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How to Build a Podcast Brand: The Master Playbook from Sonal Chokshi of a16z

On February 16, 2021, Sonal Chokshi, Editor-in-Chief of Andreessen Horowitz and Showrunner of the a16z Podcast Network, gave a popular talk to our inaugural class of On Deck Podcasting fellows (in conversation with Sachit Gupta) on creating a podcast brand. Here are just some of the big lessons and actionable takeaways on how to build your show identity, from one of the best in the business. Sonal is also working on a book - you can follow her newsletters + Twitter at @smc90.

18
 min read
Last Updated: 
May 7, 2021
Careers

How to Build a Podcast Brand: The Master Playbook from Sonal Chokshi of a16z

On February 16, 2021, Sonal Chokshi, Editor-in-Chief of Andreessen Horowitz and Showrunner of the a16z Podcast Network, gave a popular talk to our inaugural class of On Deck Podcasting fellows (in conversation with Sachit Gupta) on creating a podcast brand. Here are just some of the big lessons and actionable takeaways on how to build your show identity, from one of the best in the business.

18
 min read
Last Updated: 
May 7, 2021
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Seven years ago, Sonal Chokshi was hired to build a16z’s editorial operation. At the time, they had already launched their podcast.

Since taking charge, she grew listenership from tens of thousands to tens of millions, catapulting the a16z podcast into its current position as one of the most influential and popular podcasts in tech.

But when Sonal first started out, she was completely new to podcasting. Everything she learned, she had to learn by doing (drawing heavily on her playbook from previously editing expert op-eds/building the ideas section at Wired).

Now, she's sharing those hard-won lessons for up-and-coming podcasters. What follows is Sonal's playbook on how to build a podcast brand, as told to us in conversation at a Fireside Chat with ODP1 earlier this year, where she unveiled years of accumulated expertise in strategizing, launching, editing, and growing a premiere podcast brand including advising countless others with their podcasts and editorial strategy.

Part 1: Coming Up With an Editorial Perspective

One of the most common misconceptions Sonal has encountered with podcasters is the idea that having access to "a lot of big guests" to have on your show automatically constitutes a podcast editorial and distribution strategy.

“The #1 mistake I hear, when I ask people how they're going to grow their show, is that ‘I just have a lot of big guests, and they're big names so that'll take care of my concept and distribution.’”

She said this is a mistake for two reasons:

  1. Guests ≠ Distribution. All the big-name people are also going on everyone else's podcasts, which can mean they’re overexposed. Also, just because their audience follows them doesn't mean they'll follow you/ actually subscribe to your show.
  2. Guests ≠ A Show Concept. A list of names does not a show concept make — you still need a clearly defined show concept, including what differentiates it from other podcasts out there. Otherwise, even if you do manage to get traction early on, you will almost certainly experience stalled growth a few months in.

Sonal encourages podcasters to start by focusing on the question:

“What can you [and better yet: only you] do that others can't?”

Think about the specific category of content you're in and want to be in. No matter the format of your show (interviews, etc.), start with your differentiation.

To brainstorm the signature identity that might work best for you, ask yourself questions like:

  • "What are my unique assets — i.e. access to people, personal talent, network, expertise, approach — and how will they differentiate me from other podcasts/ podcasters out there?"
  • For first-time podcasters especially: "What is the show identity? Think of it as a brand; “how would you describe or pitch it?"

Defining Your Show Identity

A meaningful understanding of your brand goes beyond a title or podcast art (though both help! - art is also very important and not to be underestimated). But having an identity means knowing what your show is really about and who it’s for.

To help podcasters think about this, Sonal poses the following question:

“Can you tell me what the concept of your show is, in just TWO WORDS?”

If you can't, Sonal advises that you figure out your show identity until you can distill your podcast brand concept into two words or less. Sonal uses this “two-word brand concept” based on learnings from places she’s worked building editorial brands throughout her career:

  • Xerox PARC: "Entrepreneurial Scientists"
  • Wired: "Informed Optimism" (inspired by Chris Anderson)
  • a16z: “innovation brand” (as shared here and here)

[It even started as far back as her education career, with “Big Math for Little Kids”, but that was two phrases.]

