Written by Mike Fishbein and Nis Frome, Producers of This is Product Management, and originally published in Startup Grind.
When we started This is Product Management, we had virtually no idea what we were doing. Neither of us actively listened to any business podcasts or had any preconceived notions about how such a series should sound. We compensated by focusing on solving a pain point in the market rather than making a podcast. While we were told that there are many fantastic podcasts out there to learn from, we instead started from scratch, relying on experimentation, listener feedback, and grassroots marketing.
And it seems to have worked well — to the tune of half a million downloads at a current pace of 40,000 per month.
There are numerous quickstart guides for marketing teams looking to create and promote podcasts. We encourage you to read those and learn all about the necessary production equipment and launch tactics you’ll need. However this article has a different focus. It’s about how two industry outsiders produced an industry-leading podcast as an inbound channel for a startup you’ve never heard of with virtually no budget or initial audience.
We’ll share seven insights covering production, marketing, and lead conversion, while hopefully dispelling the myths and misconceptions we’ve heard over the course of conversations with aspiring podcasters.
1. Is this thing on?
How to determine if a podcast will work for your business
‘Because everyone else is doing it’ is rarely a good enough reason to do anything, especially when it comes to producing a podcast. A few highly successful series and the mistaken belief that podcasts are a relatively un-intensive content format to produce has fueled significant interest in an investment that requires a far more sound argument than blindly fast following.
The absolute first thing to internalize is that it takes a lot more to produce a podcast than a microphone, 30 minutes of rambling, and an export button.
Due to a combination of archaic but entrenched podcasting technologies and the challenges of editing audio, producing and disseminating a podcast happens to be painstakingly difficult compared to other types of content.
We won’t go into detail now about getting a podcast published on iTunes, but you can read about the infinite steps elsewhere.
Suffice to say that creating a podcast isn’t a decision you should make on a whim. Apply at least the same level of scrutiny you would when evaluating other media opportunities or customer acquisition strategies.
More specifically, consider whether there is a market for your podcast, and then whether you can commercialize that audience.
This assessment depends on a deeper understanding of your target customer. Before we started This is Product Management, we had substantial evidence from surveys and one-on-one conversations indicating that our target audience commuted, didn’t already fill up their commute with other professional content, and desperately needed insights that were best conveyed by interviews with experts.
When we launched, we weren’t at all surprised when industry leaders quickly agreed to come on the show and when our ProductHunt announcement led to 1,200 email subscribers in 24 hours.
Given the fanfare, creating This is Product Management seems obvious in hindsight, but at the time it felt very indefinite. Sure, we had enough promising data points to invest $500 in three episodes. But if the traction didn’t continue, we were more than ready to kill the show at any moment, as we’d done to numerous other projects you’ve never heard of.
But validating a potential audience is only one side of the coin.
If your objective is to create a podcast to generate leads for a business, you need to consider whether the content you plan to create will be properly aligned to achieve that outcome. In our experience, professionals primarily listen to industry-related podcasts to keep up with best practices. Aggressive calls-to-action can interfere with that, and you ultimately lose when another podcast packs more learning into a minute than your’s.
Education is essentially the only thing you can optimize for, no matter what your business goals are.
To that end, here’s a useful thought exercise: would someone be more likely to purchase or want to learn more about your product or service if they listened to five episodes of this podcast? If not, your podcast may attract an audience, but not one that has considerable business value to you.
2. It’s show business
How to create a format and structure for your podcast
When designing the format of the podcast, we weighed several factors which we’ll outline momentarily. Overall though, some of the most common feedback we get from listeners is an appreciation that the show has any format at all. At the time, we didn’t realize that many podcasts just begin haphazardly in the middle of a conversation between a host and a guest, with no context or consistent structure.
Benefitting again from our lack of ‘expertise’, we treated our podcast like we treat any other piece of content. We don’t begin blog posts midway through a sentence or give webinars with a half-baked slide deck, so we just assumed that a podcast should also feel professionally designed.
Each show follows a consistent structure. We begin with the same music, a summary of what the episode will be about, an overview of the interviewee’s background, a deep dive into the topic, and then end with a series of rapid-fire questions that are the same for each guest.
A consistent format sets expectations and creates a premium perception.
We’re often asked about how much we spend on studios, equipment, and audio engineering, under the assumption that our expenses are exorbitant. In reality, we use a $130 microphone, record in a room with $300 worth of noise absorbing foam, rock out to $19 of audiojungle stock music, and have the best audio engineer on the planet for $50 per episode.
