How to start a podcast: a plan for success

This is the second episode in a serious of unplanned, non-sequential guides to podcasting. The first guide is here >

This episode is all about planning (yes, the irony is not lost on me).

Before we get into the good stuff, let’s talk a little about planning.

Some things in life are best left unplanned.

What to watch tonight on Netflix, which sandwich to buy for lunch, your anniversary gift to your spouse.

However, your fledgling podcast series shouldn’t be one of these things.

This feels like a good time to cite the alliterative wisdom of my pal Rik Lomas. Rik runs the coding school SuperHi, and as a developer, entrepreneur, and teacher he knows a fair bit about the value of planning.

As Rik says in his very good little guide to Ruby on Rails:

“Proper planning prevents piss-poor performance”

Indeed.

Note: Rik is from Manchester (the UK one). For emphasis, this quote is best read aloud in your finest Mancunian accent (channel Liam Gallagher if unsure).

Having said this, it’s also worth taking inspiration from the world of agile product management, and specifically my scrum master training. If there was anything to remember, it was this:

Instructor: “What do plans do?

All of us (gaily like an eager, well-honed choir): “Change!

Yep, they really do. Just look at the UK Government since June 2016. My lunchtime sandwich decision making is more precise and well thought through.

Anyway, just like the considerations of leaving the world’s largest trading bloc, your big idealistic taking back control podcast concept will probably change, but without any planning at all you’ll likely end up with a load of unusable, unintelligible ramblings. And we don’t want that.

(Ok, that’s the end of the thinly veiled politicising, I promise.)

So with these two advisory nuggets in mind, let’s crack on with some podcast planning.

I’ve split this guide into two parts: Foundations, and Creative & Production.

Foundations

Why are you doing this?

This is question one because a lot of people don’t think about the why, and then end up disappointed.

I don’t want to see you disappointed. I want to see you vibing, sharing great ideas, wisdom and maybe some comedy gold with the world. 

If you are doing this for ad revenue, I’d suggest reconsidering. Podcast revenue is growing and there’s some cool stuff happening on the ad front, but the long tail is still long, and mainly driven by CPM (I.e. you typically get paid $10-$25ish per 1000 listens). There are far better ways to make a bit of cash, so I’d strongly suggest not optimising for sponsorship revenue (especially at the beginning). 

First and foremost, focus on why you want to put a podcast out into the world.

Hopefully you’re doing this for a reason like:

– A desire to share ideas

– You want to get better at public speaking

– It just sounds like fun

– It positions you as a thought leader in your niche (personally I don’t think this should be a primary driver for podcasting, but it’s a valid reason and can be a great platform if done well)

Bottom line – approach this as something you either feel compelled to do, love to do, or even better, both. This will stand you in far better stead when the going gets tough.

Who is it for? 

Related to the Why is the Who (no not the band).

Who is the podcast for?

Who’s going to invest 5, 15, 50 minutes of their time into listening to this?

Get specific. Draw out some personas if you like. 

Who are they, what do they do, where does this fit into their lives?

What else is available to them that does the same job? (Note the Jobs to be Done framework may be interesting to apply here)

What are you offering that’s different, better, weirder?

It’s also worth noting that the answer to this question may be You, particularly if you’re doing a podcast as a sandbox for your own ideas, or to raise your visibility in the market.

Even if your podcast is for you, there are probably some of Them too. 

Who are they?

What is it for?

Hopefully the answer to this question is now a little easier after the Why and the Who.

The Job to be Done framework mentioned above can do a lot of the heavy lifting for us here.

What would you like to happen?

What would you like listeners to think, feel, do?

What will happen if this is a success? 

What will happen to you? Or maybe, what will stop happening?

And what is success for this?

What do they remember it by? 

This is one of my favourite questions – not just for podcasts but for careers, projects and life in general.

What do you want them to remember this by? The title, the zany artwork, the beautiful storytelling, the topical subject matter?