An example as applied to the a16z bio Journal Club, a show which Sonal conceived and shepherded through initial launch in 2020 (hosted and produced by Lauren Richardson) was the concept of “from paper to practice” — i.e. "Paper / Practice". The goal was to bridge the gap between academia and industry (papers to practice), an opportunity that was underserved by the podcast market of other shows out there. So reinforcing this was key, as well as using it in the show structure too.

Once you have a two-word concept, Sonal emphasizes, it should serve as the north star of your podcast. As you look at your editorial calendar of guest bookings, episode concepts, series concepts, and even (especially) the editing of episodes themselves, always return to the question of: "Does this fit into my two-word concept?"

If the answer is no, then don't do it (kill the episode or idea). To build a podcast brand, Sonal is adamant that you have to exercise tremendous discipline to focus the concept early on, only putting in things that fit, but also keeping out the things that don't. At least initially, it’s one of the fastest ways to distinguish and differentiate. You can always evolve from there.

One approach Sonal suggests that may help figure out your two-word concept is to draw from Clayton Christensen's classic "jobs to be done" framework: what is the "job" a listener would conceivably "hire" your podcast to do? Said another way, what is the underlying need or unmet desire for a style of content or niche that your audience will turn to you (and ideally only you) for? This exercise isn't about crowdsourcing ideas, it's about thinking through the pull in the market for your type of work. And of course, the push too for what point of view or worldview you want to put out there (you should also know the answers to what the push and pull is).

In Sonal's experience, many podcasters can't answer these questions and can't coherently describe their show identity off the top of their heads; they’re just booking guests along some loose theme and think that’s a show. Having a two-word concept focuses this; and thinking through its implications lays the foundation for building a strong and sustainable brand.

The final, and often overlooked, aspect of Sonal’s “two-word” framework is to externalize it and essentially “market it” back. So reference your two-word concept verbally in your public-facing materials — from episode intros to show descriptions, throughlines, pitches, and more — this will help create and reinforce that world for your audience as well as new subscribers as you grow your show. A concrete example of how Sonal does this for another show she created and launched (a shortform news show called 16 Minutes) is to reinforce the message that the show is about distinguishing between “what’s hype/ what’s real” (i.e., “hype” / “real”) beyond the headlines, and they repeat that messaging in the intros, show notes, signature question at end, and more.

Part 2: How To Punch Above Your Weight

Now that you have your show identity, how do you make your show — book guests, edit, etc.  — and make it stand out?

In the early days of a16z Podcast, it was meant for people who already knew a16z, and featured mostly a16z voices. But the a16z brand, while built by others beforehand and strong in VC, was not enough (at that time) to entice other guests to come onto the show — many of the folks she reached out to from her former editees and publisher network hadn’t heard of it. Coupled with strong relationships and strong pitches, here are some strategies she used to help the show stand out beyond insiders early on.

Leverage FOMO / Critical Mass

When you have a desired big-name guest who is likely oversaturated with podcast requests, how do you get them to come onto your podcast — especially if you're relatively unknown? Sonal's playbook here is all about (1) creating a sense of critical mass that pulls other mass; (2) creating a sense of FOMO (fear of missing out):

“Create false scarcity in a world of abundance. ‘We are picking THE three experts on this topic, do you want to be one of them?’”

For example, "Hey, we're doing a special series on X, and we're interviewing 3-5 of the top experts" — this can create a powerful motivation for the prospective guest to come on the show. Why? Because no expert wants to be left out of their own category — especially if they get wind that other top people in their field are participating.

The other key here is to create a sense of critical mass that then pulls other guests in; once you have 2-3 key names early on that then pulls or draws everyone else. So your strategy should be to target those “electric draw” types (not just the overexposed same-ole, same-ole) who in turn draw others. Finally, people with communities also tend to draw their own communities in as new listeners… However, don’t confuse “followers” with “community”. (Sonal: The former follows people not shows, the latter has more cohesion, as with certain open source communities and so on.)

Booking Is Only Half The Equation

Because big names go on many podcasts, even if they say yes to you they may not have a strong incentive to promote the appearance to their own audience (which is one of the big theoretical benefits of having them on in the first place). Also, don’t assume that socially buzzed about podcasts are the ones that people listen to; in the data, you often see the exact opposite, since social feeds are not the same as RSS feeds. At best, social helps broaden the funnel of awareness for an episode or show.