But a show’s format extends well beyond audio files. Most of our audience, and product managers in general, reside in New York or California, where commuting via public transportation is common. Podcasts and ebooks, rather than conference calls and radio, dominate such trips. This offered us the unique opportunity to become an integral part of our audience’s commute.
Because commuting is such a routine and repetitive activity, we do our best to seamlessly fit in, publishing a new episode every single Monday at 4:30pm ET. We’re working on segmenting our email base so the publish time is localized to the evening commute, no matter where the listener is. We aim to be the equivalent of Monday Night Football for product managers.
Beyond being a show that people love to listen to, our podcast also has business goals to meet. However, given that aggressive in-podcast calls-to-action interfere with content quality, we created a standalone brand with its own face (Mike’s), website, email newsletter, and Twitter handle.
These assets serve two purposes: they enable us to collect listener information and send targeted offerings, and they also create a clear separation between our company and podcast. There’s no ads or overt sponsorship. In fact, few listeners have any idea that we work for and produce the show for a product management software startup called Alpha.
That’s important for us so that the podcast itself can help us qualify and convert listeners. Alpha sells a capability to get rapid customer feedback on product and feature concepts. We, and many of our guests, genuinely believe that such a practice is critical to doing product management better. Numerous episodes (and our content channels in general) are aligned around this message, which drives listeners to seek out technologies and services to help their teams keep up. You can easily imagine the inbound interest we receive from listeners when we ‘organically’ feature one of Alpha’s clients on the podcast and they mention the benefits of using the platform. We’re not at liberty to discuss how much revenue the podcast has generated for our business, but suffice to say that its ROI is a couple orders of magnitude.
Of course, instead of biasing the show’s content, some brands have so much buzz that their podcast benefits from piggybacking on the brand. While we don’t necessarily have exclusive insight, companies like Slack have so much favorable name recognition that titling their podcast ‘Slack Variety Pack’probably made sense. That simply wasn’t the case for us, and being brand-centric likely would have taken away from the content itself.
Either way, having an online presence to compliment your podcast is absolutely necessary, for one more reason we’ll describe next.
3. Picking up feedback
How to track progress and build relationships with your listeners
There’s no way to sugarcoat it — the analytics available to podcasters is appalling in terms of scope and precision. The podcast player market is fragmented across iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud and others. There’s no dashboard that cuts across all of them, and it probably wouldn’t be so helpful anyway. Unlike the wealth of data that’s accessible for literally every single other form of content, it’s impossible to determine statistics such as who and to what extent people actually listen to a podcast.
By using Libsyn as a hosting service and having a SoundCloud Pro account, we get some additional insight into the number of ‘downloads’ and the general location of users who downloaded episodes. But otherwise we’d be operating in the dark if we didn’t get creative.
To fill the gaping hole left by a lack of quantitative information, we’ve instead learned to value and leverage other channels for qualitative insights. Our podcast’s website and accompanying email newsletter plays an integral role.
We begin each episode by briefly highlighting the benefits of subscribing via our website. In addition to weekly show announcements, new email subscribers automatically receive several ‘welcome’ emails, one of which asks for their feedback.
The insights we’ve gleaned from emails from listeners helped us initially validate that the show was valuable to people and have since helped inform everything from guests to show topics to interview questions.
We now use listeners’ responses as benchmarks for evaluating episodes. We can fairly accurately estimate the total number of downloads an episode will get simply from the sentiment of emails received. We’ve even applied similar metrics emphasizing qualitative data to our other content channels, and now espouse a philosophy arguing that nothing in a dashboard of quantitative metrics should ever come as a surprise to us. If it does, it means we don’t have a tight enough feedback loop and relationship with our audience.
How to experiment and continuously improve your podcast
After we established an ongoing conversation with our audience, the next challenge was, and continues to be, prioritizing the feedback we receive. That’s when we put our own product management hats on. To determine what suggestions will contribute to the most significant improvements to our listeners, we look for common themes and always try to determine underlying problems that drive suggestions in the first place.
Sometimes this is a straightforward process, like when when we first started the podcast and were still fine tuning our recording processes.
Our listeners weren’t shy about letting us know how disruptive the sub-optimal audio quality was to the listening experience. We solved this problem by upgrading our microphones and by being more diligent about selecting recording locations (we put noise absorbing foam on the walls of our conference room and won’t schedule an interview if there will also be a meeting next door).
