What makes a podcast great? Part one
9 March 2022 at 6:58 pm
Humans of Purpose host Mike Davis shares the two most important things he’s learned about making a great podcast.
Since launching Humans of Purpose in 2017 and getting some traction in 2020-22, I get at least a couple of emails and private messages each week asking me to meet to discuss a potential podcast launch. I’ve tried my best to answer the call when I can and attend the coffee chats but feel that this article might be my best chance to outline my thoughts in the most time efficient and publicly beneficial way possible.
I have intentionally titled this piece “What makes a podcast great”, because if you aren’t setting out with the intention of greatness, then you will not make it in today’s ultra competitive attention economy. It is not easy starting a podcast. There is no guarantee of success. But there is guaranteed hard work and incremental gains over time with the right approach.
When I started Humans of Purpose in 2017, there were less than 500,000 podcasts in total globally. Now there are about 2.5 million. So how do you ensure that you stand out as one in 2.5 million? If you don’t have the right mindset and value creation focus then you are doomed to fail from the start. I can’t guarantee you success as a result of reading this article, but I can promise you that these are the two most important things I’ve learned about making a great podcast. I will detail the other three in the next instalment, but best to tackle the biggest items first.
1. Start with a persistence mindset
How are you at failure? If it makes you squeamish then starting a podcast is not for you. To make a great podcast, like creating a great startup or venture you need to learn to embrace failure and learn from it, even use it as motivational fuel to propel you further. Persistence is the only antidote to failure. Or as more aptly communicated by Matt Biondi, “Persistence can change failure into extraordinary achievement”.
But for persistence and a gritty mindset to take hold, you need to first set realistic goals and understand your prospects of success and how hard you will need to work to overcome the barriers you will face.
As you start out you will fail regularly for the first few years if you make it this far and then you will be a better content creator and storyteller for it. According to ResearchGate data, 56.1 per cent of podcasts don’t make it beyond episode 10 and the median number of podcast episodes released is 30. Just 17 per cent make it beyond 50 episodes. To make a useful local comparison only approximately 32 per cent of AFL players reach 50 games. So you might be about twice as likely to play 50 AFL games (if you play at least one game) than have your podcast reach 50 episodes.
So knowing this, why not make an early and public commitment to ensure your accountability, that you will not be another statistic and that you will make at least 50 episodes (a one year commitment if you produce episodes weekly). This is your goal or your North star, to which you’ll set your compass.
Another goal should be to improve by at least 1 per cent across each and every episode you make. You should be like the great standup comedians, who record and review rigorously every set they did, what worked and what can be improved, leaving no stone unturned to produce great quality content. This is the essence of an incrementalist approach and mindset – a series of consistent 1 per cent improvements is far more important than a one-off 5 or 10 per cent improvement over time. This is the mindset of always favouring progress over perfection. Great standup comedians generally hate their past material and never listen to their older material other than for review purposes. They do not bask in past glories, they notice the litany of things that could be better for future episodes. This is the mentality you need to adopt as a podcaster.
Personally, I don’t re-listen to any previous podcast episodes other than for editing and review and am so ashamed of my first 100 episodes that they are locked away in a vault forever more. We generally only keep our latest 100 Humans of Purpose episodes up because the rate of improvement is dramatic over this period and the quality hard to recognise from anything over one to two years old. Also podcast content, like anything, has a short shelf-life; there is no such thing as “ever-green content” in the new attention economy we live in today.
- Podcast success requires a persistence mindset and setting realistic goals from the outset.
- You must commit to incrementalism and at least a 1 per cent improvement each and every week.
- Your focus should always be on progress over perfection and understanding what works better.
2. Produce something of great value for your audience
This is the part where I revert back to consultant speak and remind you that you need to clarify your unique value proposition. This sounds horribly boring, but the meaning is – what is it that you are uniquely placed to do well, to unlock great value for your listeners and community in doing so?
The starting point here is two-fold: knowing yourself and knowing your audience. The former is about self-awareness and insight and the latter is about doing market research to understand whether you are producing something that others are interested in.
You can break this down into two answerable questions: A. Why should you be the one to make this product? And B. Why would your audience choose to consume it?
A. Why should you be the one to make this product?
This could be summarised to just “why you”. A common question I always consider when trying to understand what people think their competitive advantage is. What is it about you, your experience, knowledge, position, personality or wisdom that uniquely places you to deliver on your podcast product?
Are you a thought leader already with a highly engaged and captive audience who wants to try a new medium – tick. Are you a journalist, writer or content creator already and understand how to produce quality content that resonates with an audience – tick. Is your organisation seeking a new way to tell its story, the story of its people and community and impact – tick. Is your organisation seeking to strategically reach a new audience or partner to create something – tick. Are you blessed with enormous resources, a background in sound engineering and a decent brand behind you – tick.
These are all characteristics that will make you more likely to succeed. However, let’s go a bit deeper. What makes you interesting, engaging or worth listening to? Why should I give you 40 minutes of my time when I have books, music, audiobooks and two screaming kids, a career that needs round the clock focus and a partner who deserves my attention? You will need to create something compelling, sticky and worthy of prioritising above all else at least once a week.
I’ve thought long and hard about what makes Humans of Purpose special. I think the reason it works is because I hand pick all our guests, I build rapport well and I am genuinely curious and excited for every new conversation I have. I also make a great effort to pitch the conversation at the right level for our audience and understand and implement the formula that underlies every Humans of Purpose episode – equal parts wisdom, experience and banter. Can you outline what your formula for greatness is?
B. Why would your audience choose to consume it?
If you can answer question A, you are well on the way to being able to answer B. But this is where we turn to market research, peer research and genuinely listening to others who consume our content. Firstly, how can you be sure that the theme you’ve chosen isn’t just something that you’re interested in that no one else actually cares about? This is a common failure in starting podcasts, many do little to no market research or investigation.
So firstly, is what you want to showcase on the podcast something that your audience is also interested in? Have you done the market research to prove sufficient interest in the theme of the show and that this podcasting space isn’t already flooded with competing content. If it is, why is your show better?
I was fortunate when starting Humans of Purpose that the language of our sector was moving from not for profit (which is poor nomenclature) to for-purpose. I was also fortunate that there were almost no podcasts in Australia doing things the way I was doing them with the types of guests I was having on, that sort of took Richard Fidler’s ABC Conversations podcast and adapted it to my strengths. I saw a gaping whole in the market and I thought as a podcast lover and mega-consumer, I could do something better than what existed at the time.
To take a leaf out of Frankie Layton’s book (founder of the Dirt Company), make a spreadsheet called “why my podcast is better than yours” and don’t make the show until you can identify the things that make a podcast in your space great and why yours is better than all the competitors. You can check out Frankie’s Humans of Purpose episode below, where we discuss how she did this when bringing Dirt’s washing detergent to market:
Unless you can make a comprehensive case for both questions A and B, then you are not ready to commence your podcast creation journey.
- Understand why it should be you to make the podcast you want to make.
- Understand why it will be special and better than everything else that is out there.
- Do your market research, get analytical and validate your product assumptions.
In our next instalment, I’ll cover listening to your audience, building effective feedback loops, and integrated marketing as key elements of success. Also, we’ll start to discuss the minimum time and resourcing requirements you’ll need to best position yourself for success. There is also a chance to discuss the best ways to get the support you need at the outset.