The Curious Success of Lore: A Case Study
If you’ve been following my blog posts, you know I have been featuring interviews with key players in the podcasting sphere — from Gimlet’s Matt Leiber to This American Life’s Seth Lind. Today, however, I present something different: an excerpt from my “Guide to Podcasting in 2015,” which will be released as an open-source, open-access document later this year. The following is one of five case studies contained within the guide; it details the remarkable success of Lore, one of the very few independently-run podcasts that is consistently within the top iTunes charts.
In March 2015, Aaron Mahnke was running his own design business — pretty successfully too. What was suffering, however, were his passion projects: supernatural thrillers. Mahnke had been self-publishing without commercial success; he knew that if something didn’t change, he would have no choice but to leave his novel writing behind. Hoping to rev interest in his books, he brainstormed ideas for a giveaway for subscribers of his flailing email marketing list. He wrote down his “Five Favorite New England Myths” and set about making an audio version; when a friend heard a preview, he suggested Mahnke turn the myths into podcasts instead.
The suggestion would end up being a propitious one. Mahnke had been co-hosting an advice podcast (Home Work) for three years and so already knew the nuts and bolts of recording and editing; as a writer, he certainly knew how to spin a good yarn. Mahnke figured a podcast would be a good “vehicle to raise awareness for my books.” On March 19th, Mahnke released episode 1 of Lore, a bi-weekly podcast telling real life scary stories.
One week later, iTunes featured it as a “New and Noteworthy” podcast. Over the course of the three weeks or so the podcast was featured, Mahnke’s small audience quadrupled. Inspired by the generous feedback of listeners (and knowing that advertisers wouldn’t bother with a show with less than 50,000 monthly downloads per episode per 30-day period), Mahnke turned to Patreon in late April to help him offset costs. He decided to offer Patreon listeners special rewards such as extra episodes and beautifully designed transcripts — both of which took precious time and considerable effort. With his day job, Mahnke knew the pace would be unsustainable in the long term.
Luckily, however, Lore’s passionate audience continued to grow — fast. By early May, when his fifth episode was released, Mahnke reached the magical number: 50,000 downloads. He began “digitally knocking on doors,” emailing companies he thought would make good sponsors of the show. On June 1st Mahnke published Episode 7, sponsored by some familiar names in the podcasting world: Caspar Mattresses and Squarespace.
Then, on June 9th, iTunes featured Lore for three days in its top banner, right “up there next to Stephen Colbert,” in Mahnke’s words. By the end of the day, Lore was in the top 20 iTunes charts. Two days later it broke the top 10 and stayed there for 11 days. By the end of June, advertising spots were sold out until the end of the year, Mahnke had been invited to perform Lore live, and the show had been downloaded over 1,000,000 times. By the end of July, that number had ticked to 1,500,000, and Lore was in the top 20. Mahnke set up an online shop and one-time donation option on the Lore site. On August 11th, Lore reached 2,000,000 downloads. By the end of August, Mahnke quit his day job.
“Five months after launching the show, sponsorships were covering what the job used to cover. I know it’s a rare thing, I know I’m a unicorn. […] I can do this as my job, and it buys me time to write [novels].” The project that began as a last-ditch marketing ploy for Mahnke’s book sales became a career in and of itself, one that has allowed Mahnke to do something he loves and continue writing books on the side.
There is no question that Lore is an unusual case; shockingly few independent podcasts break the top 20 charts or can sustain themselves financially. Indeed, Mahnke had initially aspired to join a network like Radiotopia (not least because of the sense of community a network can provide). However, after quickly earning advertising revenue himself, he made the financial decision to remain independent rather than split the revenue. Yes, he has to do everything himself, but he also has the flexibility to maintain his own agenda at every step of the project.
So far, the gamble has paid off, and his audience numbers have given him bargaining power with sponsors. To prevent breaking the narrative flow of his show, for example, he offers only post-roll spots (which he writes) at competitive CPMs, despite these being the least desirable spots for advertisers (“nobody’s complained,” insists Mahnke, who’s booked ads through the end of April 2016).
Mahnke contributes his remarkable success to a few factors: (1) the effort he puts into making each episode as high quality as possible, (2) the way his listeners spread the Lore gospel by word of mouth, (3) the genre itself, and (4) the iTunes bumps he received along the way (I would add too, that Lore’s eye-catching design may have helped persuade iTunes users to try out the show).
Another factor to Lore’s growth could very well be the sense of community that Mahnke has fostered, especially within his social media pages on Twitter and Facebook. While Mahnke has not done listener surveys, he says social media has given him a good sense of his audience — “creatives,” “alternatives,” “X-Files fans.” What’s more, his engaged listeners contribute regularly (his 635 Patreon donors contribute around $3000 each month), which has allowed Mahnke to begin releasing the show weekly. Mahnke will also be doing more live shows in future, an opportunity he sees not as a revenue stream, but as a “chance to connect with the audience.” The audience who, Mahnke would certainly agree, has effectively changed his life.