Podcasting is a Long Term Game (and how to win it)

About Author Graham Brown

Graham Brown is the founder of Pikkal & Co – performance communication agency responsible for producing Award Winning Podcasts for business brands. Clients including McKinsey, Julius Baer, IBM and the Singapore Government. Investors and Advisors from Netflix, Intel, Apple and iQiYi. He is a published Amazon author covering human communication technologies, marketing and branding. He has produced over 1,000 podcast episodes and webinar shows with notable shows including the Tony Fernandes Podcast. Graham is a graduate in Artificial Intelligence and is currently leading Pikkal & Co to use Machine Learning and Conversation Analytics to automate the heavy lifting of communication to elevate the human touch.

Podcast Success is a Marathon not a Sprint

I keep this picture on my office wall as a reminder.

Patience builds Momentum.

Consistency builds Quality.

Everything in life that’s worthwhile doing, will take time.

ironman

If there’s one thing I learned from my endurance sports adventures, it’s that patience and calming the inner chatter that desires quick results and easy distractions is key to long term success.

But I wasn’t always like this. I had to learn the hard way.

“Do that again and you’ll pay for it later…”

This was the day that my coach flashed a stern look. He never said a word, and remained quiet for the rest of the bike ride… but this is what he communicated.

I just learned an important lesson about what separates success and failure in Ironman Triathlon.

Ironman is a long term game.

It’s a 12 hour race for most amateurs. Pros will be lucky to finish in 9. The race is a 4km ocean swim, a 180km bike ride and then a marathon (42km).

Non-stop.

When I started out Ironman training, I sought the help of a coach with experience. Ironman, after all, can suck up 15-25 hours of training a week for 6-12 months.

I found that what I learned from my coach wasn’t tips and tricks about technique and nutrition – these could easily be learned from the internet – but valuable mindset approaches.

“It’s a long day, Graham”, Manuel would say (I was living in Spain at the time), “making it to the finish line is about managing your effort.”

The first day we went cycling on the challenging Montanas del Fuego in Lanzarote, I was motivated to show my ability, so attacked on the climb, reaching the summit before the training group. That’s when coach shot me the look. If I did that on race day, I’d be dead before the Marathon.

It’s easy to get excited and go out with a bang. But, in time your Sprint loses momentum. Once you lose consistency, it becomes a challenge getting back on track.

If, however, you manage your effort, play the patient game, focus on long term returns, you’ll achieve success in any discipline in life.

Ironman is one. Investing, Education, Building a Business favour patience. And so do podcasts.

In this article we’ll talk about winning the long term game:

  • The importance of the “Why”
  • Why repeat listeners are key to growing your podcast
  • How to get them
  • Why long term, consistency rather than short term enthusiasm is key to success

The Importance of The Why

Many podcasts fail because they start with a Sprint then die out before the Marathon. Any good sport coach or physio can go into the chemistry of lactic acid build up to explain why this happens in endurance sports. But, we’ve all seen this in life. We start a new project with enthusiasm and then the project dies after several weeks.

In podcasts, the fade happens around 4-6 episodes in:

  • Novelty wears off
  • You’re left with an “inbox” of podcast to-do
  • You exhausted your guest easy-asks and now have to hustle

In Ironman it’s the same. We all enter the shadow from time to time. It’s the point halfway in the 180km bike or half-way in the marathon.

Nobody ever quits a race with the finish gantry in site. Nobody quits in the first few km either. It happens in the middle, when you see neither the beginning or the end and you’re left with the work.

Having a strong business case for your podcast is critical to long term success.

We say in our Podcast Agency that success is like landing a plane, it all happens in the approach. If you get the approach right and set your podcast up for success, the rest should follow through on auto-pilot.

So what is the Podcast Business Case?

Read the 10 Business Benefits of Podcasts for B2B Brands. To summarize this article, your podcast should impact the key communications metrics of your team.

If you’re using a podcast to sell printers or software, you’ll fail. You’re better off buying Facebook Ads. But if you’re using the podcast to Influence your existing clients, partners and conversations, you now have a metric that you can measure long term. This will help you keep the conversation going even in the darkest moments.

Podcast Strategy: Acquire or Influence?

