There’s Only One Question You Need to Answer Before Starting a Podcast
Creators and companies spend a lot of time wrestling with deciding what podcast they should produce—when it's actually a simple question. Plus--a social experiment unmasked!!!
Happy election day—if you chose to celebrate.
Welcome to Dispatch #32 of The Audio Insurgent.
I have previously mentioned my love for Stone IPA. The picture above is 36 cans of it. I bought these the evening I sent out the last dispatch. It’s a lot of beer, but I could have bought more than 100 more that evening, but this is all the store had on hand.
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Here is a bit of a confession, readers. You were all part of a social experiment/proof of concept. In the last dispatch of The Audio Insurgent, the last item asked for small donation support via BuyMeACoffee. It was a test to prove a point we’ll talk about in this dispatch: the importance and power of message. What you say is often more important than where, when, or how often you say it (and all those things are important too).
As I shared last time, in a normal dispatch, I usually have a handful of people who follow the link and buy me a beer. But in this experiment, I followed some of the principles that I discuss below, and saw a twelve-fold increase in gifted beers. What did I do that made such a difference? We’ll discuss.
[TODAY’S FIRST THING: THE ONE QUESTION YOU SHOULD ASK YOURSELF BEFORE STARTING A PODCAST]
For those who moan about how little “Big Podcasting” has in common with the bulk of podcast makers, I often tell them they’d be more struck by the similarities. From the indie sole creator/producer/host to the massive company who just hired a four-person podcast development team, they often have the same struggles.
They struggle to express themselves and their ideas in audio. They struggle with getting attention for their work and building audience (yes, even the “big guys” struggle with this, too). They struggle with how to generate revenue to offset the costs of making it, and maybe even have some left over.
And sometimes people struggle with deciding on what to make.
This last one surprises even me. Regardless of the size of their ambition and podcast aspirations, people should have an idea what they want to make, right?
Yet often that isn’t the case. Most of my consulting work is when I get brought into massive organizations who employ thousands of experts, have a newsroom with hundreds of reporters and editors, or massive collections of ideas or objects…and they don’t know where to start, how to prioritize, or which ideas are the best ideas for podcasting.
Yet I often start these conversations with a question that equally applies to mega-corporations and individuals: What can we make that no one else can make?
It’s a deceptively simple question.
What are we the best at? What combinations of resources do we have that no one else can match? Resources can be a bunch of things: access, talent, skill, knowledge, money, and time are a few examples.
The answer to that question will help you focus on what is most unique about you, your company, and your ideas. And that unique perspective is what will make your new podcast stand out from the dozens—or hundreds—or thousands—of other potentially competitive shows out there.
It’s a question that can help you make a distintive podcast, regardless of your budget, your team, or even your experience.
I help clients untangle that and aspire to produce the podcast that no one else in the world can make.
Of course there are other experts in almost any subject, but how is your expertise singular?
“That’s a stupid question,” you may be thinking to yourself. “There are literally millions of podcasts—how can I be unique? Lots of other people can make the same thing I am making! I just thought of it first!”
If that’s the case, that someone else can make what you are making, then you shouldn’t make it. Think deeper. Be more exact. Lean into your specific expertise. Focus it on a specific audience.
There is an answer for that question.
A great example of this is Immaterial, a podcast we made over the past two years with The Metropolitan Museum of Art focusing on the materials used in art. Are there other art museums? Most certainly, and many, many great ones. Are their other curators and experts on art? Sure. But only The Met could bring together the combination of art, expertise, and worldwide reach we needed to make that show. Sure, there are other museums that can (and should) make podcasts—but there are none that could create Immaterial except for The Met.
Recently, my business partner Jesse and I went to Copenhagen to speak at an audio conference. Jesse was surprised by the number of people who came up and mentioned that they were producing, basically, knock-off versions of Where Should We Begin with Esther Perel. I remarked to Jesse that there was a reason why she’d never heard of any of these imitators: they are duplicating rather than innovating. Are there other therapists in the world? Again, many, many good ones. But there is only one Esther Perel. And the format of the show? It was something we developed specifically to showcase her talent, as none of the “typical” formats felt more natural than simply listening to Esther in her office with couples.
