What We Mean by Create Their “Favorite” Podcast
This article is part of a weekly exploration to answer one question: What would it take to make your audience’s favorite podcast? Each entry in this series builds on past ideas. It will culminate in the first session of our online, interactive, cohort-based workshop for marketers, where we do real work on our real podcasts, together, to find and share our voices and make a difference for our audiences.
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|Every showrunner faces a choice that makes or breaks a show’s trajectory. The choice is made early in the process, and typically only once.
It’s a simple decision, but it informs everything we do. And we can make this choice by asking one simple question:
Can this show–wait, hold on. Um… why is there a ruggedly handsome cowboy walking towards me? Where’s that country music coming from? What, um … what is happening?
🤠 “Hi there. I’m Four-Time Super Bowl champ Brett Chiseljaw.”
What the… who?
🤠 “….and I want you to ignore everything Jay is about to say.”
Well that’s not–
🤠 “Yessiree! Ignore ‘im! He’s about to go on and on about why your show should have some kind of higher purpose to it, and blah blah blah. But lemme tell ya somethin’ [Leans against a wooden fence, looks down, then glances up to camera.]
Well that seemed forced.
🤠 “We all know the truth. Deep down, you just wanna sell a bunch of stuff real quick. Ha, I mean” [smiles, shakes his head] “ain’t that what marketing’s for? Just take it from me, Four-Time Super Bowl Champ Brett Chiseljaw.”
Alright WHAT is happ–
(Paid for by the Association for Commodity Content.)
Ah. I see.
Every show we make faces the same fork in the road along its journey. Down one of these paths is a dead show. It was a wasted investment. A bad decision. Down the other is a thriving show. You know the kind, I’m sure: raving fans, tangible brand benefits, and a show host that practically becomes an industry celebrity.
How do we make sure we pick that path?
To make the right choice when you reach that fork in the road, you can’t look externally. The answer won’t come from a colleague, a client, a boss, an industry expert, a creator you admire, and definitely not a definitely-real football player in an ad from a definitely-real organization that promotes cheap content.
No, in this case, the answer comes from within. It starts and stops with the way you frame the work.
Goals vs. Aspirations
When we begin any project, we typically assign a goal. Not a bad start — except we often conflate “goals” with “measures.” Saying “reach 10,000 downloads by April 1” or “grow the audience by 50%” or all sound like goals, but make no mistake: these are measures of the goal. A real goal sounds much more aspirational: “create the most beloved show in this niche” or “show the world how fun and relevant our voices can be.” And how will you measure those goals? Perhaps with downloads, audience growth, or something more valuable to the brand.
Me, I prefer to call real goals aspirations. That’s an easy way to understand if you’ve set an actual goal, or you’re actually describing your measure of the goal. (This is dangerous, since it promotes gaming systems or false positives when tracking progress. As Goodhart’s Law suggests, when a measure becomes a goal, it ceases to be a good goal.) I think the best podcasts emerge from people who have aspirations for their shows, not traditional goals.
If that’s a little woo-woo for you, then I bid you adieu. It’s not me. It’s you. It’s true! Nothing we can do. Because I’m gonna do me, and you’re gonna do you.
(I will never write a better paragraph ever, sadly. Congrats on being here for my peak.)
So, great podcasts with passionate fans are built by creators with an aspiration for their show, and although there are many aspirations one can articulate, I think there’s only one true aspiration upon which everything else sits: create their favorite show. (Here’s a whole big essay on what it means to be their favorite. The definition may surprise you: It’s not about being “great.” It’s about making something that feels personal.)
Thus, we have our question — the one that can make or break any podcast, and help us head down the correct half of the proverbial fork in the road, ending with us making incredible podcasts. That question we should ask:
Can this podcast be their favorite?
In that essay linked above, we explored how being someone’s favorite does not mean being considered THE favorite, or ranked #1 in any critical sense. It simply means making the show feel personal. Today, I wanted to try and revisit this idea and define it more concretely, in a way that informs our decisions as marketers.