But, frequently, feedback is much more difficult to parse. For a long time, listeners asked us for transcripts of episodes. This struck us as a strange request — while the product management community is far from saturated with high-quality longform content, there’s still plenty out there to read and learn from. In addition, there’s often a significant amount of nuance that gets lost when spoken word is converted to text, and we didn’t want that to reflect poorly on interviewees.
So we dug deeper into the problem to better understand the underlying reasons why listeners wanted transcriptions. As we responded to requests, we learned that what listeners actually wanted wasn’t a transcript. Rather, they simply wanted to know whether an episode contained topics relevant to them and, if so, when those topics were covered in the episode. We therefore updated each episode page to include timestamps for the various highlights of the show. Launching that ‘feature’ seems to have done the trick, as we haven’t received a single request about transcripts since then.
Continuous improvement of any product is critical to keeping an offering fresh and competitive. That’s especially true when it comes to podcasts because there is a constant influx of new entrants competing for very few time slots. While anyone else can ask the same guests the same questions, there’s just no way they can replicate everything we’ve learned from talking to our listeners.
We consider each episode an opportunity to iterate, and with each iteration we see more positive feedback.
5. Special guests
Why it’s important to interview guests, and how to make them sound great
While we’ve demonstrated how podcasting is time-intensive from a production standpoint, it can be particularly low commitment from a participation standpoint. Unlike webinars, podcasts aren’t live (mistakes can be edited). Unlike for blog posts, grammar doesn’t matter (okay, unless it’s egregious). That’s why podcasts are an ideal medium to feature special guests, leveraging their expertise without draining their time. But it takes some additional craftiness on the producer’s part to make that possible.
For us, that begins with taking our guest selection process very seriously, and not in the way you might think. Many podcast producers are initially inclined to seek out influential guests with thousands of followers to potentially reach, but we learned that optimizing for quality is a better long-term strategy than optimizing for promotion.
Our definition of a great guest is someone who has unique expertise, experiences, and perspectives, and can articulate each eloquently.
One of our best interviews was with Joe Lalley, a digital strategy director at PwC. He spoke about rallying stakeholders which, as you can imagine, is no easy feat in a company of more than 200,000 employees. To an unprecedented level of detail, he explained a number of tactics and strategies he deploys for aligning people with competing agendas. His insight is incredibly useful for product managers who have to coordinate a variety of stakeholders, none of whom directly report to them.
By relentlessly focusing on quality above all else, we’ve attracted more interest over time from prolific guests like serial entrepreneur, David Cancel, and Uber’s head of international growth, Vinay Ramani.
After founding and selling four companies, David became the Chief Product Officer at HubSpot. He’s now working on a new company, Drift, and discussed at length his processes for hiring and managing product teams. Some of his philosophies are, shall we say, highly controversial, and even earned him This is Product Management’s first response episode! The fireworks have generated significant interest amongst listeners.
But simply booking a great guest is not always enough to ensure that the episode will be valuable to listeners. Given that our guests range from authors to Fortune 100 executives, and topics span from go-to-market strategy to navigating human complexity, we realized after a few recordings that we couldn’t realistically predict where conversations would go. And that makes preparing for a typical back-and-forth interview very difficult. So we decided to instead send guests an outline of points to address so that they can come prepared with their best advice and present it cohesively.
We’ve designed questions that solicit strong responses, such as:
* Tell me about a time when you [topic].
* What’s the most common challenge you see product managers facing as it pertains to [topic]? How can they solve for that?
* What experiences led to your understanding of the importance of [topic]?
* What’s the number one piece of advice you would give to someone just getting started with [topic]?
We also emphasize the importance of taking stances and telling stories, and encourage rants. Product management and its tangential disciplines can be highly technical and we believe it’s best when guests speak to the topics they are passionate about and believe our listeners most need to hear.
We tell guests to heed the old PR adage, “if you don’t like the question you are asked, answer the question you wish you were asked.”
In addition, because even great speakers can get flustered, before every interview is a 15-minute ‘pre-interview’ between the guest and Mike. This time is allotted to reviewing topics, brainstorming, clarifying any remaining confusion, and calming nerves. We remind guests that they can do retakes, which alone is often enough to give them the confidence to nail the answer the first time around.
