22 MIN READ • Attraction

Hook Stacking: The Dark Art & Curious Science of Crafting Podcasts That Stick… & Grow

Lessons from the greatest song-writer of our time on creating a podcast that worms its way into your audience's mind and refuses to leave.
By Jeremy Enns

By Jeremy Enns

By Jeremy Enns

Good songs are built around a clear, memorable hook.

Great songs are built around several.

And then there are songs by Taylor Swift.

The master of hook writing who brings the craft to another level.

Take We Are Never Getting Back Together.

In the first 62 seconds, Taylor drops distinct 6 hooks.

By my count, the song as a whole has 12, many of them repeating throughout.

For Taylor, this was just a warm-up, however.

In Shake It Off, she crams 10 distinct hooks into the first 60 seconds, with a grand total of 17 by song’s end.

This pattern repeats throughout all of her hits.

In each, she layers hook upon hook upon hook upon hook of every variety—melodic, lyrical, vocal, emotional, harmonic, percussive, instrumental, production-oriented, and more.

This progressive stacking of hooks results in songs with multiple opportunities to worm their way into our ears, brains, and—often—souls.

If the first hook didn’t grab you, the next one—or the one after that—will.

But for Taylor, hook crafting isn’t limited to her songwriting.

As her aura has grown, each album, each distinct, defined era of her story has become a hook of its own.

And then there are the subtle winks, easter eggs, and clues for her fans to decipher—meta hooks that Taylor weaves throughout her songs, liner notes, artwork, marketing, and performance.

If you’re looking for an explanation to her success, a good place to start might be that she’s simply given us more hooks to latch onto than anyone else.

And if you want to maximize your own potential for growth, this practice of Hook Stacking is a good place to start.

Like good songs, good podcasts are built around a clear central hook.

Great shows, however—shows that vacuum up attention—are designed & constructed atop a stack of them.

On its own, any one of these hooks might be enough to attract listeners to the shows.

The combination, however, makes the show utterly irresistible.

When it comes to podcasting, hooks can be broken into two categories:

  1. Show Level Hooks
  2. Episode Level Hooks

Within each category, there are a series of opportunities to create hooks.

The more hooks you weave into your show, the more listeners you’ll attract and retain.

Show Level Hooks

Show Topic

The topic of any show is one of the foundational hooks, with its sharpness increasing the narrower, more unique, and more distinctive it is.

Within the topic, there are multiple potential sub-hooks:

  1. Audience – The specific group of people the show is addressing the topic to. Again, the more specific and unique the audience, the sharper the hook.
  2. Goal/Purpose – The specific promised outcome the show makes to listeners. This could be an outcome that is delivered consistently in every episode or a larger destination the show promises to take listeners to over time. Again, the more unique and specific this outcome is compared to other shows, the sharper the hook.
  3. Method – A unique method or framework the show uses to deliver the goal or promise of the show is an additional hook that can be stacked on top of the topic.

Show Concept

Stacked on top of the topic is the way you explore it through your podcast, which provides another hook opportunity. The concept hook can be broken down further into two additional potential hooks:

  1. Angle – A unique and distinctive lens you approach your primary topic through—like a show that explores the topic of podcast marketing through the lens of data for example…
  2. Format – A show format that is distinct and refreshing compared to other shows on your topic.

Podcast Host

The host of a show can be a compelling hook if they:

  1. Are already well-known (read: famous) to the extent that people would seek out their specific take on a topic.
  2. Are not well-known, but have significant, highly-credible subject matter expertise that makes them a compelling person to hear from on the topic. The more experience or credibility the host has in their field, the sharper this hook becomes.
  3. Have an unconventional background that intersects with the topic in a compelling way that makes them a fascinating, perhaps unorthodox or counter-narrative voice on the subject.

Cover Art

Artwork can be a powerful visual hook in its own right when done right.

Some of the elements of hooky artwork include professional, interesting, refreshing, unique design, being evocative of the topic, vibe, and tone of the show, being clear, and hinting at (or calling out directly) the show’s inherent tension.

Show Title

Truly great titles are hard to come by, but they can provide a powerful hook for a show.

The best titles are often built around a play or twist on a known phrase that is both evocative and refreshing. These titles are linguistically pleasing, tend to roll off the tongue and tell us enough about the show to pique our curiosity and lean in to look closer.

