Getting the iTunes Feature

This post originally appeared on Uncommon Sense, the Omohundro Institute blog. 

iTunes promoted Ben Franklin’s World as a featured podcast the week of July 3, 2017. This was quite special for an independent, non-celebrity hosted podcast and since the feature appeared, many have asked me both how I got iTunes to feature Ben Franklin’s World and what the feature meant for its download statistics. These are great questions and as the Omohundro Institute strives to help scholars further the reach and impact of their work by getting their scholarship in front of the right audience, I’m happy to share the answers.

To get iTunes to feature your podcast, you have to pitch them. One of my favorite podcasts is The Feed produced by the podcast hosting service Libsyn. The Feed releases episodes twice a month that contain lots of useful news about how to podcast, the podcast industry, and podcast stats. Early in 2017, hosts Elsie Escobar and Rob Walch discussed how Libsyn had connections at iTunes and if podcasters had a special episode in the works that would appeal to a broad audience, Libsyn customers should contact them about pitching the episode to iTunes for a feature.

I knew the Omohundro Institute was planning an episode about the Declaration of Independence for our July 4th Doing History teaser. I thought “what could have more broad appeal than the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July?" In early June, I followed Elsie and Rob’s instructions and sent Rob an e-mail pitching the episode.

My pitch contained five paragraphs: An overview of the episode and the guests I had recorded, my request that he pitch the episode to iTunes, and three more paragraphs detailing the Doing History series, the structure of the episode, and the work I had done to date to prove the episode would be ready for a July 4th feature.

Writing a pitch is all about knowing your audience. My pitch to Rob worked because I knew enough about him to highlight particular aspects of the episode that would appeal to him. After listening to The Feed for nearly three years, I knew Rob is an avid listener of history podcasts, although not of Ben Franklin’s World, so telling him about the historical significance of the episode, what it would add to listeners’ knowledge, and that it would be a storytelling episode was key. Also key was making sure he knew that although I hadn’t finished producing the episode, I had thought deeply about it, recorded my interviews, and knew exactly how I would put it together the week of June 19 so it would be done on time. Rob liked what he read and responded that he would pitch the episode to iTunes after I provided him with some additional information. To this end, he sent me an outline of all the questions iTunes would need answers to in order to feature the episode.

I knew my pitch to Rob wouldn’t work with iTunes. The person making the features decisions at Apple would be a different audience. I imagined someone who gets inundated with requests. They needed prose that would grab their attention and be quick to read. I also knew that while Rob was a fan of history podcasts, it was likely that the person at Apple was not. How could I make that person understand that yes, I interview academics and yes, they can relate a compelling story that anyone can understand in an enjoyable way?

I used these ideas about my audience at Apple and drafted an episode description. My original draft was descriptive and concise, but it needed a more fun voice. I took the pitch to my Doing History teammates Joe Adelman and Martha Howard and asked for their help-- these two writers specialize in fun and pithy writing. Together we came up with the following description:

The Declaration of Independence has shaped debates about rights and liberty for over two centuries both in the United States and around the world. Inspired by a document that has become an American scripture, more than 100 nation-states and freedom organizations since 1776 have modeled their own founding documents on the first written declaration of independence in the world.

On its 241st anniversary, “A Declaration in Draft” takes listeners behind the parchment of the Declaration of Independence. Three prominent historians tell the story of how the Declaration’s three primary authors— John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin — joined forces to deliver this iconic manifesto to the Second Continental Congress.

The episode’s guests include Danielle Allen, a historian at Harvard University, MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, and author of Our Declaration; Peter Onuf, Thomas Jefferson Professor Emeritus of American History at the University of Virginia and a founding host of the podcast Backstory; and Patrick Spero, the Librarian of the American Philosophical Society, which Benjamin Franklin helped to found.

We knew this pitch had what it needed: historical facts, significance of the episode, who the episode would appeal to, and above all it relayed this information in a manner that proved academics can talk about their work accessibly.

The episode description was the heart of our pitch. The rest of it contained answers to basic questions like “what is your episode title” and a brief plan for how we intended to promote the episode. I sent these details off to Rob, who submitted them to Apple. Thankfully, the person who read our pitch agreed that our episode was indeed worthy of being an iTunes feature.

In terms of how the iTunes feature impacted our download statistics, I can’t answer that for at least another month. I will say that we saw a spike that more than doubled our release day downloads. Where we normally experience between 8 and 10 thousand downloads spread across all episodes on new episode release days, we saw 21,694 downloads on July 4. I will write another post disclosing specific numbers as soon as we have more information about how this short term gain impacted the overall statistics for Ben Franklin’s World.