Two months ago, we launched our first podcast at SEMrush. Since then, we've scrapped together a production schedule and have been busy pitching guests. (Side note, if you're in the Philly area, stop by and chat!)
A podcast is a recorded program available for download over the Internet. While listeners of podcasts range from casual to fervent, awareness has more than doubled since 2006. The murder-mystery podcast series "Serial" helped put podcasts on the mainstream map last fall. It was the first podcast to reach 5 million downloads, and as of December 2014, it had an estimated 40 million downloads.
Our SEMrush podcast team of three still has a lot to learn. But, in this post, we've assembled some of our tips, podcasting advice and other things we've learned since we first launched.
How Do You Prepare For a Podcast?
Make sure your equipment — laptop, recording software and microphone — is up and running. Have your laptop charger cord handy, do an audio check and have other backup measures in place if possible too. After that, take a deep breath, and speak clearly and slowly (still working on that last bit ?).
Before hosting a podcast, do your due diligence — What do you know about this person? What information do you want to pull from him or her and share with the world?
Preparing for a podcast is a bit different than outlining a blog post. Even when you're podcasting solo, the podcast can go in a new direction. This is especially important if you have guests or podcast live while monitoring your social media for feedback and questions. I like to over-prepare. Feeling prepared in itself increases my confidence as a podcaster.
Whether you wish to outline or script is up to you; when I podcast solo, I usually script and rehearse my intro and outro and wing it on my planned bullet points. I sure up my weak points with scripting when I have to, but do not necessarily commit to sticking with the script if I feel comfortable or more natural saying something else.
Consistency is key when it comes to running a podcast. As such, you’ll want to make it a regular practice to form a following, develop new episodes and create an editorial calendar.
Booking a guest weeks out allows everyone to pick a topic and settle on questions, and helps the manager of the podcast process map out episodes. I like to have the questions ready ahead of time and have both parties sign off on them.
This might be a personal preference, but I give all guests the opportunity to add and edit questions (within reason). If there is a question they don’t want to address that’s on my gotta-ask list, we can tweak it and hopefully reach a compromise.
On the day of recording, I print the questions out for all attendees, and jot down notes for myself.
If you're like me, part of the thrill of podcasting involves learning more about topics. Whether you're podcasting solo, with a friend or formally interview a guest, this means that podcasting on any topic requires some research. Sometimes I lack knowledge in the topics we cover on an SEMrush podcast. In those instances, I look up trends concerning the topic and ask the guest for an opinion on it.
Think Fast! Quick Preparation Tips
I have a natural curiosity about people and their stories, and a journalism degree to prove it! After vetting and selecting an upcoming podcast guest, it helps to review:
- Their other works: Do they blog or have a personal website? Have they done other, similar interviews? Get a feel for their voice and views.
- Social media profiles: See what they’re posting and retweeting. LinkedIn requires its own separate study — take a look at their job history so you can form a narrative.
Preparing your guest also helps the guest feel confident and relaxed. I like to informally let our podcast guests know a few things about the show before we start:
- Who will interview them
- The structure of the interview (conversational, with pre-written questions)
- Confirmation of time, date and location of webinar
- Occasional pre-interview call — this is especially helpful if I have not spoken to the guest before
Also, booking two or more weeks in advance allows adequate time for preparation.
A key element that elevates the best podcasts to star status is how they interview their guests. Some tips:
- You need to make the process as natural as possible
- Prepare your podcasting space beforehand
- Make your room inviting and have your equipment pre-set up
- DO EVERYTHING you can to make it feel like a conversation and not a recording
Finally, distract your guest from the equipment as much as possible. People consciously shift into what they imagine a "radio voice" is the second they realize they're being recorded. Your job as an interviewer is to make them feel so comfortable and natural that they never make that jump. Ninety percent of our best material is recorded "pre-interview" when we switch on the mic, but don't call attention to the 'start' of the interview.
What If You Don't Know As Much As Your Guest?
Since I like learning new things while I podcast, I'm usually not the best expert on all of our podcast topics. I love digital marketing, but even within my own areas of expertise, there's always someone who knows more. And that's an ideal podcast guest.
I often explain my perspective to a guest during a podcast. I briefly describe what I know and what confuses me. This puts them in the position of educator. Suddenly, it's a natural conversation rather than a stodgy interview. As a bonus, audience members may relate to either the expert providing advice or the novice asking questions, making them more receptive and more likely to continue listening.
Can You Predict Guest Behavior?
Podcast guests are unpredictable. You need to embrace the fluidity of the podcast, because you'll never know where the conversation will go. I've never had a nightmare interview on a podcast (thank goodness!) but as the host and interviewer, I've learned to be agile when it comes to the podcast guests.
When recording a podcast with Colt Sebastian Taylor, for example, I talked a lot less than I usually do. Colt's a pretty experienced public speaker, so I got to chill out and let him do his thing!
This is really taking 'be prepared' to the next step – you never know what you'll get.
Do You Deviate From Your Format?
I hosted my first podcast last week and printed out the questions for everyone. I asked Peter, our webinar and podcast producer, if I should announce the questions in a “Question 1” type of format. He replied to the tune of, “Absolutely do not do that.” (laughs)
Quick lesson off the bat — make the questioning direct, but natural. My favorite podcasts are conversational, and sound like two friends discussing a subject.
