What’s the point of your podcast?

I listened to a fascinating podcast about robots the other day.

At least, it was fascinating after three of its eleven minutes had been taken up by adverts and sickeningly chirpy promotion for a podcast other than the one I was trying to listen to, and before two minutes at the end were swallowed up by the same.

Yes, those six minutes of content were mighty tasty but my chosen bite-sized episode left me unsatisfied. I bit off less than I could chew. But what do I matter? I’m only the listener.

The problem isn’t that the publisher in that case takes advertising or that it had another podcast to cross-promote, aggressively cheesy as it was, but that it was so clear that the podcast isn’t there to serve me, the listener, but as a means to myriad other ends.

Will Francis via Unsplash

Publishers and indeed brands generally start making podcasts with good intentions. It’s a seductive medium: intimate, in-depth and largely unrestricted. It appeals to marketers and storytellers who take seriously the craft of conversation and creative audio.

But if your eleven-minute podcast has five minutes of assorted gubbins to wade through, you’re doing it wrong. You’re failing to strike the right balance. You’re not making your podcast for the listener.

Whatever pressures or mandatories are foisted upon you by your bosses and stakeholders, whatever boxes you have to tick in order to justify the good stuff, if you’re not making your podcast for the listener then you shouldn’t expect to have any.

This substandard listening experience put me in mind of some podcast proposals I put together for a client some years ago.

This client approached podcasting in a positive way. They believed there were conversations to be had that would be entertaining for their target audience, just as podcasting itself was booming. Unusually, I agreed. It would be content marketing with the emphasis on content; fine by me.

Yet the planning process soon revealed that there were other things it “needed” to achieve. It had to mention this and promote that. It had to feature this irrelevant spokesperson, cover that event in an out-of-sequence episode.

This muddle of compromises was never made. Interest in the project waned as reality came to light. The flame, so pure and bright in the throes of good intent, soon burned out.

Something I mentioned to that client was the listener value statement. It was designed to put the listener experience front and centre at all times. Whatever else was thrown in from elsewhere inside or outside their business, the statement would protect the podcast’s heart.

The listener value statement states the value of the podcast to the listeners.

It acts as a test, a sort of editorial failsafe, by putting in writing what the podcast is supposed to be for the listener. It crystallises a podcast’s right to exist by explaining and summarising what it’s for.

Properly respected, the listener value statement puts the listener first and keeps them there. Above business mandatories. Above sales. Above cross-promotion. Above ads and partners and propaganda. If you want your podcast to have listeners – and you might not, but brands don’t make podcasts for the sake of art alone – that’s where your listener must be.

Crucially, a listener value statement also creates a fertile environment into which some of those mandatories can be planted.

There is a place for cross-promotion of other content, or ads, or even a little direct selling, but if they’re secondary to the editorial heart of the podcast then they’ll be much the better for it – not least because they’re less likely to stop people listening again.

The listener value statement simply answers one essential question. Why should I listen to your podcast?

Take Hit Publish, the new podcast from online video podcast recording service Riverside. In promo materials for the show, Riverside described the purpose of Hit Publish:

“You’ll get weekly actionable tips about coming up with ideas, organizing your systems, creating great content, and much more.”

That would make a perfect listener value statement.

Answer that question and then police the answer without compromise. Here are some entirely fictional examples.

Client: an artisan coffee producer

Podcast: conversations between people who’ve never met

Listener value statement: In each episode we celebrate the vibrance, variety and vitality of human relationships by putting two cups of coffee and two microphones between two perfect strangers.

What it’s not: a podcast about coffee

Client: a direct-to-consumer women’s underwear brand

Podcast: in-depth interviews with female entrepreneurs

Listener value statement: Each inspirational episode explores the life, work and motivations of a businesswoman who’s done it her own way – in her own words, and culminating with her best pair of previously private tips for entrepreneurs.

What it’s not: a podcast about pants

Client: an independent record label

Podcast: artists building their ultimate mixtapes

Listener value statement: Algorithms can’t compare to recommendations from the bands you love. One of our rostered artists digs deep into their influences to create the ultimate mixtape. Is your future favourite lurking within?

What it’s not: a podcast about an independent record label

Next time you want to include outside content or lengthy and repetitive cross-promotion in your podcast, think carefully about your listeners, the people you really did consider with such innocence at the outset.

Who are they? How, when and where do they listen?

Most importantly, why should they listen? And how does the thing you want to force upon them for reasons that have nothing to do with them sit with that?