Show Bites: The 3 Core Pieces of Any Great Podcast or Video Series
Creating shows to build passionate audiences provides brands undeniable benefits: we hold attention, gain trust, and both increase the lifetime value of our existing audience while decreasing customer acquisition costs thanks to word-of-mouth. However, this stuff can feel like a total mess of parts and pieces. Show Bites is our series of quick-hitting posts where we snap off a tiny piece of the overall work, rethink it, and try to rapidly improve.
The Show Bite: The Marketing Showrunner’s Missing Strategy
As more and more brands launch shows in audio and video form, a movement is brewing. We call that the rise of the marketing showrunner. Like anything that gains momentum in marketing, there’s good and bad and, oh hey there, ugly, I see you made it to yet another reunion of marketing trends! Thought you wouldn’t come this time. No, no, we’re just thrilled you’re here. Party’s out back, down the street, and around the corner. Yep, right out that door…
Where was I? Ah, yes: marketing and our typical approach to new approaches. Each time looks the same, as we put tactics over strategy and go flailing about the intertubes. (Hey, I’m guilty, I’m not absolving myself either.)
It’s not just with shows. When blogging grew to popularity among brands, the drive to ship more “pieces” merely commodified the very notion of articles, leading to a flood of low-brow, game-the-system pieces. It’s like brands tried to shout at you, “LOOK HOW HELPFUL WE ARE WITH OUR CONTENT!” …instead of, oh I don’t know, genuinely being helpful?
Likewise, as social media rose to ubiquity, automation and volume and spammy DMing (and more!) promised to drown out the well-intentioned and the audience-centric marketers.
Still, when a wave crashes and the tide goes back out, the marketers who were merely riding the wave get washed away. All that’s left are those who really dug in.
So let’s dig in to this showrunning stuff, shall we? (Subscribers from Red Bull, Roku, Shopify, Salesforce, Wistia, Zendesk, and the BBC all have.) Today, we wonder: How do we craft an original series more thuoghtfully and avoid that tactic-over-strategy misstep plaguing so many teams?
Well, to help us avoid brute-forcing our way forward, we can break up this vague or daunting notion of a “show” into three knowable parts, then plan for each. But before we get there, we first need to debunk a common misconception about running shows.
The Misconception: Great Shows Are About Guests and Gimmicks
It’s easy to assume that an original series, especially nonfiction shows (i.e. not acted), must rely on one or both of the following ideas:
First, we look for big-name guests. Among our teams, we share a list of, shall we say, “people of influence”? On that list are the Usual Suspects that we’ve seen appear on every other competitor show, blog, and newsletter, often saying the same stuff. Point is, we conflate “big name guest” with “awesome content.” But that’s no guarantee and, in fact, the stiffer the competition, the less important the guest becomes.
Second, we look for a gimmick to supplement our guest lineup. This often trips us up right away, since it’s tricky to create a hook or conceit for our show that’s both eye-catching AND relevant to our brands. For instance, I once saw a sales tech company launch a version of Hot Ones. If you don’t know, Hot Ones is a popular YouTube series where Sean Evans interviews celebrities. The gimmick is that, instead of merely conduct an interview, Sean and his guest eat progressively spicier wings — one question per wing. That’s a gimmick, right? But in Sean’s case, the gimmick is completely relevant to the brand. Hot Ones appears on a channel about the intersection of food and pop culture called First We Feast. It’s owned by a pop culture media company, Complex.
In the case of that sales technology company, however, the gimmick was a hollow stunt, a ploy to attract some eyeballs, but not advance our understanding of or appreciation for the brand and its core value to the world of sales. That company has nothing to do with food. Predictably, the show got very little viewership or engagement, and they sunset after just 11 episodes.
That seems to end a marketing team’s typical approach to crafting an original series: book the Usual Suspects as guests, and slap on some kind of gimmick, regardless of whether it’s relevant to the brand or advances our mission and service to our audience.
We can do better. It can be simple, too. We need only break apart a “show” into three distinct pieces — those three knowable parts I mentioned earlier — to become more thoughtful and strategic.
