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Marketing Showrunners

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By: Jay Acunzo on November 8th, 2019

How Top Brands Create Differentiated Podcasts and Video Shows: Intro to Show Bibles

November is Make the Case Month at MSR. Every week, we’ll load you up with the big-picture ideas and tactical tips you need to sell your  branded show concept to the “powers that be” within your organization. We know that shows are the best vehicle to help grow brand affinity among your customers; this month, we’re helping ensure everyone else at your company understands that, too. If you’re as pumped as we are, catch up on the content we’ve already published and subscribe for exclusive bonus content and conversations here.

Let’s start with the good news, because damn if most blog posts about marketing don’t sound a bit like Chicken Little and claim the sky is falling.

Here’s the good news: It doesn’t take a ton of resources to create a show for your brand that is refreshing for audiences and effective in driving results. In fact, to get started with a pilot and test the waters, it might not take more than a few hundred to a few thousand bucks — the cost of some basic audio/video tools.

That’s the good news.

Okay. Now for a brief moment of Chicken Littling, if I may: The bad news is, the way most marketers plan out their podcasts and video series leaves them dead on arrival. If I’m here to tell you the sky isn’t falling, I’m also here to help us stop running headlong into a storm fraught with wasted resources and ineffectual content.

So what can we do to avoid a bad investment and instead create an asset that yields ROI? How can we produce shows that feel awesome to the audience but don’t require embarrassing amounts of budget to create? And will we ever escape the endless onslaught of open-ended questions written to raise your anticipation? 

Yes. (Sorry.)

It’s not about budget. It’s about people — you, your team, your audience, and the insights you have about them. It’s about having a plan for how you’ll approach the creative, rather than tossing bags with dollar signs on them out the window. My advice is simple yet seems all too rare: Rather than conclude we can’t spend more money and therefore can’t make a better show, we can spend more time shaping the creative strategies fueling our content.

With apologies to Capital One, it doesn’t matter what’s in your wallet. What’s between your ears matters much more. 

Think of it like this: We often conclude we don’t have the resources to do a ton of rigorous editing after capturing audio or video for our podcasts or web shows. Well, what if every bit of tape we captured was better? We claim we can’t do anything but interview experts on camera or on a microphone, because again, we have limited resources. Well, what if the questions we chose to ask and the order in which we asked them could yield something original that audiences can’t hear anywhere else?

We don’t need more budget. We need a better plan — a documented strategy for our show. That documented strategy can be packaged into a simple template called a show bible.

Intro to Show Bibles

A show bible is a show’s documented strategy. And yes, I just said “documented strategy” a lot, but as marketers, we can’t hear the phrase often enough, since the biggest issue plaguing content marketers every year is the lack of a documented strategy. (In their annual research on the state of content marketing, the Content Marketing Institute and Marketing Profs routinely uncover that the biggest difference between brands that are succeeding with content and those that are not is that successful brands have a documented strategy, and those that are struggling do not.)

When it comes to creating a show strategy, the show bible template offer a number of benefits to showrunners,  internal stakeholders, and marketers responsible for helping promote the show. First, like any documented strategy (there it is again!), show bibles are a forcing function to plan out the necessary parts and pieces that compose a great show. For instance, when creating a B2B interview podcast, you face arguably the most saturated sub-category among marketers making shows. However, if you’re forced to stop for a minute and wonder, “How is this different than every other show?” you’ll find that every other show ALSO claims to interview the best and brightest in your niche. 

Hence the need for, you guessed it, a documented strategy. (BINGO!)

Show bibles also help you quickly get on the same page with new contributors on your show, survive transitions between showrunners and other colleagues, and more deftly make the case to internal stakeholders who need to buy into this idea of making an original series.

Think of the show bible like the Iron Man suit that Tony Stark wears. Stark might be a charming billionaire, but send him out to face superpowered foes and he’s just a guy sayin’ stuff who will inevitably get crushed. But that suit he’s built? Once he steps inside it, he literally becomes a superhero. He can hang with even the most powerful opponents. 

