The ultimate guide to starting, producing, and promoting a podcast
What’s even better than reading about making a podcast? How about a podcast about podcasting! If you want to grab this post to go or hear examples of some of the things we’re talking about below, this lesson of Make This Year is also presented in audio format:
There’s no doubt that podcast listenership is exploding right now with the success of shows like Serial, Gimlet Media’s StartUp, and the multitude of NPR podcasts.
Audio storytelling is back in a big way, and its rise in popularity affords you, side project maker, with an incredible opportunity to reach a new audience, expand your current one, or build a name and brand for yourself.
And with more and more companies looking to sponsor podcasts, building an audience for you and your opinions can also be a great way to bring in income.
So how do you not only find that audience, but also capture it?
How do you create something new and exciting when there’s already over 325,000 shows out there?
Today we’re going to cover the basics of creating, producing, and promoting your own podcast from how to find the topic that’s right for you, how to decide what format works for your podcast, how to find people to interview, and all the way down to the brass tacks of what recording gear you’ll need, how to edit, and finally, how to distribute and market your podcast so people can find it.
It may sound like a lot to cover, but don’t worry, we’ll take you step-by-step through the process and in the end, you’ll have everything you need to get started on your own podcast today.
Step 1: The topic
I started the Rocketship.fm podcast about 2.5 years ago now with my partners Matt and Joelle Goldman. The idea was for us to do it for a couple of months, learn how to podcast, get in touch with the people whose articles we’re reading and ask them the questions that we wanted the answers to, and then go back to building products.
But what happened was the podcast just kept slowly growing and it became really hard for us to give up. We learned a lot of things the hard way. We really had no idea what it took to build a formal podcast and had no idea how big it would become.
Since then, we’ve launched the Makers podcast for Crew, and will soon be rolling out The Studio. What all of these have in common is a niche topic and a clear vision of who the audience is.
Because the reality is that with a quarter million podcasts out there, just doing a general show is no longer going to help you stand out. If you don’t already have a following elsewhere or don’t have a brand built around you or your audience, finding and building a new audience can be incredibly hard.
But you have a trick up your sleeve, if you choose to use it. If you can find a unique space to work in — like being the only podcast that focuses on customer support success for knitting, let’s say — you’ll win.
The beauty of podcasts is that your audience doesn’t have to be huge off the bat. With very niche content you can find very loyal listeners. And those listeners may very well become very loyal customers of your product.
With podcasting comes an intimacy that you don’t find in writing. People are listening to your actual voice — no edits, no fixing — and it’s very easy for you to build relationships with them fast.
When you’re looking for your topic it’s important to find something that you yourself resonate with. You’re going to be talking about this, a lot, so if you’re bored your audience is going to be bored.
A couple examples:
With Rocketship.fm, we started off interested in bootstrapping and wanted to prove that it was a viable business model as opposed to funding. 250 interviews later, our views have changed drastically, but that came with interviewing people who had built bootstrapped and raised money. But in the beginning, our first 20 or so episodes were super-focused on entrepreneurs that had bootstrapped and learning the secrets of how they built a viable business without raising capital.
For Makers, we wanted to create something that looked at not only the end product of artists, designers, and creators in all fields, but the story behind how they got there. What in their life propelled them to success. As creatives, our life and our life’s work are so much the same, that hearing from other, successful artists is hugely inspirational. It’s a bit of a broader topic than Rocketship.fm, but still niche enough to find a dedicated audience.
So here’s the three things to look at when you’re trying to find that niche that you’re going to specialize in:
A) Passion: Is there something that you’re incredibly passionate about that you just can’t stop telling the world about?
B) Your field of expertise: Do you have a competitive advantage in your experiences or your expertise in a specific area that people would want to hear your opinion?
C) Belief: Build your show are the premise of a belief that resonates with your audience.
If neither passion or expertise jump out to you, that’s ok. You can also build an audience around a belief or an opinion.
Think about Rocketship. We started it with our own belief about bootstrapping and that you could build a business outside of Silicon Valley without raising funds, and went out to prove this theory.
This was just a jumping off point. We had a belief-premise, and it left a lot open topic-wise, but our listeners were passionate about this belief and we built an audience around it.
In every industry there are ongoing discussions about best practices, trends and everything in-between.
Picking a side of the fence can be a way for you to find your niche. You don’t have to dig in too hard but it’s something that’s relatable so people know that when they come to you, they’re coming because you share this commonality.
