5.1 Min Read • Exposure

The Podcast Recommendation Loop: How To Design A Show That Generates Viral Word-of-Mouth Growth

Word of mouth is the #1 way podcasts grow. And it doesn't happen by accident. Here's how to engineer a show that gets people talking.
By Jeremy Enns

By Jeremy Enns

By Jeremy Enns

Let’s start with a frustrating reality.

Study after study has shown that word of mouth is one of (if not the) most common ways listeners discover new shows.

You already know this, intuitively.

You’ve discovered new shows based on the recommendation of a friend, family member, colleague, or creator you follow online. And you’ve reciprocated, sharing your favourite shows with the people around you.

Word of mouth works.

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But beyond begging your listeners at the end of every episode to share your show, how are you actually supposed to leverage word of mouth to grow?

Are there specific calls to action you can make that will encourage sharing?

Can you offer incentives to reward your listeners for their promotion?

Or are there some other hidden levers you can pull to get more of your audience talking?

It turns out, you have a lot more over word of mouth as a marketing channel than you might think.

Generating word-of-mouth has nothing to do with calls to action, direct requests, or incentives, however, and everything to do with designing a show that encourages word-of-mouth recommendations—and the slow viral growth that comes with it.

It’s all based on the Podcast Recommendation Loop.

Here’s how it works:

  1. A listener discovers your show. The show’s packaging (title, cover art, description) aligns with an existing desire, interest, or problem and establishes an expectation of the show.
  2. They listen to the first episode, which meets or exceeds their expectation of the show, causing them to subscribe.
  3. After listening to some number of episodes they develop trust in the show to consistently deliver on the specific promise it makes in a satisfying way. At this point, the show has achieved recommendable status and just requires the appropriate trigger.
  4. They encounter a trigger that immediately brings the show to mind. If they think the show is appropriate/helpful/relevant to the person or circumstance that caused the trigger, they’ll happily (perhaps even enthusiastically) recommend it.
  5. Once the recommendation has been made, they assess the recipient’s reaction. If the recommendation was well received, they are more likely to recommend the show again in similar circumstances in the future. If not, they are less likely to recommend it.
  6. With each successful recommendation, the new listener now enters the Recommendation Loop, adding to the potential number of show advocates.
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On the surface, the recommendation loop is fairly straightforward, which begs the question:

Why don’t all shows benefit from the word-of-mouth growth it creates?

While it’s impossible to be certain, I suspect most shows with an active listenership do benefit from word of mouth.

Two issues, however, keep word of mouth from being a significant source of growth for many shows.

The first is that only a small percentage of listeners will ever recommend the show.

This means that you need to build up an audience of 500-1,000 regular listeners in order to earn your first handful of early advocates and begin to benefit noticeably from their recommendations.

The second issue is that most shows contain one or more Recommendation Blockers that prevent even genuine fans of the show from sharing it.

Some of the most common Recommendation Blockers include:

  • Unfocused or widely varied content that prevents the show from being associated with any specific scenario or trigger
  • Lack of memorability, usually due to a format, concept, and/or content that is too similar to other shows on the topic
  • Reputational risk to the recommender by making a recommendation that doesn’t reflect well on them. Common contributors to reputational risk include, hit-or-miss content quality, amateur-looking or confusing cover art, mediocre audio quality, loose episode structure, and anything else that the recommender might feel the need to justify, apologize for, or caveat.
  • Poorly defined target audience, making it hard for listeners to know who would actually enjoy or benefit from the show.
  • An audience that is not embedded in communities of other people like them, resulting in them not having anyone to make a useful recommendation to.
  • Content that lacks regular external triggers, making it unlikely that listeners will encounter scenarios with the potential to make a recommendation.

Many podcasts suffer from several (or all of these) Recommendation Blockers. But even one is enough to derail the Recommendation Loop.

Make no mistake, the bar for recommendability is high.

But it’s not unattainable. And the steps to achieving it are clear.

  1. Design your show around a specific promise for a specific listener.
  2. Deliver on that promise every episode.
  3. Remove any potential Recommendation Blockers that might keep listeners from sharing it.

Then, let them spread the word.

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