More than ever, that’s exactly what we need to do as marketers. Today, we don’t just compete for audience time against our product competitors. We compete with any podcast or video show that might claim an audience’s time on their phone or on the web. We face superpowered foes. We can’t just fire up a microphone and/or a camera, stick it in front of a charming individual, and hope to hang.

Hence, the need for a documented strategy. (YAHTZEE!)

Subscribers to our newsletter, MSR Monthly, receive a full show bible template they can use as part of our welcome sequence of emails. If you’re interested, you can join for free. (You’ll be in good company with subscribers from companies like Red Bull, Salesforce, Mailchimp, Shopify, Roku, Adobe, the BBC, LinkedIn, and thousands of SMBS and startups.)

Let’s dive into just a few of the many component parts of a show bible…

A show is just three core pieces, when you really distill it down: a show-level concept, an episode-level format, and talent. Having a strategy and thinking critically across all three make or break the program you’ll create. We’ve talked before on MSR about the role a great host plays, how to craft interviews that extract amazing content, and how world-class talent like Terry Gross, Howard Stern, Kara Swisher, Conan O’Brien, and Bill Simmons conduct interviews. For the rest of today’s exploration, however, we’ll focus on the other two component parts: the show-level concept and the episode-level format. We’ll also add one additional key piece from the show bible: how to craft the feel of your show, which is articulated by an exercise called the “show cross.”

The Show Concept: How Audiences Self-Select You Above All

First, a show needs a concept. This is your hook, the shorthand for what makes your show compelling, what you’re exploring, and how. Author, speaker, and video showrunner Andrew Davis defines a hook as a twist on a familiar theme designed to catch and hold your attention. For instance, the Gimlet Media podcast Science Vs has an incredible hook, which helps them compete in a saturated space. Even the name reveals it: They pit scientific facts against everything else.

A hook not only helps others stop in their tracks and select our shows. They help us make better decisions, giving us a lens or angle through which we can explore even the most rote topics. Hundreds of podcasts explore, say, organic foods as a topic — but not like Science Vs. That show explores how most people understand the concept, then explores the science and research, before declaring a winner. Was popular understanding even close to knowing the truth? How well do mainstream ideas around the topic stack up to the science? 

When it comes to video series, countless shows interview celebrities — but not like Hot Ones. Published to the YouTube channel First We Feast, Hot Ones features host Sean Evans asking questions of a celebrity as the pair eats progressively spicier wings — one question per wing, while the guest literally sweats and squirms and curses their way forward. Hot Ones has a hook. They have a show-level concept.

To find our own concepts for our brands’ shows, we can make a simple switch: from how we typically approach our topics to how master showrunners do. In short, we need to stop acting like experts and start acting like investigators.  

When most of us explore a certain topic or trend, or interview guests who help us do so, we craft shows that wind up rather generic. We assume we’re in the business of handing out answers, dangling irresistible information others want like a carrot to attract them. Far better is to stop claiming we have all the answers on our show and, instead, admit we have some serious questions. Why? Our audience does, too. 

That’s what investigators do well. They don’t have the answers, but they lead the way toward them. Our shows’ concepts are a sort of admission: We don’t know what will happen next — but we (and therefore YOU, the audience) can’t wait to find out. 

Will the popular understanding of organic foods stack up against the science? 

Will Paul Rudd make it to the final hot wing, and what will happen along the way as things get painful?

Why do we keep hearing about “fast fashion”? Is it something we should care about, or just another hype cycle?

If we’re IT pros providing tech support for others, then how can we get support for the thing that most plagues us: non-technical people?

Stick around to find out.

Our concepts might be grand explorations of a topic, like a documentary host embarking on a quest to understanding XYZ, or our concepts might be gimmicks intended to make a show funnier, more playful, or more easily segmented into smaller bits. No matter how aspirational and ambitious or simple and clever, we need to document our concepts. We need that hook.

