For the uninitiated, The Program audio series is a fiction podcast consisting of self-contained stories set in a world in which Money, State, and God got fused into a single entity called The Program. The show received over 170,000 downloads, was featured by Apple Podcasts in six countries, and got over 300 five-star ratings so far (to learn more about its origins check out article #1 and article #2).
Having proven the series resonates with listeners, I am now focused on two things: creating new episodes, and expanding my reach. With the former hindered by living in a city about to enter the 7th month of lockdown, I decided to invest energy into the second. Meaning I finally decided to flirt with that sexy stranger at the bar who ends up slipping you a roofie and stealing your wallet: paid marketing.
Which brings me to the inherent paradox. Since all episodes of the show are available for free, The Program is not really a product. And while the names of heroes who support the show monthly / made a one-time donation will shine forever in the Program’s patheon, the reality is that only around 2% of The Program’s fans financially contributes to its production (by fans I mean folks who listened to nearly every episode, which is roughly 5000 people). This means there’s no real business logic driving this marketing campaign, but that its prime motivator is simple vanity.
Having worked in various software project / product management roles for the last 7+ years, I have some experience with online marketing on three platforms: Facebook, Google, and Reddit. For different reasons, none of them were contenders for this campaign. Facebook, while effective (or at least being so before Apple’s cockblock), I eschew on moral grounds. Google’s Adwords I view a bit like the Red Queen kingdom in Alice’s wonderland - a place in which you have to run just to stay in place, and I don’t see much sense in entering such a race. Reddit on the other hand I’m a big fan of - but so far I was always able to reach my audience there for free since r/blackmirror and r/audiodrama, the two subreddits that get me the most listeners, allow non-excessive self-promotion. I also considered Twitter, but the engagement my content gets there is so dismal I was loath to start paying for the privilege to be ignored.
Which left me with Mindgeek. Now, even a savvy techie might not recognize the name behind the 10th most trafficked site in the world. The situation changes when names of some of its properties are mentioned - Pornhub, RedTube, YouPorn, Xtube, and numerous other adult websites. So I thought to myself: Mindgeek and The Program are Canada’s best kept secrets - what better way for the maple leaf to conquer the world? I’m not bound by vapid dictates of HR departments. Because of the associated stigma, the costs might actually be lower than any of the alternatives mentioned above. If there’s one place my ad is equally likely to be seen by Daniel Ek and Reed Hastings, it’s this. And a character in the show’s latest episode delivered a glorious 4-minute soliloquy about the nipple.
The next question was the one of appropriate copy (which is marketing-speak for ads - I guess ads have such a negative connotation that even marketing people avoid the term). After a bit of brainstorming, I decided to test three different approaches.
The first was the most straightforward, so I dubbed it On brand. It consisted of the show art and a punny headline:
I decided to first test it in Canada, The Program’s home turf, presuming the rates will be cheaper than the US (which is where the majority of The Program’s audience comes from). I also decided that I will show the ad only at the end of the video - my reasoning being that, since I wasn’t advertising a sexual product, this would increase the probability my ads will be seen past release i.e. when my audiences were no longer in the oversexualized state of mind. The two concrete two placements I opted for are PC Inplayer and Mobile Interstitial:
Mindgeek’s actual ad network is called TrafficJunky and its dashboard features a nice, clean, simple UI:
I set the show’s homepage www.programaudioseries.com as the ads’ target URL and - being the high baller that I am - started by throwing $10 on the On brand ad just to see what happens:
Spend: $10 USD
CTR is the clickthrough rate, calculated by dividing impressions (how many times the ad was displayed) divided by clicks (how many times users clicked on it) - the higher CTR, the better
Having no frame of reference if 0.66 was a decent result, I contacted Mindgeek’s helpful customer support. The agent I got even remembered seeing my ads (all ads go through a manual approval process, and I’m guessing they don’t get a lot of people advertising science fiction audio dramas). He told me that any CTR above 0.4 was considered good, and also told me that Mobile Interstitial was doing much better in terms of CTR (1.34), which is why - after a few more tests - I opted to run ads only in that spot and all CTRs going forward reference that placement only.
Of course, I wanted to see the concrete outcome of the aforementioned 231 clicks, so I went to Google Analytics to see what my campaign visitors were actually doing. The short answer is: they bounce. Truth be told, my bounce rate is quite high by default, with 71% of the visitors leaving as soon as they open the site (how rude). However, the bounce rate from the visitors coming from the Mindgeek campaign was even higher: a whopping 94%! The only saving grace was that I did notice the download numbers in my podcasting host going up - even though I wasn’t able to directly attribute this to the campaign (as I wrote in my previous articles, podcast analytics are unfortunately extremely basic).
