There are endless lessons associations can learn from history, culture, business and the world around us. The Professionals for Association Revenue will explore these connections with longer format articles to help readers draw inspiration for their own work.

By Carolyn Shomali, PAR

Associations aren’t the only industry facing the challenges of an evolving and competitive market. The podcast industry, which experienced significant growth from 2014 to 2020, is also reimagining its work while decreasing its workforce. In 2023, the platform Spotify laid off over 2,000 employees (nearly 30% of its workforce), while podcast divisions at news agencies and studios also scaled down their staffs.

As podcasts adapt to new technologies and revenue streams, one of their primary challenges is sustaining audience engagement in an oversaturated market. The Podcast Index reports an estimated 4 million podcasts registered worldwide, with nearly 85,000 episodes published in a recent 3-day time span. Any show that builds and maintains an audience amid that landscape is a success, and those that rise to stardom are triumphs that can shed light on audience engagement practices.

This article will examine the most downloaded podcasts of 2023 according to Apple and Spotify and what associations can learn from them. While the shows vary in their subject matters, they can each be categorized by one of four ways: expert access, informative updates, personality driven, and intriguing stories.

Examining each of those categories will help you understand how your association is currently engaging its audience and identify opportunities for growth.

Apple Top Podcasts 2023
1. Crime Junkie
2. The Daily
3. Dateline NBC
4. SmarLess
5. This American Life
6. Morbid
7. Up First
8. Huberman Lab
9. Hidden Brain
10. Stuff You Should Know

Spotify Top Podcasts 2023
1. The Joe Rogan Experience*
2. Call Her Daddy*
3. Huberman Lab
4. anything goes with emma chamberlain
5. On Purpose with Jay Shetty
6. Crime Junkie
7. This Past Weekend with Theo Von

8. Serial Killers
9. The Diary of a CEO with Steven Bartlett
10. Ted Talks Daily

1. Expert Access
In this category:
Huberman Lab, Hidden Brain, Stuff You Should Know, On Purpose with Jay Shetty, The Diary of a CEO with Steven Bartlett

Each podcast in this category understands that audiences crave learning and are seeking out insights from expert minds.

Consider The Huberman Lab, launched in 2021 and featured on both Apple and Spotify’s top ten lists. The show’s host, Dr. Andrew Huberman, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist and professor at Stanford School of Medicine. His weekly podcast explores “science and science-based tools to help listeners live a healthier, more fulfilling life.” What’s intriguing about Huberman’s rise to podcast stardom is how he has done it. Episodes cover a wide range of scientific topics, are full of medical terminology and scientific research, and often surpass 2-hours in length. In other words, Huberman’s show is exactly the opposite of what you’d think an audience with a reportedly shrinking attention span would tune into. But instead, Huberman’s podcast is a worldwide success because he recognizes his audience's capacity and desire for high-level learning. And, he gives it to them with access to health and wellness trailblazers.

Tip: Approach your audience as colleagues and explore industry topics with careful consideration, supported by data, and enriched by insights from respected experts. Trusting your audience’s capacity to understand high-level information fosters mutual respect. Your audience will stay engaged and recognize your association’s commitment to delivering industry-leading content.

2. Informative Updates
In this category:
The Daily (NYTimes), Up First (NPR)

Each podcast in this category understands that audiences want informative updates on current events while engaging in thought-provoking discussions on a regular basis. The Daily produced by the New York Times provides an in-depth look into one current event each day. The podcast homepage describes the show saying, “This is how the news should sound. Twenty minutes a day, five days a week.”

Associations can take a cue from this category by providing timely information on industry news, regulatory changes, and emerging trends both for members and for their wider audience. Doing so will make the association a trusted, go-to source for information.

Tip: Develop a consistent and regular schedule for sharing informative updates relevant to your industry through a newsletter, LinkedIn posts or another communication channel. Your audience will come to expect information from you, their trusted source.

3. Personality Driven
In this category: The Joe Rogan Experience,
SmartLess, anything goes with emma chamberlain, This Past Weekend with Theo Von, Call Her Daddy

Each podcast in this category recognizes an individual’s unique ability to entertain their audience. These podcasts aren’t just about what is being said, but who is saying it and how. Talking about controversial topics isn't avoided, but rather invited.

And while this style isn't the best fit for association audiences, there is another lesson here. These podcasts are successful because of the authentic way their hosts attempt to connect with their audiences. In SmartLess, comedians Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes and Will Arnett say their podcast “unites people from all walks of life to learn about shared experiences through thoughtful dialogue and organic hilarity.” Emma Chamberlain of Anything Goes told late night host Jimmy Fallon, “I’ve never been scared of vulnerability.” Call Her Daddy with Alex Cooper says the show is the most listened to podcast by women because she is able to “cut through the BS with topics and guests – asking the burning questions you want answers to.”

Tip: Examine the authenticity behind your association’s content while also considering opportunities to amplify intriguing personalities. Highlight the personalities within your association while finding opportunities to bring in relevant outside voices. And, don’t overlook the opportunities to share your own organizational challenges. Showing the authenticity of your organization will show how shared experiences can foster community.

4. Intriguing Stories
In this Category: Crime Junkie, Morbid, Serial Killers, Dateline NBC,
This American Life, Ted Talks Daily

Each podcast in this category recognizes the impact of storytelling, whether heartwarming or chilling.

Consider TED Talks Daily, a podcast leveraging the renowned success of its on-stage speaking platform. Through compelling narratives, speakers connect with audiences on profound topics. And in the true-crime genre with shows like Crime Junkie, audiences are captivated by the unveiling of an unthinkable occurrence.

Unlocking your association’s story is arguably the most impactful way to connect with your intended audience.

Tip: Use real-world examples of member experiences to bring your association’s mission to life. Engage your audience emotionally through narratives that resonate with their own experiences.

Like podcasts, associations have messages to share with their audiences. Understanding your intended audience and the type of content they desire can help your association develop its approach. Consider the lessons of these top-performing podcasts to determine not only what you are saying, but how you are saying it.