Say you ask your team, “Can this podcast be anyone’s favorite?” How might you decide that. Well, consider that someone’s favorite podcast is their personal and preferred pick for a specific purpose.
Let’s break that down quickly. If we understand each component piece, we can have honest conversations with ourselves about whether or not we’re on the right path with our shows.
Things that are your “favorite” are tied to your identity. Think about favorite colors as a kid, and how you’d wear that color or get excited when someone you liked also liked that color. Think about your favorite sports teams or restaurants. Are they the world’s “best” teams or restaurants? It almost doesn’t matter. They’re your favorites anyway.
If we’re being honest, we often can’t say that our favorite things are the world’s “best” things in some academic or critical sense. What matters isn’t how “correct” or polished or celebrated they are. What matters is that they somehow tap into your emotional experience of life such that it has deeper meaning to you than something which is “relevant” or even “good.” It’s personal.
I think about Radiolab, my favorite podcast. Yes, it’s objectively well-produced, but whenever I think about why I love it, I can explain in ways beyond “the sound design” or “the topics.” I think about driving home from a New Years’ celebration at a ski house in Vermont. I remember listening to Radiolab’s episode about speed (the motion, not the drug). We were cruising down a highway on a sunny day, but not just any sunny day. It was one of those uniquely winter sunny days, when the sun is low and kinda in your eyes, forcing you to squint your way forward. The sun was gleaming off the untouched white snow on either side of the highway, but the roads, I remember, were totally dry. My wife was sitting to my right in the passenger seat, and a guy I went to college with was in the back seat. The thing is, I didn’t really know him. We just had a mutual friend — the woman whose ski house we’d visited — and he happened to live near enough to me and my wife that I offered him a ride home. His name is Willis. I haven’t talked to him since. I do remember it was his first Radiolab episode, and I take great joy in sharing that with him, as well as remembering everything that happened both in that car ride AND all weekend long at that ski house.
Now I think about my friend whose house it was. I should call her. She lives in San Francisco now. We’re losing touch. Maybe we could reminisce about the many ski trips we had.
It’s personal. Sure, Radiolab’s team is both competent and consistent with their work — and competency plus consistency equals trust. But it doesn’t equal love. Why do I LOVE Radiolab? Because of that drive. Because of how I feel. Because of how it fits into my own personal narrative and sense of identity.
Can this podcast be their favorite? Can it be their personal and preferred pick for a specific purpose.
What we do as showrunners and as marketers more broadly is rather simple to say, but perhaps hard to do: We create experiences others willingly choose. In a world of infinite choice, they select us.
In the case of creating someone’s favorite show, they may acknowledge that other shows that cover similar material as us exist. They may even consume them. They may even like them. But when given the choice, they prefer us. They have a bias towards us. When they have agency to make the selection, whether as a recommendation to others or because they have some time to listen and have to pick an episode, we’re it.
Can this podcast be their favorite? Can it be their personal and preferred pick for a specific purpose.
A Specific Purpose:
This is where we fall off the rails as marketers. When our show lacks a premise, an angle or concept that sits over the whole show, making it a true original, we end up creating a podcast that lacks specificity. We tell general stories about success, share general insights into sales or customer support or HR or whatever topic, offer general career advice or curated data, general fashion trends, general sports news — you name it. They’re all just too … general. There’s no specific purpose.
When you add a premise, a concrete angle on the subject, you’re suddenly specific. If you go a step further and add an episode format, a proprietary way of breaking down a subject throughout an episode or telling a story or segmenting your content, then you get even more specific. Lastly, add the talent, the host and guide willing to perform and share their full selves with the audience. Now you’re THE ONLY instead of YET ANOTHER. You’re as specific as possible.
Their personal and preferred pick for a specific purpose.
That’s what it means to make a great show, a truly original series. That’s what it means to answer the most important question we can possibly think about before and during our show’s development:
Can this show be anyone’s favorite?
If not, it may as well be paid for by the Association for Commodity Content.
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Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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