“Jobs to be done” for podcasts

An important podcast lesson from a legendary business thinker

. 4 min read

An important podcast lesson from a legendary business thinker

Professor Clayton Christensen died last month. Many knew him for his theory of disruptive innovation, his classes at Harvard Business School, or his influential book The Innovator’s Dilemma.

I never got the chance to meet Professor Christensen, but his ideas have informed much of the work we do at Pacific Content.

Among the most influential of Christensen’s theories is what he calls “jobs to be done.” The gist: we hire products to do things for us.

We all have many jobs to be done in our lives. Some are little (pass the time while waiting in line); some are big (find a more fulfilling career). Some surface unpredictably (dress for an out-of-town business meeting after the airline lost my suitcase); some regularly (pack a healthful lunch for my daughter to take to school). When we buy a product, we essentially “hire” it to help us do a job. If it does the job well, the next time we’re confronted with the same job, we tend to hire that product again. And if it does a crummy job, we “fire” it and look for an alternative.

Christensen often used the example of fast-food milkshakes to illustrate this point. It’s a short anecdote, and well worth the 4 minutes:

What does this have to do with podcasts? Podcasts are a product. If your goal is to build an amazing show for a specific audience, it’s crucial to understand your listeners’ motivations.

Motivations for listening

Some good news: we already have some high-level understanding about podcast listeners’ motivations. For instance, The Canadian Podcast Listener study asks regular podcast consumers why they listen:

The long-running Infinite Dial study from Edison Research and Triton Digital asks a similar question:

These answers give us some insight into the jobs existing podcast listeners “hire” podcasts to do. Near the top of both lists: learning, entertainment, and staying up-to-date with current events.

But here’s the thing: podcasts don’t have a monopoly on any of these jobs.

If the “job to be done” is entertainment, I can choose from a universe of non-podcast products: books, movies, TV shows, YouTube videos, a trip to the racetrack, theatre, amusement park, etc.

Or, if the “job to be done” is keeping me up-to-date on current events, I could hire plenty of non-podcast products: Twitter, newspapers, magazines, local radio, cable news, etc.

And if (as the Canadian Podcast Listener study suggests) 10% of regular podcast listeners in Canada use audio “to help me fall asleep,” it follows that a Sleep With Me listener could instead decide to hire melatonin, blackout shades, or a white noise machine to do the same job.

For me, that’s the most useful takeaway from Christensen’s “jobs to be done” theory for podcasters. Your “competition” isn’t limited to other podcasts. Your competition is any other product someone could hire to do a job for them.

Put in the time to understand your audience

The insights in The Infinite Dial and Canadian Podcast Listener studies are useful starting points, but come with limitations. They only reflect the most popular “jobs to be done” among existing regular monthly podcast listeners, and they cover a broad range of listeners across the podcast ecosystem.

For individual podcasters, networks, and platforms, there’s much more work to be done.

In the same way that Professor Christensen’s colleagues stationed themselves outside a fast-food restaurant to understand the motivations of milkshake-buyers, podcasters need to spend meaningful time with the audiences they currently serve, and those they want to serve.

That means going to conferences, hanging out in online communities, and attending meetups and user groups. It means one-on-one interaction with your existing listeners, and people who aren’t yet listening to your show, but should.

Compete and differentiate

Once you understand the “jobs to be done” your audience has, the question becomes: how can our podcast compete against other products that listeners might hire to do the same job? What are the affordances of audio that give podcasts a competitive edge over other products? There are plenty: portability, wide narrative and emotional bandwidth, the ability to be used hands-free and eyes-free…

In other words, why might somebody hire Sleep With Me instead of a melatonin tablet for the job of “help me fall sleep?”

Why might somebody hire Hello from the Magic Tavern instead of a novel or a tropical vacation for the job of “escape?”

Why might somebody hire the TED Radio Hour instead of attending a lecture or enrolling in a continuing education class for the job of “learn new things?”

Questions to ask yourself

  • What are “jobs to be done” for my audience?
  • What made existing listeners “hire” my show?
  • What’s keeping them from hiring my podcast?
  • What other products could they hire to do that job? (Don’t forget about non-media products)
  • How can my podcast use the unique properties of audio to compete against other products?

What jobs do you hire podcasts to do?

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