I’ve had readers of these dispatches ask me, “Why do you tell people things for free in your newsletter that you charge other clients for?”
I reply that asking the question is the easy part. Identifying the right answer, and then how to execute against that, that is the hard part people are paying me for.
[TODAY’S SECOND THING: THE MESSAGE IS WHAT MATTERS]
So, my mention in the last dispatch making the case about supporting me by buying me a beer—that was a set-up. I did it because (a) I knew THIS dispatch would be talking about the power of message, and (b) I was pretty certain it would work.
And, boy, did you respond. As I mentioned above, I received 12X the usual number of contributions.
Let me start by saying I am deeply humbled and grateful. Thank you to everyone who contributed. It was just so touching to see such an outpouring of support for this work, along with people saying such nice and affirming things.
But still, it was a deliberate experiment. And if it makes you feel weird (though I hope it doesn’t), my family has decided that we will make a gift equal to the amount I received in beer contributions to Toni’s Kitchen (an amazing org providing food and wellness support to our city’s residents in need). So I thank you for the beer and warm wishes—and Toni’s Kitchen thanks you too.
The results provide a clear example of the difference between “saying something” and “saying something listener-oriented that demonstrates emotion, impact, and answers the simple question, ‘why.’”
This ties back to the On-Air Program Promotion Insight Study that I’ve mentioned in two previous dispatches (first mention and second mention). I was commissioned to do it by CPB in 2004 and recently have been giving thought to what we learned back then can still be relevant today, and relevant to podcasting.
Over 43 pages, the entire project report makes the case behind a simple statement: A well-constructed message, delivered to listeners often enough for them to recognize it, can raise awareness of programming.
The third section of that study, called “Real Content,” lays out the case that there are some writing and production tactics and technics that have repeatedly proven to aid in message retention and recall, and improve action and measurable outcomes (like buying a beer).
When promoting your podcast, you need to start by answering three questions:
Why are we promoting this program? (And it can’t just be “because we want more downloads”—it needs to speak, basically, to the “one question” I wrote about above.)
What are we trying to accomplish? (What, specifically, do you want to see happen: Current listeners coming back more often? New listeners discovering you for the first time? Lapsed listeners coming back into the fold?)
Who are we trying to reach? (As long-time readers know, I’m big into profiling audiences.)
Most likely, the answers to these questions will be focused on you and your needs. Before you promote, you need to flip that around, so that you are framing your promotional ask from a perspective that reflects listener wants and needs.
Too many times we place language clues in promos that focus on producer/creator objectives rather than on listeners’ needs. For example, promos often start or end with a call to action similar to “Listen wherever you get podcasts …” without giving the listener a good reason why he or she should do so. Research tells us that it is crucial to frame our messages in a way that is relevant and accessible to listeners—or they simply won’t recall it, let alone act on it.
Good promotion is to not just telling people about your program, but actually making them want to listen to it.
When promoting podcast to others, creators tend to focus on features, rather than benefits (this isn’t unique to podcasters, everyone in every field does it). “A 30-minute conversation about film” is an accurate description, but doesn’t tell a listener about the benefits of listening. “Have your mind blown every week when we introduce you to a new documentary for you to discover and love.” New. Curated. Mind-blowing. Those are all benefits.
Your podcast makes people feel something: happy, curious, hopeful, connected, relieved, etc. That should be conveyed in the language you use to describe it.
Tell potential listeners how you tap into what they are feeling right now, and how your program speaks to that. Think back to the last dispatch’s pitch for contributions. I not only focused on the “why,” but on the emotional impact on me when I receive contributions. I framed the pitch around how good it will make you feel to send a small validation to someone for work you value.
Focus on the emotion and benefit of listening, not just the features of your program.
For example, if your podcast contains DIY home improvement tips, you could feature a benefit like “ We’ll help you turn your house into a home you love.” If you offer listeners health and wellness tips, you could feature a benefit like “We’ll help you find balance in a chaotic world.”