The crux of this type of titling is it can’t come off as forced, ham-handed, or trying to be clever… which it often does by all but the savviest of creators.

Show Description

Especially the first line—which is often all a new listener sees in a podcast app—should build on the title and cover art to provide enough new information about the show to further pull in the listener.

If the title and cover art are evocative, the first line should concretely lay out the value proposition of the show. If the title and cover art are clear, the first line of the description should evoke something bigger and deeper.

Tone/Style

In a space with shows that all feel and sound the same, a show can create a powerful hook by adopting a distinct, clearly defined tone and style.

Take the aggressive, blunt, sweary, Everyone Hates Marketers, for example (a show which also has strong cover art and title hooks).

Crafting Your Hooks

Outside of the host hook, any and all of these show-level hooks can be applied to any show.

And they should be.

Do a search on a random topic in your favourite podcast app and you’ll find that most shows lack even a single strong, compelling hook.

Which is great news for you.

Because while your show likely isn’t currently making use of all of the potential show-level hooks discussed here, if you’re willing to take the practice of hook crafting seriously, you have an incredible opportunity to stand out.

And grow significantly.

In a medium like podcasting where listeners typically discover—and recommend—shows as a whole, over individual episodes, the more hooks you can stack inside your show, the better your results will be.

What’s more, an abundance of show-level hooks raises the floor of each individual episode within the show.

Said differently, with an ultra-hooky show, each episode needs to do less work to hook and retain listeners on its own.

Episode-Level Hooks

A compelling stack of Show-Level Hooks significantly reduces the amount of work you need to do to win over listeners to each episode.

But if you want to maximize your growth, each episode offers the opportunity to plant a series of additional hooks.

These Episode-Level Hooks can be divided into two further categories:

  1. Episode Packaging Level Hooks
  2. Episode Content Level Hooks

Let’s start with the hooks you can add to your Episode Packaging.

Episode Packaging Hooks are built around the elements a potential listener can see before clicking play on an episode.

And in most cases, these elements are the precise reason a listener clicks play.

The more hooks you weave into each episode’s packaging, the more plays that episode will get.

The hooks at your disposal are as follows.

Episode Topic

At the episode level, the topic is often the primary hook. Much like at the show level, the narrower and more specific the topic, the stronger the hook becomes.

As at the show level, the episode-level topic hook can be broken down further into the same three additional hooks:

  • Audience – The more specific the audience, the stronger the hook.
  • Promise/Outcome – The more specific, tangible (& bold but believeable) the stronger the hook.
  • Method – The more novel or unexpected, the stronger the hook.

Episode Guest

For interview shows, guest selection is a powerful hook at your disposal. In fact, for some shows, the guest is the singular hook for each episode.

Guest hooks can be broken down into two subcategories:

  • Famous Guests – A famous (or niche famous) guest that your ideal listeners are already aware of and interested in hearing from. For shows like The Joe Rogan Experience and How I Built This, the guest is the entire hook of each episode, with the “topic” of the conversation being largely irrelevant (or at least secondary to the guest’s star power). For other shows, famous guests are often stacked on top of a specific topic hook.
  • Credentials/Unique Experience – Your guest doesn’t need to have an immediately recognizable name to provide a strong episode hook. Guests who are uniquely qualified or highly credentialed can also attract listeners when packaged effectively. Consider this episode from Creator Science:Meet the Harvard Psychiatrist Getting YouTubers Millions of Views”. With this type of guest hook, the guest’s name isn’t important, and so it’s been entirely omitted from the title in favour of the hookier credentials and expertise.

Episode-Specific Concept

For many shows, unique and intriguing episode concepts can exist independently within the larger show concept, and can provide an additional hook to your topic.

As at the show level, episode concepts can be roughly broken down into two additional potential sub-hooks:

  • Angle – A unique and refreshing angle to apply to the episode topic.
  • Format – A unique and refreshing episode format.

In one episode of Podcast Marketing Trends Explained, my co-host Justin and I applied a unique episode-level concept to an episode about the topic of where to spend your limited podcast budget to achieve maximum growth.

While the topic was interesting on its own, we stacked an additional layer to our exploration of it by structuring the episode around a thought experiment: How would each of us allocate hypothetical podcast budgets of $500/$2,500/$10,000 per month?