In order to get your guests to promote you, you need to stand out to them. That's why FOMO, creating scarcity, and having a unique, differentiated angle are so important — not only will it give your audience something unique that they can't find on every other podcast the guest has appeared on, it will also increase your chance of making an impression and episode that they want to promote themselves. One other way to do this is to create a unique combo of guests or lineup for them that they would not otherwise do/ have on other shows, or to “break” the book script (common for book authors literally talking their book everywhere) by delving into other framing or angles... or going deeper or broader than anyone else.

Packaging Your Show

One of the most underutilized and important strategies for punching above your weight (in terms of an early or unknown show seeking to stand out quickly) is packaging. Sonal believes strongly in the power of packaging: basically, the wrapper (or “packaging”) that helps the show in format, series, or themes. She even goes so far as to say:

“I would map out a *syllabus* for your podcast like you would a class… or an editorial calendar.”

This exercise emphasizes the need to be proactive, rather than reactive, in how you plan shows while of course also responding to opportunities as well. As you think about the list of guests you want to book and themes you want to cover, ask yourself:

  • How might I time these guests / episode topics?
  • How might I cluster these into a series of “packages”?
  • How might I think about the arc of the entire season or mini-themed series?
  • How might I pitch a theme to an editorial platform for podcasts?

Regarding (4), Sonal points out that one of the most effective ways to get featured in a podcast platform like Apple is to actually pitch them (they have a portal and dedicated teams).

For example, you can pitch Apple or Spotify to be featured on their podcast page on Valentine's Day if you have an episode that fits the timing or theme. This is not unlike how magazines like Wired and others work in programming special issues up front pegged to calendar or events.

Finally, Sonal encourages creators to think of each episode or piece you produce as part of a continuous body of work, not just as one-off, fragmented episodes. It’s a portfolio; so how would you define and diversify your portfolio to match your identity: the mix you want to to convey, the diversity/range/focus, and so on?

Part 3: How to Craft a Narrative

In this era of exploding digital media and especially audio, Sonal points out that there are a lot of things cutting into the very long tail of podcasting. There are three aspects of differentiating episodes that Sonal identifies:

  1. Have a really unique topic or host
  2. Have a fresh way of approaching the topic with that guest
  3. Have a specific structure

But no matter what, it all comes together with crafting a compelling narrative. This an area every podcaster can improve on, even for seemingly informal conversational shows — and Sonal has a lot of tips for how to do so.

The importance of pre-production

The first way to ensure each show has a compelling narrative is the work you do BEFORE the podcast itself.

This should center around one question, according to Sonal (who comes at this as a former opinion editor from Wired):

“Every podcast episode has a hidden argument, whether you realize it or not. It's a verbal op-ed.”

In other words, if the episode were an op-ed what would the *argument* or *point of view*/ direction of the conversation be? So the first thing to ask yourself is: What can you do up front to maximize the interestingness or freshness of this topic and angle?  

Booking a great guest and a great topic is the low-hanging fruit. It's important to go a step further by answering questions like:

  • What is the argument or point of view the episode is going to take?
  • Is this THE expert for the topic or theme of the episode? (Sonal strongly values first- person expertise undiluted by reporting — earned expertise, not credentials per se — and therefore focuses on getting the very best, or next best, not just any expert… there are plenty of shows with random commenters already so this is a great place to differentiate.)
  • What is their particular angle or slice into this topic? What is your unique take as a show and how does this fit that identity?
  • If I have this guest, who else can I add as a compelling counterpoint/ contrast or texture? (Not generic pro/con debates.)
  • What is another dimension to introduce to this topic so it doesn't become a "one-note narrative" — that is, 20-30 minutes of people saying the exact same thing over and over in 10 different ways? (This is an extremely common problem and very avoidable with more up front work in the lineup combo and angle.)
  • How do you chart a rough arc — modular chunks of key points (but NOT a script) — that ensures you cover key areas, the most interesting themes, etc.?
  • Are there interesting probes or threads to pull that might lead the guest into unexpected (but still relevant) lines of thinking?

