In 2016, I thought I had the perfect plan.
My Georgetown graduate students desperately needed to get away from books and learn about start-ups through real world experience. And Washington, D.C. was booming with startups.
So I figured — why not launch a podcast called "Students vs. Startups … Showdown on the Potomac?"
In hindsight, "Students vs. Startups" encountered a perfect storm, and I steered right into it. Ultimately, the podcast's failure boiled down to five major factors.
Here, let's dive into the five factors that led to the failure of my first podcast, and what you can learn from them.
1. Have multiple sponsors who are eager to support your podcast.
In my case, my sponsor was a hot startup seeking great resumes to grow their company — and grow, it did.
Eventually, the startup caught the attention of a larger company that bought it out. Marketing decisions were taken out of the hands of my success-at-any-cost champion.
While it's easy to blame the sponsor, I realized I failed on several levels:
- By assuming the new organization would have the same hunger as the aggressive startup. From the new corporate perspective, sponsorship for the podcast was delegated to the marketing department, and funding eventually dried up when the marketing teams prioritized other avenues.
- By not seeking other sponsors during the podcast. I should've had a backup sponsor in case my first sponsor backed out.
- By not devoting 100% effort to the success of the podcast. I treated it as a line item in a month of activities. In addition to teaching, I was conducting corporate workshops, doing video interviews, speaking onstage, and consulting. I put the difficult work of finding a backup sponsor on hold for the relatively mechanical activities of the podcast: getting guests, students, and managing the freelance audio engineers.
Lesson: Launching a successful podcast means all hands-on deck. It shouldn’t be an isolated activity. To ensure long-term success, you'll want multiple sponsors who are eager to financially support your podcast endeavors.
2. Ensure your host is engaging and can connect with the audience.
In my long broadcast career, I realized I'm able to control the energy of the show.
This is a subtle but powerful characteristic of the audio format — there are no visual clues to allow the audience to understand what is going on, so the speaker must give plenty of verbal clues to make the exchange appealing.
If the focal point was the students interacting with startups, the premise of my show was flawed. By letting the conversation flow organically, I missed out on opportunities to make the dialogue more engaging for the audience.
Listening to "Students vs. Startups" after a couple of years gave me a new perspective: Many times, the excitement dissolved after my opening. A mitigating issue must be the fact that the podcast was recorded at 6:30 PM, after everyone had worked a long day.
Lesson: If you are staking your reputation on the success of a podcast, take it upon your shoulders to handle the magic of the microphone, and ensure you have engaging talking points ready for your subjects.
3. Ensure your podcast can show up in search.
We know that humans search. A lot. A recent article indicates that Google receives 63,000 searches per second, on any given day — so it makes sense that you'd need a strong digital presence to enable searchers to find your podcast in the first place.
Search engines seek text, so you can more easily attract search bots by including text with your Show Notes page. This page should be the target of your inbound and outbound marketing efforts.
In your Show Notes page, make sure you have keywords placed appropriately, include images, the full transcript of the podcast, and a summary. These "Blog Basics" can help your podcast get discovered through search.
One essential in digital marketing is the art of the launch. Unfortunately, it was an afterthought for "Students vs. Startups". If you have an established email list with thousands of followers, the launch of a podcast can be much smoother. When email recipients click on the Show Notes page, Google will get signals of popularity and can improve the domain authority of that page, making it easier to find.
"Students vs. Startups" began from scratch. It had no email list or promotion budget. It was remarkable the podcast got any listeners at all. An email list allows you to question, survey, and learn about the needs and desires of your intended audience.
Lesson: Hire a professional to take care of the audio and scheduling. Bring in someone to structure a Show Notes page that is fast, mobile-friendly, and can be found easily through search.
4. Listen to your audience.
Ultimately, the most important part of my podcast show was missing: the audience. I failed to connect to the audience and gain a better understanding of what questions they had for entrepreneurs.
And, of all the people in the world, I should've known this. For ten years I wrote a weekly technology column for The Washington Post called, "Ask the Computer Guy." The idea of the column was to listen to the audience and help with their problems. This simple formula worked well — the column lasted a decade and had national syndication. Perhaps my hubris didn’t allow me to reach out to the startup audience to see what they wanted.
You may want to go face-to-face at trade shows and ask what topics people would like to hear. Beyond that, read forums, participate in LinkedIn groups, absorb Reddit responses, and see what questions come up on Quora.
Lesson: Get off your high horse and ask what the audience wants.
5. Your success ratio should be one hour recording, and 10 hours promoting.
For a successful podcast, you'll want to budget one hour for studio time, and at least 10 hours for promotion efforts.
If you aren't an audio engineer, you should outsource the audio editing to a professional. This will give you more time to promote your podcast.
For promotion, a great use of your time is to become a guest on other podcasts, which almost guarantees more downloads for you.
Lesson: 10X your promotion efforts. If you've done your homework and listened to the audience, when you promote it, people will say, "Wow, I was just wondering about that topic. I'm going to give it a listen."
If you want to launch a corporate podcast, it's critical you have a detailed plan for success. If you have a sponsor, deepen that relationship in case there are mitigating circumstances that can impact your financial situation. Always develop new business contacts in case things change.
The moderator can make-or-break the podcast. Lead with enthusiasm, stick with a theme, and control the interview.
Now, a little over four years later, I now have two successful podcasts: Federal TechTalk and Constellations. I've learned something from my past mistakes — I hope you can, too.