Social Media Content Strategy

Better Interviewing – III. The Introduction

 The Introduction

Introducing a guest is a golden opportunity to keep your audience invested.


We make snap judgments all the time about people we meet for the first time. It’s human nature. These first impressions have a way of sticking even if we learn contradictory information later.

At a relaxed gathering a good way to introduce yourself is to set up the conversation to broaden by giving a little context about yourself, i.e., saying something interesting and approachable. Running down the list of your personal facts in 30 seconds: name, birthplace, school, degrees, publications, awards, current job title and employer is not interesting and not approachable. Yet, that’s how many interviewers introduce their guests.

If it were human nature to gather all the facts of a matter and then form opinions, you’d have the audience in the palm of your hand simply by reading a curriculum vitae. But we’re not built that way.

We are wired to be insanely interested to know how other humans deal with life. This is why storytelling is so fundamental to connecting with utter strangers. It is the software, if you will, that’s optimized to this natural inclination to know. And I’m not referring to “storytelling” that’s become a marketing buzzword these days which, in this sense, means whatever the subject of an audio or video presentation says. As explained in the earlier post in the series, Winging It, a real story requires a person with an obstacle. The writer and teacher Sands Hall points out in Tools of the Writer’s Craft, “The obstacle, that which is in the way of a character’s ambition, her heart’s desire, helps create plot. If a character could get what she wanted, there would be no story.”

Hall is communicating this to fiction writers who are trying to create stories that pierce the heart. You may have that opportunity as an interviewer, too, but mostly I’m applying the principle of storytelling to how you choose and frame information about your guest. In the opening moments of the show you have multiple opportunities to tell micro stories to draw listeners in. The previous post, The Most Crucial Story, covered why in the opening moments the audience should care about listening further. Here, my purpose is to cover the second important story to be told, the guest introduction.

Does the story in a guest introduction have to soar to the heavens and dive to the depths of the mortal coil? Does it have to win a Pulitzer? No, not at all. The plot can be a loose end to be tied up in the body of the interview. The point is to frame a guest’s introduction as a story rather than mere information. And the audience will barely be aware of why it’s interesting.

So, the guest intro needs to play into the human trait of snap judgments. It should create a want in the audience to stay and find out more about the person you’re going to interview.

Enter A World

What is a good guest introduction? Let’s start by considering what it should do. In the following example we’re concerned with the effect of the introduction, not with the construction or format. Here’s the first sentence from J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye.

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.

Salinger could have started the novel with the character’s name, age, birthplace, childhood facts (David Copperfield crap) but instead he parachutes us into the middle of the character’s drama. Holden Caulfield doesn’t even tell us his name — what he says is more compelling. He brings us into his world.

That’s what a good guest introduction should do, bring the audience into another world, the world of your interviewee, which can be as immersive as any novel, record, or film. Again, in this example I’m only concerned with the effect of a good introduction. Stripped to its core, an interview is a performance. And to reiterate from the first article in this series, it’s a two-person nonfiction play of impromptu dialogue directed by the interviewer.

A good guest intro gets the play going by hitting the ground running.


The best introductions are not self-contained events but are seamless. What does that mean? It means the guest intro flows right into your first question. Seams are moments when one dramatic action ends and a new one begins. Later in your interview seams aren’t such a big deal. But in the beginning, when the audience is deciding whether to commit, a seam gives the listener a familiar cue — like a commercial break — to disengage. It’s a perfect moment to click away to something else.

Let’s look at an example of a self-contained guest intro written from a bio and ending with a seam.

My guest is Michael Chavez. He was born in Redding, California in 1981. He started out his career as a firefighter but switched to winemaking. He went to Fresno State University where he got a degree in enology and then went graduate school at UC Davis to get an advanced degree in plant genetics. Today he works for Constellation Brands where he’s in charge of research as well as the wine lab. Welcome, Michael Chavez.

Now, let’s re-do the intro with a little story tension.

On a hot July day in 1998 Michael Chavez was supposed to be on a bus headed for Oregon to jump out of an airplane and fight a forest fire. But he broke his collarbone in a car accident that morning. With no plan B he headed to Napa to help out, one handed, at a winery where his brother worked. Michael did grunt work but ended up having one of those summer love affairs… only, with Cabernet Sauvignon. It hasn’t ended. And he’s here to talk about it. So Michael, did you ever smoke jump again?