Sonal has noticed that the more work you do upfront to program (not script!) your lineup, the more likely it is to be a conversation will be high quality and differentiated.

Sonal notes that you can actually explore this in the podcast itself, but you do need to think about the likely paths you'll head down ahead of time to ensure you have enough material. You can also carve out a structure in post production, but that takes more work.

How To Edit A Podcast: The Importance of Insights Per Minute

"Insights per minute" is a phrase Sonal famously coined (in the podcast editing/listening context) as a counter to the conventional early podcaster wisdom of windy conversations, which worked well among cults of personalities. Because many podcasts are cults of personality: people follow the host, regardless of guest(s). But for many unestablished voices and even many corporate/ branded podcasts, you have to rely on a collective of voices or other factors. So how do you punch above your weight and ensure people listen? Deliver only value to them/ be a go to resource: Maximize insights per minute.  

This doesn’t mean there’s no room for chit chat. Of course you want authentic, windy conversations. But people also often get into religious debates about ideal podcast "length" (it is usually the length of their commute or exercise). For Sonal, length is arbitrary — it’s more about density of listening value.

She also points out that, if you think about the world of media, there are actually many competitors for attention: Netflix, YouTube, TV, movies — this is true for podcasts too. But people tend to come to their mediums in a very routine-based way. When people are coming to podcasts, they listen when driving, walking, etc. There’s also a lot of religious debates about ideal time of day, week, etc. But ultimately,

“There's no such thing as ‘time’ in podcasting.”

People listen when they listen, not when you drop the episode. So your task is to be the most compelling option for the routine/ slot in someone's day — Sonal thinks of this as where you are in their “information diet”. Then, once you are where listeners listen/ where they are — in their queue or podcast app — you can ensure a rich conversation by maximizing insights per minute and more through editing.

How To Edit A Podcast: Beginning, Middle, End

Besides the up-front work, crafting a compelling narrative involves good editing after the taping (again, for non cult-of-personality shows). For Sonal, this is all about making the episode as interesting and easy/ accessible as possible, even while remaining authentic and natural:

“Everything that seems casual can be produced, things that seem produced can be casual.”

The reason for this is that a well-planned and edited podcast should simulate a natural conversation. Sonal points out that every podcast and every good organic conversation alike tends to go off on tangents but should still have a beginning, middle, and end. (Even if they have a spiral structure.)

The job of the host is to figure out what the beginning, middle, and end are — up front, while recording, or afterwards, in editing. If you do it in post-editing, you're essentially carving an "arc" and sculpting the narrative after the conversation — cutting and rearranging sections of the conversation so that it follows a clear arc while remaining coherent and natural-sounding. But:

“The beginning is the most important thing. The first minute is everything.”

In Sonal's experience, a lot of the conversations you think will be interesting aren’t always, and take a while to warm up. Or, it’s a lot more interesting than listeners might assume from the initial open or title alone. Sonal says the most important thing for the editor to use intros to convey the range (if helpful) and to also figure out what the best opening for the conversation is.

This doesn't have to be the "real" actual intro in the conversation — you can edit the first part of the episode to lop off whatever you don't want, add a new intro, and start the conversation wherever you want. In medias res — starting in the middle of things — is a common technique in literature, going all the way back to Homer, where the Iliad opens the action years into the Trojan War. Starting in the middle of things as a hook, without bothering with setup and exposition, can be an effective strategy for editing and opening your podcast as well: Thrust the listener into the conversation. (But with just enough context.)

It's important to be very, very intentional with your intros, especially when you're starting a new show and your audience isn't yet bought in. The intro is where you get the buy-in for each episode — it's where you earn your audience — and also reminds what the identity of the show is to the listener.

For the middle section of the podcast, your main focus should be to keep that buy-in going — delivering on the promise from the intro, while continually surfacing new insights. But here you can go into other threads you might not be able to pull in beginning (because they require the audience to be bought in enough to stick around for it). For example, in one episode Sonal put the guest story at the end and their advice at the beginning while going deeper into nuances in the middle.  

With the end, it's important to actually wrap up:

“Don't just leave the conversation hanging — most people end it with ‘we're out of time’, ‘this is our last question’ without even a closing line.

