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By: Tallie Gabriel on December 12th, 2019

Deconstructing HubSpot’s Weird Work Podcast

It may be weird, but it works.

Today, we make sense of HubSpot’s podcast Weird Work. The show’s host, Sam Balter, is used to looking at things a bit differently. On his show, Sam interviews people who have truly odd jobs — from a hand model to an ASMR YouTuber to an international pizza consultant (yes, that’s an actual job) — and learns more about how they got into their bizarre career field.

HubSpot is, to many marketers, the content marketing company. But it has a reputation mainly as a provider of practical advice. Weird Work provides one wacky, unique example of how HubSpot is now approaching brand affinity marketing, not just pure top-of-funnel or conversion-centric content. While the company has two predictable shows for an operation like theirs to run (one about successful businesses, The Growth Show, and one teaching inbound marketing and HubSpot product tips, SkillUp, the program), we were interested to know how the team operates its rather atypical show. (Some might even call it … weird?)

We spoke to Sam to find out.

Approaching download data differently

Ah, downloads. The metric that plagues plenty a podcaster — you need to pay attention to them, but not too much attention. Perhaps a better way to approach downloads is to understand why you’re paying attention to them in the first place. 

Sam reviews downloads like any other podcaster, but he’s looking for something the typical marketer doesn’t see in their data: audience passion, not just total reach. 

Sam’s belief is that they should be “data curious, not data-driven.” That led him to wonder how he could prove to his colleagues that, regardless of absolute total downloads, the show was still worth pursuing. To suggest this, he looks at Day 1 downloads as a signal of audience passion.

“How many people are just jumping on an episode the first day it comes out?” Sam mused to MSR. “That’s a measure of how loyal that audience is. How captivated are they by this content?”

If the first day downloads of Weird Work disappoint, Sam knows he has to fix something. If people aren’t jazzed enough about Weird Work to listen to it the day it airs, Sam needs to sort out what could be causing their relative disinterest. Is it the content of this particular episode? The content of the preceding episode? Low first day downloads signal that something’s not quite right. Sam wants to create audience behavior and loyalty. He wants Weird Work Wednesdays to be a thing.

Ask yourself: Do you want a big audience to kinda like the show, or do you want superfans who arrive with passion — then share with others? Do you look at absolute totals, or passionate responses? Supplement any comments you’re seeing with Day 1 downloads as a proxy for that visceral listener response.

In addition, Sam is conscious of engagement data like listen time. If people aren’t listening to the entire episode, that’s a problem too — they’re missing big chunks of the story, for one, and they’re also less likely to return to a show that didn’t hook them for the episode’s entire 40 or so minutes. As we say about 12 times a day here at MSR (and for good reason—it never gets less important!): Great marketing is not about who arrives. It’s about who stays. 

Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it created a killer podcast first

Okay, that subhead got away from me a bit. But the fact remains: Sam’s curiosity extends far beyond data and into the experience of each episode. When I listen to an episode of Weird Work, one of the first things I notice about Sam’s tone as a host is his inquisitive nature. He comes across as genuinely, excitingly curious. That invites us on a journey with him, which in turn makes the show more addicting.

Have you ever noticed that when someone is passionate about what they’re talking about, the topic piques your interest 10 times more? One of my favorite things ever is to just listen to people talk about the things that stir their souls, the things that make them extra enthusiastic about existing right here, right now. So many great podcasts have an element of this. You can hear the passion seeping out of the host’s pores. Weird Work is certainly no exception. Sure, it helps that the topic of the show is pretty objectively fascinating, but hearing the spark in Sam’s voice, knowing that he’s so into the stories he’s telling, makes the episodes so much more enticing.

For instance, in the Weird Work episode titled “I’m an international pizza consultant,” Sam opens by asking listeners: “What is your dream job?” Then he lets it hang a second.

By posing a question in the intro, rather than some kind of pull-quote or even housekeeping item, Sam immediately engages us. We share in his curiosity. We’re thinking about our ideal life, and we’re curious to hear about someone who is presumably living their dream job. (If this person can be an international pizza consultant, why can’t I pursue my own weird but dream role??)

Sam is a curious, passionate host, who is attentive to the details in his guests’ stories. This combination of ingredients makes him wonderful to listen to.

