Pioneer Podcaster Behind ‘The Art of Charm’ Puts Craft Before Tech

'The technology can't yet even come close to leveling the playing field'

Jordan Harbinger with Adam Carolla.
Jordan Harbinger with Adam Carolla. (Photo: Jason DeFillippo )

Jordan Harbinger’s first piece of advice on podcasting is: “Don’t do it.”

If you want to get into podcasting to promote something, make a buck or because it feels like the next virtual space where your brand needs a presence, Mr. Harbinger advises staying out. The only reason to get into a medium like podcasting is because you enjoy recording and you have the commitment to deliver real value to listeners.

Jordan Harbinger co-founded The Art of Charm with A.J. Harbinger. It’s a podcast devoted to personal development. Lots of guys come to the podcast looking for help with dating (if that’s you, check out their toolbox episodes), but the podcast really pushes its listeners to think about going beyond dating, to learn how to attract friends, business partners and allies. The team aims to make a show about living your best life.

Self-help has always been big business, but we reached out to Mr. Harbinger to talk about the business of the podcast itself, to learn what he thinks about the new developments in this medium. The show has been running for eight years now, which makes it ancient in podcast terms. It also doesn’t fit easily into the public radio style that has done so much to define what the new converts to podcasting think about the medium.

This continues our occasional series on the business side of podcasting. We previously spoke to John Lee Dumas, host of the Entrepreneur on Fire podcast, and Gretchen Rubin, of the Happier podcast

The following phone call with Mr. Harbinger and the show’s producer, Jason DeFillippo, has been edited and condensed:

I know that your company does a few things, like coaching, events and the podcast. Did the podcast come first? 

Jordan Harbinger: Yes. I used to work at a law firm on Wall Street. I had a summer associate position. I got hired by this partner who was never in the office, even though he was a top level partner. I was trying to outwork my officemates, and it was impossible. A lot of them were smarter than me and had that intense drive. I was like, ‘I’m screwed, they are going to fire me, I don’t belong here.’

The partners who hired us were supposed to mentor us and mine was M.I.A., but one day I was out with him for coffee, and he said, ‘Ask me anything you want.’

I said, ‘How come you make more money than the other partners, but you’re never in the office?’

And, he put his hands on the table and said, ‘Let me tell you, I bring in all the business. I bring in all the relationships. I bring in all the key clients. So I’m more valuable outside the office than inside the office.’

I found that he was bringing multi-million dollar deals regularly to the firm because he was hanging out with the right people. And I said to myself, ‘Holy crap, I can not only learn how to do that, but if I don’t, I’m probably screwed.’ So I focused on that for the next 10-plus years.

And then from there, I met my business partner, A.J., who was a cancer biologist. And then we started talking about networking and stuff like that and he was like, ‘I’m interested in that too.’

Basically, the podcast started off as mine and AJ’s conversations that we were having at bars that we were having during the day and night about networking and trying to meet people, where we were trying to figure out the tips and tricks that we were figuring out. And also reading a bunch of pop psychology into the subject, scientific studies and we were trying to put them to practical use. And what we found is a lot of what we were reading worked, but wasn’t fully explored. So we tried to expand on that knowledge.

And other stuff that we were reading was complete bullcrap and had clearly never actually been tried by the authors of these self help books. So we started mythbusting, too. And that’s what eventually led to the Art of Charm training program. People and companies were coming to us and asking us to teach what we were talking about to their teams. And this was eight years ago.

So that’s like ancient history in podcast time.

H: Yes. We started podcasting in 2006.

‘It would have been really discouraging if I was measuring myself or measuring the worth of the business based on how many people found us in iTunes that week’

That’s really early. That was during the first wave for podcasting. Why did you do a podcast? Why didn’t you do a blog? 

H: We never said, ‘We’re going to do a media thing.’

It was never like that. I was going out and trying this networking stuff, and meeting up with A.J. every single night. And we were going out and trying all these different things. And people started to notice. So there were guys that would be a bartender at one bar and on their off nights they’d be hanging out with us. And the doormen at this place would want to hang out with us later. We started meeting these influential types in our hometown of Ann Arbor.

Jordan Harbinger, co-founder of the Art of Charm.
Jordan Harbinger, co-founder of the Art of Charm. (Photo: Art of Charm / Flickr)

People eventually started to realize ‘Wait a minute, you guys never pay for drinks. You get free food after the kitchen closes from the chefs.’ They asked us if we could teach them. They noticed we were doing something but couldn’t quite wrap their heads around it. They would say, ‘I just noticed that your quality of life is pretty high.’

One day A.J. said, ‘There’s this thing called podcasting. It’s brand new.’ So we set up in his basement, and we were talking. We’d be recording in Garageband 1.0, or whatever the hell program was around then. And I would edit the audio. And we would upload it to essentially a crappy server that wasn’t designed for streaming.

There was no podcast apps back then. You had to download it inside iTunes. It was a huge pain in the butt, but people still did it. We eventually kind of grew up with podcasting. At the time when no one was listening, we were getting good at the craft.

Did you eventually join one of the early podcasting hosts, like Libsyn? Were they important to help you guys grow? 

H: We basically were not on anything.

DeFillippo: When I came in we had a plug-in that was written for WordPress to do our own ad insertion, and everything was hosted on Amazon S3. We’d basically regenerate everything each week, so we could have new ads in every old show. We basically ran everything kind of internally. Just kind of hodgepodged together.

