Podcast Alchemy: Is Podcasting Worth It? (As a Guest or a Host)

Podcasting is a low-cost way to market products and services, but the real cost is time. We analyze how effective these strategies tend to be.

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Now for the $64,000 question: is it worth it?

Sales, Marketing, & PR . . .

Let’s first understand how sales, marketing, and public relations are similar and different. We need to understand this to see how podcasting can play into sales, marketing, and/or PR.

Sales is about getting a customer to purchase a product or service. Sales often follow what’s referred to as the buyer's journey, basically all the steps along the process that lead to a sale. Big-ticket items, like cars and enterprise software have a big buyer’s journey which includes identifying a need (e.g., “my car is old and needs to be replaced,” “we need a better way to track inventory”), researching options, kicking the tires (literally and figuratively), picking a solution, and making the purchase. This can take days, weeks, or months (for really big-ticket items like airplanes it can be years).

Other items can be bought with a condensed journey. The combination toaster oven / blender / backscratcher that you didn’t know you needed can go through that whole journey over the course of a thirty-minute infomercial (“finally, I can scratch that itch while making a toasted almond smoothie!”). This can be minutes, hours, or days.

On the lowest end are impulse buys. You don't really think through buying a Coke on a hot afternoon. You’re thirsty, you see a Coke, you buy it. You might not even be thirsty. The soda and candy at the checkout line are there to get you to throw an extra item into the basket and often you do it without a lot of conscious thought. Cha-ching!

The reason you make that impulse buy is because of marketing. Coke runs ads not so you rush out and buy soda that second, but to remind you about the brand and build brand associations. When you’re in the checkout line you’ve been primed. Car companies use marketing similarly, but for a longer sales cycle. When you think of certain cars you have certain associations built up over time; some are known for safety while others are reliable, still others are branded as exciting.

Public relations and marketing are similar but different. Marketing is typically about a specific product to make you aware of the product and its features. It's designed to move you into or through some stage of the buyer's journey. Public relations is more general, creating brand awareness and a brand impression. “Mark Herschberg , author of The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You, has been teaching career development at MIT for 20+ years,” is more public relations (general brand value) while, “The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You will show you how negotiate and increase the value of every contract you sign” (clear value proposition) is marketing. Still, it’s a fuzzy line. Ads for Coke aren’t touting a specific feature but making you think of whatever feeling they want you to have (e.g., nostalgia with Santa, popularity with a celebrity endorsement, community with a multicultural chorus singing on a hilltop). Is it marketing or PR? Maybe some of each.

. . . and Networking

For sales at volume, you generally need marketing and PR. For service-based businesses, networking is an additional, often overlooked component. Suppose you need a financial advisor, branding expert, or AI consultant, how would you find someone? These service providers generally don’t run ad campaigns. They might do a little bit of PR (including speaking on podcasts, webinars, or conferences), but often it’s a referral-based business.

In theory a listener can hear you on a podcast and when a friend asks the listener for a recommendation as to a service provider, she can mention your name. More likely, she forgot your name a few days after hearing the podcast. However, hosts are less likely to forget you. This is because you have a more extended interaction. Not only are you speaking directly to each other, there’s engagement in the pre and post show, as well as numerous emails, and both the host and guest will actively promote the show. I may not be able to rattle off the 400+ shows I’ve been on, but if you said the name of a host, I’ll likely remember him (and certainly have all names in my records).

Is It Worth It for Podcast Guests?

What does all this mean for marketing? Publishers tell me seemingly every author asks about getting on Good Morning America to promote their book. A few do get on. In some cases, it’s a big lift, in others, it doesn’t move the needle.

As a guest you may hope some podcast appearance hits your audience and brings in lots of clients. It may, but it may not. As a host, you see this as a great lead funnel. Again, maybe it can do that, maybe it can’t.