Look to tease out what people may remember this by. Like it or not, we categorise, put things in boxes. There will probably be one, possibly two, things people remember this by. Pick ‘em out and double down.

Pro Tip: This will quite possibly change over time. That’s cool. Change happens.

Benchmark

This is a management-speak way of saying it’s worth looking what else is going on in the market and then proceeding to panic/steal their idea.

The cliche starting to go around is that everyone has a podcast. And just like millennials spending all their money on avocado toast, it’s a cliche because it’s (partly) true.

Firstly – do not be discouraged if you find 50 other podcasts all doing the same thing as you.

This can be a good thing – there’s probably a market for what you’re doing.

Go back to your Why, Who and What. Where’s the differentiator you’ve got? The angle, approach or style that makes you stand out?

If you’re struggling to find something, ask a few friends to get a different perspective.

Pro Tip: You can do the benchmarking at any stage in the planning process, but I prefer to do it a little later as it can be demoralizing or skew my decision making (or even worse, tempt me into aping someone else’s style) if I’m looking at other people’s work before defining my Why, What and Who.


Ok, we’ve set some foundations.

You may want to write up your findings into a Business Model Canvas style document (I’ve made a special podcast-focused one for you here!)

Once we’ve got through the rest of the planning steps you may want to create a visual mood board too.

For now, let’s take our half time break.

While you’re regrouping after the first half’s action, why not sign up to my newsletter? It’s full of fuel for careers and entrepreneurial endeavors. Free of charge, no spam, no gimmicks.


Creative and Production

Ok, the second half is underway. We’re coming out of the locker room pumped and feeling like we can take on the world. The confidence is good, let’s channel it.

But first, some expectation setting. Let’s remember we’re still playing in the local park, not Wembley Stadium.

Great expectations

You may have expectations. Look at Joe Rogan, Tim Ferriss, Lena Dunham! They’re raking it in, they’re household names, their podcasts are reaching millions of people every week.

And yes, there are indeed breakout successes happening all the time in podcasting. It’s an exciting time to be a part of it.

However, it’s worth pointing out here that while the podcast industry is without doubt on the up, it’s still a headliners’ market just like many other entertainment mediums.

So have expectations – for the type of work you believe you can create, the stories you’re capable of telling, the improvements you can make in your hosting, production, storytelling, collaboration.

Just manage them. Don’t automatically expect big sponsors to come a calling, or your wishlist of guests to all commit to appearing. Don’t expect the edit to be easy, or to get picked up by a big production company.

Have expectations. Just don’t make them too great.

And if in doubt, remember why you’re doing this.

Theme

I don’t like genres very much. I spent most Saturdays of my late teens working in a record store, and more recently was at a prominent talent agency. New genre names seemed to surface on a weekly basis, and even if you tried to stick to the more recognised ones, invariably things just didn’t quite sit right.

The podcast world is somewhat akin to mid 90s electronic music in that there are still only a few commonly recognised genres (‘Business’, ‘Technology’, ‘Comedy’ etc). This can be helpful, and when publishing your podcast you’ll need to pick one of these for categorisation purposes, but also you don’t want to be lumped in with a ton of other stuff. 

A better way to go is to choose a theme or high level concept. If you’re unfamiliar with the term high level concept, one way of thinking about it is X for Y, e.g. Uber for Dog Walking (I’m sure millions have been raised off this pitch). It’s the one-liner you’d put on your pitch deck, or in the <insert podcast provider of choice> description field for your podcast.

Our work on the Why, Who and What should really help us with this part.

Here are a few themes/concepts for podcasts:

New trends in live event marketing from China and the US (my pal Toby is starting this)

Irreverent sketches on current topics in Italian Serie A soccer (I don’t know if this exists – I think it’d be fun though)

Exploring breakthrough ideas at the intersection of entertainment, education and live experiences (this one is mine)

As you can see, most of these clip a few different genre names. Like a cheap suit, this can feel a little comfortable and causes unneeded perspiration, but working up a theme is important. It helps gives you clarity on what you’re focused on and gives you further guidance on who and what your podcast is for.