Then after a while it made more sense to move to Libsyn.

‘Here’s something nobody talks about: old advertisers often come back to us saying the old ads are still converting’

So when did the show move from a hobby to a business? 

H: I want to say 2013 was kind of when I was like, ‘You know, I can treat this more seriously. It’s working to convert to business.’

And that’s what we started doing. It’s been three or four years. So people ask me if I wished we had treated it like a business from the start? Yes and no.

Yes, because I would have gotten more deliberate practicing and I would have been really good at this and I would have been able to really grow so much better in what I’m doing.

But, frankly, I bet our downloads were static if not decreasing for the first several years. It would have been really discouraging if I was measuring myself or measuring the worth of the business based on how many people found us in iTunes that week. Audience growth is a black box. Back then, no background, no budget, we would have been totally screwed. I would have quit a long time ago.

When did you sell your first ads? 

H: We sold some before, but never seriously until 2014, and it was really hard. We had an ad agency, which we begged to be part of, but it delivered very little. I eventually left them for PodcastOne. They sold a ton of ads. We don’t have enough room for all the ads they sold. They hustle like crazy, and they don’t take on very small shows. So they are able to service everybody.

Are you guys doing dynamic advertising? You guys definitely have some evergreen content. 

H: We quit that about three years ago, because it’s a huge pain to do that, and we found that advertisers (at least the ones we’re working with), they aren’t buying back catalog [NOTE: old shows that are still available for download].

D: Yes, they look at back catalog as a nice to have, but not a must have. They care about four weeks out. It’s not a selling point to have old ads, so we just leave them.

‘If you want your podcast to be good, you can’t fake it, you can’t outsource it … The technology can’t yet even come close to leveling the playing field.’

Can’t you automate that? 

H: We invented that stuff. We invented that in 2008. We were the first people in the entire world to have dynamic ad insertion on their podcasts, but the reason we don’t do that anymore is because, honestly, it doesn’t make any money.

So I thought, how about I just leave the old advertisers in there, because here’s something nobody talks about: old advertisers often come back to us saying the old ads are still converting.

What happens if you take their ad out just to earn a couple grand? No new campaign.

We’ve had people cancel advertising campaigns with us years ago and then come back and say, ‘Those links are still converting.’ They think our audience is sticky. So it would be ROI-negative for us to insert dynamically into the back catalog.

Dynamic advertising is not in the interest of the podcasters themselves a lot of time. It’s just the advertising company pushing it for a little extra money. And, honestly, if PodcastOne thought they could be making money off of dynamic ad insertion, they would be pushing us on it. But they aren’t, which makes me think that they don’t see the ROI either.

In terms of podcast technology, one feature a lot of podcasters and tech companies talk about is call to action features in the player (such as Satchel, which the Observer previously reported). So, for example, an ad could be played and a user could click a button on their phone to take advantage of an offer, rather than entering in a word, for example. Are you guys looking at stuff like that? 

D: No, no one is even talking to us about that.

That means you have to have your phone in your hand ready to go. Most people when they are listening to podcasts are either in their car, working out or walking. They are not going to be able to pull out their phone and do a call to action right then.

H: People pitch us on players, but the problem is, I’d have to be like, ‘If you’re listening to this on Random Podcast Player on your iPhone or Android, push the screen now.’ Why am I going to drive people to your app so I can make $20? No thanks. Brands need to drive this.

If you want your ads to convert better, push Apple on having a better app. Figure out who has the largest market share, they’ll incorporate this functionality when people are going to use it. Today, if you put a clickable link in your show notes, you can click it. You couldn’t before. Now everybody does it.

Has anything really grabbed you guys in terms of podcast technology? 

D: As far as the recording side goes, Zencastr is the only one that’s looking like it’s going to be a good tool. It’s always a pain to Skype. Zencastr is still a little complicated and it’s still really buggy. When they get there act together, we’re going to be using them, but that’s the only thing that’s been interesting.

When you look at it, podcasting is an RSS file with an MP3 download. It’s not rocket science.

H: It’s one of the things I like best about podcasting. People often invite me to speak about podcasting, especially because my whole thing is, ‘Don’t do it.’ It’s trendy and you’re wasting your fucking time. If you start a blog, and you get sick of doing it, you hire a writer and they write as you and nobody knows, nobody cares. You want to scale content? Hire three writers.

If you want your podcast to be good, you can’t fake it. You can’t outsource it. You can hire 25 producers, the quality is going to marginally better, but mostly the same, because you’re the one doing interviews. You’ve got to broadcast. You’ve got to have the personality, the drive. The technology can’t yet even come close to leveling the playing field.

Early days, you had to be somewhat techie to be a blogger, then anyone who could write could be a blogger. Then people got sick of blogs, and the only people who made money off of blogging were people who gave real value.

Podcasting? Kind of going in the same direction. Except we’re in the middle of it now. Back in the day, it wasn’t too sexy to podcast, so a lot of the content was tech-based, it was all dudes in the audience. Now, the audience is huge, except we’re in that stage where everybody wants their own podcast.

Mark my words, two or three years from now, it’s going to be the only people who are still podcasting are hobbyists and people who have figured out how to give enough value to monetize the show.

Because everybody else who thought they were going to get rich quick will have figured out it was bullshit, and it’s not going to happen. Pioneer Podcaster Behind ‘The Art of Charm’ Puts Craft Before Tech