The next day I went with the second approach - the one I dubbed Cognitive dissonance. I wanted to test if using images and text one wouldn’t expect to see on an XXX site would make people notice the ad and intrigue them enough to click on it. So I went with three quotes from the show coupled with three incongruous images:
A close up of an eye
A homeless person
“Christ in the Desert”, a painting by my namesake Ivan Kramskoi
I must admit I was curious if the last image would pass the ad approval process - after all, I doubt an ad for a sex toy would be accepted by a Christian website, so maybe adult sites forbade religious imagery? Luckily it seems intolerance is not reciprocal, as J.C. got accepted by Mindgeek without a hitch.
Again I decided to throw $10 at each of these ads and run them in Canada only. It didn’t take me long to realize the homeless person was vastly underperforming, so I quickly stopped running that variant. The other two however did quite well:
Eye CTR: 1.55
Jesus CTR: 1.19
This meant that Eye was getting more clicks than the On brand ad, and Jesus slightly less. Interestingly, even though the ads were more abstract, the bounce rate was slightly lower than was the case with the On brand ad - but still atrocious 93%.
Just like the day before, I noticed a slight increase in my download numbers, but it was even more difficult to attribute the uptick to this second campaign, as I had no way of knowing if the people who I had managed to hook on The Program the day before were still listening to the episodes the next day (with 18 episodes and total running time of 12 hours and 40 minutes, the show is a sizable morsel).
The third campaign I ran had the Political angle, so that’s how I dubbed it. Again I went with a copy appropriate for an adult site:
The future depicted in The Program defies contemporary ideological definitions - its socioeconomic model could best be described as “anarcho-communist neofascist libertarian direct democracy”. But it could more succinctly be described as negation of everything represented by the duo above, meaning these ads give the audience at least some idea about what kind of a show this is.
Even though neither of the two politicians are Canadian, for the sake of consistency I again ran both versions in Canada, counting on the fact the country is the bastard child of the UK and USA anyway. Ten bucks spent on each variant yielded the following results:
Reagan CTR: 1.77
Thatcher CTR: 1.27
Which I guess tells us who’s more (in)famous?
Again reaching 94%, the bounce rate was almost as horrible as the duo’s economic policies. Of course, it’s possible that the consistently high bounce rate was due to the website itself (VS the origin of the audience), but experimenting with different landing pages was out of scope of my experiments. And hey, at least my download numbers continued to grow.
Having tested all the ads in Canada, I decided to repeat the whole campaign in the US implementing the findings I learned. So I simultaneously ran the On brand, Eye, and Reagan copy, with the following results (impressions - clicks - CTR):
On brand: 11,856 - 171 - 1.44
Eye: 11,863 - 139 - 1.17
Reagan: 11,864 - 172 - 1.45
I also wanted to do one more experiment, which was to test if the Jesus ad performs better with religious audiences or irreligious ones. So I ran the ad in two states that were equally populous but according to Wikipedia’s List of U.S. states and territories by religiosity article exact opposites when it comes to matter of faith: Tennessee (2nd most religious state, with Alabama and Mississippi tied for first) and Massachusetts (tied for the least religious state with New Hampshire). However, I’m not sure the result is substantial enough to draw any conclusions:
Jesus Tennessee: 11,632 - 138 - 1.19
Jesus Massachusetts: 11,618 - 120 - 1.03
So, spending $50 across all five US campaigns got me 740 clicks, which Google Analytics told me translated to 443 unique visitors. Seeing that the bounce rate was again 93%, this means I was able to get roughly 30 visitors for $50 - meaning I paid ~$1.66 per visitor. I would gladly calculate ROI, but I can’t as I don’t have any revenue. [sad violin]
Which brings us to the overall final results:
|Canada CTR||US CTR|
|Political - Reagan||1.77||1.45|
|Political - Thatcher||1.27||N/A|
|Cognitive dissonance - Eye||1.55||1.17|
|Cognitive dissonance - Jesus||1.19||
I wasn’t able to find any other similar writeups online so I’ve got no idea how my results compare to the average - hopefully this article can serve as a data point to anyone else considering a veritably hardcore advertising campaign. I’m also sure my methodologies are horribly primitive and that someone who actually knew what they were doing could get more out of the $100 I burned (but then again, it’s also possible that even advanced techniques don't work well when it comes to tracking unregistered users browsing in incognito mode).
What I can promise you is that my showrunning skills are better than my marketing ones, so if you made it this far please invest 90 seconds to check out the snazzy animated trailer for the series:
If intrigued, take a peek at the homepage to find out how you can listen to all the episodes for free (don’t forget to tip your creators!)
As for me, having done porn, I just might do Linkedin next.