Most podcasts, the long tail, get double or maybe triple digits of downloads per episode. If you’re one of the better ones you’re typically getting a few thousand downloads per episode. The really, really, really, ridiculously good [looking] ones are getting tens of thousands of downloads, but those are few and far between. You can see stats from Buzzsprout which at the time of writing (April 2024) shows the top 1% having around 5,000 downloads in the first seven days (the same site shows 44% publish episodes every 0-7 days, while 55% publish every 8-29 days). The top 10% and 25% have only around 500 and 120 downloads respectively in the first seven days.

The March 2024 Actively Established Podcast Report (note: the list goes to the current report, these numbers came from March 2024) put out by PodMatch and Rephonic, defines an actively established podcast as, “as an interview-based podcast with at least 100 episodes and a release cadence of 10 days or less that’s run by a host who isn’t a celebrity, or part of a major media network.” With a total of just under 3,000,000 total podcasts, meaning of any type, only about 400,000 (13.3%) were active the prior month. Of the roughly 500,000 total independent interview-based podcasts with more than 1 episode, only 120,000 are active (24%). When it comes to actively established, using the definition above, there are only about 39,000 such podcasts (roughly one third of the active, independent interview-based podcasts).

The report further notes that there are roughly 2,900,000 guests seeking podcasts (there was a large jump to 3,400,000 in April of 2024) but only 115,000 podcasts seeking guests. You might be thinking that if a podcast does even one episode a month (note that actively established is once a week, not once a month) we multiply 12 and nearly half the guests get on. In reality, there’s a power law (also known as a long tail). Around the time I started guesting Matthew McConaughey had a book coming out so I would see him on prior episodes of podcasts I was pitching. I suspect he had a 100% pitch success rate, or close to it. Brené Brown, Malcolm Gladwell, and other big names get on any show they want. Tier two guests get on many, but not all. Lots of would-be-guests get on few, if any, shows. Power law.

Furthermore, there are only so many 1% podcasts about your topic, in your language, who want to have you on. And when you do the show, how many of the listeners will buy your book or service or give you their email for the free giveaway. Honestly, we’re probably talking single digits. Obviously, fewer people will buy your $99/mo service than pay $19.95 one time for a book. But even then, you’re not the only author. They know each week there’s another author with another book on this topic that’s probably just as good. Even on the 1% podcasts you’re likely to barely hit double digit book sales with the episode and for the small to mid-sized ones, you might only sell 2-4 books per episode. (Again, if you’re a big-name celebrity, it might be different, but most of the readers of this article aren't big-name celebrities.)

I sold a few thousand books my first two years out. Now I sell hundreds per year. I haven’t spent a single penny on advertising. Some of those initial sales on launch came from friends, no doubt (maybe 100 or so, if that). Some of the sales each year come from corporate speaking (but I can tell you rarely are book sales part of my corporate talks, as much as I wish they would be). The Career Toolkit blog and Brain Bump, probably drive sales, too, but again in the tens-per-year level each, I suspect. The real active marketing I do is on podcasting. The vast majority of my book sales each year come from my efforts as a podcast guest, directly and indirectly.

When you do the math on the time it takes to set up and record the podcast and how much you make, it doesn’t seem like a good use of your time. An author typically earns about $1 in royalties per book (big name writers may get more, I also know one author who told me she made about $0.15 per book). If you’re self-published and sell an e-book on Amazon for $9.99 you get $6.50. So that range is roughly $1.00-6.50 per book. If we assume 5 books sold per episode that’s $5-$32.50 in profit to you. Even at the top end remember that you not only recorded the show (30-60 minutes) but had setup time, maybe a pre-interview, email coordination, and outreach (where you needed to pitch multiple shows just to get on one), plus promoting the episode afterwards. Even at the top end of that range, you’re barely earning minimum wage; for most shows, you’re below it.

For those who are not authors you can think of “sales” as “leads.” Someone signs up for your free offer or reaches out about your service. But then you need to compare the cost of those leads, the time and effort, to alternative measures, like running an ad campaign or other marketing efforts.