BTW Box #1: Whatever You Do, Don’t Create Hot Ones

A while ago, a tech company selling sales enablement software created a kind of Hot Ones-for-sales-and-marketing. On the surface level, that approach seems fine: They, let’s say, “borrowed” another show’s proven concept. Instead of celebrities, they interviewed sales and marketing executives while eating progressively spicier wings.

So what’s the issue? It’s a missed opportunity for the brand.

The issue is that hot wings have zero relevance to the brand’s company or customers. Ideally, a show’s concept helps you do more than merely hold attention. Rather, it helps you use that precious attention to ensure your brand is remembered for something you want to be remembered for: a theme or idea that you own outright in the market, a point of view or belief system that others align with and share excitedly.

The owners of Hot Ones, First We Feast, run a YouTube channel about the intersection of food and pop culture. Interviewing celebrities while eating spicy wings makes a ton of sense for them. It’s wildly relevant. But Hot Ones-for-sales enablement? That’s a stretch.

Gimmicks like this might work for a time, but they present a missed opportunity: the chance to use the precious minutes we have with our audience to say something meaningful. Don’t make Hot Ones. Find or create or remix a concept that’s applicable to your brand.

If you’re gonna say something to your audience … say something.

3 Examples of Great Show-Level Concepts by Brands

  • DELL Technologies: AI: Hype vs. Reality Perhaps the Science Vs of branded podcasts about AI.
  • REI: Camp Monsters — “Tales of America’s most mysterious creatures.” Because when you sell to outdoor and camping enthusiasts, campfire stories just feel right.
  • Smead: Keeping You Organized The office supply company sells some pretty boring-sounding products. How do you make a show for a brand that sells manila filing folders? Well, what do they do, and why? They keep you organized. Let’s explore all the ways to BE organized on this show…

What’s the journey you’re going on? Why is your show The Only instead of Yet Another? What will cause others to stop and self-select your show? Create a compelling show-level concept.

Then, we need that concept to come through in our episodes…

The Episode Format: Why Audiences Stick Around

If great show concepts are created when we act like explorers, then great episode formats are created when we act like lawyers.

Lawyers? Yes, lawyers.

When someone hits play on one of our episodes, our jobs are rather simple to understand but hard to execute: Make sure they don’t hit stop. We have to give the listener/watcher each moment they need and walk them step by step from where they are to where we want them to be. We’re embarking on a journey — of understanding, of exploration, of entertainment, whatever the show concept dictates. But for us to truly hold attention, we have to make a sort of logical case with each episode. It’s similar to giving a speech or any longer form presentation, really — whether that comes through in a courtroom, a conference hall, or someone else’s headphones. 

The golden rule of showrunning: Get them to the end.

Here’s an example: My personal podcast is called Unthinkable, and although we have multiple types of episodes, the core format is a narrative story about one individual in the workplace. The concept of the show is simple: We explore work that breaks from best practices. A pithy way I explain it? “Examples of work that seems crazy until you hear their side of the story.” When all you know is the best practice, people who break from it seem either insane or, perhaps, visionary. But I want more people to question best practices in practical, daily ways. So how do I present the concept of the show in a logical, step-by-step fashion? To do that well, I need an episode format.

Each episode must cover a few core sections, as I make the case all lawyer-like. Those core sections are called “blocks” (a term found in TV writers’ rooms):

  • Cold Open: Intrigue the listener and establish some stakes. Encourage them to keep going.
  • A Block: Establish the conventional wisdom. What’s the thing we’re exploring, what is the best practice, and why is it seemingly inescapably logical to follow?
  • B Block: How did the subject break from that? What seemed crazy about doing so? What were their results? 
  • C Block: Why did they break from it, and how did it seem logical to them? 
  • D Block: Who are they, anyway, that they’d do such a thing? What can they teach us?
  • E Block: The emotional final punch or lesson, i.e. “exit velocity” to close out.