Key to Communications Strategy success in planning a B2B Podcast Series is understanding whether your podcast goal is to Acquire or Influence your audience. Acquisition means creating new business development conversations. Influence means moving existing ones along the funnel. podcasts acquire influence

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The Importance of Audience Carry

In Ironman training, small patient gains beat disruptive improvements in your performance.

Coach Manuel would always remind me that even the smallest of flames can boil a pot of water, in time. In the quest to boil water, an inexperienced me would seek out as much wood and flame as possible to boil that water fast, risking loss of momentum and fatigue.

In your Podcast too, small patient gains win.

You need listeners to come back and keep listening to your podcast.

If you have a leaky bucket, you’ll always need the firehose on full blast to fill it. Patch up the bucket and retain your audience. With a watertight bucket, even the smallest of taps will eventually fill up.

If you run a restaurant you’ll know that the only way you can grow and stay profitable in the long run is by building a core of repeat visitors. Relying on hustling new customers can be expensive and tiring.

While the big hits might fill seats on busy nights, you still have 5 days in a week to cover:

This is what I call “Audience Carry”, a key podcast metric that underpins long term success.

Define: Audience Carry

Audience Carry – imagine you were running a restaurant. Most of your diners would come Saturday evenings and Weekend afternoons. But a good restauranteur knows that success comes from filling out the restaurant on a Tuesday evening on Thursday afternoon. It’s the same with Podcast Audiences. It’s easy to get “spikes” from your guest sharing the pdocast to their network, but how much of that Audience carries to other episodes? Successful Podcasts have Carry, created in part due to strong Narrative Frameworks and planning (such as Podcast Storyboarding and Key Talking Points)

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Interesting subjects get people through the door, interesting conversations keep them at the party.

It’s easy to get distracted by the shiny new objects that cross our path, like Clubhouse or the next “it girl” of the season. While using these objects may optimise your performance, they aren’t a solution in their own right. The solution requires the work, the long term patience needed in momentum gains.

As unexciting as it sounds, you need to fix the leaky bucket.

6 Tips to Help You Turn Listeners into Fans

1) Create an Overarching Narrative

Podcasts are journeys.

Just like my Ironman journey.

I’ll always remember the advice given to me by a training partner and Ironman brother during our year long adventure in Lanzarote,

“The race is only one day, but this is a year of training.”

It’s easy to forget that a podcast is just one episode. People don’t engage with just one episode, they engage with journeys. You may find a big hit in one episode, one trophy guest, one lucky share, but long term success comes from committing to the journey and enjoying it.

I often see beginner podcasts succumb to “Guest Spiking” – the phenomenon that occurs when a guest shares with their network and the sharing spikes podcast audience numbers. While this is helpful for one episode, the audience is connected to the guest not the podcast and tend not to translate into long term subscribers. I’ve found very little evidence to show that influential guests with large audiences can create longer term Audience Carry for a podcast.

An Overarching Narrative is a Journey.

An Overarching Narrative takes one Episode a single chapter and makes it into one Chapter in the evolving story you are telling. This is Agile Storytelling.

The McKinsey Future of Asia podcast adopts an overarching narrative. This is the story of The Asian Century.

This is a story of Change and how it affects us all. It’s an unfolding narrative, constantly evolving and a journey that is as important as the destination.

2) Create a Season

Break it down, create context.

The easiest way to build an Overarching Narrative is via a Season of 4-6 Podcast Episodes.

Netflix does this well.

They understand that to keep audience engagement high, there needs to be natural “bookends” to help contextualise each episode.

Seasons are “bookends” in the journey.

Netflix audience strategy

But Netflix wasn’t the first to create “Seasons”.

Bestselling Books and Movies have long used trilogies.

In the same it was critical for me to maintain momentum in my Ironman journey. 12 months of constant training can be de-motivating. So, I “bookended” my training into the equivalent of Seasons.

Season 1) The Base
Season 2) The Build
Season 3) Peak Performance

Coaches teach this approach to athletes. An Olympian, for example, will train for the Olympics over 4 years, with each year breaking down into a Season, and each Season into mini-themes. That’s why an injury or moving the Olympics date as we’ve seen with 2020 can wreak havoc with training.

The chart below is a pretty hardcore training plan found on the Zwift website for a pro cyclist. It clearly shows that the long term is broken down into smaller seasons with specific objectives and timelines. In my opinion, this is overkill for a podcast, but you get the idea that contextualising effort is key to long term progress.