Try riffing a few themes and pick the one that sits best. And fear not, the joy of podcasting’s digital nature means you can easily tweak it later.

Title

So we have a theme. We know our why, who, and what. This is really starting to come together.

Now for the deceptively tricky stage. Naming.

Where direct to consumer sock startups, developer tools, new born puppies, naming things is really hard. Every cool name seems to be taken already. 

Podcasts are no different. There’s nothing quite like telling someone about your ace new podcast and for them to start looking it up on their podcast provider of choice only to ask you if it’s one of the 3, 7 or 18 podcasts listed with that name. And none of them are yours.

I didn’t spend much time thinking through the title for my podcast. There were a few podcasts with that word already in their title, and from an SEO point of view it wasn’t the best. And when the focus of the show shifted a bit in season 2, the title didn’t relate quite as well as it did before. None of these are dealbreakers, but it’s worth thinking through your choice of name before committing to artwork, website domains and all that jazz.

The title matters, but your theme and most importantly your content matter more.

Format

There are a bunch of different podcast formats. You’re probably well set on which format you want yours to take, but it’s worth both thinking about and experimenting with different options.

Here’s a quick rundown with a few pros and cons of each.

Interview

Probably the most popular style for novice podcasters, especially those doing some sort of ‘business’ related podcast. You interview someone. Simple. But not easy.

Pros: you can leverage your guests’ audience to build your own, not all the work is on you (they’ll be doing at least 50% of the talking – and probably more like 70%+), you can re-use some questions each episode

Cons: booking guests is harder than it looks, you’re reliant on other people’s schedule (see ‘Cadence’ below), you need to plan well for each episode, the quality of the episode is largely dependent on the guest

Conversational

Similar to interview but more casual, and likely the people speaking already know each other. Could be two people or a few.

Pros: fun, doesn’t often feel like work. You can add a lot of colour and personality into it

Cons: hard to edit, if it’s not well guided or themed it’ll feel like a mess

Solo

You talking into a microphone, probably about some sort of expertise, wisdom or skill set you possess. Also a growing number of solo fiction podcasts (see Fiction Storytelling below)

Pros: easy to start and ship, the focus is on you (I.e. Good brand and audience connection builder)

Cons: you need to come with the goods. It’s also surprisingly easy to mess up. 

Pro Tip: This last reason is all the more reason why someone like Seth Godin’s solo podcast is so impressive, he hard ever stumbles, and the content is wonderfully styled and sculpted. It looks easy, but it ain’t. Not recommended for novices.

Panel

More formal than the conversational style, more people than an interview.

Pros: good variety of voices, you’re not under the thumb to deliver all the content

Cons: more guests to book, more logistics, potentially more editing, harder to manage the session so the episode is coherent and of good quality. Also audiences won’t get a deep dive from guests so prepare for the ‘party line’ to come up a lot

Non Fiction Storytelling

This is the realm of many of Gimlet Media’s shows. It’s effectively investigative journalism. Not for the faint hearted.

Pros: Finished product can be incredibly compelling, and there’s a real sense of purpose to the work

Cons: a lot of work. You’ll probably need a team to do it well

Fiction Storytelling

If you want to go above and beyond the solo style, this is the way to head. However, you’ll need some additional storytelling magic to bring it to life.

Pros: great way to bring stories to life through audio, focus is on the story and the main characters. Can lead to other opportunities (live shows for example), and relatively untapped as a format

Cons: requires more resources (sound effects, voiceover artists etc)

Something else

Blend a few of these styles together, or do something completely different…

Your style

If you’re hosting or appearing on the podcast in some way, have a think about your presenting style and how it matches with the co-hosts or guests.

Assuming you’re doing a non-fiction podcast then being yourself is obviously a good start, but also consider what’s going to present your podcast in the best possible way. 

