Podcasting with purpose

Creating a successful show is all about finding your north star

If you work in podcasting, chances are you’ve probably had to deal with countless people pitching podcasts to you, or telling you that they’d love to start their own. It’s certainly one of the most common conversations I have with people outside the industry, and with the holidays around the corner, many of us will doubtless be gearing up to grit our teeth through friends and family members’ half-baked proposals.

On one level, it’s encouraging to see that the medium is so alluring and exciting to the general public, and the much-vaunted accessibility of podcasting means that all of these people could - in theory, at least - make these ambitions a reality.

However, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should, and the problem that most of these would-be podcasters face is that too many of them want to start a podcast simply for its own sake. The market is all but choked with so-called “chat podcasts”, and part of the reason is that many hosts seemingly assume that they’re such interesting people, they don’t need to give listeners any other reason to tune in. 

Too many podcasters choose to, as my nana would put it, open their mouth and let their belly rumble. Most of these podcasts never succeed, because they don’t have a clear purpose in mind - not necessarily a goal they want to achieve, but an idea of why they’re creating a podcast, and why people would be interested in it.

This applies to brands and organisations as much as it does to people. Just because your CEO thinks they’re God’s gift to business doesn’t mean that anyone’s going to want to listen to their musings on leadership and entrepreneurialism. With any podcast, the starting point should be: “What need am I meeting by creating this?” As Fresh Air founder Neil Cowling is fond of saying: “What’s the podcast that only you could make?”

This should be part of your planning from stage one. Having a clear purpose in mind allows you to effectively structure your format and content to fulfil that purpose. Are you trying to shed light on a particular cause or issue that you’re passionate about? Are you aiming to turn podcasting into a career? Are you just doing it for the joy of talking about something you love, like movies or music? All of these motivations will be best served by different approaches, and will have different measurements for whether or not they’re successful.

Brands can learn from this approach too; if you want to launch a company podcast, you’ll want to know whether the goal is to drive new business, increase customer loyalty, or to improve brand awareness and reputation. Issue-led associative content, for example, may not drive much direct conversion, but it can help establish your brand values within listeners’ minds. 

Knowing your purpose also helps establish ROI, and what metrics you’re tracking to define it. This goes back to one of my other hobby-horses around realistic listener goals; if you’re launching an industry-specific podcast, you shouldn’t be expecting a mass audience, but something broader that’s designed for brand awareness may have greater reach.

The fact that anyone can create a podcast is part of what makes this industry so rich and diverse, but if you are going to create a podcast, you should make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons. Not only will you end up with a better end result, you’ll likely find the process of making it much smoother and less frustrating with a clear motivation behind you.

And for those in the industry that are dreading the thought of running unpaid podcast development workshops over the holidays, you may want to try getting over-enthusiastic family members off your back by setting them a bit of homework: Why do you want to start a podcast, and what do you want it to accomplish? 

You may end up sparking the next smash hit idea - but if not, you’ll at least have bought yourself a few moments’ peace.