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By: Jay Acunzo on January 17th, 2020

Show Spotlight: Databox’s Podcast Proves the Power of Simple Improvements

Every Friday on Marketing Showrunners, the staff picks one branded podcast or video show to profile for inspiration and insights, pulled from our popular post, The World’s Biggest List of Branded Shows. Here’s this week’s Show Spotlight…

I’ve gotten into more meaningless debates on Twitter than I care to remember, mostly involving the subjects that bring me the most frustration: where to find the best pizza (it’s New Haven, just stop it, all other places); the New York Knicks (not “debates” so much as “mutual anger at the worst-run franchise in any major city”); and of course … creativity.

That last one centers on the same debate each time: this weird notion that some people have that says creativity requires budget. “To be more creative, we need more resources,” they say. “Poppycock! Hogwash! Nonsensical nonsense!” I reply. (Yanno, I’m kinda beginning to see why they want to debate me now?)

Creativity is a product of neither resources nor talent. Creativity, as comedian John Cleese is famous for saying, is a way of operating. If your resources only allow you to spend $300 and 4 hours per week on your podcast, then it’s how you spend that money or use that time that makes someone “more creative.” 

Few folks in marketing understand this like John Bonini, host and creator of the podcast Ground Up from Databox, a SaaS company that offers customers beautiful dashboards that pull all sources of data into one central place. 

We can learn a ton about creating meaningful shows within our resource constraints from this host and this podcast.

Let’s break it down quick.

What it is

Ground Up is an interview show talking about business growth, “but,” as John says each episode, “without all the numbers.” It focuses on the human elements of growth — the stories, the emotions, the ups and downs.

Really, the show is about sharing the story behind the numbers, which, when you think about it, is what Databox’s product is trying to unlock in customer companies: the ability to derive insights from the numbers, not just throw a bunch of stats onto a screen. Clearly, putting all your data into one place and making it accessible to all is one challenge in doing so — hence, their product. 

Databox has published 63 episodes of the show, which they relaunched with new artwork and a new sound  just a few months ago. It’s that sound we can learn from most. But first, one more bit of context…

Who it’s for

Anyone interested in the habits behind business growth, with a marketing bent. Most of their guests are indeed marketers, though many are entrepreneurs and some are other types of executives.

Databox focuses on high-growth, tech-savvy companies — fellow SaaS businesses and other digital-first brands, typically in B2B, though not exclusively. I guess what I’m saying is: If there’s one critique I have of the show, it’s this section. Who is this for and, perhaps more crucially, who is it NOT for? Carving out that clear identity will bring the right listeners way into their corner, rather than every potential listener a few steps toward them.

Why it works

1. The intros

Here’s where Ground Up exemplifies the idea that  creativity is about how you approach the same thing you’ve done before, with the same number of resources: the intros. Here, John really shines, not because his CEO gave him more budget to record his intros, but because he changed how he approached them. He narrates his openings, which helps him set up the intrigue. 

He asks open-ended questions, proposes why each episode matters to the listener … and skips most of the meandering bios most hosts read, especially on business shows. (You learn about the guest later, but even then, John doesn’t simply invite them to drone on about their background. That stuff’s boring, every time. Narrate a shorter version, or just leap into the good stuff! John does that every time.)

2. A small sense of drama

John’s an adept interviewer, teeing up the things we as listeners need in order to be compelled to keep listening. For instance, before he gets to the growth of video platform Vimeo, John asks his guest, VP of marketing Melissa Matlins, to share some details about the team before she joined. What he achieves by doing that is a small but crucial win for any interviewer: give people the backdrop into which your guest entered. Even more crucially, ensure the guest talks about the challenges they faced to increase tension and improve the sense that something is at stake. John does this too.

Not to beat this to death, but the intros are where John’s sense of drama really shows up most. He raises anticipation for the rest of the episode. It sets the tone. It may be surprising that a simple scripted intro can help carry what amounts to an unstructured interview (albeit from a talented interviewer), but it’s true. Why? It frames our entire understanding of what to look for as listeners, of the value we’ll extract.

3. Follow-up questions

Just because they’ve answered your question doesn’t mean they’ve answered the question. Generalities, pithy maxims, corporate jargon, and lackluster stories can all torpedo the entertainment and educational value for listeners. The real magic of an interview is the follow-up question. (We wrote about 9 great interview questions to try asking, pulled from the magic of folks like Terry Gross, Howard Stern, Bill Simmons, and Kara Swisher.)

John dives deeper than most hosts. He does this in two ways:

1. He asks for examples, and asks “how?” or “why?” a lot. It can be that simple. Again, a more resonant — some might say creative — show is within our reach if we’re willing to change how we approach the work we’re able to do — not complain about resources limiting the scope. It’s not about scope. It’s about what we try within that scope.

2. John also provides ample preamble context to tee up his questions, which often act as a way to increase tension or advance the story. This is something he tends to do a bit too much in some spurts, but it’s also something you can sense him learning on the fly — a marketer with a public love for interviewers like Bill Simmons who master this skill. We should all be working so hard to mimic the greats — not to simply copy and stop, but to meld who we are together with styles that inspire us, thus creating something new.

…and one creative wrinkle to make the show better.

John and I have actually spoken about this offline, so I am tipping my hand a bit, but I believe the show will be better — and John agrees — with some segmentation. It doesn’t require any clever jingles or stings to advance. John can simply state out loud, “This next section is called XYZ, which is where we do ABC.”

These segments themselves don’t need to be clever, either. It’s about shaping a proprietary way of approaching the topic. What is the framework of understanding this concept? What do listeners need or want to know, in what order, to truly appreciate the human side of growth?

For instance, on an upcoming experiment of MSR’s show, 3 Clips, we’re trying our hand at a segmented show. If our goal is to deconstruct great podcasts to learn what makes them great, what format achieves that? Here’s what we’re trying (coming soon!)…

1. Cold Open: a teaser-y open to intrigue listeners and cement the idea that this is for them. (I.e. for YOU!)

2. Facts of the Show: the basics you need to understand that episode’s featured podcast. Each time, one host reads a few facts, like show name, host, topic, example episodes, production style, and more.

3. Studio Pitch: a way to present the show as if pitched to a Hollywood executive, so we all understand the feel of the show. (“It’s like Radiolab meets Binge Mode!”) (Side note: I would absolutely listen to that show.)

4. Snap Judgments: since listeners make quick judgments about their shows to decide if they will or won’t continue listening, we do the same, playing the first moments of a given episode, shouting “STOP!”, and commenting on how we’re feeling.

5. 3 Clips: we play back three different clips, making sense of each one as we go.

6. Wrinkles: what one small change could take this show to the next level?

7. Final Score: a final score based on a very scientific system we’ll reveal in future episodes of 3 Clips.

Without much or even any post-production — and certainly without any extra budget — we can all take the same number of minutes we spend recording our show, but approach the flow of the episode in a much different, more creative way. 

Hear an episode of the show below:

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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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