When Steph Smith of The Hustle talks about growing a podcast, it's a good idea to listen because she's an expert on publishing and scaling online content to reach millions of readers.
Steph has been able to use some of these techniques and learnings to grow her podcast Sh*t You Don't Learn in School (alongside co-host Calvin) from 0 to 15,000 downloads per month in less than two years.
Recently, Steph chatted with Courtland Allen on the Indie Hackers podcast about growing the show and some best tips for new podcast hosts who want to do the same.
It's a little different to the usual advice you hear about growing a podcast, so we summarised some of her key insights.
1. Understand the arc of a typical learning path
Podcasting comes with a heap of challenges and difficulties, especially if you’re a newbie.
- Technology — how do you record, edit and produce a podcast?
- Subject matter — what should it be about and what topics can you talk about within that niche?
- Self-doubt — lack of confidence to keep going when podcasting gets hard
- Fear — especially of failing in public
Steph and Courtland agree that one way to overcome these — especially the latter, fears — is to understand the process or “arc” that most people follow during their learning journey. It goes like this:
Steph recommends trying a lot of new things — in private or with a small group — and sticking to them until you become competent so that you truly understand how the learning arc works.
Once you recognize that those feelings of doubt and being overwhelmed are a natural part of the learning progression and that they will pass if you keep going, you will have that as a backup in your toolbox when it comes to putting out a podcast, where you’re largely learning in public.
2. Do a 30-day challenge
Commit to producing 30 episodes to help you overcome the "this is too hard" hump. Steph and Calvin recorded and published a daily episode for 30 days.
“We wanted to truly go through what it would be like in real life to launch a podcast… and it’s really hard to… have enough to say.”
They had no listeners on day one, but after 30 days, they'd gathered around 200 loyal listeners who encouraged them to continue.
Steph says that she'd encourage anyone who wants to start a new content project — a blog, newsletter, YouTube channel, or, of course, a podcast — to write down all the things you'd talk/write/video about every day.
After 30 days, you'll either confirm the viability of the project by having built a large list of possible topics, or, realize that you don’t have enough to say and it’s time to go back to the drawing board.
Benefits of a 30-Day Challenge:
- Provides a long list of possible topics for newsletters, articles, etc.
- It gives you 30 episodes to kickstart your podcast
- Confirms that your idea/niche has legs
- Test your conviction — after 30 days, you'll know whether you want to continue
- It gets you over the "it's too hard" hump
3. Grow other channels first
“The infrastructure (for podcasting) is so bad, from discoverability to engagement, but also analytics. That’s the most important thing that any growth marketer will use in their toolbox… Things are being built but [podcasting is] about ten years behind written content in terms of the tools.”
Steph recommends that podcasters use other platforms with good analytics tools to build interest in new shows.
However, she doesn't recommend simply advertising the podcast episode because it's hard to entice a new listener to commit 30 - 60 minutes of listening time. Instead, she says you should build up interest in the topic on a platform where you already have an audience.
Use small bites of your episodes to create interest in your podcast and share them where your audience hangs out.
Some examples could be:
- Share soundbites or video clips of your episodes on Twitter
- Post your podcast on YouTube and then use YouTube Clips to create small videos to share on other platforms or as "Shorts"
- Make a transcription and share it on another medium like your blog
4. Use viral content to bootstrap episodes
Test the validity of your subject matter and gain traction with it on these other channels before you mention that you've recorded a podcast episode about it.
For example, if you're big on Twitter, put out an interesting tweet on your intended topic and see how many likes, comments and retweets it gets.
Are you a blogger? Write a blog post about it. If you have an email list, dedicate a newsletter to it and invite readers to apply. YouTuber? Create a video around the subject to spark your viewers' interest.
Once the content is getting likes and comments, update it with a link to your podcast episode when it's ready.
5. Experiment with new formats and break the podcasting mold
When you think about podcast formats the chances are that guest interviews and conversations between the hosts are the two that readily spring to mind.
Podcast listeners often say that listening to conversations helps them to feel part of the show. Being entertained, learning something new and keeping updated on topics of interest are the number one reasons for listening to podcasts, according to a 2019 survey by Digital News.
But if you want your podcast to stand out, consider looking outside the typical formats and try some unconventional ideas instead.
Take a look at YouTube for some inspiration.
YouTubers are putting out vlogs, documentaries, instructional videos, product reviews, case studies, cartoons, music… just to name a few. There are even hugely popular channels like Dude Perfect and Yes Theory that started with a bunch of people just hanging out and inventing challenges for each other.
There’s tremendous scope for podcasters to try new ideas.
“[People should] break the norms and rethink what can be done, because [at the moment] it’s a lot of the same thing and it doesn’t have to be that way.”
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