Creative work, especially work given away for free in the hope that it’ll propagate, has to have a spark of something that makes it special. How well the spark shines is mostly in the eye of the beholder. We can put some fuel behind it through our knowledge, love, and time, but once we’ve fuelled the spark, we don’t get to decide how brightly it burns, and for how long.
In business terms, we might think of that spark as “value”. As consumers, we ask ourselves what value a particular piece of creative work might have. That’s a decision we make, even subconsciously, when deciding whether or not to engage with it. Will this entertain me? Will it educate me? Will it make me laugh or cry? Will it make me angry? Will I be bored, or worse indifferent to it?
As creators, we know the work that’s gone into what we make. We know the fuel that’s behind that spark, but the people we want to consume that work don’t see that… they just see the light it emits, so they’ll make their own judgements as to its value. For many of us, making a thing that’s good enough is, well, good enough. But how many others will feel the same? And if we want our work to propagate, how can we make them see what we see?
I don’t think that’s the right question, so it was a bit of a mean rhetorical trick to ask it in the first place. But I do think the question of “how do I make people like what I’m making” is a big and hairy one, and it needs addressing.
Firstly it’s important to look at whether the work in question is something you’re 100% proud of, in and of itself. if the work truly nourishes you, the finished product is its reward. I find what with the podcasts I do, the less admin I have to do, the more I can enjoy the work, and because it doesn’t feel like a slog, I find myself caring less about how each episode is being received. The moment it starts to feel like hard work is the moment I’m looking for the reward.
But that’s not the case for everyone. You might love the finished product, but take pains over its production, so you need to know it’s worth it to others, because you’re holding your work to a higher standard. That’s good, you should hold your work to a high standard, and try and make something better than it needs to be, because that’s how you get onto the path of fuelling the spark in a way others can see.
One question I get from a lot of podcasters is about audience growth. We want more listeners, because of course we do. But I feel like too few are willing to engage with their work in a way that might hurt their ego, because it means looking at it from a different angle… from the point-of-view of the listener. We have to answer the “so what?” question, and that’s really hard if you’ve slaved over the work and you just want to get that episode out so you can move on to the next one.
The “so what?” question
Imagine the next person you want to consume your work is a friend with a passing interest in the topic of your work. That friend is really busy with work and family stuff. They can make a bit of time for you — and they want to — but there’s always another Zoom call to jump on to, or a deadline that’s looming, so you want the time you spend with them to be quality time. Now tell that person about your latest podcast episode. Are they likely to listen, or are they going to politely say “I’ll check it out” and then never do that?
Whether they give you the loving brush-off or not is not a question of how much they appreciate you; it’s about how much your work can bust through the membrane of their busy day. That membrane between you and your ideal listeners might not be a time constraint; it’s probably just because you don’t know how to reach them, or you’re reaching them but you’re not connecting with them, or you’re connecting but they’re just not seeing the value in what you’re offering.
So how do you find it in a way that might make it easier for others to find? By thinking about the unfair exchange. This is a piece of work that, when consumed, causes the person consuming it to think, even just a little bit, that they might have got one over on you.
“Ha! This chump’s doing a tech news show every weekday for half an hour, with a co-host and a new guest each time, and he’s giving it away for free!”
That’s where you want to be with your work.
Look at what you consume now, that’s in your medium. (For me, I can take a look through my podcast queue.) Now, think about each of those things and ask yourself what you’re taking away but not giving back. I’m not asking you to feel guilty about not giving back… we give our work freely in the hope that some small number might reward us for it. This is just an exercise to get you in the mindset of looking at your own work, to try and determine what you’re letting your readers/listeners/viewers/subscribers hightail it with.
If that exchange feels weighted against you, you’re on the right track. If you can honestly look at your work and say “I’m giving away this value or this insight, and my listeners are lucky to have it”, then you have a nice bright spark. I don’t have that with any of my podcasts. My Hitchhiker’s show is funny and smart (in places not papered over with dick jokes), but we ask that the listener put up with our erratic schedule and sometime bouts of aimless banter. My top-five-list-building show doesn’t offer insight and the guests aren’t celebrities, but it’s a show that’s simply about joy.
Because I know I don’t have an unfair exchange, I’m not asking too much of my listeners. I ask that they tell a friend if they liked what they heard, but I largely do what I do because I enjoy the work, and I have enough help that it mostly doesn’t feel like a slog, especially given that a weekly guest-based show needs a lot of admin and research.
If you don’t have a nice bright shiny spark but you want an audience, your job is to figure out how much effort you’re willing to put in — or how many favours you can pull — to bridge the gap, and get you over the line between the value you’re giving and the value you’re asking the listener to give.
And take note: you can give the person consuming your work a steer as to the value they might get from it, but you can’t tell them; they have to discover that for themselves, and by selling your work too hard, you risk exposing the gulf between their expectations and yours.
I’m not denigrating your work sight unseen, by the way. I’m not suggesting your work isn’t already of a high quality. And in some cases, it’s not even about quality of work, it’s about how well that work fits with the audience it’s aimed at, which could just be about packaging, or about targeting.
But for me this all comes down to equity. I hear lots of indie podcasters front-load their episodes with long ads for stuff that they make under another name, in order to sound like the kind of podcast that has ads (it happens). There’s nothing wrong with the ad, but you have to earn trust from your listener before you trade some of it away. If you’re offering your work at an unfair exchange, where they come off far better than you — because you’ve given generously of your work, and only asked once that they like and subscribe — you will get that back, because as your work gains traction, you will reach people who are in a position to kick a little back your way.
So, I’m all over the web like a big rash this week.
Yesterday I was a guest on Sounds Profitable, a podcast about podcast ad tech.
It came on the heels of the public launch of the Open Podcast Analytics Working Group, “a lofty organisation with a terrible name” that’s aiming to further democratise some of the tech in the space.
I’ve also been largely enjoying experiences on Clubhouse, and recorded an episode of my company podcast on that, and a few of the things that have been shaking up around Podiant since the new year.
Tomorrow (Tuesday) I have an episode of my List Envy podcast dedicated to point-and-click adventure games.
On Wednesday I’m back on Clubhouse, talking about introversion as it relates to the app’s use.
But the big thing since last we talked, is the proper honest-to-goodness launch of my podcast mentoring programme. It’s taken a couple of weeks to crystallise, but I think now we have a compelling offer, so if you have a podcast and you’re looking for ways to know your audience so you can grow your influence, keep connected and stay motivated, I’m running an open session on Saturday March 6th, 5pm GMT, which you can book onto by filling in the form at podiant.co/loop.
These musings on value are only a week or two old, and haven’t been properly committed to pixels before, so if some of it comes off as patrician or overly judgemental, that’s not my intent. I see a lot of people who’ve been in my position, and I think these ideas can help, but it might mean an unwelcome hit to the ego. I also deeply love and am proud of my podcasts — I know I’ve reached a few people in a way that’s meant a lot to them, and me. I’m just setting realistic expectations.
Thanks for reading. Speak soon!