Dos and Dont’s for Keeping Your Podcast Audience Interested & Engaged
Have you ever thought about why the “will they/won’t they” premise works so well for TV?
If you went by television as your lone guide, you would be forgiven for believing that angst and near misses are the stuff of lasting love. Each of my own favorite-of-all-time shows features a will they/won’t they plot line that kept me on the edge of my seat season after season. Friends has Ross and Rachel, The Office has Pam and Jim, and Alias (bet you didn’t see that one coming) has Sydney and Vaughn.
Why do television showrunners love this premise so much? The reasons, I think, are a connected triad:
- The will they/won’t they question creates consistent dramatic tension across episodes, which…
- …gets the viewer emotionally involved, which…
- …provides incentive for the viewer to keep tuning in to find out what happens.
Eventually, though, the viewer gets tired of the constant cat and mouse game. And almost inevitably, the showrunners must decide that the will they/won’t they couple in fact…will.
But once they do, have you ever realized how quickly things get kinda dull? There’s only so much time you want to spend watching happy people be happy together. That precious tension dissipates, and with it the emotional connection and the drive to keep watching week after week.
So showrunners introduce small — and sometimes very large — points of conflict to shake up the plot and regain the viewer’s attention. Those points of conflict can take the form of marriages, babies, infidelity, career changes, or even an inconvenient case of amnesia.
To the best showrunners, almost nothing is sacred — they’re willing to shake even the most solid founding pillars of the show in order to keep it fresh, to ratchet up dramatic tension, to maintain the emotional connection viewers crave, and to continue to incentivize them to come back.
You might not be making a beloved-by-millions sitcom with your company podcast, but you need to do essentially the same thing. As soon as you’re comfortable enough with your show that you know you can make a great episode essentially on autopilot, congratulations! Celebrate for a second, because it’s now time to change things up.
We’ve talked about this before: even the best things get stale when repeated over time. Reinvention is an essential phase of showrunning. It helps turn listeners from casual fans to passionate loyalists.
But reinventing your show — particularly when your show is performing well — can feel daunting. Here are some dos and don’ts as you set out to remix your podcast.
Do understand what people like about your show in the first place
The point of reinventing your show is not to shock and disorient your listeners. Rather, the intended outcome of reinvention is renewed and sustained interest. It’s about examining the same problem from a different angle, or incorporating a new perspective. It’s about enhancing the experience — not creating an entirely new one.
To reinvent your show most successfully, you need to understand what hooked your audience in the first place. In all likelihood, it was one of four core elements that can anchor a show: a captivating premise, a charismatic host, an entertaining and informative episode format, or a particularly active community. Your show will likely lean most heavily toward one of these anchors. Identify which anchor drives your show, and take advantage of that value you’re already creating as you strive to enhance the experience for your audience.
For example, if listeners heap praise upon your host over and over again, your show may be anchored by its talent. Change things up by leveraging what’s already working. Create a behind the scenes episode, for example, which gives listeners an intimate look at their beloved host’s process, or let your host try a fully-monologued episode that gives listeners uninterrupted access to their thoughts and personality. Reinventions like these lean into what listeners already like about the show while experimenting with new approaches that can uncover new avenues of forging a closer, more personal relationship with listeners.
Don’t change your show’s core anchor (if it’s working)
While you should seriously consider killing your darlings from time to time, you shouldn’t kill the very thing that hooked your audience. In the example above, for instance, the showrunners of a talent-led show would be insane to replace a host listeners love with someone new — just for the sake of reinventing the show.
The same goes for the other anchors. For example: if your show is premise-driven, that means your audience likely gravitates toward the show for the big idea it’s tackling. These types of shows are typically excellent at spotting problems and creating a compelling vision for a better future. Listeners will feel like they’re going on a journey to reach that future as they listen to episode after episode.
So don’t change the premise and tackle something completely different just for the sake of reinventing the show. If you do that, you stand to lose your audience, which has come to care deeply about the problem your show is solving.
Instead, try changing something else that can enhance your premise. Could your show’s episode format add a new layer of interest or entertainment? Do listeners tell you that they love the host, or are their comments and compliments mostly geared toward the show’s big ideas? Could you shake up the format by introducing a guest if your show typically follows a monologue format, or by running a scripted monologue if your show typically interviews guests?
Make changes that enhance — not destroy — the overarching anchor of your show.
Do experiment with multiple attempts at reinvention
When reinventing your show, you don’t necessarily need to choose one big thing to tackle. Instead, you can reinvent your show in multiple small ways over the course of a season. Try something new: book an atypical guest, for example, or explore an atypical topic. Doing so can help your guests understand your premise from a different perspective or a new angle.
Or play around with the elements of the episodes themselves. You don’t necessarily need to re-architect the entire show format, but you can experiment with different segments that might resonate with listeners. Try playing around with the length of the show. Can you make a bite-sized episode that fits seamlessly into a listener’s morning walk or afternoon job? Can you make a super-sized episode that works for longer commutes or road trips?
And constantly, constantly implement new ways to capture and hold your audience’s attention. Learn about the six types of open loops podcasters have at their disposal, and explore loops you haven’t typically used. As you strive to reinvent your show, overtly attempt to focus on smaller moments of intrigue to build that precious tension — which is what keeps your audience listening to the end (and coming back for more).
Don’t be afraid to pivot if something’s not working
As you test out different adjustments to your show, don’t feel that you need to invest all of your energy and resources into any single make-or-break thing. If you have what you think is a great idea, but it’s just not landing, don’t be afraid to scrap it or pivot to something else.
For example, perhaps you think a new named segment will work well for your audience. If you try it a few times and it falls flat, or if you notice listeners start to drop off before the end of the episode, feel free to pull the segment and try something else.
Just as you don’t need to stick to your typical approach just because it’s working, you also don’t need to move blindly forward with an adjustment or modification that isn’t. Remember: the point of reinvention is to renew and sustain interest, not lose it.
Do ask for feedback
This is really just good advice for any marketer, at any time, anywhere. Often, the best way to find out what your audience wants and likes is just…to ask them.
Ask your listeners why they gravitate toward your show. Ask them about their favorite aspects of the show, and their least favorite. Ask them if they think the show is too short or too long. Ask them what else they want to hear from you.
You can do this by pointing listeners to a survey on your website, by soliciting feedback via a newsletter, or by asking questions on social media. When you ask for help directly from your audience, you bring them into the showrunning experience with you. Suddenly, you’re creating something together. Suddenly, they’re even more invested in the show you’ve made for them.
And that, ultimately, is kind of the point. As a showrunner — as any type of creative, really — your work is truly never done. You truly can’t ever go on autopilot, no matter how many hours of tape you’ve recorded or episodes you’ve produced. It’s your job to constantly create that exceptional immersive experience that makes a listener say wow — they’ve done it again. When your listeners say that over and over again, the experience becomes increasingly personal and increasingly intimate. As they spend more time with your show, they demand more from you — more tension, more intrigue, more moments of clarity.
You can’t do that by sticking with the status quo you’ve created, no matter how successful it might be. You can only do that by constantly creating those “wow” moments in new and unexpected ways for your listener.
A somewhat accidental marketer, I’m first and foremost a writer. I’ve spent a decade working with global brands to craft on-target content and streamline complex ideas into clear (and even…exciting?!) language. Now, I get to spend every day immersed in content and strategy here, as Managing Editor of Marketing Showrunners, at my company, Molly Donovan Content & Communications. I’m thrilled to be a part of this community of eager next-generation marketers and marketing showrunners.
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