Once we have all their answers recorded, we then craft, record, and splice moderation in between key points to recap and add nuance.
Here’s a sample of the document we send to our audio engineer for producing each episode, with the guests audio in black and Mike’s in red:
This entire process takes fewer than two hours and is highly repeatable, both of which are important because we’re not a full-time podcasting agency. One of the common struggles for marketing teams operating a podcast is managing a format that is at one of either extreme. It’s either so unstructured that the host must have the interviewing skills of Jon Stewart (they rarely do), or it’s so structured and sophisticated that it takes weeks to produce. The point isn’t to imitate our format, but to consider how your team will strike a balance between feasibility and quality when leveraging interviews.
The key to a great episode though isn’t just a great guest, but all the processes that empower a guest to be great. And, if unsolicited feedback is any indication, the guests certainly appreciate it.
6. Stay on track
How to be tough when the going gets rough
Despite all the preparation that goes into producing an episode, shit somehow still manages to hit the fan. We’ve begun the editing process days before a release only to find out that the audio files were corrupt or that the memory card we recorded to filled halfway through. After one emergency, we had to interview someone from our company on a Friday afternoon and then turn the production around in 48 hours.
For us though, the absolute worst screw up would be to not ship an episode every Monday afternoon. That’s our time slot and we refuse to relinquish it, so we’ve learned the importance of backup plans.
We now maintain a backlog of at least four episodes at any given time.
Other ‘protocols’ include having a fresh set of ears — often an intern — listen to edited recordings to ensure nothing sounds off, and dedicating recurring time on the calendar to editing episodes and sourcing new guests.
But the most important processes aren’t actually processes at all. Instead, the ability to be flexible and adaptive is the critical ingredient to putting on a great show week in and week out.
We once wanted to interview Nir Eyal, product celebrity and author of Hooked, but his schedule was really booked up for his trip to New York. So we brought a portable microphone to one of his workshops and waited on line afterward to record.
The episode is our most popular to date despite the noise and conversations that can clearly be overheard in the background.
7. Tuning in
How to grow your listener base and acquire email subscribers
Audience growth has been and will continue to be a focus for us. We recently surveyed 128 product managers and found that nearly 80% have listened to industry-related podcasts. About one in two have listened to This is Product Management, a number that continues to trend upward even after 70 episodes.
Several promotional strategies have helped us get here. Many of our strategies are similar to those that marketers use for other offerings, but some are specific to podcasting. Although we’re going to reserve our detailed playbook for future articles, we’ll provide an overview of key activities below.
Before ever allocating considerable resources to pay-per-click and other sponsorship opportunities, we first focused on having a foundation in place for converting listeners into more meaningful relationships.
To convert listeners into email subscribers, we drive listeners to our website where they can opt in for our email newsletter.
In addition to mentioning the website at the beginning and end of every episode, we include a link in the show descriptions on iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud. Nearly 75% of our web traffic comes directly to this URL.
Although it’s common for marketers to offer some kind of eBook or offering to incentivize signing up via email, we’re consistently converting 7% of our traffic by simply offering a weekly announcement about new episodes.
From there, email subscribers get the aforementioned series of automated emails encouraging them to subscribe on a podcast player and reply with feedback. If someone replies with positive feedback, we encourage them to leave a formal review on iTunes or Stitcher.
Unfortunately, we don’t know how many listeners discover our podcast from searches within these players, but we figure a bunch of 5-star reviews can’t hurt.
We also rely on traditional content marketing activities to drive traffic, such as quoting interviews from our podcast in articles we publish on industry sites. In addition, we’ve been featured in a number of industry roundups and resource guides.
These backlinks to our site accumulate over time and collectively drive a considerable amount of traffic. They’re also important because they essentially indicate to Google that “these guys are legit.”
That in turn is crucial because “product management” is a term that’s searched over 18,000 times per month. And after nearly two years of putting our heads down on grassroots initiatives, Google has finally given us first page real estate, accounting for the second most significant source of traffic to our site. Anything is possible if you hustle.
When we started This is Product Management, we never could have imagined reaching 500,000 downloads. But by rigorously iterating to identify and solve listener problems, we’ve been able to build a brand that has meaningfully changed the course of an industry.
Creating a podcast has not only been one of the best marketing decisions that we’ve ever made for our company, but has also been an immensely valuable learning experience for our careers. As you consider whether and how to produce a podcast for your business, we hope you find this guide to be helpful.