How to podcast in a pandemic

Podcasts created online have proved a popular marketing tool in these strange times. Sophy Buckley talks to experienced host Guy Ruddle about how to make yours stand out from the crowd

“Organisations have seen many of their usual communication avenues temporarily shut down by the pandemic and have had to find new ways to engage with their audience,” says Guy Ruddle, a former BBC Radio 5 presenter who these days is hosting podcasts for a wide variety of groups.

With no business breakfasts, lunches, drinks or launch parties where they can press the flesh and impress the mind, many have turned to podcasting. Of course, podcasts were well established as a communications medium before the pandemic – Spotify alone was offering some 700,000 of them at the end of 2019. By the end of 2020, however, that number had more than trebled to over 2.2 million. The streaming service even attributes its own recent subscriber growth to its investment in podcasting.

While they may be mighty in number, common sense suggests that not all podcasts are created equal. For every Joe Rogan, the American comedian who is the number one podcaster in 17 Spotify territories through his interviews with high-profile figures from Elon Musk to Mike Tyson, there are tens of thousands who register listeners in single figures – if they’re lucky. So what makes a standout podcast, especially when remote recording makes building a rapport between guests trickier? According to Ruddle, there are two main areas to consider: the logistics and the content.

“Professional standards have become far more important during the pandemic,” he says. “Coordinating a conversation with guests in different locations is hard. It takes more skill than when everyone is in the same room.”

He says part of this is having an experienced host with a good ear for what’s going to be a good listen. They must know how to pace the conversation, when to move it on, when to emphasise a point and when to interrupt. But this doesn’t mean they have to be experts themselves, rather “they should be able to spot the good answers from the nonsense”.

It is also important to use good equipment, including the right software for recording – Ruddle recommends Cleanfeed or Zencastr – and a quality microphone. “They get the warmth and depth of people’s voices that make listening that much nicer and easier,” he says.

The final point Ruddle makes about logistics is that, in an ideal world, a professional studio would be involved, acting as a central hub for the recording and troubleshooting any problems that might crop up. It’s not uncommon for the internet to go down, forcing the host to transfer the feed to a phone call, for example. A studio can also handle the post-recording mixing to balance the different sound feeds as well as edit out unwanted bits and ensure a seamless flow.

But logistics are only half the equation. The most successful podcasts have been carefully tailored to the target audience so they are what Ruddle calls “good company”.

He adds: “If the TV is an acquaintance of the listener, a podcast is their best mate. The listener doesn’t have to try too hard and can carry on doing whatever they were doing – cooking, cleaning, walking the dog, driving to work. The relationship is more intimate, but not more demanding.”

The hardest lesson, he stresses, is that being good company means no hard sell. Instead, you need to find a topic worth exploring that is slightly away from your usual marketing drumbeat. This could be a broader angle – if your business is housebuilding, looking at home gadgets of the future could work, for example. Then you want a couple of independent guests to discuss it. A good place to start is to see if your organisation has any links to specialists or people with interesting and original views on the chosen subject, perhaps through having shared a conference platform, commissioning original research, or simply having shared values. However, it’s best to keep the guest list small, warns Ruddle. “Too many voices make for confusing listening,” he says.

One recent successful podcast he hosted was for a private bank. Rather than offer investment advice, the podcast brought the chief investment officer together with a marine biologist to talk about sustainability. “What this did was show that the bank is aware of a long-term trend that will affect its customers, if it hasn’t already,” says Ruddle. “The bank becomes associated with knowledge and research beyond its traditional reach.”

In this instance, the client came up with the idea and secured the guest speaker. It then brought in professional experience, asking Ruddle to be the host. “I helped them develop the idea, structure the interviews and edited the final podcast,” he says.

Ruddle prizes spontaneity highly in the interview process and avoids rehearsals ahead of recording. Instead, he might have a session to brief everyone beforehand to make sure participants are clear about the topic and prepared. “You always want guests who have something to say, but having the conversation flow naturally and spontaneously is most important.” He also tries to limit the length to about 20 minutes. “That is only a guide as it’s about knowing how long you can hold the listener’s attention. If you’ve got Bill Gates as a guest, then maybe you can get away with longer,” he adds.

When organisations get it right, the effect can be powerful. A client of Ruddle’s told him a podcast they had produced had been praised in a face-to-face meeting with a sales prospect. That kind of reach is worth a bundle of marketing money. Ruddle says this client has a few thousand people listening in; the meeting proved they are the right people. As lockdown restrictions are eased, we’ll be able to meet up again and all the old in-person communications tools will be back in play. Meanwhile, the success of podcasting in helping organisations to reach their audiences means they have earned their place alongside them. Time to get your microphone out, if you haven’t already.

Five top tips for podcasting perfection

1) Know who you want to talk to – it’s much easier to develop a successful podcast if you know who your target audience is

2) Use professional equipment and host – together, they will deliver a better package, from the sound quality through to getting the structure and pace right to ensure easy listening

3) Have a clear message – the best podcasts are easy to follow, with a clear introduction that sets out what will be discussed and who is contributing. That way the audience can quickly tell whether they want to stay tuned

4) Stay away from the hard sell – podcasting is not advertising; it’s about burnishing your brand

5) Limit the number of voices – three is ideal, any more and it gets hard to follow each person’s thread