I might then add certain “beats,” or smaller moments I need to capture (perhaps written out as questions I plan to ask). Together, the blocks and beats form the “rundown” of the episode.

With this format in mind for each episode, I know I can present to listeners a logical case why they, too, should question best practices.

So how can we all find a good format to try?

One approach is to write an episode “on spec” — a speculative draft, which scripts out each moment in broad, rough fashion, as if you’ve already talked to guests (if you have guests) and already recorded your parts, too. In other words, play out an episode in your head, writing it down so you can step back, observe it, and then rip out the framework underneath it — the blocks and beats.

BTW Box #2: Extractions

“Extractions” are my name for a simple and rather fun exercise to find great episode formats. Literally, extract the framework from a show you love. Grab a notebook and go watch or listen to something that inspires you, preferably way outside your own industry. Don’t shy away from using shows from media and entertainment, either. Then, as you watch or listen, document the moments of the show you think they were trying to create, roughly timestamped.

The key is to capture that meta-level framework, not the content itself. For example, don’t write, “1:00 – 3:00: They travel to Mexico and interview a cab driver.” Instead, write, “1:00 – 3:00: Met the ‘local,’ the person who experiences the broader themes of this episode firsthand.” 

(If you’re wondering, this example is part of an actual extraction I performed of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on CNN. They started the Mexico episode by meeting a Local, whereas later, I found moments where they interacted with a Guide. The Local embodied the location and themes the showexplored, while the Guide could comment on those themes as an expert — often, a Guide wasa journalist, author, chef, or transplant who had come to live in the featuredlocation. The best Unthinkable episodes now feature business versions of Locals and Guides, but instead of physical locations, we “visit” larger themes or topics.) 

A Look at a Theoretical Episode Rundown: 

For this example, assume that the brand sells software to help people make money from their creative craft, like selling courses, membership sites, and digital downloads. Assume next that the show’s established concept is to deconstruct one favorite project of world-class creators — the hidden decisions they never talk about publicly. Rather than a broad interview, the show zooms into a single project and asks the creator to pick it apart and rebuild it through conversation and story.

Here’s the episode rundown for this theoretical show:


COLD OPEN (N minutes)

  • Narrated short story or moment to intrigue the listener.
  • Show ID: “Welcome to Name of Show, where we (XYZ). I’m your host, Leslie Knope.”

A BLOCK: “I Made a Thing”  (N minutes)

  • Introduce today’s creator. Brief bio, narrated.
  • Open the interview section the same way each time: “Ron Swanson….you made a thing…what did you make?”
  • The basic details of the project so the audience understands it, as told by the guest.
  • Go deep into the how/why of the project itself (Hardest choices, most fun, creative flourishes, etc.) // Point out things I noticed consuming it before the interview, reflect back upon my experience of it consuming it)
  • Talk monetization/audience/effects on their business

B BLOCK: “The Wall” (N minutes)

  • Because people listening often hesitate to create their own great works, or make money on them … and because listeners may disassociate themselves from their heroes on the show, let’s show them that, despite the success we just outlined, even the best face moments of doubt and conflict — and share how they overcame it.
  • Search for 1 telling example and go deeper with it.

C BLOCK: “Creative Rally Cry” (N minutes)

  • The guest reads an inspirational quote from one of history’s most creative people that thematically reflects our episode and their deconstructed project. Provide them 2-3 choices in the chat for them to select their favorite. Have them read it twice.

D BLOCK / CLOSE: (N minutes)

  • Narrator’s final sign-off
  • One CTA: subscribe via email for exclusive content + new episodes + live chats with the host.

BTW Box #3: Interview Shows and Episode Formats

It’s easy to assume that interview shows don’t require a concept or format, and that those things are only for programs that include substantial  editing after the recording is over. This is a huge mistake. For interview shows, differentiation comes from both a concept and a format. It’s just that they aren’t applied solely in post-production so much as during production, during the actual interview.

