Your Show’s Premise: A Map to Your True North
Are you here for the right reasons?
This is not just a question asked by every contestant on ABC’s The Bachelor/Bachelorette since the history of time. It’s also one that marketing showrunners should constantly ask themselves.
Why am I here? What am I trying to accomplish with this content? What journey do I want to go on with my customers?
It’s our belief that each of these sub-questions should have a common answer: you’re here to make your customer’s favorite show, so you can be their favorite brand.
Of course, actually doing that is easier said than done (um, hi, that’s why MSR exists). Creating a favorite show involves a complex matrix of qualities that often feel just out of reach. To create a favorite show, you need to make something that’s transformative, not transactional. It needs to be proprietary and community-building in a world of commodity content. It needs to be memorable and personal to the individual people and actual personalities that compose your target audience, not just the two-dimensional personas you’ve crafted in a marketing exercise. And you, as the creator, need to be fully present so you can engage and inspire your audience, not just inform them.
Understanding the elements that coalesce to form a favorite is as empowering as it is overwhelming. Once you’re armed with your Creator’s Compass, you can take the first step on the path toward achieving “favorite” status.
Ultimately, that compass will guide you to your True North: saying something that matters to your audience. Each company’s True North — and, indeed, each showrunner’s — will be different. Your audience comprises multi-faceted human beings who care about a lot of things. It’s your job to figure out not just something they care about, but also how to get them there.
To do that, you need to find the foundation that will allow each episode of your show to advance ever-closer to that True North. You need to define your show’s premise.
What is Your Show’s Premise?
Etymologically, the word “premise” derives from the Latin word praemittere, which literally means “to put before.” In logic, a premise is a proposition that supports or helps support a conclusion — i.e., the idea that’s “put before” the conclusion. A story’s premise is its foundation: the idea or statement that precedes and supports the narration.
At its core, a show’s premise is that preceding idea, which the show itself will pressure-test. It’s the promise of the story to come, with a hint at the ultimate takeaway.
For example: think about the premise of one of my all-time favorite TV sitcoms. The Office isn’t just a show about the funny antics of a group of coworkers. Rather, it’s a mockumentary about how shared experiences created by an eccentric manager at a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania result in an almost familial bond among the company’s employees. If The Office’s showrunners were describing their overarching preceding idea, they probably wouldn’t say “We think funny stuff will happen in an American workplace,” even though it’s technically true. They might be more likely to say, “We think if we use an eccentric manager’s antics to apply pressure to his employees, they will forge unbreakable bonds — to hilarious effect.” That premise, that as-yet untested idea, is more likely to hook the audience. That premise promises a more complicated, more transformative show — not just a comedy routine.
Your Show’s Premise: A Map to Your True North
When considering the idea your show should test, you need to go back to the original question: why are you here? After all, if you’re on this journey to create your audience’s favorite show, then you’re not just creating a show for the sake of creating a show. You’re not just launching a podcast because doing so is trendy, or because your boss thinks you should, or because the data shows that customers are ready and willing to spend more quality time with companies via shows (which, incidentally, it does, and they are). In fact, you shouldn’t really be thinking about your assignment as creating a podcast at all. Rather, you’re creating a story: the story of what could be. The podcast is just the medium by which you’ll tell this story to your audience and help them understand what they and you could achieve together. You’re gearing up for a long-term relationship with your audience that should transform them, not coming up with a list of one-off episodes that may or may not engage them. To do the latter, you don’t need a premise. You just need some high-profile guests and a few good gimmicks. To do the former, though, you need to keep one eye on your final destination: the True North that matters most to your specific company. Your show premise is the map you’ll use to get there.
A quick note about this map: it’s not a GPS. You’re not plugging in the destination and then going on auto-pilot. Your show premise is much more wonderfully analogue than that. It’s a guide that allows and encourages you to take the scenic route, to discover the detours and winding paths that will come to define your journey even more than the destination itself. The premise is just an idea — it’s up to the show itself to figure out if the hunch outlined by the premise is correct. That idea serves as a guide, but no more: as you create the show, you become more than a direction-follower — you become a true navigator.