It’s worth noting that while to some extent, this is an Episode Content Level Hook, because we communicated it clearly in the title, it also provided an Episode Packaging-Level Hook.

Episode Title

The title is the first (and often only) thing people think of when considering their episode packaging.

And while a well-crafted title is a crucial part of earning a potential listener’s click, great titles are more often the product of utilizing the previously discussed Episode-Level Hooks rather than something you can simply slap on after the fact.

It’s easy to write a compelling episode title if the episode itself is:

  • Built around a unique and interesting topic…
  • With a uniquely qualified guest…
  • And employs a novel and engaging episode concept.

Without any of those hooks already built into the episode, it’s almost impossible to title an episode in a compelling way without descending into clickbait.

My recommendation is this:

Before you even reach out to a guest or start scoping out each episode, start by writing the most enticing title for the topic you can imagine.

Then, work backwards to create it, by finding the right guest, defining the episode structure, and so on, layering in your hooks in advance.

Custom Episode Artwork

While custom episode artwork doesn’t display in every podcast listening app, in the two biggest, Apple and Spotify, it does. Which means this is yet another opportunity to grab potential listeners’ attention and draw them in.

To do so, however, you’re going to need to do more than simply post a graphic with your guest’s photo (unless people recognize them by face) and the episode title.

For your custom episode artwork to work as a hook, it should play off of the episode title in a way that opens a curiosity gap or creates tension.

Said differently, custom artwork should offer some new piece(s) of information that builds on (or subverts) the foundation established by the title.

SPN Graphics Call Out.png

Episode Description

Few people read the full episode description before clicking play on an episode. But almost everyone sees the first sentence or two.

Paired with the episode title and custom episode artwork, the first line of your podcast description can provide a further micro hook by offering additional information or tension to provide further context that might draw a listener into the episode.

This might include specifics about who the episode is for, the outcome it promises, or the challenges it addresses.

Or it could create an open loop with a question or statement the episode promises to answer.

Stacking Episode + Show-Level Hooks

To reiterate, Podcasts with strong Show-Level Hooks significantly reduce the burden on the individual episodes to hook new potential listeners.

That said, if you’re able to combine a strong stack of hooks at both the show and the episode packaging levels, you’ll drastically increase the magnetism of your show and will win over significantly more new listeners.

That said, if your content doesn’t grab them and keep them listening past the first episode (let alone the first few minutes), all that effort of acquiring that listener has been wasted.

Which is where our final layer of hooks come in.

Episode Content-Level Hooks

To this point, the hooks we’ve discussed have all been external.

In other words, they are visible to a potential listener before they click play on an episode.

And, in fact, they are the primary determinants of whether or not a listener will click into your show’s listing and then—ultimately—click play on an episode.

But we’re not just chasing plays.

We’re chasing listens, and more importantly, listeners, with the hope of converting them to subscribers, fans, advocates, clients, and customers.

Which means catching their curiosity and earning the play isn’t enough.

We need to earn their buy in—first in the immediate seconds and minutes after they click play on an episode, then in the days, weeks, months, and perhaps years after.

This is where Internal Episode Hooks come in.

Internal Hooks fall into two basic categories:

  1. Production-Oriented Hooks
  2. Content-Oriented Hooks

Let’s start by exploring Production-Oriented Hooks.

Production-Oriented Hooks

Within seconds (or less) of clicking play, our production decisions communicate a lot to a new listener about what to expect from our shows, and by extension, us.

This initial judgment based on our production elements comes well before hearing any of the actual content, and it establishes an initial bias—either positive or negative—that they will then interpret that content through.

The stakes are high, in other words, regarding the creative decisions about our shows’ production.

With that in mind, here are the elements we can use to shape that initial impression and earn the benefit of the doubt up front.

Intro/Outro Music

Everyone knows that a picture says a thousand words.

But when it comes to eliciting emotion, there may be no more potent medium than music.

Music is one your most powerful tools for hooking your audience, establishing the mood, and setting the frame through which you want them to experience your show.

Unfortunately, too many shows opt for cheesy, generic, “podcast-y” (or worse, corporate) sounding stock music that doesn’t communicate anything to listeners other than “this is a generic, wholly uninteresting podcast.”

