When Jack Rhysider started Darknet Diaries, he had a blog that got a few thousand hits per day, 3,000 Twitter followers, and a full-time job as a network security engineer. Now, nearly three years and over 70 episodes later, the podcast has been downloaded over 8 million times. The show, which tells “true stories of the dark side of the internet”—including disturbing tales of hacking, data breaches, and cybercrime— is now a full-time job and pays for a production team.
Rhysider is not only humble about his incredible success—he says you can grow a successful show, too. How? He breaks it down into three steps: Make an excellent show, grow your audience, and monetize it—in that order.
Make an Amazing Show
Rhysider quickly realized that part of what made his show stand out was not just the stories he was telling, but the way he told them. “We all have different ways that we’ve grown up and the way we look at the world,” he explains. Owning that singularity was one key to Rhysider’s success.
When he launched the first four episodes in the fall of 2017, he didn’t see any other podcasters in the high-drama cybersecurity stories space. As soon as he launched, however, he recalls, “I found four shows that were doing the same thing,” which made him “furious” and nearly caused him to quit. “I threw up my hands and was like, ‘well forget this. I guess people are already doing this.’”
But he quickly realized he was giving his listeners an experience no one else was offering. any cybersecurity stories were either being told “in very dry and technical ways” or they came out in discrete chunks as the stories unfolded in real time. In contrast, he waited “until the chips had fallen” to let listeners hear the entire story from start to finish in one compelling episode.
“When I started podcasting I was stealing everything I could,” Rhysider says. He listened carefully to podcasters including Ira Glass, Malcolm Gladwell, and Aaron Mehnke. One of his signature sounds—making it sound like two people are talking, when there is only one—came directly from the true-crime podcast Dirty John. “They pan to the left and talked with a little filter, and then they pan to the right and talk with a different filter and it was the same narrator.” He remembers thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, that’s so cool. I’m gonna try that.’
Podcasters weren’t his only creative influences. At one point, Rhysider sought to emulate the Fight Club narrator. “I realized he’s got insomnia, so I need to stay up till 3 am and then try to record the episode at 3 am,” he recalled.
Rhysider is adamant that a quality show depends on excellent storytelling—and that you can cultivate that skill. He recommends buying books on podcasting, taking courses, and focusing not just on the technology but the content itself. He says it’s not just “what mic to use, but how to tell a great story and how to be entertaining.”
With practice and plenty of study, Rhysider found his own groove: “By Episode 30 or so I had my own voice and my own style.” Clearly, it’s working. The show, which saw 800 downloads per episode in the first week, was rated among the top 25 podcasts of 2019 by Pocketcasts.
According to Rhysider, “if you don’t make something great, you’re gonna lose your listeners, which means you have to get new listeners faster than you’re losing the listeners. And that’s difficult.”
When you create a great show, you naturally gain what Rhysider calls “superfans,” people who are so excited about it, who want to share it with their friends and family. “They go into the office and they say, ‘You have to listen to this,’ or they tell their friend, ‘You have to listen to this,’ that’s number one,” he explains.
Show Promotion to Grow Your Audience
Having spent four months toiling over the first four episodes, Rhysider knew he had something special and began promoting the show right away. He relied on traditional social media marketing strategies, creativity, and, when it came to Facebook, luck.
It turned out, Rhysider had a friend at Facebook “who had a budget to play with.” His friend ended up gifting him $4,000 worth of Facebook ads. In return, his friend experimented with running different types of ad campaigns and had access to the analytics data.
Despite not being a huge fan of social media, Rhysider felt his show couldn’t have experienced turbo-charged growth without it. He referred to it as “a magic megaphone that you should not squander.”
Rhysider, in fact, only joined Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn after launching Darknet Diaries, in order to promote the show. Early on, he invested $500 on paid promotions with Instagram influencers, which he said helped him reach the 5,000 follower mark. From there, he focused on more organic growth on Instagram, continuing to post regularly and interacting with other accounts that were similar to his. He also used Reddit to help grow his audience.
Additionally, Rhysider has increased the show’s visibility by taking advantage of other types of networking opportunities. He’s given out Darknet Diaries stickers at the many conferences he’s spoken at, has been a guest on about 20 podcasts, and has successfully pitched his show to journalists who mentioned it in publications including The New York Times, Vulture, and The Guardian.
With a top-notch show, a huge following, and a strategic approach to monetization, Rhysider has nailed the financial aspect of podcasting. Burnt out on his full-time job, he quit work six months after launching and was able to earn a full-time living six months after that, at the end of 2018. By the beginning of 2019, he had the means to hire additional producers, artists, sound designers, an editor, and a writer.
According to one of Rhysider’s recent blog posts on Lime Link, he has monetized through ads for the past two years and he’s been very intentional in his approach. Rather than using networks, which wanted to put more ads in his show than he was comfortable with, he uses AdvertiseCast, Megaphone MTM, and Affiliate Ads. “AdvertiseCast does fairly well filling up my ad slots, but because I’m hosted on Megaphone it’s just a matter of enabling MTM and if I have any unfilled ad slots, ads get automatically added in.” Although he said MTM “doesn’t pay very well,” he feels its simple set-up and low-maintenance make it worthwhile. “And if I want to throw in the occasional affiliate deal, then hey why not?” he says, adding, “I typically go for affiliate deals when the sponsor has one but isn’t interested in paying for ads, they just want to pay for results.”
Regarding Rhysider’s three-pronged approach to building a successful podcast, he’s clear about one thing: No amount of social media promotion or attempts to monetize will work if you don’t have the foundation of a fantastic show that retains listeners. Beyond that, he hesitates to attribute Darknet Diaries’ exponential growth to any one strategy. Rather, he likens his success to the effort it takes to complete a cross-country bicycle trip. “It’s like a flywheel that you keep pushing.”
Been checking it out lately, fascinating stuff really. The episode on NotPetya was really good.
If you want even more info, here's Maersk's CTO talking about the attack.