Of course this is an average, the right message on the right podcast to the right audience could lead to a dozen or more leads for your high value product or service (or book sales). That’s not totally uncommon, but it also doesn’t scale as you go on scores of podcasts, let alone hundreds. A few top 1% podcasts may give you a good return, but that’s not repeatable for the reasons given above.

Publishers tell authors, don’t think of the book as the way you’ll make money. The book is the business card that gets them to know you and can lead to them becoming a customer down the road (personally I hate that description and the use of a book that way). Likewise, if your goal is to sell your book or service, don’t hold your breath that podcasting is the magic answer.

There are exceptions, and I know of coaches who claim (I use “claim” because many people exaggerate their success and I never saw their revenue to verify the claim) to have done very well from podcasting. And if your product is a $99 service, that may work. For those selling higher value products and services temper your expectations.

The Value of Podcast Guesting

I look at podcast guesting as providing practical value in four ways.

First, it gets you social proof. When I started, I was just another guy with yet another business book. Yawn. But if you look at my website and see the media page, you’ll see hundreds of shows. I must have something to offer if that many people have me on. Would I have more credibility if I was on Good Morning America than being on 100 podcasts? It’s hard to say. Good Morning America certainly won’t take someone with little to offer, of course if you know anything about media the primary difference between the people on GMA, NPR, or lots of other media brands and those who aren’t is often simply hiring a publicist (and some of those shows have become pay-to-play). Obviously, it’s best to have some of those name brands and also have lots of other media, but assuming you don’t have five figures for a good publicist, podcasts are the way to go. Podcasts are to thought leaders, authors, and small business owners what late night talk shows are to Hollywood actors.

Second, it gets you content. You can create social media posts about the show. You can post more than once. You can post quotes. You can post teasers. You can post throwbacks a year later. I find some of the questions I get asked inspire my blog posts (which also leads to more social media content). You can get audio and video clips which you can put on your website and into speaking reels. While some podcasts will charge you for the right to the audio or video, many are fine if you need to take some clips (just ask first, as they typically own the copyright). See Podcast Alchemy: 8. How to Get the Most Out of Your Podcast for more ideas.

The people who do follow you on social media see your brand coming up over and over and it makes you look active. The reality is you probably don’t post about every sale you’re making. In some cases, someone going on lots of shows, even with few sales, may come off as more active than someone with little social media presence (of any content, not just podcasts) but lots of sales. Obviously, you’d like sales, but in the meantime, you can look active to potential clients.

Third, it helps you to craft your message. If you plan to be a paid speaker, this is a good chance to refine your talking points. If you plan to write a book, this is a good way to refine your message and examples. If you plan to write more, this is a good way to field test your content. If you plan to sell this product, this is a good chance to listen for the target market’s needs. You get to practice over and over. The good news with podcasts is that you don’t have to be perfect. Many tend to be more conversational in style than a formal speech so you can practice those points in a more relaxed format, and then you can listen to them to reflect and refine your message.

Finally, I see each show as a lottery ticket. This is different from seeing it as a sales call. Don’t expect sales. But each is a lottery ticket for something. Maybe someone will hear you and become a huge enterprise customer, will bring you in as a speaker, or will order 1,000 books for her entire company (it does happen once in blue moon).

More common than the speaking engagement or big order is the relationship. For example, the podcast host, based on a green room conversation, introduces you to your future business partner or a customer. Maybe you and the podcaster become really good friends. It could be anything. Realistically, don’t count on it or use this as part of your quantitative ROI calculations because unless you’re at a huge scale it’s hard to model the probability of networking connections. Still, it exists, and it is real.  To me, these networking connections are probably some of the biggest value I get from being a podcast guest.

As noted in prior articles  Dave Jackson of the School of Podcasting observes, “The biggest benefit of guesting is the relationship you build with each host. Don't do a drive by interview. Follow up from time to time to see how they are doing (easier said than done).” Podcast hosts, and guests, are generally good people to get to know and have in your network.