When thinking about intro and outro music consider the following:

  • Your primary goal is to set the tone for the show.
  • But a close second is communicating that this is a refreshing take on your topic. This means using music (or an intentional absence of music) that grabs attention by being unlike other music they’re used to hearing on shows on your topic… or podcasts in general.
  • Your outro music matters as much as your intro music as it establishes and/or reinforces the feeling your listeners will leave your show with—which in turn plays a huge role in their decision to return for another episode.
  • There’s no rule that you have to use the same song(s) in every episode. But if you don’t, they should feel thematically linked to your brand.

Great examples of intentional music decisions:

General Production Hooks

Your show’s production encompasses everything a listener hears after clicking play on an episode, and your production decisions have the potential to elevate or undermine your content itself.

Beyond your theme music, production hooks can consist of anything from small audio stingers to delineate segments of an episode to full-blown sound design and scoring and everything in between.

Big or small, these production elements are an additional opportunity to hook new listeners and keep them coming back.

For example, the core content in high-production shows like RadioLab, Song Exploder, and Levar Burton Reads could stand on its own.

But these shows benefit significantly from the additional hooks provided by their production, clearly elevating them above other shows on their topics.

You don’t have to take your production to these extremes to benefit from production hooks, however.

Instead, all you have to do is go a little above and beyond what the typical show in your space is doing production-wise… which is usually not much.

Consider the following shows which benefit from much smaller—yet impactful—uses of production to establish additional hooks.

  • Brains – A roundtable show that uses audio “notifications” to introduce speakers so you as a listener understand who you’re listening to. It’s a small touch but one that elevates your impression of the show as a listener for its thoughtfulness.
  • Poetry Unbound A short, deceptively simple feeling solo show that uses small musical interludes to break up segments and allow the listener some room for reflection before continuing.
  • Augmented Interviews – Standard interview shows that supplement and break up the interviews with interstitial narrated sections added by the host in post-production. These interstitials can be used to speak directly to the listener, provide additional context, and make it easier to bridge between sections after cutting out a large chunk of the interview. Examples:

Additional Production Hooks For Video

If you record a video version of your show, you have an additional layer of visual production hooks at your disposal.

These hooks consist of your set or background design, lighting, scene transitions, editing style, visual overlays, and more.

These elements are beyond the scope of this article, but you can see examples below of some video podcasts that do a great job with their visual hooks.

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Episode Content-Level Hooks

Earning the play is the hardest part of podcast marketing.

But once that new listener clicks play, you now face the second hardest task required for growth: Getting them to not only listen through their first episode, but impress them enough to come back for a second.

If you’ve imbued your show with a number of strong external hooks, you’ve likely earned the benefit of the doubt and bought yourself some time and attention for your show to prove itself.

But be warned.

All the external hooks in the world can be quickly undermined by content that doesn’t immediately grab the listener, affirm their decision to click play on the episode, and begin delivering on the promise of both the show and the episode.

And while the ultimate value of your show hinges on the quality of your content itself—your teaching, stories, jokes, etc—the way you present that content matters.

A lot.

That’s where Content-Oriented Hooks come in.

These hooks are structural devices that your content can be mapped onto your content—both in pre/post-production—to improve your listener retention.

As with all previous hooks we’ve discussed, the more content-oriented hooks you employ, the more attractive your show will be, and the more first-time listeners you’ll convert to subscribers.

Episode Structure

We’ll talk more about the specifics of episode structure in upcoming sections, but they’re worth discussing first from a macro perspective.

Outside the content itself, the way you design your episodes to organize and sequence that content can create a series of hooks that continually re-engage listeners and boost retention.

This can be achieved with defined and clearly delineated episode segments that you use to frame each episode.

Or you can follow a less explicit structure that you as the host use to guide each episode along a prototypical narrative or emotional arc that delivers an engaging listener experience.

Personally, I scope out episodes of Podcast Marketing Trends Explained using the following structural template:

  1. Hook
  2. Intro
  3. Scene 1
  4. Scene 2
  5. Scene 3

Here it is in action for tomorrow’s episode of Podcast Marketing Trends Explained.

This template keeps us on track and ensures our topics are tightly scoped and flow in a logical progression toward satisfying the promise made by the episode.

While it doesn’t show up on this template, it’s worth noting that I mentally map out the scenes with the intention of raising the stakes and building and releasing tension as the episode progresses.