If you’ll allow me to use a pizza metaphor here (because everything should always be a pizza metaphor, honestly), your show’s host is a lot like your starter dough. The rest of the ingredients might be super similar to other shows that exist (including your competitors’ shows), but your host? No one else has access to that ingredient (unless you’re into cloning, in which case, I commend you and I’d love to ask you about a million questions).

Artifice kills creativity. There’s no point in trying to be the next Ira Glass or the next Domino’s Pizza — those people and institutions exist already. That work has been done — and  it works on a very large scale. Do focus on being the first — and only — you. The first pizza place in your town to use semolina in your starter. The first Tallie Gabriel (well, you can’t actually do that because I’ve got that one covered, but you get it). The you that is missing from your industry because, well, you haven’t done it yet!

If marketing is all about who stays, then people choose to stay with their favorite things. You can’t be the favorite if you’re busy creating a copycat version of something else. Don’t create Yet Another. Create The Only. Use your secret ingredient (you) more forcefully. Be their favorite, because that’s what people choose to stay with — and that’s what great marketing is all about.

The right mix of empathy and objectivity 

Sam is methodical in his hosting. Every choice he makes stems from a ton of research and deeper meaning, yet the episodes he hosts sound totally natural and easy. A listener would never know that he’d rehearsed his pronunciation of  “pizza” in his introduction multiple times, because the end result feels and sounds so off-the-cuff. In reality, he did multiple takes until he nailed it. This is hard to do—to balance intense preparation and an organic-sounding product—but it’s key to creating a show that stands out among so many others that don’t quite get either necessary component (the meticulous research or the natural cadence) correct.

Additionally, it’s really hard to be both mindful and a good interviewer. When you’re working with a narrative show, as Sam is, you’re inherently reducing years and years of someone’s life and experiences into a 40-minute segment. It’s not easy to do that well! In Weird Work, Sam has found that many of his guests have gone through really tragic events that sparked a career shift. For storytelling purposes, it’s important that he capture that pivotal content for the listener, but he’s also a human interacting with a human guest. He needs to share a salient story without being insensitive to his guests — or forcing them to relive past traumas.

“As a host, I pay very good attention to the guest. A lot of it is being able to read the person and gauge how far they’re comfortable going,” Sam explained. “Allow them to tell the story in the way they want to and are comfortable with. On the flip side, there are other moments you need to get to.” Sam doesn’t want to make the show into something it’s not: a deep look into a tragedy. It’s supposed to be a profile of a weird job, which, yes, involves a personal story so listeners can make sense of it and connect with it. 

In the pizza episode, Sam knows he has to visit the hardships the protagonist underwent while he was living in Seattle. But he also knows he has to move the story forward. As the show host, should you dwell on gripping and emotional moments, or advance the action? Spending too much time on the hardship may tip the show away from its core purpose, but advance the story too quick and you cheapen or even lose the very thing that makes the podcast resonate.

“It’s a balancing act.”

So how do you do that?

“If you’re an empathetic person, if you’re sensitive to how people receive information, trust your gut. If you’re not one of those people, have other people listen to [your tape]. And ask: Is this moving the story that I want to tell along?”

Gather the right ingredients before baking your show

A winning podcast starts with a great idea, but a stellar host is just as important. Make sure you find someone who is genuinely thrilled about your show’s concept (hint: this is likely you), and make sure each episode is backed by plenty of thoughtful research. Come into interviews equipped with the right knowledge about your guest and the interpersonal interviewing skills you need to tell the best story possible. 

It helps if you find a way to include pizza. Obviously.

Bonus: Quotable Gems from Sam Balter

We’ve edited Sam’s great stories and insights into a new episode of our podcast for marketers who podcast, 3 Clips. Here are just a few of our favorite gems:

“Data curious, man — it’s a good way to live.”

“We can have the same three parts—nuts and bolts of the job, big idea, personal story—but they can be so different for each guest. Just like pizza — you’ve got your dough, cheese, sauce, and then there can be a million different variations of how you make that.”

“People tend to remember the very beginning of statements and the very end of statements and lose what happens in the middle. But there’s one exception— people’s recall goes way up if the speaker struggled for a second.”

Check out the full 3 Clips episode below, and be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get even more insights into some of the best branded shows out there.

Listen and subscribe: Apple, Spotify, Overcast, or anywhere you get your podcasts.


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