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Is This a Scam? Part 1: The Podcasting Edition

If you're invited to speak on a podcast, it's hard to know if it's a legitimate opportunity. We break down the warning signs to help you avoid getting scammed.

We get a lot of questions from entrepreneurs about pay-to-play media – podcasts, articles, awards and directories. Most of the questions boil down to “Is this thing legitimate?” I frequently apply for podcasts, awards and speaking engagements when we have questions about organizations, hidden fees and impact. We wait to see if we will be solicited for payment after we apply, something we frown on. While we recognize that various business models exist (everyone should get compensated for their work), we feel that some organizations are predatory and not entirely forthcoming with the facts.

Some of the questions we try to answer:

  • Is the opportunity only available if you pay? Sometimes organizations say they allow paying customers to skip the line, but in a lot of cases, non-payors never get to the front of the line.
  • Is the paid opportunity worth it? You may have an advertising or sponsorship budget. These opportunities should be examined and compared to other opportunities.
  • Is the organization taking advantage of speakers and entrepreneurs? Are they truthful in how they market the opportunity?
  • Is the content only being used to enrich the organization? (i.e. online awards and directories which capture web traffic that would have gone to your website.)

Let’s take a look at one such “opportunity”. If you know me, close your eyes and picture me at my sarcastic worst.

December 2020 – The beginning of our podcasting journey

Over the holidays of 2020, one of our team members received a pitch from a podcast that sounded like a good fit for me as a mission-oriented founder of a company. She sent me a link to the website where the podcast producers collect information on guests.

January 2021 – Filling in the form

I filled in the form on January 14, 2021, selecting an audio-only interview, and I received a confirmation email. After careful reading of the website, it became apparent that there was never a fee… for audio-only interviews.

Many legitimate podcasters use online forms to collect information about their guests in writing. It’s good practice and saves you from wandering around the internet looking for an updated biography.

While I was filling out this form, one item was a question on whether I would be interested in learning more about promoting the podcast session. I know I appreciate when the guests on Lioness interviews, the speakers on the Innovation Women webinars and the launching companies at Innovation Nights share information about their event with their community. I even have a name for it – crowdpromoting – and I cover how it works in my TEDx talk.

What I expected was to receive information on how to help promote the podcast. Instead, I got an overview of marketing services available from the marketing agency that produces the podcast. OK. That’s fair. In addition to Innovation Nights, Innovation Women, My Speaker Leads and Lioness Magazine, I also own Carlton PR & Marketing, a marketing agency. I am, however, extremely circumspect about promoting the agency’s services. (Some people tell me I am too circumspect.)

A few months later, I started to get emails promoting various episodes, including news of a way to earn points by visiting the podcast’s social media pages. (As part of the application process, my checking the “send me information” box could have given them permission to start emailing me.) I could apply to be a VIP which included “priority consideration”, a full press release and a video interview.

March 3, 2021 – Former Lioness founders receive solicitations

One of the old email addresses for the founders of Lioness received an email from the podcast producers. “I was browsing through LinkedIn and your profile popped up…” and invited the Lioness founder to fill in the form for an interview. The invitation touted the more than 3,000 interviews the hosts had done and the 500,000 listeners. At the time, I didn’t recognize the podcast name or that I had signed up in January. I replied to what sounded like a personal message (silly me, my marketing radar was obviously off that day) and let them know that the founder was no longer with the organization.

November 2021 – A courtesy email arrives

I didn’t hear anything until November when I received a “courtesy” email letting me know that the show receives 1,000+ applications a month. (Maybe because you are reaching out to random people you find on LinkedIn?) The complimentary features are booked solid. Forty percent of the interviews are complimentary slots, and the other 60 percent were VIP interviews – and it costs just under $1,000 to be a VIP. A week later I received a follow-up, assuring me that my application would remain on file.

Around this same time, my other emails (I have an email address for each company I own) started to receive “personal” emails. This same person was browsing emails and found little old me! Except, they didn’t. None of these email addresses have a LinkedIn profile and the name associated with at least one was the formal name I never use except on contracts and legal documents. Someone’s buying lists…

December 2021 – Former employees start to receive emails

Our company’s catch-all email box starts to receive invitations (yes, the exact same “found you on LinkedIn”) intended for former employees. None of these employees are business owners, but I did notice that the email talks about a podcast that interviews business owners, entrepreneurs AND professionals. Basically, anyone.

Reminder and follow-up emails start arriving for the employees. Applications are still being accepted. (As if we had any doubt.)

February 2022 – No word yet!

It is now officially more than a year after I “applied” for the podcast. Will I ever get “The Call”? Good question. But I will let you know if it happens.

Meanwhile, some advice for identifying a podcasting scam:

  • Don’t assume an invitation to participate in a program is really a personal email to you. Producers could be working from massive lists. (The sheer volume of emails I have received from this podcaster makes me doubt they are CAN-SPAM compliant. While made to look like a personal email, which is OK under CAN-SPAM, the identicalness and volume of emails are suspicious.)
  • If there isn’t a reason for you to be invited, be suspicious of any inbound queries.
  • Read the fine print. And the descriptions. And the marketing programs. Basically, read everything.
  • Ask questions.
  • If you know someone who has appeared on the show, ask about their experience. Did it drive business for them?
  • Don’t get sucked into promoting something that you aren’t familiar with. You don’t want to be held responsible for someone else getting hornswoggled.
  • Do the math. Let’s see… a thousand applications a month. A typical day for our intrepid podcasters seems to be at least two-three interviews a day. We can be generous and say they are doing four per day, 20 business days, or 80 interviews a month. That’s 960 a year and about 400 are for non-paying guests. Since they mentioned 3,000 interviews when I first applied… they have been doing this for three years. (Actually four years, since they now say they have 4,000 interviews on their scheduling application.) If it took them a year to get up to full speed, they currently have 36,000 wannabe guest emails – not a bad semi-captive, ever-hopeful mailing list.  

With that 60-40 split on the episodes and the huge backlog, I should get The Call to appear on the show in 2026. Maybe 2027.

P.S. If all the numbers are true… this has a half-million-dollar annual run rate.

Want to start your own show instead of worrying about illegitimate opportunities? Try our definitive guide to launching a podcast.

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