Seasons are mini-narratives that connect each conversation to a meta-theme. The connected nature of the Season encourages audiences to both look forward to upcoming episodes and feel compelled to go back to older ones to build context.

At Pikkal & Co we use Storyboarding tools to help hosts and co-create a narrative.

Here’s a redacted Storyboard at its early stages, co-created with the Client and their Guest:

podcast storyboard

Storyboards are guard rails for your podcast co-managed by all stakeholders in the project.

By defining “guard rails” for the narrative, storyboarding moves guests away from scripted conversations and allows for the guests to feel comfortable in the world of adhoc, deep conversations that audiences engage with.

Define: Podcast Storyboarding

Podcast Storyboarding – at our Podcast Agency we see every podcast as a co-created narrative between the host and the guest(s). That’s why it’s important to help structure the narrative as a team rather than set the podcast up as an “interview”. The most authentic and spontaneous podcasts are also the ones that have an outline narrative arc for the speakers to follow.

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By contrast, if every podcast required heavy lifting by guests and the host, you’d motivate your way through the Sprint of the first 4-6 episodes, but then lose interest in the long term. That’s why Storyboarding is a key tool for us to allow the guest and host to focus on what they do best – turning up and talking. We do all the heavy lifting.

3) Reference other podcasts in your show

It’s a missed opportunity but every podcast episode is real estate for the host to reference other podcast episodes. Contexualizing the narrative can happen in-conversation by referring back to a previous episode or mentioning upcoming conversations, or you can build a context scene setter in the intro / outro that guide the audience to go back or look forward to episodes.

The best podcast hosts do the research. They research angles and narrative structures that sync with their guest. They then bring these talking points to the podcast giving them both the flexibility of having interesting angles to pursue and all bases covered. If you’re prepared for a conversation riff with the guest that syncs with previous episodes, reference it – it will create a more engaging context for the long term listener.

4) Build the Host profile with the audience

So, if you’re this far down the post, congratulations!

We live in an attention starved world.

Hopefully, my Lanzarote Ironman backstory had something to do with engaging you in this conversation.

It could have so easily become another “how to” post or listicle, the kind of which the internet is stuffed with. And podcasts are no different.

Remember that the Host’s role is to be a guide for the audience and a bridge between the audience’s world and the world of the podcast.

That’s why the Host’s profile is critical in this journey.

Too many hosts miss the opportunity to build a relationship with the audience, opting for the “professional interviewer” role which means being a skilful questioner and listener, but leaves the audience with nothing on the table. We want to know who the host is, why they are doing this and what their relevance is with this conversation.

Don’t be the “professional interviewer”.

I can tell you a lot of personal details about Howard Stern but very little about Larry King, despite having listened to countless hours of both of their audio content.

Howard Stern is open and explicit about his personal life. Love him or hate him, he has a huge following.

Larry King, by contrast, is a professional interviewer. He asks questions but outside of reading his autobiography, it’s difficult to say anything about him.

Who do we connect with the most?

Just compare, for example, how Howard Stern talks to Chris Martin of Coldplay and Larry King interviews Morrissey. Both rock stars, but quite clearly, Stern loves music and shares his own points of commonality whereas King hasn’t a clue who Morrissey (or The Smiths) is.

Comparison: Howard Stern vs Larry King Hosting Styles

Howard Stern and Chris Martin
Larry King and Morrissey

Stern has strong opinions – Ozzy Osbourne, Simon & Garfunkel, Marriage etc
King asks questions, but has never listened to “What difference does it make?”

King is very good at asking “Why?” and he could interview anybody with this coaching approach to hosting. Morrissey fans will love it, but very few of these Morrissey fans will translate to fans of Larry King on a follow on episode like this episode with Celine Dion.

Don’t be Larry King. That era is over.

As a rule of thumb, I advise our Podcast Clients, that the audience should learn at least one thing about the host during the conversation, no matter how subtle that may be. Small details humanize the host, and when we connect with the host we give them permission to take us on a journey.