My personal mental map I try to create my episodes around looks more or less like this.

SPN Graphics Episode Map.png

The Opening Minute of Each Podcast Episode

The first minute is perhaps the most crucial minute of every episode.

At this stage, new listeners are at best cautiously optimistic… at worst, outright skeptical of your show.

In both cases, they’re assessing the show, looking for information that either affirms their decision to click play or suggests that their time might be better spent elsewhere.

The data proves this out.

Within the first minute, most shows will lose 10-25% of their overall episode listenership, generally the highest drop-off point in any episode besides the closing credits.

In short, the first minute matters immensely for winning over new listeners.

As such, you should spend a significant amount of your post-production time and energy dialling it in for each episode.

This, of course, is the exact opposite of what most shows do, opting instead to slap a pull-quote from somewhere in the episode—one that generally lacks context, tension, and stakes—at the start of the episode.

So what should you do instead?

Let’s start by looking at what your first minute should achieve.

A great first minute of a podcast episode should:

  • Grab a listener’s attention
  • Play off of the expectations set by the episode title, either building on them, subverting them, or offering a twist
  • Establish tension & curiosity
  • Hint at the stakes of the episode (ie. what does the listener stand to gain/lose by listening/not listening)
  • Establish the core theme of the episode

In some rare cases, a single carefully selected clip from the episode can achieve all of these requirements.

A better option is to build a mini-narrative by splicing together multiple clips from throughout the episode.

Perhaps the best option, however, is to do away with the clips altogether and script and narrate an intro that succinctly checks all the boxes.

Which brings us to the next hook.

Podcast Episode Intro/Setup

Building on your first minute, your episode intro or setup should more fully flesh out and set the stage for the rest of the episode.

Your intro might last anywhere from 30 seconds to a few minutes, and by the end of it, your listener should:

  • Be assured that the time investment of the episode will be worth their time
  • Have all the necessary context to make sense of the topic, how it fits into their life, and why it matters to them
  • Have all the necessary context to understand why any guests are credible and are uniquely qualified to speak on the topic
  • Be clear on the stakes of the topic/story
  • Be eager to dive in

This might sound a lot to achieve in a short amount of time.

But by following a simple framework, creating what I call Contextual Hooks that check all these boxes is easier than you think.

Here’s the blueprint for how to do it.

First Question (Interview Shows)

The first question is a powerful signal—to both your audience and your guests—about the trajectory of the episode.

Unfortunately, 99% of interview shows start with some variation of the worst possible first question:

“Tell us a little bit about who you are, what you do, and how you got to where you are today?”

There’s often a time and place for this episode, but it’s not as the first question of an interview.

In fact, the guest’s backstory is generally best to save for the back half of the interview well after the majority of the value of the episode has been delivered.

Ideally, you’ve summarized everything a listener needs to know to consider the guest credible (if not outright intriguing) in the intro, which then frees you up to make better use of your first question.

We’ll dig into what makes for a great first question in an upcoming article, but for now, consider the following criteria:

  • Specific to the guest
  • Novel – not something they’ve been asked before
  • Establishes the episode theme – Cracks open the topic in a refreshing way and sets the trajectory for what’s to come
  • Establishes the “floor” – Your first question provides the jumping-off point for the rest of the conversation. Start too broad, too shallow, or too generic and it makes it harder to close the gap to specific, deep, and unique within your allotted time.
  • Delivers immediate value – Affirming the listener’s decision to click play and buying more of their attention
  • Elicits a story – Our eyes glaze over at information, but light up at stories. Turn your guest into a storyteller while also achieving all of the above to maximally hook your listeners

Note that the bar is so incredibly low for great first questions that you don’t need to check all of the above boxes to immediately stand out from almost every other show on your topic.

When in doubt, an easy hack is to simply skip the guest intro question and start with your second question instead.

Zagging

When it comes to holding the attention of an audience, novelists and screenwriters are the masters.

A typical movie needs to hold the audience’s attention for 2-3 (generally uninterrupted) hours.

A typical novel needs to hold it for 8-10—and achieve the feat without the aid of visual or sonic supplementation, over multiple days or weeks.

What’s more, they (and we) are not trying to hold attention in a vacuum.

In fact, the world is actively trying to siphon, steal, and redirect our audiences’ attention every waking second of the day, from tens of thousands of different angles.