The Value of Podcast Hosting

For a host, the ROI can be more solid. It does the brand building and is part of your sales funnel. People move from the free offer (the episodes) to higher and higher priced products and services. But you can’t just build it and they’ll come; this takes time and effort. You need to put out good quality shows and build a sufficiently large audience. For many people that will take years. But this is true of most marketing.

The March 2024 Actively Established Podcast Report puts it more bluntly: “If you’re podcasting to make money, stop. Go start a business instead!” Remember this is from PodMatch and Rephonic who know a thing or two about the podcasting industry.

Dave Jackson of the School of Podcasting advises, “When it comes to ‘Is it worth it’ you NEED to identify your WHY. If you don't get your WHY you will burn out after you lose motivation.” He goes on to say, “One of my shows is just me wanting to say something to the universe. It cost me $7/month. It's the best $7 therapy money could buy.”

It’s a Marathon Not a Sprint

Most authors talk about the elation they have when they first hold a copy of their printed book in their hands. It’s the culmination of years of hard work. It’s proof that they did it.

I felt nothing.

I was glad to get a box of my books, but mostly because I had a lot of bumps along the way, and this meant I was past them. There was no joy or elation.

To understand, let me share my marathon story. I once ran the Boston Marathon. A fraternity brother of mine once ran it after getting drunk the night before, so I figured if he could do it after getting drunk, I could do it. (I found out later he was a cross country runner in high school.) I was not qualified, figuratively and literally, but just wanted to do it to prove to myself that I could. I ran as a bandit, a term for those not officially entered in the race. After the official entrants ran off, the national guard, who was cordoning us off, stepped aside and we stepped up to the open road. The bandits slowly began pacing forward down the road. This was the 100th anniversary marathon which was a big year. While the race itself began at noon, I didn’t cross the starting line until 12:30pm, thirty minutes. In other words, because of the large number of people, it took me thirty minutes to get to the starting line of the race. And how did I feel once I got to the starting line? Nothing. This was the start! I felt great (and tired and sore) at the finish line but that was five hours later (not bad for someone whose training was a cumulative grand total of fourteen miles over six training sessions).

The point is the elation comes at the end of the race not the start. Getting my book in my hands was the start of the marathon. All the time and effort to get my book to print was the effort to get to the starting line.

Oscar Hammerstein wrote, “A bell's not a bell 'til you ring it / A song's not a song 'til you sing it.” Your book isn’t a book until people are reading it. Maybe you get overjoyed at one person reading your book, but I don’t. I wrote my book to impact many people which meant my race doesn’t end until many people have been impacted. If you wrote your book or started a business to get clients, then the race isn’t over until you’ve landed a bunch of clients.

Podcasting is no different. It’s a marathon not a sprint. One podcast won’t move the needle. Twenty podcasts probably won’t move the needle either. Many hosts suffer from podfade. After a handful of episodes, realizing that between the production and marketing it’s a lot of time and money, and they still only have a few dozen listeners, they get discouraged and give up. The April 2024 Actively Established Podcast Report (I pulled this data a month later than the data referenced earlier from March 2024) note that only 46% of podcasts make it to 8 episodes, 10% reach 50 episodes, and just under 6% reach 100 episodes. Again, the report notes, “If you’re podcasting to make money, stop. Go start a business instead!”

For the record, podcast guests aren’t much different. As noted in Podcast Alchemy: 2. To Host or Guest there isn’t as much cost (time or money) to be a guest, but still many guests do a few dozen shows and feel, “phew, I did it, I marketed myself on podcasts.” It’s edafdop, the mirror image of podfade, it’s guest fade.

The only way you will be successful as a guest or as a host is to commit to the marathon. It’s months, even years of effort to see it pay off.


While that may seem daunting, the upside is that it encourages amortization. You may recall amortization is the practice of distributing a cost over an extended period. When an auto company spends a billion dollars on a new manufacturing plant, they may pay the billion dollars today, but they treat it as being paid over time. If the factory lasts 20 years and produces 50,000 cars a year that means it produces 1,000,000 cars. The cost of the billion dollars is distributed as $1,000 cost per car produced in the plant. If they hadn’t invested the money in the plant, they would build fewer cars, and each would be more expensive.