Find what works for you. Here are some examples of insight drops that I use in conversation:
– I have a 14 year old son. A useful conversation bounce as it enables me to offer a 2nd perspective or reference household conversations to contextualise what may be a deep or technical narrative.
– I used to live in both Japan and Spain. I’ve lived on tropical islands like Okinawa and Las Canarias off the West Coast of Africa. You can drop in personal experience as a perspective on how things are done elsewhere to bounce the conversation off the wall.
– I graduated with an AI degree in 1995. A lot of conversations touch, to some degree, on the subject of Artificial Intelligence. My angle is I studied the future of AI last century! (yes, it gets a laugh most times). We all have a educational background we can drop in conversation to add depth to our audience’s understanding of our knowledge.

You get the point. Small details make the big picture. If a host is guarded and polished, like our heroes, we feel something’s missing. We want vulnerability, we want failures and lessons learned. That makes them more approachable and this is key to us coming back.

5) Create a Simple Call to Action

Simplest way to get listeners coming back is to ask.

Many podcasts miss the “ask”, which is a wasted 40 minutes of everyone’s time.

Now you have their attention, what do you want to do with it? How will you convert that attention into an authentic relationship?

If you aren’t directing them to a tangible event to sign up for, or “lead magnet” like a report, then the best Call to Action for your podcast is to get your listeners to subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. Some advice regarding which platform:

a) Apple or Spotify?

If you are a B2B Podcast, choose Apple. If you are a B2C Podcast, choose Spotify. While this is not a black-and-white choice, and Apple/Spotify have varying levels of coverage by market (Spotify for example is blocked in China), the B2B:Apple, B2C:Spotify split is a very general rule of thumb. That’s why we initially build our Podcast Analytics platform Podminer on Apple Podcast data.

This split may change in future, but as a general rule, the different business models will mean that the B2B / B2C Split will likely stay in place for some time. Amazon Podcasts will be an interesting player to watch as they have a strong book & audiobook (Audible) content base meaning they will become a significant force in B2B Podcasts, and a further option for your Podcast Call to Action in future.

b) Choose one Platform and double down.

If you give people choice, they tend to choose neither. Such is the paradox of choice that people, when in a suggestive mode, tend to opt for the least risky option. If you guide your audience to go to Apple Podcasts and subscribe, they’ll do it. If you guide them to “Subscribe on your favorite Podcast Platform”, they’ll often do nothing. You need to take the lead here.

c) Better to have one Clear Call to Action than many.

It’s tempting to get audiences to also check our your website or email you, giving them numerous options to connect. While this may work for some audience who are less risk-averse, like point (b) clarity in your messaging will deliver better results.

6) Consistency Builds Quality

If there’s one lesson that I’ve learned from Ironman training and Podcasting is that consistency builds quality.

Data from our Analytics team indicates a clear correlation between publishing consistency and podcast rankings. High ranking, popular podcasts are more consistent than lower ranking ones, based on cross-correlating standard deviation in “cadence” (# of episodes published a month) and PAI (Podcast Authority Index from our Podminer platform).

podcast consistency cadency

I’m sure you can apply this data to any endeavour in life:
– you’ve all been told how the guy who starts saving $200 a month aged 40 will end up amassing the same wealth by retirement by the guy who started saving only $50 a month aged 30
– I’d love to see the data, but we all know from our personal challenges that consistency in our personal workouts and eating habits underpins long term success
– and it’s the same with relationships. You can knock the socks off your partner 1 day a year on Valentines or Wedding Day, but the real work is day in day out. Love, as they say, is a verb, not a state of being.

I don’t want to lecture you about money, health and relationships. I want to connect the wisdom that underpins success in these life endeavours with your communication strategy at work. Podcasts are easy to start but harder to maintain momentum required to achieve success. Avoid the sprints that you’ll pay for later and focus on small gains.

Quick fixes might gamify interest and motivation in the short term, but success always favours those who are patient.

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About Author Graham Brown

Graham Brown is the founder of Pikkal & Co – performance communication agency responsible for producing Award Winning Podcasts for business brands. Clients including McKinsey, Julius Baer, IBM and the Singapore Government. Investors and Advisors from Netflix, Intel, Apple and iQiYi. He is a published Amazon author covering human communication technologies, marketing and branding. He has produced over 1,000 podcast episodes and webinar shows with notable shows including the Tony Fernandes Podcast. Graham is a graduate in Artificial Intelligence and is currently leading Pikkal & Co to use Machine Learning and Conversation Analytics to automate the heavy lifting of communication to elevate the human touch.
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