Seven Habits of Highly Effective Podcasts

There is no magic formula to creating anything successful. But there are things that you can do to increase your odds. Podcasting is no different.

Having had a listen to loads of shows, here’s some things that I’ve noticed. Warning: Of course some shows break these ‘rules’ and are still super-successful. But personally, if I’m focused on achieving success I’ll tend to look at what large numbers of successful people have done, rather than gambling I can replicate an outlier.

Chart-topping shows are long-running shows

An article in Bloomberg talked about how there had been no new podcast hits in recent years and the fact that the biggest shows were the long-running ones. Of course, the truth is that very few podcasts can become instant hits.

Most podcasts that eventually do well, get there through lots of practice and by building an audience predominantly through word of mouth.

A ten-part run of a non-serialised podcast (ie things that aren’t documentaries) are unlikely to build up much steam. It takes a long while for shows to find their groove (and respond to listeners’ feedback) and it takes a while for people to be comfortable enough to recommend a show, and then even more time for a new listener to take the plunge.

The current Apple Podcast number one is The Diary of a CEO. It’s on episode 115 and has been running since September 2017. It has been a long build for the show – both in quality and popularity – but it’s now a well-produced, good-listen and ready to benefit from the host’s new, larger, TV profile.

Back catalogues are also important for scale. Over 50% of downloaded shows are old episodes.

High concepts or great stories are essential

There are no shortage of podcasts. Or Books. Or magazines. Or TV shows.

Successful products need to cut through in their market. “Hey we’re a show that just chats about xxx each week” is not good enough.

Wikipedia tells us:

High concept is a type of artistic work that can be easily pitched with a succinctly stated premise. It can be contrasted with low concept, which is more concerned with character development and other subtleties that are not as easily summarised.

Listeners mostly find new shows through recommendations so they need to be able to explain your show to someone quickly. Additionally people see a small square graphic and a show title. If you’re lucky they then click play on an episode to audition you.

Can your show communicate through all these means what it’s about, and encourage people to listen?

The one type of show that breaks rule #1 above is documentary-style series. The Missing Cryptoqueen. The Coming Storm. Sweet Bobby. Successful documentaries (and fiction) usually have brilliant hooks.

If someone’s going to give you an hour of their time, unsurprisingly they want to know what they’re going to get.

Strong openings

Successful shows have a great first 90 seconds. You need to sell the concept, for new listeners, and if it’s guest-based you need to sell who’s on and why. If it’s not about guests, great shows get into their content fast.

If you include the phrase “well, co-host, hasn’t it been a busy week” and then you ramble on for 20 minutes, you’re not doing it properly.

Many big interview shows start with a montage of guests answers, which adds texture, pace and prepares you for what’s to come. In other shows, like Happy Place or Adam Buxton, you get a strong endorsement from the presenter explaining who the guest is, really giving cues to why you should keep listening.

Decent production

Great shows don’t sound crap. Strong openings are usually prepped, be that scripted or with produced elements.

You want to reduce any part of your podcast that stops new listeners from tuning in, or give existing listeners a reason to tune out.

How many times have you listened to an episode about half way through and then you have to stop for a real-life reason – maybe you get to your destination or are interrupted by a call – and then when you’re free again, you choose to abandon that episode?

It’s probably not something you do for the shows that you love and are excited to get a new episode of, but for those shows that are in the second division when scrolling through your podcast app, the ones that you don’t always get to, they’re the ones that you’re much tougher on.

So much of this comes down to production.

No one knows what is or isn’t edited out of a show, but jeez you can tell when there’s stuff that’s left in that’s boring or repetitive.

The longer the podcast, the more you’re gambling that people have enough time in their lives to listen to your episode. If you have a long podcast and you’re in that second division of choices, a listener’s even less likely to get to you.

For new listeners – do you really think seeing 1hr 34s as the duration of an episode encourages people to sample you?

Just like no editing, poor sound quality gets in the way of people enjoying and listening to shows.

A pandemic has meant that many shows are done over Zoom (or similar). Do you help your participants to sound good?

I was listening to a very popular BBC show that’s now recorded remotely and one of the two hosts was recording in a kitchen. An echoey kitchen. Listening in a car with one co-host in OK quality, one in an echoey kitchen and then two guests on Zoom was a painful experience.

That sort of experience tarnishes the show and if it’s something that happens regularly it means the show will drop down a listeners’ priority list.

Production is about getting all of the elements to work together to give you the best chance of success.

Passionate presenters mean passionate listeners

When you scroll through the top shows on your podcast app, you’ll notice how many of the hosts have become synonymous with what they present.

Fearne Cotton clearly loves doing Happy Place and talks about it on socials and in the press. Dr Rangan Chatterjee has been a successful media doctor on the TV etc, but the podcast is the purest form of him. It’s the most important element of his ‘brand’.

If listeners know you truly love something, it gives them permission to love it too.

It’s also why stapling some talent to an idea might generate some initial interest, but barely any of these shows have longevity.

Great shows have vibrant communities

When thinking about a new show, the concept and the talent, think about whether it has a chance of resonating so much that your listeners will form a community around it.

The crime podcast Redhanded has a 25,000 strong Facebook group and 10,000 Patreon supporters netting them £54k a month.

Is your show two-way? Do you respond to listeners? Do you let them become part of your world and help define it?

The Elis James & John Robins: Podcast Devotee Group has 15,000 members. These are 15k super fans who are part of a gang and get consistently energised about the lads’ podcast work. It’s also a group who will become strong advocates for the show driving word of mouth.

Popular shows deliver for listeners

I think all great media has the consumer at the centre of what they do. They understand their audience, who they are, what they like, how they feel about things.

The best shows are orientated around people’s interests, or the life stage that they’re at. They are shows that answer a problem or fill a specific gap in listeners’ lives. They are consistent with their content, delivering on the promise of the idea.

They are shows that respect listeners’ time with more killer and less filler, are easy to listen to and publish consistently so subscribers can integrate new episodes into their busy lives.

Of course there’s lots of things I haven’t covered here, but if you think there’s an obvious miss, why not leave it in the comments below:

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What to learn from successful shows (7 minute read)