What Makes A Podcast Hit?

4 Success Factors That ‘Make It So’ for Brands


In case you missed it, a January 2022 Bloomberg newsletter piece by Lucas Shaw has been making waves within the podcast community: “Podcasting Hasn’t Produced A New Hit in Years.” It’s worth the read, but the basic argument is that podcast publishers have struggled to produce a runaway hit show since the release of Serial in 2014. Shaw comes to this conclusion because, out of the 10 most popular podcasts in 2021, none were released within the last year. So what does that mean for brands interested in producing a podcast?

Podcast Success is Not Always About Having the Highest Download Numbers

Factor One: Audience Engagement

“There are more podcasts than ever before. Spotify hosts more than 3 million podcasts, up from a few hundred thousand just a few years ago. While the vast majority of those new shows are either defunct or have minuscule audiences, there are still way more podcasts than there were just a few years ago.” –Lucas Shaw, “Podcasting Hasn’t Produced A New Hit in Years

Firstly, it’s important to evaluate how we determine podcast success. In the Bloomberg piece, a “hit” is determined by the number of listeners (though we don’t have those exact download numbers, as the podcast industry is notoriously opaque around that data). Plus, downloads aren’t the whole story, especially for brands. There are other metrics we could use to evaluate the success of a show. I would encourage us to reassess how we define “success” in podcasting. Is the goal just getting the highest number of clicks? I would argue that our goal should be to reach the right audience and to make sure that audience is engaged.

Podcasts provide brands with an opportunity to keep their audience engaged for 20 plus minutes with each new episode—a number that is simply far out of reach for most other forms of media. Using a neighbourhood network analysis can help narrow in on a target audience, and engagement can be assessed through retention rates or ratings and reviews. If our average consumption statistics indicate people are listening to 80% or more of each episode, that gives us a pretty good idea that listeners are enjoying the show and are engaged. We can do some quick math comparing downloads to unique listeners to get an idea of how many people are listening to multiple episodes— another good indicator that listeners are enjoying the show.

And of course, positive feedback and high ratings help us understand how listeners are receiving the show. In the best-case scenario, brands can build superfans for their show—people who will proselytize not only the podcast but also the brand that provides it. So, download numbers don’t tell us the full story. Brands can find massive podcast success by reaching a small number of dedicated listeners within their target audience.

In a Crowded Space, Podcasts Have to Get Creative to Stand Out

Factor Two: Creative Bravery

“The list of shows competing to be that program you try on your weekend walk is longer than the backlog of TV shows you want to watch.” –Lucas Shaw, “Podcasting Hasn’t Produced A New Hit in Years

In his piece, Shaw attributes part of the reason new shows are struggling to attract large audiences to the podcast space growing increasingly crowded. So, it has never been more important to produce a show that catches and retains the attention of listeners. With so many choices of shows to listen to, why would someone choose to spend time with your podcast? That’s why brands need to make a great show. At Pacific Content, we call this creative bravery—making a unique podcast that listeners will actively choose to listen to, rather than just a piece of marketing.

To attract audiences to their new podcast, brands need to make a show that’s valuable to the people they are trying to reach, a show that is so good that their target audience will voluntarily listen to every episode. For example, McAfee was looking to reach people interested in internet security. Their podcast Hackable? combined the fun, active format of Myth Busters with valuable information about how to prevent being vulnerable to cyber attacks. They managed to create a show that entertained and attracted the exact audience they wanted.

Hackable? Season One, Episode One

Growing an audience takes time and great potential

Factor Three: Consistency

“Faced with an onslaught of new podcasts, people are retreating to the familiar…” –Lucas Shaw, “Podcasting Hasn’t Produced A New Hit in Years

Another lesson we can draw from Shaw’s analysis is the importance of committing to the long-term when it comes to podcasting. The more episodes a brand releases over time and the longer the show is in existence increases the show’s chances of achieving familiarity with its audience. Out of the 10 most popular podcasts from last year, nine are ongoing shows that consistently release new episodes (the only exception being Serial). When it comes to growing a large audience, podcasting is a long game. Every season, audiences will grow and new people will discover the podcast.

Brands willing to commit to the longevity of a show will see the most success. This is important to consider from the very beginning when developing a new podcast. It’s important to ask: Does this podcast have legs to last over multiple seasons and many years? For example, Red Hat’s Command Line Heroes was launched in 2017 and just wrapped its eighth season. As the show progressed, each season began exploring new and different themes (season seven takes a deep dive into 1995, the most formative year in internet history; season eight is all about robots).

Not only does the show have the potential to explore a variety of topics (all still very relevant and interesting to their target audience), but the variety of subjects explored each season also demonstrates that Red Hat is committed to growing the feed they created. Rather than launching a new podcast feed to explore each of these topics, Command Line Heroes built on established themes of the existing show and leveraged a feed they already built. Had Red Hat started the podcast with a more narrow focus (for example, a show about the Internet in the year 1995) there wouldn’t be anywhere to go once that story was told, and they would not be able to continue building on their audience with future episodes. Instead, they focused on their target audience first and made a show that had the infinite potential for interesting stories they could explore. With a commitment to quality and consistency, podcast audience growth will happen over time.

Command Line Heroes, Season Seven Trailer

To get discovered, invest in promoting your show

Factor Four: A Smart Marketing Strategy

“Companies need to use these hits to promote new shows. This will also require an investment in marketing and an innovation in formats.” –Lucas Shaw, “Podcasting Hasn’t Produced A New Hit in Years

Finally, Shaw makes the important point that because the podcast space is so crowded, companies need to commit to investing in not just producing a quality podcast, but also marketing that show. You can make the most incredible podcast ever, but if no one knows about it, no one will listen to it.

Shaw recommends companies use their existing popular podcasts to promote new shows. And at Pacific Content, we couldn’t agree more. One of the best ways to promote a new podcast is on another podcast. A recommendation for a new podcast from a favourite and trusted host can carry considerable weight.

Final Thoughts

Though the podcast space is crowded and struggling with discoverability, brands that produce a high-quality show, commit to releasing consistently over an extended length of time, and invest in a smart marketing strategy can still build a robust audience and find podcast success.

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