Lessons learned from producing 100 podcast episodes
Growing an audience for a podcast is difficult; these tips will make it a little easier.
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On January 23, 2018, I published the first episode of my podcast, The Business of Content. As a longtime podcast listener, I’d always wanted to host my own, but the learning curve intimidated me. I would have to figure out hosting, how to get my podcast distributed on all players, how to record interviews, and how to edit audio. I also worried about the time commitment needed to maintain a regular publishing schedule.
So why did I finally bite the bullet? I’m not a big believer in New Year’s resolutions, but that year it provided enough motivation for me to take the plunge. As it turned out, the learning curve wasn’t all that high, and episode production fit fairly easily into my weekly workflow.
Almost immediately after launching The Business of Content, I regretted not doing so much sooner. I loved engaging in the free-flow discussion that podcasting allows for, and it provided a level of intimacy with my audience that I couldn’t achieve on other mediums.
I kept at it, and almost three years later, I just published my 100th episode. Based on the number of recurrent downloads and the amount of listener email I receive, the podcast has amassed a devoted audience, and it’s played a key role in growing my paid newsletter business.
What’s more, my 100th episode is much better than my first. The production quality is better. The discussion is better. And it’s better optimized for audience growth. That’s because I gleaned a lot of insights over the course of those 100 episodes, insights that I think just about any indie podcaster would benefit from.
Let’s jump in:
Anyone who’s published regularly to the internet has seen firsthand how different pieces of content are subjected to wide fluctuations in web traffic. One day you publish an article or video and it’s shared by the right influencer or favored by a social platform’s algorithm, resulting in tens of thousands or even millions of views. The next day you post something else and it falls completely flat, immediately inducing a fit of paranoia that all your past success was a fluke.
Podcast audience growth isn’t nearly as capricious. Of the 100 podcast episodes I published, not a single one went “viral.” Sure, some episodes attracted more downloads than others, but for the most part growth was linear, with the highest download numbers correlating heavily with publishing frequency. Here’s a chart showing monthly download numbers stretching back to the podcast’s launch.
For the most part, each month brought in more downloads than the month prior, with one big exception (I’ll get to that later).
So what’s the takeaway here? That over the longterm, the #1 driver of your podcast’s success is episode frequency. On average, a podcaster who produces new episodes every week will outperform one who only publishes monthly. Podcasting rewards you for commitment and consistency, more so than virtually every other internet medium.
Adapt your episodes for the web
If I had to name the biggest mistake most podcasters make, it’s publishing the latest episode to all the major podcast apps and then making no effort to craft any sort of web landing page for that episode. In many other cases, they’ll simply embed a podcast player in a Tumblr post and include the show notes.
That was my approach at first. I created a Medium article for each episode, copy and pasted the intro, and embedded a YouTube version of the recording. But several weeks in, people started leaving comments asking for episode transcripts.
So I tried it out, and I saw an almost immediate benefit. People were much more likely to share the articles to their social media accounts and profiles and, even better, I saw a huge boost in search engine traffic. Yes, the vast majority of those people read the transcripts and then left, but a small percentage of them converted into longtime podcast subscribers.
But the transcript approach presented a few problems. For one, they were hugely time consuming to produce. Even once I began using automated transcription software, I still had to comb through thousands of words to edit them for readability and fix the formatting. What’s more, most of the people who landed on them weren’t willing to wade through 5,000+ words of transcripts just to glean a few insights.
So earlier this year I changed my approach. I created an automated transcript and then cut each episode down to roughly 1,000 words of the most insightful points made during the interview. I also organized each insight under subheaders. (Here’s an example).
Finally, I moved these articles from Medium to Substack. That way, even if a person doesn’t convert into a podcast listener, there’s still a decent chance they’ll sign up for my newsletter.
I’ve seen other podcasters adapt their podcast episodes in even more ways. They chop them up into 60 second clips and then post those to Twitter and Instagram. If they conduct the interview in a studio, they’ll video record the interview and then post that video to YouTube. Some even outsource this entire process to outside agencies like Podreacher, which employs professional journalists who specialize in these kinds of episode adaptations.
Solicit guests on the show
Every episode of The Business of Content consists of three sections: the intro, the interview, and the outro.