Focusing on the benefits of listening over feature puts the emphasis on the listener. When you say, “Listen next week,” it is pretty obvious what’s in it for you, but what’s in it for them?
Remember that people are more likely to act on a message if it is framed as a solution to a problem they are experiencing right now. That problem could be, “I’m bored,” “I want to laugh,” or “I need someone to explain this to me.”
Your call to action should be something that is easy for people to do, and that you can measure. “Subscribe to our podcast” is an easy call to action, and one that you can measure. “Tell your friends about our podcast” is also an easy call to action, but one that is harder to measure. But simply saying that isn’t enough. What is in it for them?
A good call to action tells people what they will get by taking the desired action.
“Subscribe to our podcast, and you’ll never miss an episode.” “Listen to our podcast, and you’ll learn something new every week.”
The power of simply saying it straight
This is not only a problem with promos, but with podcast trailers. Often producers try to create a mood or vibe—but they neglect to tell the listener up front what the podcast is, what it is trying to convey, and why a listener should care.
Even those in the podcast industry don’t have a lot of time or interest in sitting through three-minutes of “mood” in order to figure out the basics of what a podcast is and is about.
Early in your promo or trailer, share the most basic and essential information about your podcast—namely, the program name, host name, a very brief description of what the program is about, and when it will be available. After that, you can get creative. But don’t sacrifice the essentials for the sake of being creative.
Here is an example from the promo study.
This is the “generic” promo given to stations for This American Life around the time I did the work for the project (circa 2003).
After sharing some of this thinking with Ira, I asked him to create a new promo that explained the show to someone who hadn’t heard it before
And here is the promo he sent back.
Hear the difference?
The first “generic” promo is quirky and ear-catching, but offers no explanation of what the show is and who it is for.
The second promo Ira wrote is much more specific. It doesn’t rely on clever wordplay or production tricks to get the message across. It just tells you what the program is, and what you can expect.
So which one do you think would make a clearer impression on listeners?
Am I saying that arty/moody/vibey promos and trailers “don’t work”? No, but I do think that how you structure the information can make them much more accessible to your potential audience, thus increasing their effectiveness.
Vivid descriptions and image-evoking sound
Studies have proven that image-evoking sound stimulates attention, provides a structural framework for the message, increases recall and retention, and creates stronger emotional reactions.
Vivid word descriptions are somewhat self-explanatory and are as much an art as a science. Good copy writing should be more Hemingway than Michener; a Zen-like sense of minimalism and economy best serves the promo’s message. There should be no wasted words, unnecessary detail, or lack of clarity.
Research has repeatedly proven that, given a listener’s limited attention to any message, verbose, vague, or poorly crafted promos fail to stick with listeners, regardless of the potential impact of the message they attempt to express. (So much for “longer ads are better,” right?)
Poor word choice is the most common crime in copy writing. Following is an easy tactic for dealing with some extremely common hang-ups with word descriptions.
I created something called Eric’s Forbidden Word list.
I got the idea a few years ago after reading a memoir by a former Vanity Fair writer. According to this book, the magazine’s editor at the time, Graydon Carter, has a similar list of more than 140 words that are not permitted to appear in Vanity Fair because they are all overused, commonly misused (or misunderstood), or fail to convey a clear meaning. After reading this, I started to keep a similar list of words I heard in descriptive copy. My list contains fewer words, but I often ask for re-writes when I see them.
Universally, these words do not describe much of anything. They are overused or empty modifiers. Can you really tell the difference between a “great” performance and a “superior” performance? A “stunning” interview from an “outstanding” interview?
Replacing these words when they appear in copy is simple. Ask the question: “Why is it…?” Why is it stunning, why is it incredible, why is it beautiful? Create a more vivid image in the minds of listeners by inserting the answer to that question instead of the original empty modifier.
Okay, that’s it for today.
If this was forwarded to you or you read this online, would you mind subscribing?
And while this is free, you are also always welcome to buy my book or (even better) buy me a beer—I could go on and on about why buying me a beer makes the world a better place for both of us, but we’ve already covered that. ;)
Make great things. I’ll be listening.
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