Are you the garrulous anchor, where the conversation revolves from where you’re at? You could be best placed in the background, or maybe you’re a foil to a more visible co-host.

As you may have noticed – it’s as much about your role as it is about your style. 

Try experimenting with a few different styles and formats to find your groove.

Length

A recent episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast clocked in at a mere four and a half hours. Given his reach and his guests’ fame/infamy, Joe can afford to roll that deep. Perhaps you can too, but does anyone care? Unlikely.

Most podcasts clock in around one of these three lengths:

– 45-60 mins: deeper dive. This format lends itself to a far more involved conversation but inevitably requires far more attention and commitment from listeners.

– 15-30 mins: becoming more popular, although the challenge here is towing the line between short and sharp, and giving listeners enough insight and narrative. This length often works best for content that would be on TV at this length (comedy, soaps etc), although there are plenty of other genres that can be really effective at the 20 minute mark.

– 3-8 mins: great for daily news blasts or opinion pieces. Some interesting ideas happening here and these constraints can be a great way for an intermediate podcaster to experiment with.

Again, go back to the Why, Who and What to help you define the format that’s going to be most effective. If in doubt, I’d suggest shooting for an episode duration of about 20 minutes.

Cadence

The Hot Pod newsletter recently ran a feature on podcast burnout, where many podcasters reported feeling the heat from constantly writing, hosting and producing. I can attest that the burnout is real, especially if you’re running at a high cadence.

No matter the rate of your cadence, it matters. I know when new episodes of my favourite three podcasts drop and my routine and schedule are almost built in line with them.

Wouldn’t it be great to have that kind of connection with your listeners?

The first step to getting to that is regularity, and consistently. Daily, weekly, monthly; whatever you choose, plan to be consistent. This sets accountability for you to your audience and has a powerful focusing effect on the work you do as a podcaster.

Once you’ve decided on a cadence, stick to it. But also remember our rule that ‘Plans Change!’. If the cadence is causing you to flame out, don’t be afraid to take a Pause for a Cause.

Pro Tip: Although harder for audience members to build in as a habit, every 2 weeks is usually a decent cadence for your first podcast.

Batch it

Connected to the cadence is batching. 

It’s well worth getting a few episodes in the bag before launching, especially if you’re running a podcast that relies on other people’s schedules (interviews, panels, etc)

This gives listeners a few things to dig into before the next episode lands, and provides a better taste of what your podcast is all about. It also takes the heat off you – inevitably you’ll have a few challenges in the early days, and the pressure of having to get episodes shipped every week can have you scrambling. We don’t want that – this should be fun.

Once you get a bit of a production process in place you’ll probably find ways of batching other aspects like editing, artwork creation and publishing.

Podcasting can be a lot more work than first meets the eye and the batching method can really help alleviate the inevitable crunches that come up from time to time.

To start with, plan your first batch of episodes and the various pieces you need to get in place to create and ship them.

Platforms

This guide is not so focused on the technical aspects of production, but a quick word on platforms: it’s worth getting a plan in place for the platforms you’re going to use to get your podcast out there.

Getting this wrong or having no plan at all can result in a tangle or a scramble (or both). We don’t want this.

There are a bunch of podcast platforms now out there that make distribution really easy. Once you’ve created an account, you can upload your artwork, text description and audio files and they’ll create a feed for you and plug it straight into the various podcast outlets like Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

A couple of good start points here are Anchor and Acast. Do a bit of upfront research as there will be a few things you need to do before you can get your podcast out there.

And as with the rest of our plan, build in enough time to publish each episode through your platform of choice. Even with all the lovely technology available it invariably takes longer than you think.


Ok, final whistle. You made it!

In the interests of keeping this guide (reasonably) short, there are a ton more tips, tricks and best practices I’ve held back.

If you’d like a sounding board for your podcast concept then just holler at me and I’ll do what I can to help.

I hope this guide was useful, and I look forward to seeing and hearing what you create.

Good luck!

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