Ending a conversation involves some sense of completion or satisfaction. To think about this, ask yourself "What is a note I want to leave my listeners on?” Note that crafting an ending like this isn't just about the content or substance, Sonal says, but about what they’re left feeling.

How To Edit A Podcast: The Five Levers of Podcasting

To think about crafting narrative at a high level, Sonal uses a framework she defined of five levers of podcast conversations, which include:

  1. Arc/ framing (focusing on delivering high insights-per-minute and creating a natural flowing beginning/middle/end)
  2. Content (that is, the body and substance of the talk)
  3. Energy (the combination of voices and electricity of the episode)
  4. Charisma (of individual guests; sometimes you have one flat voice and one interesting voice, and should edit to balance this factor among others)
  5. Freshness/ differentiation/ insights (what she calls the “interestingness bar”).

Here's the trick, according to Sonal: you can use editing to play up any of these levers, or play them down.

For example, if you have a very boring (non-charismatic) guest with great insights, re-order the arc to amp up the energy, or reorder to get the best nuggets faster. If you have a very charismatic guest with less insights, you can cut the episode shorter to give the listener the sense of more payoff.

Whatever the case, you can shape (and manipulate through edits) the conversation by using these five levers to craft a narrative and ensure it is compelling.

As you complete the process of post-editing, remember to think about payoff. Ask: "Is this enough payoff for X minutes/hours I just spent?"

Finally, if there's one overarching principle Sonal has in good editing, it's that everything should advance the narrative. (Quoting the Daredevil show stunt choreographer that if the action doesn’t relate to the story, it’s just pointless punches and kicks.)

But here’s the big difference between text and audio, Sonal observes: Whereas in writing some might edit for efficiency, this often leads to platitudes in audio — when people talk, they don't talk "efficiently", so cutting those details could makes them sound worse.

Sonal also doesn't put much stock in what she calls "grand empty statements" — it's common for people to throat-clear with one of those especially at the beginnings of their sentences, so Sonal tends to cut these out. They come off as empty platitudes. You want to optimize for the wonky details, the meaty bits, the concrete “bare-metal” insights they offer (classic show vs. tell framework).

This all comes together through having a “taste” for what’s most top of mind, relevant, interesting to the listener/ reader, Sonal says. This is the one skill that’s mostly natural/ not as trainable, but there are ways to improve taste.

How To Improve Your ‘Interesting-Ness’ Radar

While there is no substitute for taste, Sonal says there are proxies for taste that you can draw on to improve what she calls your "interestingness radar".

“Insight is trained by experience; taste is more difficult.”
  1. Domain expertise. Being a very top expert in something is often a good proxy for taste, because you have the depth of knowledge to know what’s already been said, what’s new (and therefore more likely to be interesting). You can then use this to identify and shape lineups, angles, and best way to focus edit.  
  2. Information diet. The more and diverse flows of information you are in (paying attention to signals on Twitter, Hacker News, Reddit, forums, WhatsApp groups, online communities, more), the better you can differentiate topics/guests/angles. It’s also excellent for finding up-and-coming emerging voices.

She points out that you can only know what's interesting if you also know what other people are already saying about the subject. The trick is to balance the consumption of information with production — not succumb to analysis paralysis where you read so much that you can't produce anything or have any original takes.

Continue To Refine Your Craft

“The number one way to grow in your craft is to learn from other industries.”

For Sonal, drawing from other art forms for inspiration is a big way of leveling up as a podcaster. For example, she says she has learned more about podcasting from listening to movie director interviews, other tools of the trade, and fiction than listening to tech talks.

Broader cultural awareness and maintaining a robust information diet fits in with Sonal's bigger theme that the more “prepared mind” you have — being immersed in the flows and signals of the world you’re covering (and beyond) — the better chances you have that each episode will be fresh and have a good payoff.

In the end, your podcast's brand is a reflection of knowing what it even is or stands for — again: ask yourself for your own shows, do you know? for other shows, can you tell? — as well as narrative, differentiation, interestingness. The more disciplined you are, the more this strategy will pay off in building a show. Stay open and connected to other art forms and industries, and adapt and evolve your show as you grow too — while remaining disciplined in your strategy and maintaining your show identity. Great podcast brands are born in successfully navigating this balance.

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