There's a running joke about SEMrush podcasts: all of them end in a discussion about the robot apocalypse. This trend started during our very first podcast, when Don Purdum discussed the evolution of the Google algorithm and its potential consequences. (Hey, Google. We love you. We don't think you're evil, I swear.)
While it might seem like the discussions get way off track, the joke makes sense. We like asking our guests about the future of their businesses. It just happens to end in a lot of talk about automation and Google taking over the world.
It's totally fine. What could possibly go wrong?
It's ok to go in unexpected directions. Just keep to the topic of the podcast broadly – or at the very least within the scope of your brand or publication. Our blog covers future tech and movies about tech, so I'm fine with a bit of Skynet-esque discussion in the podcasts!
Do You Have To Be Funny To Host a Podcast?
Comedy keeps people entertained.
I'm not a comedian. :( You can tell because I totally rely on gifs and videos to make my blog posts funny!
Instead of trying to be someone I'm not, I coopted another way to have fun even when discussing serious topics: rapid fire questions!
The Yes/No show on MTV's YouTube channel accomplishes this well. It's particularly effective when you're interviewing people who have answered the same questions a million times:
How Long Should Your Podcast Be?
Last October, Buffer reported the optimal length of a podcast is 22 minutes or shorter. Does that mean your podcast can’t go over that limit? Of course not. (This is where two-part shows come in handy and can help you on your quest for regular content.)
Organization is big here; you should have your questions ready and an idea of the direction you want the interview to go in (this might change a bit during recording, and that’s OK).
Two reasons I like to conduct podcasts with another person? We can take turns asking questions, radio show interview-style, and the co-host can help reel me in if the interview starts to veer off course.
Think about what your audience is doing while they listen to their podcast. Many podcast listeners like to tune in during their commutes or at lunch. That means the ideal podcast length should be no more than 60 minutes.
We almost always go over 60 minutes, but split them up into multiple podcasts.
One of my favorite podcasts is Dan Carlin's "Hardcore History" series; I don't even like history. His episodes range everywhere from 45 minutes to four hours, with most on the long-end of that spectrum.
I don't fault Carlin for going so long because he's an incredible storyteller. He always finds a way to hook his listeners in right at the beginning in a way that keeps my interest going for hours on end.
And that's the key lesson in this: the most important part of your podcast is the first 25 seconds. If you can hook your listeners in with a solid line, you'll have them for as long as it takes to complete what you set up.
This is what made "Welcome to Night Vale" so insanely successful. Ever episode starts off with a brilliant, thought-provoking hook. Most of those hooks have nothing to do with the episode they come in front of — but since they get the mental wheels of the audience turning, it keeps people interested forever.
And you don't even need a solid hook on all of your podcasts. The first anecdote from the premiere episode of Gimlet Media's "Mystery Show" was rich enough to make me never want to stop listening ever. (Sidenote: if anyone wants to start a campaign to make Starlee Kine the President of the Universe, I'd get behind that in a big way.)
Ultimately, this question of timing is something on my mind whenever is set out to make anything. And the only answer to this question is that one quote from Kurt Vonnegut that everyone overuses when talking about short story writing:
"Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted."
That's the key to all creation. And something being a "waste of time" is completely up to you. Trust in your vision, and trust in your ability to hone a story arc to what you believe is a perfect conclusion. It doesn't matter if that takes 10 minutes or five hours; especially if you hook your listeners in right with the outset with something deeply human and personal or thought-provoking.
Show Me the Numbers: How Can Podcasts Benefit Your Blog?
As blog editor, I'm responsible for keeping track of a bunch of metrics. One of those metrics is "time on page." I've noticed that by embedding a podcast on a page, streaming listeners tend to increase the average "time on page" because they are staying on the page actively while listening to the podcast. One can only hope that Google appreciates this and forgives me for any inappropriate Skynet comparisons.
Additionally, if you use Soundcloud Pro or a similar service to publish your post, then you can get a lot of cool analytics to see where you're getting listeners from. MARKETING IS ALL ABOUT DATA. GET MORE OF IT, PLZ.
Any Additional Podcast Advice?
A small team is more than capable of running a podcast; it comes down to establishing who is responsible for what. When it’s time for promotion, everyone should play a part in spreading the word.
If you use one of those "snowball" microphones to record a podcast I will find you and break it (and possibly you).
Any other podcasting tips or advice you'd like to share? Let us know in the comment section, and be sure to listen to our SEMrush Podcast Channel!
Tara M. Clapper is Technical Editor at SEMrush and Senior Editor at The Geek Initiative, a website celebrating women in geek culture. Connect with her on LinkedIn and Twitter and view her writing portfolio.
Kathleen Garvin is the blog community manager at SEMrush. For a year and a half, she managed the SEMrush blog, which was recognized by Inc. Magazine as “one you should be reading in 2015” in December 2014. She is also a contributing writer for I Want Her Job, a community that empowers career women.
Peter Starr Northtrop is the SEMrush webinar and podcast producer.