Podcast Alchemy: An Unexpected Journey

An introduction to the Podcast Alchemy series.

Image generated by Bing

To podcast or not podcast, that is the question. The answer is not as simple as a yes or no.

When I began my process of writing a book my friend and bestselling author Dorie Clark told me, “As an author you should try to go on 150 podcasts.” Dorie is a top expert on thought leadership (many rising thought leaders join her community to grow professionally) so I followed her advice, and then some. In eighteen months I appeared on over 300 podcasts, (and I’m still going); at the peak I was doing up to fifteen recordings a week.

This is the first of a ten-part series looking at the world of podcasting. While I come from a guest’s perspective (I don’t host my own podcast) I’ll also cover hosting extensively. Guests, hosts, producers, and marketers can all learn from this series; as is often the case, seeing things from the perspective of the other parties will help you do better in your own role. For podcast listeners, this is a chance to get a behind the scenes look at some of the world of podcasting. I’ll discuss my experiences, techniques, and results from getting on so many shows, and how it led to unexpected outcomes including how it changed the direction of the Brain Bump app. These articles are being published in 2024; while much of the advice is timeless, technology will no doubt age some of what is covered.

In this first article I want to provide some context with my story of who I am and why I did this. Later articles in this series will cover tips for pitching, guesting, and hosting and look at the efficacy of podcasting. (As such you may see later edit dates on all the articles as I got back and add cross links once future articles are live.)

Those looking for practical advice may find this first article least interesting of the articles, the latter ones will be much more actionable, but this will provide context. Even so, I do have helpful advice in this article, too.

Does Podcasting Sell Lots of Books or Other Things?

Let’s start with the ending. If you think guesting on podcasts is going to help you sell lots of books, it probably won’t. If you think it will generate lots of new business, it probably won’t. It can do both of those things in the same way that playing the lottery can make you rich, but I wouldn’t recommend it. There are other methods that are more efficient and effective. For the record, getting on Oprah, Good Morning America, and other national shows has rocketed books from obscurity to best seller, getting on such shows has also done very little for other authors and products. It’s a combination of product, audience, timing, delivery, and, for lack of a sufficiently sophisticated model of marketing cross with human behavior and the world at large, luck. Podcasts as the same, writ small.

Despite knowing that it’s not economically cost effective I go on podcasts because of other, non-economic externalities I get from being on the shows. We’ll cover what those are in the coming articles.

If you’re an author, you probably already know that you’re not going to make money selling books. (And if you’re an aspiring author, check out the industry data so you know what to expect.) The podcasts may not sell books, but they may still help you in other ways.

If you’re a consultant, coach, or other service provider, the results are more mixed. It can the same way advertising can. The right shows can drive business as can the right ads. The wrong shows, like the wrong ads to the wrong people, just spin your wheels and waste time and/or money.

My Background

You may choose to argue that I’m not a qualified expert, wrote a badly written book, have few or bad reviews, have a poor podcast pitch, don’t present well, choose bad podcasts, or a whole bunch of other criticisms. You may be right. You can see my background on LinkedIn or read my bio. You can see the book for yourself. At the time of this article the book has a 4.7 rating on Amazon, with only 22 written reviews out of 50 total reviews (I never liked asking people for reviews so I’m weaker than many other authors in this respect). The podcast pitch I’ll show in a later article. And you can judge my content and presentation skills for yourself as well as see the podcasts I went on (which ranged from tens of listeners to tens of thousands of listeners).

More generally, you can probably cite someone who did go on lots of podcasts and was successful. Again, each story is different. Most importantly, the timing is different. In 2005 Alex Tew made $1,000,000 by selling 1,000,000 pixels on his website The Million Dollar Homepage. I would advise you against doing the same type of website today since the novelty is gone. What has worked in the past won’t necessarily work today. Channels themselves playout. In 2007 Facebook was a relatively new, untapped channel for marketing and early sellers did well. You can still sell on Facebook, but it’s no longer virgin territory. Podcasting is still young and evolving, but what worked well ten years ago may not work today.