Step 2: Your story
Your story is why people listen to you. It’s how they describe you to someone who’s not yet a listener.
And you need to give them that story either in the title or the tagline, so they can know what you’re about quickly.
Ask yourself why you picked this niche? Why do you have this opinion? What in your background or your history has led you to this point where you now want to share your beliefs with a bigger audience?
Maybe you spent the last 10 years in a field or you had an epiphany when everything in your life changed and now you can’t stop thinking about this one thing. Or it could be something that emotionally effected you that you need to dig deeper into and find the answers to.
Whatever it is, this story is really key to you finding your audience because when you know the story and can tell the story quickly in a repeatable manner it’s something that people can go and share with the world.
With Rocketship.fm, I was a struggling entrepreneur. I wanted to find out how I could build a business without raising a lot of money, because I was in a place where there wasn’t a lot of money to raise.
Now, if we look at some of the other popular business podcasts out there let’s see if you can figure out what they’re about just from the title:
Double your freelancing.
Pretty obvious, right? You know right from the title this is for consultants who want to double their freelance rate. I know not only about Brennan Dunn from that title, but I know exactly what’s going to be in that story.
Ok, here’s another one:
Startups for the rest of us.
Right? Rob Walling and Mike Taber hosting a podcast on startups for those outside of the valley. The rest of us. So very quickly I know their opinion on startups. I know what they’re about and I also know the content of the show.
We’ll try one more. Ready?
Dorm Room Tycoon.
So, this is William Channer and he has an interview podcast where he started from his dorm room and wanted to figure out how to become a tycoon. So he’s interviewing big people from business, but you can tell you have the host who is hungry and eager to learn talking to people who are more established. It says it all right in the title. You can tell the opinion he takes on this and the angle he’s taken for his podcast right from the title.
So in all of these they’ve picked a business niche and they’ve built their story right into the title so you instantly know what to expect and what they’re about.
This helps a listener self identify that this is a podcast for me, I want to go check it out. Which increases the chances of them sticking.
Had they just named it business today, we don’t know if that is oil, stock market, or if it’s small businesses in Des Moine, Iowa. And that could be the difference between people finding your podcast and relating to it and then passing it up for one of the other 325,000 options.
Step 3: The style
When it comes to actually producing your podcast, there are a few different styles you can go with.
- Editorial: Think NPR’s Marketplace where you take current events from today, report on them and dive into the stories.
- Storytelling: The most popular podcast in this style is definitely Serial, but it’s also what we did with Makers and what Gimlet does with StartUp, where you tell a story each week. It may be a continuing story or a unique story for each episode. It doesn’t have to be current. It just has to be interesting.
- Interview: Probably the most popular (and easiest) style to work with, this is what we use for Rocketship.fm. It’s the most popular format because you bring in people who you want to talk to or are interesting in your space and you simply ask them questions. So the editing is lower. But yet the relatability is higher because you have their name, not just yours for people to discover and be attracted to and to want to hear what your guest has to say, not just what you have to say week after week.
While you’re free to go down whatever route you’d like to, for our purposes today we’re going to look at the interview style. If you’re just starting out it’s a great format to go with because you can play a little bit more of a passive role where you are asking questions as your audience would and you rely on the guest to really supply the content.
Plus, the amount of editing needed is pretty minimal. Most interview podcasts are a copy and paste of the conversation itself.
Step 4: How do you find guests?
Alright, you’re ready to start your podcast, but how do you find those initial guests?
The easiest way is to find people who are trying to put themselves out there already. Most people go through cycles in their career and so it’s sometimes hard to get a big name if they’re not currently promoting something. It’s always good to keep a lookout on who’s writing recent blog posts. Who’s publishing on Medium. Who’s very active on social media — on Twitter or Snapchat.
When you reach out to these people, you always want to pitch the value to them. They probably get a lot of requests and so you need to find ways to differentiate yourself.
The value isn’t that they could come on and talk to you and help to promote you. The value is that you can ask them insightful questions on this topic which you know they’re an expert in. And that your audience would get a lot of value from their response and in exchange you’ll be able to promote their book or their company.
You want to describe your audience — even if you don’t have one yet, it’s ok, just say who your audience will be and how you’re going to distribute it.
People love talking about themselves and they love platforms on which to do that.
