5 ways to develop your brand’s voice: Wondery’s Hernan Lopez shares his playbook for reaching millions

Hernan Lopez, Founder and CEO, Wondery

By: Natalie Sportelli, Content & Brand Manager

In this series, “How I Built It,” we’ll cover how founders have built (or rebuilt) crucial aspects of their business using a combination of trial-and-error, on the job learning, and key advice.

Since last October, more than 20 million people have tuned in to hear the real-life love and tragic downfall of Orange County couple Debra Newell and John Meehan. Their tale twists and turns, keeping listeners rapt as host and LA Times reporter Christopher Goffard details the true crime thriller.

Their story plays out over six episodes of “Dirty John,” a hit podcast produced by Los Angeles-based startup Wondery. Just two years old, Wondery has already created more than 60 shows covering true crime, history, business, and professional advice. The man behind it all is founder Hernan Lopez, a longtime media exec who spent nearly two decades at Fox before launching Wondery in the spring of 2016.

In his role as CEO, Lopez evaluates more than 100 podcast ideas a month, looking for the next standout story like the one in “Dirty John.” And with dozens of top-rated shows under his belt, Lopez has a knack for spotting which will resonate with listeners — a big reason we decided to back him and Wondery this spring.

With so many people entering the podcasting space, what’s the secret to standing out? We asked Lopez to share his method for crafting a compelling podcast that can reach millions. And, no surprise, it all begins with a good story.

Sell your story

“You first need to start with the story,” says Lopez. “When people are telling you a story you pretty much immediately find out whether you are gravitating toward it or not.” When assessing whether a plot line makes for a good podcast, there are a couple of boxes it will need to check:

  • Central characters: Do a clear protagonist and antagonist drive the plot?
  • Structure: Does the story have an obvious beginning, middle, and end?
  • Relatability: Will the story resonate with the average listener?

“If you can’t answer those questions, you’ll have to rethink the story,” says Lopez. He cautions aspiring podcasters against prioritizing flashy, high-production value over the plot itself. “Story first, host second, production value third,” he says.

Even with a gripping narrative like the one detailed in “Dirty John” Lopez says he couldn’t have predicted the extent of its success nailing his three guiding tenets. “It was surprising the scale of how much that story resonated with so many people,” he says.

Widen your reach

Why have so many people latched onto the telling of one California couple’s doomed relationship? “Because we framed it as a love story and a story about family, denial, deception, and, ultimately, survival,” says Lopez.

The key to developing a compelling storyline, he shares, is to determine how the plot can explore themes that strike a nerve with as many listeners as possible.

Then, the podcast has to anticipate the range of emotions those themes will evoke and ensure they’re fully explored in its telling.

To give its stories extra credibility and authority, Wondery partners with leading reporters from publications such as the LA Times and other experts in the field to host its shows. Coming soon to Wondery is a partnership with the Spotlight investigative team at the Boston Globe for a show covering the case of Aaron Hernandez, the deceased former NFL player convicted of murder in 2015. Any top podcast host, according to Lopez, will embody the following traits in her or his delivery: frank, familiar, fiery, and fun.

The Wondery Team

Develop a singular sound

With more than 70 million Americans tuning into podcasts each month and an ever-growing number of shows, creating a powerful brand in the space is crucial to getting noticed. “The single biggest difference between us and everybody else is our use of what we call the ‘Wondery’ sound,” says Lopez. “It’s very distinctive. It’s inspired by Hollywood as opposed to the world of public radio.”

Think about your favorite podcasts, be it “This American Life,” “Modern Love,” or “Serial.” Each has a specific tone, cadence, and delivery.

Story is king, but after it’s been selected and produced, compelling audio content still needs a distinctive sound to make it memorable to listeners.

“What we try to do is more reminiscent of what you hear on a television show or a movie,” Lopez says. One way to do that: focus on the perspective of the listener. Imagine how she or he will hear the story and bring the listener as close to the action as possible.

“We try to put the listener in the middle of the story by inviting them to imagine what it would feel like to be in the shoes of the subject,” Lopez explains.

Listen to your audience

Wondery’s podcasts reach more than 4 million unique listeners monthly, and the company is currently developing new shows in areas such as history, business, and science. To do so, Wondery leans on its listeners.

“Our show ‘Business Wars’ is an ongoing mini-series where every six episodes we cover a new war,” he explains. Previous shows have detailed the “fights” between DC and Marvel in comics and Nike and Adidas in sports apparel. “At the end of each episode we ask people to complete a survey and tell us which war they’d like to hear about the most,” Lopez adds. “We have more than 400 suggestions.”

The most desired next contender, according to fans: Apple. Wondery uses this tactic on other shows, too. Listener feedback collected from Wondery’s show “American History Tellers” revealed that fans wanted to hear more stories about American Independence and the Revolutionary War.

Remember, it’s entertainment

The final step to creating a compelling podcast?

Remember, at the end of the day, a podcast is meant to be enjoyed.

Wondery’s mission, Lopez notes, is to inform and entertain with each show it adds to its growing network.

“We want our audience to feel that when they’re listening to one of our shows, they’ll be immersed into the story and they’ll get lost. They will feel that it’s so personal to them that they’re a character in the story,” he says.

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