And yet…

We regularly sit rapt through long movies.

And when the right book comes along, tear through it in one, near-breathless sitting.

This doesn’t happen by accident.

It’s the product of a series of intentional creative decisions about how to present the content in a way that keeps us engaged.

And while the medium and format might differ, there’s a specific tactic long-form writers use to hold attention that we as podcasters can apply to our episodes as well.

I call it Zagging.

Let’s look at The Lord of the Rings to see the principle in action.

At any one point in the larger Lord of the Rings story, there are numerous subplots, each made up of a distinct cast of characters.

In The Two Towers, a few of these subplots include:

  • Frodo, Sam & Gollum making their way to Mordor
  • Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas chasing the orcs that have captured Merry & Pippin
  • Merry & Pippen, who’ve been captured by orcs
  • Gandalf’s quest to consult/confront Saruman
  • And more

On their own, each of these storylines takes up considerable screen time.

And even though the stories themselves are (obviously) fantastic, we as an audience would get bored watching any one of them play out continuously.

And so, the editors (and Tolkien in the source material) regularly zag between stories and characters, resetting the timer on our attention clocks in the process.

In fact, with 38 scenes dispersed across the film’s 179-minute runtime, that’s one attention-re-engaging zag every 4.7 minutes on average.

In other words, the editors behind the movie scarcely give us a chance to nod off or get distracted.

So how do we apply this concept to podcasting?

Much like a story, each topic you explore on your podcast has multiple throughlines, themes, and angles of inquiry.

And while we often default to following one continuous line where each question, idea, and topic flows from and builds on the previous ones, it’s not the only way to construct an episode.

Mind you, in the hands of a well-prepared master interviewer, the continuous build approach can work.

But it’s not easy to pull off.

The result of this approach is often dud sections of an episode that end up dragging… but can’t be cut due to the context they’re setting for the next section of the episode.

When it comes to holding attention, a better approach is to zag.

To follow one line of questioning before jumping over to something related to the core theme of the episode… but not necessarily following from the previous idea.

Angular Questioning

This works particularly well in interview shows, by using what I think of it as Angular Questioning.

SPN Graphics (3).png

David Perell, host of How I Write is a master at this.

What I appreciate in particular about David’s style is how he always zags to another topic or angle before the previous one has petered out.

This keeps the momentum building throughout the episode, as well as creating tension, keeping both the audience and the guest engaged and on the edge of their seat.

Particularly in a made-for-multitasking medium like podcasting, introducing Zags into your episodes makes it easy for listeners whose attention has been briefly interrupted to reengage without feeling like they’ve lost their place entirely.

They also provide a convenient way for you as the host to reset the interview when you hit a dead end with either the guest’s energy & engagement, or a specific line of questioning.

The key to Zagging effectively is threefold:

  1. Know the core theme, intended outcome, or destination you’re working toward
  2. Plan out your potential new topic jumping-off points in advance to zag to when the time is right
  3. Zag to topics that have a clear hook for your listeners. One that gets their ears to perk up to hear what comes next.

This style of interviewing can take some practice to get right, but the benefits are clear:

High-energy episodes with multiple hooks throughout every episode to re-engage listeners and keep the momentum driving forward.

Which is exactly the type of episodes you need to create if you want to grow.

Podcast Lifts

Most podcast hooks are designed to grab and hold attention in the immediate term.

External hooks, for example, are designed to snag the interest of a potential listener within the first second or two of them seeing it, and then, over the next 30 seconds, convince them to give it a chance.

Once a listener clicks place, internal hooks exist primarily to progressively buy a few minutes of attention more from a potentially skeptical listener.

There’s one type of internal hook, however, that bucks this shrot term trend.

In fact, it is designed specifically to hook listeners over the long term, playing almost no role at all in the episode in which its placed… but a huge role in every episode that comes after.

I think of this type of hook as an episode’s Lift.

The Lift is an episode segment that comes near the end of the episode and plays a crucial role in long-term episode retention:

Training your audience to listen through your episodes to the end.

How?

By saving some important revelation or delivery of value for late in the episode.

The effect of integrating Lifts into your episodes is twofold.

  1. Listeners are left with a better impression of that individual episode.
  2. Over time, listeners are trained to keep listening through the episode to get the gem at the end.