Another trick is to keep an eye on newly published books that are inside your niche. Everyone seems to write a book these days and a lot of the bigger names are still working with publishers. If you contact their publisher and pitch their publisher authors have an obligation to their publishers to do PR — it’s part of their contract. So if the publisher recommends that they go on your podcast, there’s a very good chance that they’re going to make it work.
Step 5: Asking the right questions
Alright, we’ve got our niche, we know who our audience is, we’ve found some people that have agreed to come on and talk with us on our podcast. Now it’s time to tell their story. And one of the most important things you’ll do as the host of your podcast is ask the right questions.
This is a twofold process.
You need to do research on the person. You need to know what they’re interested in. What they’re interested in talking about. And what their views are on particular topics and then be able to bring those topics up.
For a 20min conversation, I’ll generally have 3 topics that I want to touch on and for each topic I’ll have 3 questions that I could dive a little bit deeper in.
So if someone wanted to talk about podcasting and they were really good at storytelling. I may ask them what they look for in a good story. Where they look for their stories. Where do they look for material and inspiration and what is a favorite story of theres that they’ve produced recently. And on any of those topics we can take it as high level or we can go as deep as you’re inspired to go.
You’ll want to read up on the person’s writing on their blog on their Twitter so you can get a better idea of who they are. If they’ve written a book read the book or at least the first couple of chapters so you can get a good idea of where they’re going and what their opinions are.
Sometimes you just don’t get it right
I remember doing an interview with Andrew Keen who is a very opinionated author about the state of the web and the internet.
His publisher sent us the book but I honestly didn’t read it before the interview.
So we went into the interview and I was asking a lot of high-level questions and afterwards he said ‘Man you guys went easy on me, I thought this was going to be a lot harder.’ And I could’ve I could’ve dug into a lot of what he was saying, but I wasn’t prepared enough.
I hadn’t done my research where I could’ve gone from a good interview to a really fantastic interview and a more engaging conversation for our audience.
Mistakes in interviewing
Now one of the biggest mistakes that I see interview podcasters make is they have this set of prepared questions and they just stick to them.
So they’ve got 5 questions and 20 minutes and 1 question follows the other follows the other, regardless of what the guest says in between. But really one of the most important aspects of a good interview is listening.
You need to be a fantastic listener and be able to play off of the topics that someone is talking about.
They may come to you as an expert in marketing, but if that day they have just been seeped in landing page design and they have all kinds of insights that they’re spewing, there’s no reason to take them off that topic. If that’s where their heart is that day, you as the interviewer need to recognize that and be able to dig deeper into that to pull out all the information from them that you can.
But that only comes from good listening and asking good follow-up questions.
A follow-up question shouldn’t necessarily be ‘tell me more about that?’ But it should be riffing off of a topic that they’ve brought up while answering your first question and being able to ask follow-on questions so they continue to go deeper. Not everyone will tell everything the first time off the first question.
People often need a little bit of prying to get out all the information that’s in their brain.
They may think that no one’s interested in what they have to say initially, but as you show genuine interest, guests will open up a lot more and you’re able to get a much richer and more enjoyable answer for your audience.
I usually try to set the cadence of the conversation right off the bat. So as soon as touch base on Skype or the phone or Google Hangouts I ask them, “What do you want to talk about today?”
If they don’t have anything in particular I go back to those 3 high-level topics that I want to cover in the 20 minutes. And if they say ‘I don’t really want to touch on X, Y and Z’, then I’ll just adjust accordingly.
Before we start, I always reiterate what we’re going to talk about.
So I say, ‘Alright we’re going to start off and I’m going to get a little background on you. Then we’re going to talk about your favorite story. And then we’re going to end on a recent story that you did that you were really excited about.”
And so that way it sets up a cadence for the conversation. If the conversation changes a little bit that’s fine but now we both have the same roadmap.
We both know where we want the conversation to go and hopefully it stays on track. And if not, that’s OK. But you as a host are now setting up good guidelines for success with this conversation.
Step 6: Recording your podcast
Now, here’s where we get a little more technical.
You’re obviously going to need some equipment for recording your interviews, and one of the most important parts of that is a microphone.
Now I started off with a Blue Yeti microphone. It was around $100 and plugged straight into my computer through USB. The sound quality isn’t that great and if you listen to the early Rocketship.fm recordings you can definitely tell the difference.
Now, I use a Heil PR 40. It’s a fantastic mic and with a pop filter it’s hard to beat for the price.
