Monday 19 August 2019

Everybody's doing it so why can't we? The pros and cons of startup podcasts

People often listen as part of their commute to work, and thus a regular weekly schedule for recording is best if you want to fit into that
People often listen as part of their commute to work, and thus a regular weekly schedule for recording is best if you want to fit into that

Richard Rodger

Previously I discussed the newsletter for public speaker that we publish on a weekly basis. The purpose of that marketing activity is to build a community within one of our user groups: public speakers. Our startup, voxgig, is all about building collaboration tools for the conference industry, and public speakers are the most underserved group. The newsletter is working well, and our early success led to over-enthusiastic goalsetting on my part - a mistake.

I'm about to put that lesson into use, because we think it's time for our startup to launch a podcast.

Why are we doing a podcast, and for whom? One thing that did come out of the aggressive goals for the newsletter (and this was an intended consequence), was the need to think up new ways to promote the newsletter. One idea was to use a podcast to reach our audience in a different way. The podcast started out as just another promotional idea for the newsletter, designed to help drive subscriptions. We didn't understand at the time (the start of this year) that publishing a podcast is a significant project in itself.

Our logic for doing one is that is that it fits naturally into our marketing strategy. Once we moved beyond seeing the podcast as merely promotion for the newsletter, it became clear that it could help us directly reach our audience. Our basic strategy is that I interview people who speak at technology conferences about the art of public speaking, and in turn, seek to be interviewed by other public speakers who do their own podcasts.

This should generate brand awareness for the public speaker tools that we are building as part of our product. Our hypothesis is that podcast listeners will become newsletter subscribers, and vice versa, and this will strengthen our relationship with speakers. Ultimately by building up a community of speakers, we will have qualified set of early users for our product.

Doing a podcast seems easy, right? Record a Skype conversation, upload an audio file, and you're done. As with most things, if you want to do them professionally, it's all about the details. In reading up on podcast publishing we discovered that you really need to publish on a regular basis. People often listen as part of their commute to work, and thus a regular weekly schedule is best if you want to fit into that. Also, if you don't publish regularly, you tend to see a sharp drop off in listeners. Since we already have a weekly process in place to publish a newsletter, we've decided to go with a weekly podcast as well.

You also need to think about your launch strategy. Appearing as a listing in the podcast apps on people's phones with only one entry is not going to give you much credibility, so you need to launch with a small initial set of recordings. This is perhaps unnecessary for starting a personal podcast, but as we are specifically launching one to promote our brand, we need to take this into consideration. We'll need to settle on a date, and coordinate social media activity with interviewees to get as big a push as possible. Pro tip: launching anything in September is not a great idea - everybody is on holiday in August just when you need to do your planning. I'll let you know as soon as we have an actual date for the podcast launch.

Unlike a newsletter, where we control content production, a podcast requires a willing third party to interview. It turns out that finding and scheduling the recordings is a major task. You might say it's just a one hour conference call - what's so hard about that? Well anyone worth interviewing about public speaking tends to do a lot of actual public speaking. That means they do a lot of travel. I also speak at conferences, and I also travel. The time available for an interview in any given week can be pretty tight.

Even though the podcast will come out weekly, it won't be recorded weekly. Invariably you end up with multiple people available one week, and none the next. Timezone difference add an extra layer of fun to this game. Initially I just started trying to causally schedule the interviews myself, just a like a regular business meeting, but quickly got overwhelmed. We now have a dedicated person who spends some of their time only on this task - it really is that awkward.

The cost of publishing the podcast includes this unforeseen outlay. This is often the way in business. You have a great idea, it makes sense, but there are tons of hidden costs. It's foolish to think you will know about all of them advance. When the hidden costs emerge, you need to think carefully about continuing with the project. Sometimes, these costs make a project unsustainable, and you have to kill it. You've sunk a lot of money to get as far as you did, and it can be hard to "waste" that money by shutting something down when you really should. Psychologists call this the "sunk cost" fallacy, and it's very common in startups - hence the obsession with being agile and reacting to what is telling you. Unlike an established company, you don't have the cash reserves to survive failed projects. Given the success of the newsletter, which validates our audience, we still feel the podcast is worth doing, but this extra cost means the podcast will need to show stronger growth in listener numbers to earn its keep.

The other challenge is the running the interview itself. Doing this professionally is not easy. How you go about posing questions and keeping the conversation going is something you need training for - it doesn't just happen. Once again, the co-working space where I am based in Waterford, Boxworks, has come to the rescue. The communications firm O'Connell Ivory is also based here, and a shared cup of coffee sealed the deal. I've written before about the benefits of co-working spaces, and I can't emphasise them enough. You have a startup-friendly atmosphere and can easily find both early suppliers and customers.

How do you go about producing a professional podcast? You (or someone on your team) needs to do a pre-interview. This is a quick 15-minute call with the person you will be interviewing to discuss the topics and get to know them. Oprah Winfrey might be able to jump into an interview unprepared - you won't be. When the time comes to record the full interview, you'll already have an outline of the topics, and your guest will have had time to prepare some good points and anecdotes. It makes all the difference. Of course, pre-interviews also need to be scheduled, adding to the complexity.

The logistics of recording and sound quality are another challenge. Again, for a personal podcast, you can jump right in, but for a company one that is meant to promote your brand, you'll need some help with professional sound engineering. You'll need to record introductions and conclusions, and mix them with a signature tune, and it all needs to sound good.

Finally, we need to think about how to measure the impact of the podcast. Compared to a newsletter, podcasts are more difficult to measure effectively. Newsletters are email, and that is much easier to measure on a technical level. This week, I can tell you that our newsletter has exactly 3210 subscribers, of which 13.1pc read last week's email, and 20 people unsubscribed.

Getting comparable numbers for our podcast is going to be much more difficult because podcasts are accessed from multiple different places. You might find one on iTunes. Or you might use a dedicated podcast app. Or might just play it directly from the website. Even if someone downloads a podcast, they may never end up listening to it. Immediately, you have to differentiate between subscribers, who may never download, downloaders who may never listen, and listeners, who may not finish listening. Setting good goals under these constraints is going to be interesting.

I'll be covering the podcast story as we launch over the next two months, so let's see if we can figure this out.

Richard Rodger is the founder of Voxgig. He is a former co-founder of Nearform, a technology consultancy based in Waterford

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