Consider Instead: The 3 Parts to Any Show
The word “show” immediately brings to mind a rather daunting project. There’s a lot of “surface area” to a show, a lot of moving parts and pieces. Running a show is often not the lone task on a marketer’s or a team’s plate, too. All of this means that we either copy (as mentioned above) or brute-force our way forward, feeling around and trying to do our best using gut feel. Ultimately, the project becomes about calories and crossing fingers. However, we can distill ANY show down to its three fundamental pieces:
The concept. The format. And the talent.
The Show Concept
Every original series should have a show-level concept. This is the conceit, the angle, the journey you’re embarking on, inviting audiences to join you. It should be relevant to your brand, differentiated to hear described, and instantly help audiences self-select that this show is for them.
Note: “Talking to the best people” in a given niche is NOT a concept. That’s like saying your school’s mission is to “provide great knowledge.” Yes, of course. You’re a school. You — and every competitor school — does exactly that. Similarly, your show should always promise to feature great people. Of course it does. Your show AND every competitor show exists to do that, or to provide great knowledge, or great entertainment value. All we’ve done when we promise “the best” or “smartest” or any other superlative is try to incrementally beat the competition based on competency. That’s not a concept. “We’re better” is not a unique identifier.
No, we need to be more strategic than Yet Another. Our concept should articulate why we’re The Only in some way.
Here are a few of my favorite examples of excellent show-level concepts:
- Science Vs — This is a podcast from Gimlet Media which says it “pits the facts against everything else.” THAT is a great concept. It differentiates Science Vs in arguably the most crowded podcast niche, science. Sure, other science shows may talk about organic foods, but when Science Vs does, they pit the facts against the pop culture understanding in a sort of head-to-head matchup. That’s the power of a great concept. Others may feature a certain guest or talk about a certain topic too … but not like you!
- Pricing Page Teardown — This is a video series from the analytics SaaS company ProfitWell. While other shows might discuss pricing or, more broadly, use of data to inform smarter decisions by their viewers, PPT provides a more game-like environment. Similar to Science Vs, they pit a couple competitors’ pricing pages against each other and try to compare and contrast what’s working and what’s not. But a show concept doesn’t need to merely be a head-to-head matchup. Our next example isn’t.
- 3 Books — This podcast from bestselling author and keynote speaker Neil Pasricha might feature big-name guests found on other podcasts, but you haven’t heard them like this. And that’s the true measure of a great show concept. On 3 Books, each person shares the three most transformative books in their lives, and Neil uses that as a jumping off point to understand the person’s thinking, their work, and their life story.
Ask yourself: What is our concept? What are we uniquely qualified to explore or deliver? Declare that you’re going on a journey, and explore that across episodes, going deeper and deeper in ways that build off each episode. Put something to a test and declare the results. Pit things head to head. Articulate the answer audiences are implicitly asking every time they discover a new show: “Why should I care?” If yours sounds like “because we’re better” or “we learn from the best,” remember: everyone else makes that claim, too. Don’t be Yet Another. Be The Only.
The Episode Format
This second core piece of a show is the structure of your actual content, often called an episode “rundown” in the world of TV. Particularly crucial for interview shows, but helpful for any kind of program, an episode format describes (and, crucially, documents) how you plan to move the audience all the way to the end of an episode once they hit play. In other words, your format is how you keep the Golden Rule of Original Series in mind.
Plaguing many shows, even those with great concepts, is a lack of strategy for how to structure the content. Instead, we’re left with meandering final cuts that lose the listener or viewer by spending too much time on things that should be edited out or avoided during the recording because the host has a plan all along.
A couple examples…
- Binge Mode — A podcast from The Ringer wherein the co-hosts binge a popular show or series of films (most notably, Game of Thrones and Harry Potter), then analyze the stories, themes, and world-building mythology behind them. Their episodes are long, sometimes touching 90 or even 120 minutes, but they hold attention quite well thanks to a chaptered approach. Each chapter recurs, so the listener learns to anticipate the flow of the episode as similar each time. To cement that flow in our minds, they record a playful, slightly remixed introduction of each chapter, followed by some sting music which is identical for a given chapter across episodes. For instance, their first chapter is always a recap of what they binged to prepare for that episode. Before introducing that chapter when profiling, say, Episode 6 of Season 7 of Game of Thrones, they’d say something like this: “Grab you flaming swords, and let’s head beyond the wall (terrible plan, by the way), because it’s time to explore Episode 6 of Season 7 of Game of Thrones.” That format recurs (a couple details from the binged content being recapped, the mention of what specifically they’re recapping, and then a familiar bit of music to signal this is the chapter where they summarize the action).