But there’s lots of options out there. People like Alex Bloomberg, who probably knows way more about this than I do, recommends an AT835 shotgun microphone, which is made by Audio Technica.
Each mic will have a slightly different personality. Luckily with YouTube today you can go on and listen to a ton of demos to find the mic that’s right for you.
And I’d say don’t spend more than $100 or $200 on your first mic. The microphone is incredibly important, but it doesn’t make or break the interview. The content is what makes or breaks everything.
The other essential piece you’re going to need for recording is some sort of preamp. So I use the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2. It has 2 inputs so I can record in stereo or mono, and it works seamlessly with my MacBook Pro.
Now this isn’t a preamp that you would take on a walking interview. This is more for sitting on your desk, but it is very portable. I’ve brought this into people’s offices before, set up my little setup in under 5 minutes and recorded a professional sounding interview. So, this is kind of the middle ground.
You can also look into the Tasacm DR100MK2. This works off a rechargeable battery so it’s a lot more portable. This would be great if you’re doing a lot of in-person interviews where you want to be a little more mobile.
Record the call
If you’re doing your podcast over the phone or online, the last piece of the puzzle is a way to record the calls. There’s a fantastic suite that works with Skype called Ecamm Call Recorder for Mac.
What it does is allows you to record your Skype calls and then it actually splits the two sides of the conversation into separate WAVs and so it’s really easy for you to take those two WAVs, edit them separately if there’s some sound differences you want to fix, and then bring them together in your audio editor.
Which brings us to the final aspect: editing.
Step 7: Editing your podcast
If the idea of editing audio is scary, I can tell you that you shouldn’t be too worried. If you’re doing an interview-style format, there should be minimal editing aside from maybe adding an intro and an outro. As long as you’ve put in the work to record the podcast properly, editing should be easy.
I use Adobe Audition, simply because I already subscribe to the Creative Cloud Suite with Photoshop and Illustrator.
Now if you’re looking for something a little more specific to podcast editing you can also check out Hindenburg. This is software designed specifically for podcasting for audio journalism. And so it has a lot of the essential features that you need without a lot of the features that you don’t need if you were, say, editing a music track or a soundtrack.
They offer a 30-day trial so check it out here.
Step 8: Posting and promoting
Now lastly, once you’ve put your podcast together you have to host it somewhere and my favourite is SimpleCast.
It’s what we use for Makers, and it’s what we used for about 2 years for Rocketship. It’s a clean, modern interface. It makes it really easy to generate your RSS feed, keep it updated, and it gives you some really great stats about who is listening not only on iTunes, but Stitcher or Google Play.
Plus, they have an easy way to actually embed it on your site if you make a webpage for your podcast.
For Rocketship, we switched to Libsyn because they have an exclusive partnership with Spotify. While the interface is really rough — it’s really tough to use, it’s more like using Enterprise software — the distribution is great. And they play nice with PodTrack, which is a great podcast advertising platform that doesn’t work with SimpleCast.
So now, you have your podcast, you have it hosted, it sounds fantastic. You’ve got a couple interviews under your belt and now you want people to start to listen to it.
Marketing your podcast is a whole other thing but there’s two little things to keep in mind.
iTunes still really runs the podcast market. It’s where probably 50–70% of your listeners are going to come from.
What iTunes wants to see from you is consistent downloads and reviews so you’ll move up the ranking whenever you release a new episode and then reviews.
Reviews help to keep your show sticky. So it feels weird at first, but it’s so important to ask your audience to help review. Ask your mom, your sister, your brother. Anyone that you know to leave a review because it helps keep up the momentum for your show.
Outside of iTunes, you need to market your podcast like you would any other piece of content. The best way is to find where your audience hangs out and post your podcast there.
For a developer it might be HackerNews.
For a designer it might be DesignerNews.
For a salesman it may be closingcall.co.
For startups it might be Product Hunt.
Find those places, build rapport, and promote your latest episodes. If you’ve done your job, the audience should already be there.
It’s a lot. I know. But this is everything I’ve used to build multiple successful podcasts that have built audiences, helped sell products, and brought in sponsorships.
While we got a little technical at the end there, it’s always important to remember that the story is always at the core of your podcast. If you don’t have a good story, and you can’t talk with excitement, your audience will know. There’s no faking it. So find what you’re passionate about. Find the questions you want answers to. And share them with the world.