The intro and interview for each episode changes, but for the outro I typically use the same mp3 file every time. For a long time, I used an outro that I recorded very early on in my podcast’s existence, but I grew dissatisfied with the audio quality. So I decided to record a new one, but this time, almost on a whim, I added a message saying that I’m on the lookout for new guests, so please reach out if you consider yourself a good fit.
Almost immediately, I started receiving surprisingly high quality pitches from listeners who responded to my call to action. This made sense given that most of my listeners work in media, and if they made it to the end of the episode, they had a very good understanding of what kind of guests I like to have on the show.
Ever since I added that new outro, I’ve brought on several incredible guests whom I wouldn’t know about if they hadn’t emailed me. This also had the added benefit of reducing the time burden of hunting down new interview subjects and convincing them to come on the show.
Try to go on other people’s podcasts
Remember that chart I posted of monthly downloads? Here it is again:
What caused that sudden spike? I went on as a guest for the Techmeme Daily Ride Home, a podcast with a huge audience that let me plug my own podcast to its listeners.
Of all the growth strategies you can leverage, going on someone else’s podcast is usually the most effective. You’re virtually guaranteed that 100% of the audience consists of regular podcast listeners, and they already have their podcast app opened as they listen to you, so there’s less friction for those who want to perform a quick search and subscribe to your show.
This is why I pretty much always say yes to anyone who asks me to come onto their podcast, no matter the audience size.
Small tweaks improve production quality dramatically
When it comes to production quality, too many podcasters settle for “good enough.” They look at a prestige show like This American Life and figure they’ll never achieve that kind of audio quality, so they aim for the bare minimum.
But you don’t have to be a professional public radio producer in order to up your production game considerably.
First, if you’re recording your interviews remotely, you should be using software that records each side of the interview to that person’s device -- services like Zencastr and Squadcast. No more using chat apps like Skype (they produce lag), and definitely don’t conduct your interviews over the phone. Spend the extra $20 a month. It’s worth it.
Second, you should put together a document you send to each upcoming interview subject that gives them instructions for how they can improve the audio quality for their interview. Simple things like ensuring they’re in a quiet place and plugging in a microphone if they have one. I have such a document that I forward to every guest and also paste into the calendar invite. Here’s an example of that document [link].
Again, there’s nothing earth shattering here. These are just tiny, iterative steps that, when added together, produce a noticeable improvement in sound quality for the listener.
Always conduct pre interviews
I’ve gone on as a guest for several other podcasts, and in almost every instance, I end up speaking to the host for the first time when we sit down to actually record the interview. In some cases, they’re very familiar with my work, but often they’ve only read one or two of my articles, or they only have a vague idea of my subject matter expertise.
For a long time, that’s how I approached my own podcast interviews. But then I read that most major talk shows conduct pre interviews with their guests; that way their hosts/producers can mine for interesting stories or anecdotes that can be quickly brought up during the live discussion.
I decided to apply this practice to my own podcast. Anytime I’m considering having a guest come on the show, I schedule a 30 minute phone call with them first. I explain on that call that our discussion is on background, and nothing they say in it will appear in print. I then take lots of notes as they walk me through their business and we brainstorm topics we can discuss for the actual recorded interview. Once the pre interview is over, we both open up our calendars and pick a time to record. This also gives me the opportunity to explain the formatting of the show and answer any questions they have.
Since implementing this practice, my interviews have improved considerably. Multiple guests have complimented me on my preparation process, and I think it also makes them more relaxed once we conduct the actual discussion.
I will never be an Ira Glass, or a Jad Abrumrad, or an Alex Blumberg. I will never produce narrative shows with amazing sound design and original music composition that sets the mood for the listener.
But even with my modest recording and editing skills, I’ve managed to improve the audience experience tremendously, and all without adding much labor to my workflow. Virtually every podcaster, no matter how amateur, can follow the above steps, and they’ll begin seeing positive feedback, both in terms of quality and growth, almost immediately. If there’s one takeaway from this article, it’s that you don’t have to be a professional podcaster to produce a podcast that sounds professional.
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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at email@example.com. For a full bio, go here.