Regardless of your show type or business model, increasing consumption time per listener is one of the most important goals as a host, both in terms of growth (by improving cross-episode retention) as well as monetization (more time = more audience affinity and trust as well as more ad impressions delivered).

Implementing late-episode Lifts in every episode is one of the best ways to achieve this.

It’s worth noting that the most effective Lifts come at the end of what has already been a fantastic episode.

Before the Lift, your listeners should already feel satisfied and enriched by the episode.

The Lift is about taking that satisfaction and ratcheting it up to awe.

It’s a high bar, but one worth aiming for.

Lifts can come in many forms, including:

  • Plot twists & Revelations (can apply equally to narrative and educational shows)
  • Specific concrete examples or walkthroughs (ie. Seeing a concept discussed in the episode in action)
  • Games, challenges, tests, etc
  • Stories (especially emotionally poignant stories that drive the point of the home)
  • And more

Regardless of the form of Lift you employ, here are a few criteria for executing them effectively:

  1. The episode should feel as though it’s coming to a natural and satisfying conclusion before you introduce the Lift.
  2. The Lift should be genuinely valuable to your listeners (though the form of value will vary from show to show and episode to episode)
  3. The Lift should be surprising and unexpected

For an example of an episode-specific Lift, consider this episode of Podcast Marketing Trends Explained, with the lift starting at 40:05.

The episode is framed around the concept of how Justin & I would spend budgets of $500/$2500/$10k to grow our show.

We spend the episode discussing these scenarios and are about to wrap up the episode when, in the final five minutes, I introduce a twist by asking Justin how he would grow with zero budget.

This wasn’t a part of our initial episode outline, which meant Justin wasn’t prepared for the question, leading to a live workshop-style discussion.

While totally unplanned, this Lift is effective as it:

  1. Is surprising
  2. Aligns with and offers a counter-narrative perspective on the theme of the episode
  3. Forced Justin to react live, creating suspense and stakes
  4. Is highly relevant and helpful to our listeners, many of whom don’t have budgets to grow their shows
  5. Closes a loop that Justin unintentionally opened in the episode intro when he asked me whether I thought we’d be able to grow the podcast faster if we had a marketing budget than if we had no budget… thus bringing the episode full circle.

In addition to episode-specific Lifts, Lifts can also be built into the structure of your standard episode format.

A couple of my favourite examples include:

  1. I Will Teach You To Be Rich — Where the host, Ramit closes the episode by reading the follow up letters his guests have written after their couples money coaching session.
  2. Poetry Unbound — Where the host, Padraig, reads the poem the episode is based on for a second time (the first reading comes at the start of each episode) after having spent the episode deconstructing, explaining, and pondering over it. The result is revelation and a new appreciation for the poem that was missing on the first listen through.

Again, Lifts come in many forms, but the goal is always the same:

Once the listener is already satisfied, give the listener an extra hunk of gold that rewards them for listening that far… and trains them to continue to do so going forward.

Prioritizing Your Hook Development

Over the course of this guide, we’ve explored a total of 35 distinct hook opportunities to attract, convert, and retain new listeners.

If you’re like most people, at this point you’re feeling both:

  • Excited — About all the new opportunities to start implementing these hooks and improving your show’s level of attraction
  • Overwhelmed — Because where exactly are you supposed to start? Which hooks provide the highest leverage and will deliver the greatest impact?

Fear not.

To close out this guide, I’ll walk you through how to think about how to prioritize your hook development and integration.

Self-Assessing Your Hooks

The first step is to do a self-assessment of your show to identify where the biggest gaps currently are at both the show level, as well as the typical episode level.

To complete the self-assessment, use the following rubric and give yourself a grade from 0-2 for each type of hook.

Scoring Guide:

  • 0 = Hook is not relevant to my show, I’m not currently implementing it, or my current implementation doesn’t provide any real hook to a potential listener.
  • 1 = Hook is dull and non-specific, likely too weak to attract, convert, or retain new listeners on its own merit.
  • 2 = Hook is sharp, specific, and highly compelling. It’s likely enough to attract, convert, or retain new listeners on its own merit, even in the absence of supporting hooks.
SPN Graphics Listener Rubric (1).png

Note: It’s unlikely any show could score a perfect 2/2 on every type of hook. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth shooting for, however…

Once you’ve completed the self-assessment, you’ll have an objective baseline to guide your hook development and evaluate your progress going forward.

