How Can You Turn Your Podcast Listeners into a True Community?
One of the tougher things about accepting the challenge to make someone’s favorite show is an all-important component: creating a community that counts your show among their favorites.
With favorite-able shows, we’re not just trying to capture an individual’s attention for a bit of time. Rather, we’re inviting our listeners to go on a collective journey with us for an extended period. Part of the magic that happens when a listener finds a favorite show is their implicit inauguration into an invisible community of people who also consider this show their favorite.
Think about it from a pop culture perspective. Fan communities drive movements. They demand second or third or tenth seasons. They spark fan fiction. They provide a marketplace for merchandise. Their passion makes shows succeed.
How can you build and engage a community you can neither see nor hear? If developing a group of fellow travelers is essential to creating a favorite show, how can you intentionally infuse your show with community-building elements as part of your overarching strategy?
Make it feel personal — and repeatable
A transformational show arises when we create something irreplaceable. The irreplaceable is intimately intertwined with the personal: when a listener feels a personal connection to the show, they are much more likely to love it.
How can we make shows that feel personal to a wide swath of people? We can create recurring insider experiences that they share.
Shows that have cultivated true communities organically and strategically deploy “runners,” or recurring things the showrunners do or say across episodes. These inside jokes and repeated phrases anchor the listener, who subconsciously begins to anticipate them. When they hear the repeated joke or statement, they get the same kind of satisfaction as when you close an open loop. Plus, the consistency makes them feel in the know. It makes them feel like they’re part of a community.
Robinhood’s Snacks podcast makes excellent use of a runner. The hosts begin each episode the same way: by introducing themselves, announcing the date, and declaring that the forthcoming episode is “the best one yet.” This short, cheeky gag feels familiar to listeners who tune in every day. And they love it.
The Snacks hosts further engage their community by being eagerly active on Twitter, where they and their listeners make frequent reference to “TBOY (the best one yet).” TBOY appears in one host’s Twitter handle (@TBOYJack) and in one of the show’s proprietary hashtags (#TBOYTuesday). This extends the gimmick, so it’s not just a quick quip. Rather, it’s a calling cry that unites and makes visible a growing community excited by the show’s irreverent tone and youthful energy.
Similarly: on music-meets-true crime podcast Disgraceland, host Jake Brennan routinely opens an episode playing a free, stock sound he found, which he calls “Cheese.” He jokes about why he couldn’t afford the rights to the music created by that episode’s featured band or singer. (At live events of Disgraceland, attendees all yell CHEESE with Jake.) This stock song has thus become so much more than episode filler — it’s become a rallying cry for a community.
Just as inside jokes and shared experiences deepen bonds among friends, so too do they deepen the relationship between the showrunner and their listeners.
Offer a way to go deeper
Running gimmicks and inside jokes can be a great way to spark chatter on social media channels like Twitter and YouTube, but you ultimately want your activated community to spend more time with you on your own channels.
Develop your community by offering ways for excited listeners to spend more time with you on media you already own — giving them an opportunity to love not just your show, but your brand as a whole.
Consider this: I’m the world’s biggest curmudgeon when it comes to subscribing to email lists. The offer has to be really compelling for me to decide that the juice (i.e., great content) is worth the squeeze (i.e., a ballooning inbox). Despite the myriad spam that’s found its way to my email, I’ve only actively signed up for a handful of newsletters in the last decade or so. (Why yes, MSR’s weekly newsletter is indeed among them. I’m glad you asked!)
So imagine my surprise when I found myself willingly signing up for Crooked Media’s “What a Day” newsletter. I had been listening to Crooked’s Pod Save America every day for about six months when the show hosts started regularly promoting the company’s daily newsletter. Despite my distaste for subscriptions, I signed up stat. I liked the show so much and found its insights so valuable that I was actively looking for ways to spend more time with the team and their ideas. The trust I felt for the showrunners was rapidly turning into love — which only compounded as I spent more time with the company across media: when listening to my morning podcast, reading my evening newsletter, and occasionally hopping over to the company website to peruse an article in more depth.
If you have captive listeners, keep them captive. Don’t let them just stop thinking about you once the episode ends. Give them a reason to develop a more personal, more multifaceted relationship with you — and watch your community grow.
Remind your community that they’re part of a community
To develop a true community, your listeners need to understand what they’re part of. They can’t just think your show is an interesting diversion for them alone. Shows that are adept at engaging their communities take frequent opportunities to remind their listeners that they are, in fact, part of a community.
How? By hosting live events. By inviting listeners to call into the show. By running a mailbag episode and answering listener questions. These tactics can remind your listeners that they’re not the only ones listening — and can spark ideas for you to improve your show and further develop that unseen community
Make something worth being part of
Ultimately, the best way to develop and engage a true community is to create something that people actively want to be part of. It’s a chicken and egg kind of cycle: you can’t create an active community without first creating a killer show.
And that’s why you ultimately need to focus on mastering the basics of showrunning: of situating yourself expertly on the experience, style, and performance spectra so your show is one that’s worthy of the community you hope to grow.
Before you can think about hooking your audience with runners or engaging them outside your show, you first need to build something they want to spend time with in the first place. So first: figure out how you’ll create a show that says something that matters. Identify how you’ll create an experience that’s enjoyable and proprietary as well as personal. Embark on a true journey to transform your listeners. Once you do that, you can take subsequent steps to activate the resulting community. But first, build it. If you build it, they will come.
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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