to reach this conclusion, but combined, to me it makes sense. 150...

But Wait It's Not Just About 150

You want 150 listeners? That's easy. Just buy $1,000 worth of Overcast Ads and boom you have 150 subscribers. But that doesn't give you immediate organic growth. To reach that critical mass, these need to be fans of your show. They need to really like it. See, people don't tell other people about good podcasts. People don't even listen to good podcasts. They turn good podcasts off and go listen to great podcasts. And they only rave about great podcasts. Good is not good enough. So it's essential that your podcast is delivering maximum value to the listener, and the listeners you have, love it.

I know a listener of my show that has literally taken the phones of his friends and punched in my podcast and subscribed them to it and made them listen. I've heard listeners who told me they sat their whole family down to listen to my show. None of this would have happened if they didn't love my show.

So to unlock the magic of 150, make sure your show rocks and stands alone in its own category or blows away the competition. And you do that by getting a mentor, or help, study books, go to podcasting conferences, take courses, practice a ton, and constantly ask for feedback about specific parts. It might takes you years of practice to finally make a great show. But it's seriously important to focus on first since without it being great, it'll never grow.

But Wait You're Not Done at 150

See, even though I saw organic growth at 150 subscribers, the show was growing oh so slowly. I would only see a handful of new downloads each episode. 200, 225, 250, 260. Ugh! This is not how I pictured something spreading virally! Where's the explosive growth? Here's the first 6 months of my podcast stats.


While the growth appears stagnate, each episode was getting a few new listeners each. The spikes were when new episodes would come out, and it was growing.

Podcasts just don't have explosive growth. The only way that happens if if the podcaster has a super power. Such as they already have 1M followers on social media, or a TV show or something, or they have a big brand they use to promote their podcast with, or they are fabulously talented, or they are rich enough to buy ads. I had none of those, so I had to let the slow organic growth do its thing.

But that was taking too long! So even though I was at a critical mass and things were growing by themselves. It was too slow! So I kept learning about marketing and promoting my show as best I could.

More Tipping Points

I saw organic growth rise quicker over time. It makes sense right, the more people who like the show the more the word spreads. But there were certain numbers that after I hit, made a bigger difference.

At around 1,500 downloads per episode, things picked up. The show wasn't just being passed around among friends. Things were starting to hit Twitter/Facebook/Instagram/etc. Here's a Tweet that blew my mind.

This Twitter account has 1 million followers and we didn't know each other! Things were now accelerating even faster. Which was cool. Now I'm seeing an extra 100-200 new downloads an episode. Awesome. But still, even at 1,500 downloads an episode, it's still small. A show that size doesn't make much money if any. Even a Tweet like that didn't result in explosive growth, just an extra 100-200 new subscribers. So I kept hustling to get new subscribers. Doing major social media campaigns during this time.

I should also point out that 1,200 subscribers is what only 20% of podcasts are getting. 80% of podcasts have less than 1,200 downloads per episode. Which means most podcasts don't get to this point, which might make it yet another break out point. Getting over that and your show will grow organically quicker.

The next biggest noticeable difference in organic growth came at around 40,000 downloads an episode. I remember crawling up to this number because I wanted to put in ads in once I got there. And almost immediately after getting there, it started growing faster than I expected. I should also say that getting above 30,000 downloads an episode puts you in the top 1% of podcasts. So something about this area separates you from everyone else. And I believe it's the organic growth you get from something that size. There's nothing magical about going from 39,999 to 40,000. But when you step back and notice patterns, you can see in this area things really taking off.

At this point I felt like the small wildfire I started is now a raging inferno spreading quickly and all over. There was no way to turn back now, or put the genie back in the bottle. Each time I'd drop a new episode social media would be a flurry, which would reach much further than what I could do myself. I even saw some screenshots of a teacher in a classroom playing the show to their students.

But still even at 40k downloads an episode it still wasn't growing at the rate I wished it was. I was only growing at about 400 more downloads per episode. So I kept my marketing game strong, appearing on a ton of podcasts, doing episode swaps etc etc.

Lastly, when my show got to 100,000 downloads an episode, I finally felt like it was growing organically at a rate I was happy with. Around 1,000 new listeners each episode were tuning in. I didn't feel the need to market anymore. I was happy with this, and honestly I don't know the ceiling of how popular my show can get so my marketing efforts will have diminishing returns at some point too. So from here I've finally felt like this critical mass is enough to step back and let it take it's course.

Growth Goals

My show now has over 200,000 downloads per episode. I've been at it for over 2 years. And every month I'm thrilled if my show grows by 1%-5% a month. After all this time of trying to get fast growth, I've learned it doesn't come. So aim lower. 1%-5% monthly growth is amazing.

If your show has only 150 downloads per episode, this means you only need wrangle up an extra 2-10 people a month to listen to your show. That's not too hard! And when you learn how to do that month after month, your skills improve on how to do that. You learn how to reach further with less effort. Because when you're at 1,500 downloads per episode, now your goal is to get 15-75 new listeners.

If you try to catch too many, you'll end up catching none. So be laser focused with who you're getting as a new subscriber at first. Find the person who would LOVE listening to your podcast, not the person who would kind of sorta try it but turn it off 2 minutes in.

Once you hit 150 fans who love your show, it should grow by 1%-5% a month by itself. But that's only a few new listeners each month. Combine it with other marketing techniques and together this should get your show to grow much faster.