Lessons from Hacking a Podcast: 3 Ways to Be Memorable

I recently launched my first podcast, which has been the most difficult and most fun project I've worked on. Over the next few months, I'll post some of the stuff I'm learning here. It's partly because you might find it interesting. It's mostly so I don't hurl my laptop at a wall. So, uh ... hurray podcasting! (Kidding. It's actually awesome, I swear.)

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Beware the friend who hogs the microphone.

Back in college, I threw a pool party at my parents' house. (I had permission, chill out, chill out...) To make things a little more interesting, we rented a karaoke machine. Now, I don't know if you've ever experienced your friends around a microphone when they're in a safe, judgment-free zone, but suffice to say, weird stuff happens. Holding a mic when their confidence is high just ... does stuff to people.

One of my friends in particular quite literally refused to give up the mic. He sang a bunch, then just plopped down in a chair and began commenting on the world around him. He was our own little Kanye West at an awards show, and just about as welcome. 

And when we asked him to stop, he'd simply shout over us: "I have the mic! I have the power!" Over and over again.

Since launching my podcast, I think about that moment every so often. I'll lean into the mic and think about how much I can or can't influence the resulting show. Is it really all me that makes this episode good or bad, or are there other elements to make it memorable for listeners? How can I give people a reason to start listening? What about FINISH listening? Will people just want me to shut up and put down the microphone?

And the more I've thought about it, the more I've realized that podcasts tend to gravitate towards one of three distinct ways to attract listeners when they launch...

3 Ways to Create a Memorable Podcast

1. Big-Name Hosts

This is the most obvious reason listeners tune in, but it's also the hardest to replicate as a content creator. First of all, you can't manufacture it. You can't force someone to be well-known in your industry. Second, even if you have a connection to a big name in your industry -- an executive at your company, for instance -- you may not be able to create a great show around him or her. (An executive may be too busy to host a podcast, or they may monopolize the discussion and take too many tangents based on strong personal opinions rather than telling great stories or educating your audience.)

To illustrate how rare and difficult this is, and to avoid any risk of offending others, let's just use me as the example: Nobody gives a flying fig about anything I say based solely on my name. I don't have enough Twitter followers, give enough keynote speeches, or launch/invest in enough companies. I am not "business world famous." I'm also not one of those "famous for being famous" people on Twitter.

So launching my show on the merits of my name alone would fail miserably. I can't win using this approach, nor can most people.

EXAMPLES OF USING A BIG-NAME HOST:

Since most of you are content marketers, I'll just assume you've heard of Jay Baer and Joe Pulizzi.

Each of them host podcasts. Jay hosts SocialPros, and Joe hosts This Old Marketing with colleague Robert Rose. In both cases, the shows take advantage of hosts with big followings and well-known names in the marketing world. And while Jay does bring in some big-name guests (we'll get to that in a second), his show is primarily known as "Jay Baer's podcast" to others. Joe and Robert, on the other hand, currently avoid using guests altogether, choosing instead to talk shop themselves and rely on their names for awareness. And it works.

The Jay Acunzo Show would gain neither initial listeners nor loyal fans in the face of other, bigger-name hosts ... so when I launched, this approach was immediately off the table.

2. Big-Name Guests

Another very common way to win attention and be memorable is to invite well-known guests to appear on your show. While big-name hosts will often use big-name guests, this is still an approach that can stand alone. Back to me as the example to avoid being rude: I may not have a big name, but I could certainly appeal to an audience if I could somehow reach and interview semi-famous guests. And those semi-famous guests, if they're busy execs at my company, are much more likely to appear on a single episode to answer a few questions for 5-10 minutes than they are to host their own show.

Like #1 above, this is also incredibly common in the podcasting world. It's also a tried and true tactic in content marketing across any medium: Find someone with audience (the proverbial "influencer") and interview him/her in order to tap into a larger network of followers.

If you were hosting a podcast on content marketing, for example, and interviewed Jay Baer, Joe, and Robert, it'd be a smart move -- they're known names with big personal audiences.

EXAMPLE OF USING BIG-NAME GUESTS:

There's a great, relatively new show covering Boston's tech startup world called Tech In Boston, hosted by Dave Gerhadt. Dave's a smart entrepreneur and a good host. As a new show and new host -- and as an entrepreneur who lacks the big-name appeal of some others in the ecosystem -- Dave's done the smart thing by bringing on regular guests that people in town will recognize. To date, he's interviewed several well-known Bostonians in the local tech ecosystem, including Cort Johnson, Mike Troiano, Dennis Keohane, and Meghan Anderson. If you're in Dave's target audience (Boston tech entrepreneurs and employees), you either know these names or know their companies.

Now, before I make my larger point, it's worth noting that Dave does a great job with his guests -- the conversations are natural and informative, and you almost always feel like you're sitting with them. That's no small task as a host.