For instance, as with the theoretical show above, differentiation comes when the host deconstructs a guest’s favorite project. That could absolutely be an interview show that includes no narration or field work, and not much post-editing. The show’s concept thus informs what questions we’ll ask our guests. Similarly, having an episode format such as the rundown above helps us know when to ask the questions.

Knowing the WHAT and the WHEN (the angle that makes it unique, and the flow of the conversation) turn interview shows from Yet Another into The Only.

Sure, others have interview shows in your industry niche. And sure, others have interviewed guests you have on your show too. Listeners might be aware of these things. But if you have a great show concept and episode format, you can say to them: “Sure, you’ve heard an interview show. Sure, you’ve heard these guests interviewed before. But not like this.”

So far, as part of our show bibles, we’ve documented our show concept and our episode format. (Note that some shows contain multiple types of episodes, so one show may contain multiple formats.)

What we haven’t documented but should is the show’s tone. Will it be fun and light, serious and reflective, or something else? This is where a show cross can help.

The Show Cross: Helping Audiences Fall in Love with Your Show

The show cross is a shorthand for the feel of the show. Audiences will remember us by how they felt experiencing our shows, not just by what we said or did. 

Think of a show cross as a classic approach to pitching a Hollywood executive (or Netflix, or Hulu, or Spotify, or Amazon Prime, or good Lord do we have enough streaming services yet? Where was I? Ah yes…). If you had to pitch your show in the classic Hollywood studio fashion, it would sound like this: “Our show is like X meets Y meets Z,” or, “It’s like Undercover Boss meets Dirty Jobs!”

The goal isn’t to stick to that exact approach when you produce the content, but rather give you and your team a sense for what the as-yet uncreated final show might feel like, as well as quickly convey to internal stakeholders as you try to get buy-in that, yes, this can be a special show … like those other shows (except different).

To create a show cross, first list the shows that inspired yours. Then, list the very specific and concrete things that inspire you — the stuff you plan to steal and adapt to your own cause. This helps other stakeholders more easily “get it,” as nothing derails a discussion quite like others latching onto the wrong details. Just because you cited a popular show doesn’t mean others will (A) know that program and/or (B) agree about what specific elements, could be useful for your show.

Let’s use an example of pitching a podcast internally at our brand. We’ll stick with the same theoretical show we ran down before: a series where famous creators deconstruct favorite projects, one project per guest. Here’s our show cross:

“NPR’s Fresh Air meets Song Exploder meets [Our Brand]”

How Fresh Air Inspires Our Show:

  • Interview-style, lightly edited
  • Welcome, inviting, friendly feel, where the guest forgets the mic is there and just chats honestly
  • Questions that skip the fluff and basics and get to the heart of the matter (i.e., a well-researched interview)

How Song Exploder Inspires Our Show:

  • The piece-by-piece deconstruction of a created work
  • A focus on the interview subject, not the host. The host, not the star, is the guide to the work
  • Tightly told, shorter episodes

How [OUR Brand] Inspires Our Show:

  • Our friendly and fun tone
  • Our approach to teaching: ripping out insights overtly, not allowing people to speak too theoretically on the show without unpacking their ideas
  • Celebrating creators, i.e., an optimism about the future of creativity and business. We have a point of view about this niche. We’ll use it on the show.

These component parts are some of the most critical to include in your show bible. There are other pieces to consider, like loglines, empathy statements, and more (and new subscribers to MSR automatically receive  the full show bible template).  You can use show bibles whether you’re trying to get buy-in to make a new show or to improve an existing program. Regardless, I’ll end here:

Craft a show concept. Craft an episode format. Craft a show cross. Creative differentiation is not about budget, or cheap gimmicks, or bigger guests. 

It’s about craft.


Subscribing to our newsletter is a good idea any time, but particularly exciting during November 2019. During MSR’s Make the Case Month, subscribers will receive weekly newsletters with exclusive invitations to chat live with the MSR team. What are you waiting for? Subscribe now!


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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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