To help you reach your destination, your premise should have certain qualities that best allow you to navigate the unknown terrain ahead. And because this is MSR, those qualities should come in a punchy, alliterative triad.
Indeed, these are Three Fs of a Favorite Show’s Premise. Note that this is a sliding scale: each show is different, and each will require different combinations of these three qualities. We’ll examine them first through the lens of our own podcast: 3 Clips.
Focused, adj. Not divided or scattered among several areas of interest or concern.
Too many shows fall victim to a lack of focus. They try to elude constraint, and thus they remain somewhat amorphous. When noncommittal shows try to be something for everyone, they divide and dilute their message and risk failing to resonate with a core fan base. They are thus more likely to become nothing for anyone.
A good show premise adds the necessary constraints that, paradoxically, allow creativity to flourish. It should offer a perspective on one of the big questions your company is helping customers address. It should lean into questions of what’s broken in the industry, and why. It should allow your company to showcase why it is uniquely positioned to help fix those problems. It should be something more than “a show about marketing trends” or “a show about business success,” because such unspecific premises don’t promise the transformation your audience craves. Those overly general shows are unlikely to draw audiences in with a tantalizing hook, and they’re unlikely to become favorites.
When you choose a show premise, don’t just choose a general topic to explore, unfocused, in your show. Rather, see if you can view that topic from a specific angle, which explores and illuminates and complicates it.
For example: at MSR, the True North we’re pursuing at a company level is the idea that great marketing isn’t about who arrives; it’s about who stays — and in today’s landscape, the best way for companies to develop the kind of trusting, loving relationships that inspire customers to stay with them is to spend time with them via a video or audio show. That’s the ultimate destination we’re trying to reach with our readers and listeners: a place where marketing is better, more targeted to the right customer, and more predicated on actual human emotions and relationships.
The premise of our podcast, 3 Clips, keeps one eye on that proverbial prize while focusing on the tactical elements of producing favorite shows. 3 Clips is predicated on the premise that resonance is teachable — that we as marketers can make sense of truly resonant shows by picking them apart and playing back the little things other marketers have done well. It’s a first focused step in our overarching journey to help marketers make favorite shows and compel audiences to stay with them.
The show’s focus actually allows the audience to take an infinite number of scenic routes on their own journey to crafting a favorite show. By deconstructing and understanding the choices other showrunners have made, future showrunners become better equipped to make shows that matter. The simple act of making 3 Clips doesn’t help our audience arrive immediately at MSR’s True North, but it does offer a map with a focused type of guidance that can set them on the right track.
Flexible, adj. Capable of being readily changed; not bound by rigid standards.
While it’s important for your premise to examine big, company-defining questions from a specific angle, it’s equally important for the premise to be flexible. The best premises are not set in stone; rather, they are flexible enough to allow new perspectives and themes to emerge and take hold. Your premise should prioritize discovery over formula.
With your premise — as with so many elements of your show — you need to allow yourself permission to change course. If it takes a few episodes — or even a full season — for your premise to evolve to a place that feels right, that’s a-ok.
When selecting your initial premise, make sure you’re not backing yourself into any corners with something too defined or too reliant on a certain host, guest, or gimmick. Instead, broaden your scope while adding your company’s unique perspective in order to maximize your potential to become your audience’s favorite.
For example, while the 3 Clips premise has a distinct focus — deconstructing shows into their component parts, so marketers can understand what makes a show truly resonant — it is not so rigid as to stymie growth or prevent adaptability. The premise isn’t: marketers can create more resonant shows by doing XYZ. Each episode is an exploration of the many elements that go into creating a podcast — and why some elements work for some shows and not for others. The premise is focused enough to inform the show’s style and creation and sequence, but it’s flexible enough to evolve and adapt and demonstrate how variable true resonance is.
Fresh, adj. Being in an original and unused or unspoiled state; not known or experienced before.
In a 1999 commencement address at Mount Holyoke College, journalist Anna Quindlen said:
“Every story has already been told. Once you’ve read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel. Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had.”
