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Marketing Showrunners

Helping you make your podcast more central to your brand and to your audience's life. Make a show that makes a difference.

By: Molly Donovan on March 13th, 2020

Why Showrunners Need to Think Like Product Marketers

Showrunners have a unique and lofty role, because they kind of need to embody every type of marketer…all at once.

They need to be big, strategic, and long-term thinkers, like the CMO.

They need to have an innate appreciation for words and storytelling, like content marketers.

They need to understand how to market their shows and feed a (hopefully) growing group of hungry listeners or watchers, like demand generation.

But maybe most importantly? They need to get deep inside the minds of their audience, like product marketers. 

Ah, product marketers: Perhaps the most elusive of the marketing department sub-groups. These intrepid individuals sit at a trifold intersection, simultaneously internalizing the wants and needs of the marketing team, the product team, and the sales team. 

According to a 2018 Drift blog post, product marketers need to have a deep understanding of their customer and their market. Pre-launch, it’s their responsibility to own positioning, messaging, customer development, and go-to-market strategy. Post-launch, they help with sales enablement and work to drive demand, adoption, and success of the product. 

What happens when the “product” is a show?

The same logic applies. Showrunners need to own the positioning, messaging, customer development, go-to market strategy, demand, adoption, and success of the show. They need to understand why audience members act the way they do, why they choose one company’s show over another, what problems they’re trying to solve in their own work and lives, and how they typically pursue both knowledge and entertainment. They need to understand the show medium inside and out. They need to articulate the show’s goals and connect those goals to the audience’s needs.

By treating their show like a product, showrunners can assume the role of product marketers to gain control of its pre- and post-launch success. And the primary quality of a good product marketer? An innate understanding of the customer.

What does it mean to truly understand your customer or audience?

Harvard marketing professor Theodore Levitt famously said, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” It’s a phrase marketers often repeat to themselves and one another — particularly when things get off-track. It’s a rally cry: don’t sell the drill. Sell the hole. What’s more: don’t position yourself as a company that makes drills. Position yourself as a company that solves problems or makes customers’ visions realities. In the long run, that will be the way to gain your customers’ trust and love. 

A 2005 Harvard Business Review article took the idea step further: 

“The structure of a market, seen from the customers’ point of view, is very simple: They just need to get things done, as Ted Levitt said. When people find themselves needing to get a job done, they essentially hire products to do that job for them. The marketer’s task is therefore to understand what jobs periodically arise in customers’ lives for which they might hire products the company could make.” 

That, ultimately, is the product marketer’s job: to understand the set of jobs unique to their company’s target customer and explain how they can “hire” the company’s products to do these jobs. But what happens when the product you’re trying to convince a customer to hire is a show? What job is a show doing for the audience? 

Discovering and articulating that is a showrunner’s first job. 

How to get people to hire your show

When people listen to podcasts or watch video shows, what job are they hiring the show to do for them? There are several possibilities, including:

  • They’re bored, and they want a show that will provide entertainment for them
  • They want help solving a problem/problems at work or in their lives, and they want a show that can help them do that
  • They are passionate about a certain issue or topic, and they want a show that allows them to explore that passion more deeply

An important note: the “jobs” your prospective audience wants to complete are not the transactional type of job most customers seeking a certain product must do. Rather, your audience is looking for something more transformative. Re-examine the bullet points above. The problems your audience is likely trying to solve are not one-and-done; they’re long-term efforts that, hopefully, end up having longstanding positive repercussions in their work and in their lives. Your audience doesn’t just want a quarter-inch hole — they want to think more deeply about why they need the hole in the first place. They want to know what the hole gets them — does it allow them to hang a treasured family photo in their living room? Does it mean they can assemble furniture for a nursery? They don’t just want to create a hole — they want to create a home. 

When your product is a show, your audience doesn’t want help with a one-off job. They want help with a career. And as a showrunner, it’s your job to identify the predominant, career reasons your target audience would hire your show. To do that, you need to dive deeply into your audience’s psyche. 

Audience development for showrunners

“Audience development” is a term we hear often as marketers. And too often, we relegate it to a box we can check by asking surface-level questions of our customers. We ask them, oh-so clinically, what their “pain points” are. We ask them how they found our company. We ask them if they’d recommend us to a friend or colleague. We check the box. Audience development complete. 

When marketing any product, but particularly a show, we need to uncover more information than our superficial questions can elicit. We need to uncover true, comprehensive answers to our “why” questions — perhaps even before our audience themselves realize those answers. 

In the words of Ryan Singer, Basecamp’s Head of Strategy: 

“The hardest thing about customer interviews is knowing where to dig. An effective interview is more like a friendly interrogation. We don’t want to learn what customers think about the product, or what they like or dislike–we want to know what happened and how they chose. What was the chain of cause and effect that made them decide to use Basecamp? To get those answers we can’t just ask surface questions, we have to keep digging back behind the answers to find out what really happened.”

Yes! This advice is imperative for any marketer to heed, but especially for showrunners. When your product is your show, you need your audience to choose you — not just one time or a few times, but over and over again. You’re competing with a never-ending stream of distractions that threaten to preclude them from selecting your show in the first place, or listening/watching all the way through to the end once they’ve chosen it. 

And when your product is a show, you need to know more than what happened and how they chose. When you assess the Audience Relationship Pyramid, you need to understand the following about your audience:

  • What they would find relevant
  • What they would find enjoyable
  • What they would find refreshing
  • What would resonate with them personally

This is a tall order — particularly that final part. When interacting with your audience and interviewing (or, uh, interrogating) them, you need to ask the right questions to elicit those evanescent moments of clarity, where you can truly understand the personal desires and drives of the people you’ve created your show to serve. 

Because, of course, that is the job you’re hiring the show to do: help you serve your audience. Your show is the vehicle you use to develop a relationship with the people who will loyally advocate for your brand. It’s the (not at all short) shortcut you’re taking to develop a true dialogue with your customers and instill in them senses of both trust and love. 

In the long run, the product marketing work you do to understand your audience on a personal level and identify why they choose — and keep choosing — your show will pay dividends. As you grow in understanding with your audience, you’ll begin to see compounding benefits: organic growth from word of mouth recommendations, inbound feedback that helps you refresh and refine the show, and loyal listeners who become loyal customers and loyal advocates of your brand.

Nobody said showrunning was going to be easy. You need to deploy every device in the marketing toolkit to make something worthwhile. And what’s more, you need to truly understand your audience — not just segment them into two-dimensional personas, not just rattle off their most common “pain points.” To make their favorite show — which needs to be your ultimate goal — you need to understand not just the acute problem they need to solve today. You need to know them well enough to identify the issues they’ll face tomorrow. You need to know not just what they hate and what to solve; you also need to know what they love. You need to know them — not just superficially, but on a deeply personal level. 

There’s a movement growing in marketing: to dam the constant stream of shallow content in favor of projects and messages that mean something. Creating a show is one way to begin making this shift. And to do that well, you need to think of your audience as a group of friends you have not yet met. You need to understand what drives them, what excites them, what annoys them, what fascinates them. You need to dig deep with them and ask the right — the deep — questions, so you can allow them to “hire” your show and help them solve problems they didn’t even know they had. 


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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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