But where should you focus first?

Gateway Hooks: Refine Your Podcast From the Outside In

In general, I recommend sharpening your hooks from the outside in.

That is, starting with the most external facing touchpoints—the ones a potential listener is likely to encounter first and form an opinion about the show on.

Here’s why.

We can think of the series of 35 hooks as a long straight hallway divided by 35 doors.

Before a listener arrives at door 12 and faces the decision whether to open and walk through it or not, they must first encounter, choose to open, and walk through the previous 11 doors.

Said differently, there’s no point in optimizing the hookiness of the first minute of your episodes if you can’t get someone to click play in the first place.

And when it comes to convincing someone to click play, nothing matters more than your show’s concept, and the title and cover art that communicate it.

In my experience, developing these external facing hooks is the single most valuable marketing task for 99% of shows.

So if your primary goal is to attract more new listeners to the show, the most effective thing you can do is refine these outermost elements which do the heaviest lifting when it comes to new listener attraction and acquisition.

That said, there are a couple of considerations to keep in mind.

  1. Changing up your show concept, title, and cover art are (usually) major undertakings that will likely take months to ideate, test, and complete.
  2. In addition to your existing audience, chances are there is a steady (even if it’s small) flow of new listeners who are already organically discovering your show who you want to do a better job of converting and retaining.

With these considerations in mind, it’s worth experimenting with making small, steady refinements to your episode-level hooks while working out the bigger questions about your larger show-level hooks.

These tweaks can not only lead to short-term improvements in audience attraction and retention but also plant the seeds of a skill set that will only compound in value over time.

The best place to start?

Developing better external hooks for your individual episodes.

Episode Ideation & Development

Chances are, there is a small (probably single-digit) percentage of your audience that will listen to every episode you release regardless of the topic or title.

The vast majority of your audience, however, are casual listeners, who tune in only when an episode particularly grabs them.

This presents a huge opportunity for growth.

Consider the math.

  • Imagine you have a total listenership of 1,000 people and you release four episodes per month.
  • Of those 1000 listeners, 50 people tune into every episode, accounting for 200 dl/mo.
  • The other 950 might average one episode per month, accounting for 950 dl/mo.
  • The result is a total of 1,150 dl/mo.

But what if you could increase the average number of episodes your casual listeners consume?

Or even better, convert more casual listeners into full-time listeners?

Let’s do the math.

  • If you were able to increase your average casual listener’s consumption rate to 1.5 ep/mo that would result in 1,450 downloads from your casual listeners alone (1,650 dl total), a 43% increase.
  • Improve your casual listener consumption rate to 2 ep/mo and you’d bump your total monthly downloads to 2,100, nearly doubling your starting download numbers.

In other words, it’s entirely possible to double your download numbers without bringing in any new listeners.

So how do you do it?

Unlike full-time listeners, casual listeners need to be won over with each and every episode.

In short, they need to be hooked.

Some of the lowest-hanging fruit, then, for increasing your downloads and listen time is improving the hooks around your episode topics… and the framing, concepts, formats, and guests that bring them to life.

Note that I didn’t mention improving your episode titles.

It’s true the title matters a lot when it comes to converting casual (and new) listeners.

But great titles are more often the natural result of an inherently hooky episode than something you can just slap on after the fact.

With that in mind, it’s worth defining—before you ever hit record, start scripting, or reach out to a guest—what the hook for an episode idea is… and how you could sharpen it to become truly irresistible to your audience.

If you can’t define the hook upfront, you shouldn’t make the episode.

Simple as that.

YouTubers and the most successful podcasters, studios, and production companies live and die by this rule.

And one of the most valuable shifts you can make for the long-term success of your show is to adopt it yourself.

Start with the hook, then map out the content to deliver on it.

Thinking In Hooks

If there’s one thing to take away from this guide it’s this:

Your potential listeners aren’t looking for new places to spend their attention.

In fact, they’re actively guarding it.

Which means if you want to grow your show, you need to create as many opportunities to snag that attention in a way they simply can’t ignore, and then minute by minute, touchpoint by touchpoint, earn just a little bit more.

With each new hook you stack, layer, and weave into your show, you give your listeners one more opportunity to discover, connect with, and fall in love with your show.

Don’t waste them.

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