Creators of every type — novelists, journalists, content marketers, showrunners — are constantly fighting staleness. They’re fighting stale ideas and repeated concepts that have already been done time and time again. It’s hard to come up with a fresh perspective — but it’s so important for the success of the creative endeavor. And blessedly, as Quindlen suggested, every creator has the unique ability to add a fresh perspective to any idea, because they have what no one else has — their own specific ideas.
So many marketers fall victim to the trap of staleness. They mimic formats and premises that worked for other companies, but which fall flat for their own because they lack the fresh perspective unique to that company or that marketer. They don’t tap into their most powerful secret weapon: their own individuality.
When creating your show’s premise, don’t do that. Infuse it with your own fresh perspective, however subtle, which will take the show from being something that anyone could have created to one that is distinctly yours. That fresh feeling will make your show memorable. It will make it favorite…able.
For example: content abounds about improving marketing by making better and more resonant content — by pursuing brand affinity over brand awareness. But 3 Clips adds MSR’s distinct and fresh perspective to that concept by deconstructing the choices showrunners who have achieved resonance have made. This fresh perspective makes 3 Clips not just a show about marketing — it makes it a show that could only have been made by MSR.
Cultivating Brand IP Through Your Show
As you move through this list of elements of a favorite show premise, you might be thinking of existing podcasts that hold hallowed “favorite” status in your own mind. Some of these premises might give you pause, because they might not seem quite so “focused.”
A smattering of excellent, favorite-level podcasts do exist that are flexible and fresh without being focused. A few come to mind: The Bill Simmons Podcast from The Ringer, or Akimbo from Seth Godin, or Armchair Expert with Dax Shepard. While each of these shows is excellent, its premise is relatively unfocused. Bill Simmons’ podcast is a general interview show about, broadly, sports and pop culture. Armchair Expert features Dax Shepard interviewing celebrities. Akimbo is almost as unfocused as a podcast could possibly get: it’s a monologue show about big ideas.
So why are these shows favorites, if they haven’t zeroed in on a particular angle of their true north?
I would argue that these shows can get away with their relative lack of focus because they are so reliant on their celebrity hosts. Indeed: the premise of each of these shows could truly be Bill Simmons has a podcast, or Dax Shepard has a podcast, or Seth Godin has a podcast. Each of these individuals has built enough reputational clout that a focus becomes almost unnecessary; they themselves are the hook that will tantalize audiences and keep them coming back for more. Their podcasts are extensions of the personal brands they have built.
Most business podcasts, though — and, indeed, most podcasts in general — do not have the cult of personality of a Bill Simmons or a Seth Godin on which to rely. For these shows, a focus is beneficial, because it helps the show reinforce something unique to their company: Brand IP. A great show premise knits together those three elements — focus, flexibility, and freshness — in a way that allows a simple, plain language statement of an idea worthy of exploration. That single statement should feel specific and proprietary, provocative and unique. It should feel like Brand IP.
Too many shows are not manifestations of their brands’ IP, and their premises reflect that disconnect. Too many premises contain qualifier words, or comparative words, or superlative words (“The World’s First XYZ Podcast” or “The Bill Simmons Podcast…for Marketing”). These premises are inherently weak, because they rely on something else to prove true.
A good premise, with focused, flexible, and fresh elements, should be able to exist regardless of other shows or leaders in the space. It should be able to survive even without its original host, because that indicates that the show is about more than one personality — it’s about true Brand IP. For marketers, the right premise is that map to the ever-elusive True North. With it, you know what your show should include, and — just as importantly — what it shouldn’t. You know what tone it should take. You know what success will look like, even if you’re not yet entirely sure how to get there.
When audiences find a premise that makes this promise, they’ll be hooked. They’ll self-select your show, because they are just as interested as you are in proving out that foundational idea. And the process of proving that idea, they know, will be a journey. It’s not a commodity, not something they’ll listen to when they need a specific answer to a specific problem. If they’re as curious as you are about arriving at the True North you seek, they’ll be more likely to willingly embark on this journey with you, because they’re genuinely excited to discover what lies ahead.
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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