Across these articles you’ve seen me encourage amortization. As a guest, investing in a good pitch and media kit takes time upfront but gets amortized over the lifetime of your guesting. Having good content takes work, but you can reuse it on show after show for no additional cost. The initial outreach may take some time or money, but then the flywheel gets you on more shows, effectively lowering that cost per show (see Podcast Alchemy: 5. How to Get on Hundreds of Podcasts (or Find an Ideal Podcast Guest)).

As hosts the same is true, but like the auto manufacturer there’s a little more overhead. Sure, there’s an equipment cost you will amortize. There’s also some per episode cost, the time or money to make each episode. This isn’t just editing, but also other work. Podcast Alchemy: 8. How to Get the Most Out of Your Podcast has a bunch of suggestions on how to get more out of this effort. Creating a blog post for each episode is work, but if you create a process to make it easier, the cost of setting up that process gets amortized over each episode. It might be a yearly subscription to a tool (as well as learning to use a tool), but also things like email templates to guests. I mentioned the ones I used to pitch, you can have a standard email template sent to guests once the show drops with the assets, or a shared drive where guests can access the assets. It’s a little work upfront but will be worth it over the long run.

As I’m someone who believes in amortizing cost over the long run, it should be no surprise that putting highlights from your episodes on Brain Bump follows the same model. There’s a couple minutes work to get set up, then it’s only about thirty seconds of work per episode to pull in the latest tip. But then you’re done, the content gets recycled over and over again, amortizing the time investment for many years to come. Even when your show does go off the air, Brain Bump, because it’s not organized by time, will continue to promote your evergreen content, further amortizing all the effort you put into the show in the first place.

And, as noted repeatedly, the relationships you build along the way don’t stop when the episodes stop. Those can continue for years to come, too.

For the Listeners

One final note, if you are a podcast listener (and I imagine you are), be sure to drop a note to the podcasts hosts and guests, It’s a bit of a lonely business. Public speakers, actors, comedians, and other entertainers often talk about how they like to feel the energy of the room. You can see, hear, and even feel the audience responding to you. Quiet is disheartening. (I was a competitive ballroom dancer throughout my twenties and when we’d compete or perform many people outside the dance community would see it like a theater performance and stay quiet; in truth, we much prefer the opposite, we want you to shout and cheer and make noise so loudly that it nearly drowns out the music.)

When we all moved to zoom presentations and couldn’t see the audience, or just saw the black squares, the presenters got disconnected and it felt very isolated. You may have experienced this yourself. Podcasting is a bit like that. We put out ideas into the universe and generally no one answers. Make some noise, send us a comment, it really means a lot.


If you’ve read all ten articles (see Podcast Alchemy on the Cognosco Media, LL website for the full list) you now know most of what I do about podcasting. I still do it even though from an ROI perspective I’m not making much money. Of course I didn’t write The Career Toolkit to make money and Brain Bump is something I intentionally give away for free (it actually costs me money every month due to server costs, but I’m ok with that). Some people like to bowl, others to read; I like to go on podcasts for all the reasons I’ve mentioned in these articles, plus the enjoyment I get from helping the audience. Enjoyment is just as good a reason as any to get into podcasting. The only bad reason is if you’re doing it and expecting more money than what podcasts typically create (which for most people is little to none).

These podcasting articles are not comprehensive. There’s plenty more you can learn about AV setup, editing, podcast distribution, and marketing (although if you haven’t yet checked out Brain Bump, you should, since it’s a free way to market your podcast, book, blog, talks, class, or other content), and probably a bunch of other things about podcasting that I don’t know. And, of course, the industry will evolve.

Whether you’re a listener, guest, host, or other member of the podcasting ecosystem I hope you’ve enjoyed these articles and have found them useful. Please do share your feedback with me, and I hope our paths cross in the podcasting community.