- Marketing Unboxed — The video series from Zaius, a software company serving ecommerce companies, literally unboxes ecommerce orders from popular brands to understand their packaging, as well as explores their online purchase and loyalty flows online. In each short episode, they start by revealing the brand, then wonder how good their marketing “really is,” before saying, “Let’s unbox it.” After that, they start viewers off with a quick overview of the order, the box, and what’s inside. As they move through a handful of points about the brand, they highlight the theme of that section with a big, obvious chapter heading (e.g. “USER GENERATED CONTENT”) in the lower left. They use screen shots and b-roll video (mainly screen capture), and end on a segment called “WRAPPING IT UP” in which they summarize key takeaways and give the brand a rating in the form of praise hands emojis, instead of stars.
Episode-level formats can also be more hidden than these two examples. In both of those cases, the audience knows the segments exist. On the other hand, my podcast, Unthinkable, is a narrative-style show that might feel different week to week. Episodes aren’t consumed by chapter, but by story — one full episode at a time. However, underneath the episodes, I use a rundown to guide the formation of the story. (You can see Unthinkable’s rundown right here if you’re curious.)
With a format in mind, not only does a show deliver its concept to the audience in delightful ways, it starts to form a recognizable identity in the minds of audiences, which creates loyalty. Additionally, it gives us marketers a template off of which we can innovate, in addition to enabling consistency and frequency of production.
When creating the strategy for our shows, we should thoughtfully shape both the show-level concept and episode-level format. It always starts there. That’s the IP behind the show, and that’s the core strategy to create something original and irresistible.
Of course, something else actually brings the concept and episode format to life…
Arguably the least-planned-for piece of any show at most companies is the personality or personalities appearing on the show. Our default settings seem to be one of these three options: hire a celebrity to host, have a marketer host it, or find an executive to host. All three can be very dangerous. The celebrity might bring natural charisma or even journalistic skill, but the trust now flows to them instead of us. If they decide to raise prices next season, or leave, or if our audience decides to follow the host to receive future content but they aren’t participating in marketing the show all that actively, we’re sunk. We’re now in the business of sponsoring the celebrity’s show, rather than owning and operating our own original series.
The marketer and executive each have their common issues too of course, and these two options can sometimes represent a lack of strategy for who should host. After all, nobody has “talker’s block.” Still, being charming on a microphone or on camera, crafting a story others want to hear, and/or interviewing someone to extract amazing content are all difficult skills requiring lots of repetition and care for craft. (There’s a reason that the few articles about interview techniques and hosting skills are our most popular to date.) I’ve just seen too many CMOs decide they’ll host something, only to cringe at the lack of energy or the canned questions. (Weird but true: When something is just kinda “missing” from their performance, watch the eyebrows. They almost never move…)
Putting a marketer or an executive on the show as a host, without giving them proper education or time to practice (or without them having the time to dedicate to do so) can be just as if not more dangerous than hiring the celebrity. Sure, all the trust flows to you, but is the vehicle good enough to consume for audiences to invest any time in it?
Unlike the documentation and discussion required to articulate a show concept and episode format, host talent is really all about repetition and care for craft, period. In the end, a host who only thinks about the show during actual recordings is simply not a good enough option when you consider the caliber of podcasts and videos available to audiences.
Shows can be messy. It’s true. They offer a lot of “surface area” to cover with all their parts and pieces. But if we can break them up into these three core pieces and craft a strategy for each, we’ll be miles ahead of the competition. Best of all, we’ll have none, because we won’t be “yet another.” We’ll be the only ones who do what we do.
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, author of Break the Wheel, and host/producer of docuseries about creative work. 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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