But the danger faced by any show based on interviews is twofold:

  1. Because this type of show is fairly common, audiences can easily compare/contrast your show to other, more professionally produced interviews. If they're used to listening to ESPN and NPR hosts conduct interviews to various epic guests, with both sides participating in a charismatic, engaging way, you're now playing in that same ballpark in a listener's mind. And I don't know about you, but I'm just not that good.
  2. Because an interview-based show's episode headlines are often the name of the guest, it puts the pressure on the host/producer to find well-known guests consistently. That can be difficult, since again, these are busy people pulled in millions of directions.

That brings us to the third approach to producing memorable podcasts...

3. Play with the Format

Listen to almost every business podcast, and you'll hear a similar format. It runs something like this...

  1. Intro music
  2. Hi from the host
  3. Guest interview
  4. Bye from the host
  5. Outro music

Aaaaand scene. Rinse and repeat.

This is "scalable." This is a "best practice." This is [insert jargon-filled excuse that somehow justifies cutting corners and watering down your end result and blatantly not caring for craftsmanship or quality.]

But worse than all that ... this is just BORING!!!

What's glaringly obvious with too many business podcasts is a lack of post-production work and, even more so, a lack of what I call "segment thinking."

Segment thinking is essentially your ability to view a creative project not like one whole but as smaller parts that you can mix and match to create the whole. In other words, you divide the entirety of the project into segments.

I grew up on ESPN shows like SportsCenter and Pardon the Interruption, which adhere to this notion of segments. SportsCenter is famous for its game highlights and top 10 plays -- both of which are types of segments -- but they also experiment with their format by inserting emotional stories, graphics and data, talking heads to analyze the news, and more. And in the past few years, they've gone so far as to literally SHOW YOU the segments they're moving through during a given show:

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At some point, I'll write a whole post on segment thinking. For now, as a podcast host, just know that you have a tremendous opportunity to take a lump of clay (audio content) and mold it in any which way you so choose. You can plug in stable, longer sections like interviews, then mix and match experiments around that until something sticks. Maybe you end with a bad joke every week. Maybe you open with a similar format. Maybe you do something weird and quirky that loyal listeners anticipate, making them feel like insiders and thereby strengthening that loyalty.

Along these lines, when I launched Tech It Forward, I decided to have some fun with the segments and the content.

In my first episode, for example, I did a basic interview for most of the show. But I also introduced a segment near the end to experiment and also to snap listeners back into the moment after several minutes of interviewing. The segment is a word game which puts my interview subject on the spot. This forces you to pay attention again by changing the pace and introducing a new element to the show, which is particularly important late in the show when you may drop off.

Similarly, in my second episode (which I believe is much better), the show breaks into three segments -- a story and two interviews -- all layered with music, sound effects, and narration over the top. We open with a story about how a creative director had a chance to interview an American legend, followed by advice in theory from the same guest, followed by a second interviewee. In the future, I hope to experiment with more formulaic segments too (i.e. not just interview-based, but playful or narrative ideas like my word game in Episode 1, or maybe something headline- or joke-based. Buzzword Power Rankings comes to mind, for example.)

Here's Why You Should Try This Too

Podcasting is much more wide open and ripe for the taking than other mediums, especially if you're talking business. Podcasting is not only less saturated for content marketers, it's done less creatively (see mini-rant about boring show formats above). Creative tends to be the last seat at the table in any content marketing medium -- a mentality I blame black hat SEO for. People just want to game a system until that stops working, then do it "right."

But if you can genuinely give a crap and focus on your podcast's content from the start -- and leave everyone else to fight over approaches #1 and #2 and eek out a handful more listeners by over-marketing it -- then you'll actually have a chance at turning some heads.

Blunt confession: This is much harder than any project I've ever tackled.

I feel strongly that it's worth doing this show in a different way than other podcasts because I think THIS is how I can stand out. I also don't love the idea of "best practices" when it comes to content. Best practices are for programmatic, robotic, "stuffier" marketing ideas like banner ads and email optimization. Following most best practices when the goal is creating content? That's just doing what everyone else is doing, and that makes your job of standing out much, much harder. Better to find unique practices.

How? You need to be more inventive. You need to pull from inspirational sources outside your own industry. You need to take creative risks. That's hard, isn't it?

But as Rob Go, founding partner at my firm NextView Ventures, likes to say, "The hard is what makes it great." And to me, being great in podcasting means more than just attracting people who listen to my show. It means attracting people who REMEMBER IT.

And shouldn't that be the point of everything we do?

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Listen to Tech It Forward, Episode 2: Creativity (with Keith Frankel, Chief Digital Officer, Tablelist and Jeff White, Founder, Rightside Shirts)


Posted on September 25, 2014 and filed under content marketing, creativity, podcasting.