How Did I Wind Up Here?

For over twenty years I taught at MIT’s famed career success accelerator program. I unexpectedly wrote a book covering those topics, targeted not just for college students but a general audience, The Career Toolkit: Essential Skills for Success That No One Taught You. The book itself covers ten topics, one per chapter, on skills like networking, negotiating, career plans, leadership, communication, etc.

There are two intentional decisions I made with the book that are relevant to my podcasting story. I mention them because they may be helpful for your content strategy.

First, many people have written entire books on just one of the topics I cover. Having found most books are about 100 pages too long, and having learned from years of teaching in a concentrated program, I knew how to focus on the key ideas for each topic and condense them into a single chapter. I chose to do so because I think it made the book more effective and practical, less stories and fluff, and more concrete, actionable advice. The secondary benefit of that approach is that it meant I could hit a wide range of topics. I wasn’t just talking about a single skill but could spin against a number of angles allowing me to hit a broad range of shows and topics. (It also meant my audience could listen to multiple episodes and not hear me repeat the same answers every time, although after a few dozen, it does start to get repetitive.)

As a side note, although I’ve built startups (think Silicon Valley style tech startups) for roughly twenty-five years, and even though these skills all apply to entrepreneurs, I appeared on relatively few entrepreneur-oriented podcasts. Many more entrepreneurial podcasts balked at my pitch. From what I could gather from those who gave me any feedback it was based on the title of the book. (Although it was only a handful who replied with any details, so this is speculative.) I would often tie in how these skills applied to entrepreneurs or would even cite episodes over the prior years of their podcast where similar skills were covered but would get a pass. My rate of acceptance to entrepreneurial podcasts was roughly half that of podcasts in general (even after I tuned my pitch specifically for entrepreneurial themed shows). Having “Career” in the title made it seem like a book for employees, not entrepreneurs. Your pitch to a certain show could be DOA for similar reasons.

Second, I was advised that I should write, “The Career Toolkit for Software Engineers” or “The Career Toolkit for Salespeople” and be more focused. I choose not to, not only because I know from lots of independent research that these are universal skills, but also because it would narrow the people I could help if I did. Had I done so it would have narrowed my appeal. Just as “Career” made it seem less relevant to entrepreneurial shows, putting a specific industry in there also would have been limiting. The flip side of course is a salesperson looking for advice is more likely to pick a book explicitly for salespeople, evidenced by the title, than a general book like mine.

Both of these decisions buck conventional wisdom, which says to pick a niche. Maybe I would have gotten less podcasts but still more book sales had it been titled, “. . . for Software Engineers.” Maybe not. Book marketers can debate this, but for podcast reach, broader is likely better, especially if the book is just your entree into getting on shows. (Note that podcast reach is different from book sales from the podcast, this is something we’ll explore in a later article.)

Finally, I’ll note that although I have credibility from my companies, teaching, and academic credentials, I had no real brand in this area. I was known in my industry as a cybersecurity CTO / CPO (Chief Technology Officer / Chief Product Officer). That has nothing to do with what I spoke about on podcasts (until fairly recently when everyone started asking about AI). CEOs often looked puzzled when I would comment on HR topics because the stereotype of a CTO is that he knows tech but nothing else, and certainly not people skills. I had a LinkedIn profile, but it was oriented to my CTO / CPO career, and my Facebook account was just to talk to friends and share photos, not to market myself. I had no Twitter (X) or Instagram, no posts on LinkedIn, and few if any non-personal Facebook posts. I also, as a rule, don’t connect to strangers, so I have thousands of pending requests on Facebook and LinkedIn that I’ve ignored. In other words, I had no real followers, just friends.

This is where I started from. Some credibility, but no real platform. I started from zero media presence.

Your mileage may vary. Business books are different from sci-fi which are different from young adult, which are different from cookbooks. And those are books; you might be selling other products or services (and again executive coaching is different from accounting services). I’ll show you the tools and the results, but you will need to decide which ones can help you and how, given your specific circumstances. In the coming articles, we’ll take you through what can work for which needs.