The second intro contains fewer facts but tells a story that weaves into the first question. It’s only one of many possible scenarios. Perhaps Michael and his genetics team almost lost experimental plants but saved a groundbreaking new variety; it was a race against the clock to find a new source of water for irrigation; or a rivalry, not always friendly, emerged with his brother.

Again, the guest intro does not need to rise to the level of great literature to do its job. It merely requires story tension in about 5 to 10 crafted sentences which give us a reason to care about the guest.

One pet peeve: never ever let a guest introduce themselves. Ever. Don’t ask the guest to say who they are and say something about themselves. Letting them introduce themselves usually disrupts progression and risks communicating to the audience: borefest to ensue.

Unless you’re interviewing a trained storyteller, like Kevin Spacey or J.K. Rowling, it will be luck if they spin a compelling 8-sentence story about themselves which leads right into your first question. You’ll either get name, job title and employer… or the interviewee will grab the spotlight, digressing on and on and leaving you at a place where it becomes confusing as to how to restart. This is not to say your guest shouldn’t be free to take you on a ride once things get going based on the map you’ve crafted of the interview. However, the guest introduction is not the time for this. This story, which is about your guest, belongs to you, the director.

There are other guest intro formats. But if you never try anything else you’ll be fine. Still, intros can contain sound from other sources; misdirect in order to surprise; play with language, music, news of the day, use drop-ins and sound bytes, or employ many combinations of elements to tell a story. As the theater director Elia Kazan once said, “Whatever works, works.” For the most part, though, simple storytelling is powerful enough.

catcher-in-the-ryeOnce writing intros like this, you’ll begin to see the pattern everywhere: movie trailers, TV promos, commercials, book jackets, magazine covers, headlines, the back of cereal boxes, etc. If you’ve never written this kind of thing before, the first pancakes might come out a bit messy. It may take some time to discover your own voice. The starting point is always to find your interviewee’s stories and you do that by asking them beforehand.

Getting the Information

Talking with a guest in advance is professional level pre-production. It significantly increases the chances of creating story experiences for the audience. In some cases you might be limited to the Internet and email. Celebrities are often impossible to schedule for a call. And for hard news interviews, sometimes it’s actually more strategic to interview cold.

The purpose of talking with a guest in advance is to gather research to create a compelling guest introduction as well as map the stories you want to bring out during the interview.

Here are some tips for information gathering.

  • Keep it relaxed. If you use the term pre-interview, be sure to explain to the guest it’s just a casual conversation. Some people hear formality in that word and get anxious. But pre-interview can also be avoided. Just ask, “can we chat before the interview?”
  • It’s not a rehearsal. Don’t attempt to do the interview you envision during the chat. This is the time to get ideas about what to ask in the interview.
  • Stay out of the weeds. When you discover a story don’t spiral into minutiae. Rather, move on when you feel you have enough to explore it for real during the interview.
  • Look for conflict. Stories are synonymous with it. However, stay away from that word. It’s bit of a downer to say something like, “I want to find out about the conflict in your life.”
  • A sense of place is powerful. A good start is where someone was born and grew up (though in the interview a chronological approach is only one of many). It’s fascinating to find out how childhood experiences sync with the present.
  • Connect the dots you know about. From their bio or resume explore what happened in between one point to another.
  • If it’s for content marketing, look for stories that reveal your subject matter expert as a human being and not just someone assigned to talk about a product or initiative at hand. Forget their job title. Why does it matter to them as a human being? What turns them on about it?
  • Go off topic. Maybe you’re interviewing a car designer about car design, but it becomes three dimensional when you ask things like what kind of music they like when their driving or if they were stuck on an elevator who would they want it to be with and who not with, etc.
  • Paint pictures. You want your guest to talk about their experience as if you were having a drink with them. What were the blow-by-blow events leading up to it? What was the weather like that day? How did they feel? Who said what? You don’t necessarily want all of the details. But if your guest gets it that you want them to go there, and they’re willing, that’s perfect.
  • Not everyone can tell stories. One of the reasons Ira Glass says This American Life is successful is that interviewees who can’t tell stories don’t get on the air. But not everyone has a big enough show to nix a guest because the pre-interview showed it won’t work. For a smaller podcast interview, rejecting someone after they’ve invested their time in a pre-interview might not be practical. You can only do your best.
  • Bring out the grenades if necessary. “What are your biggest disappointments in life?” “What are your greatest triumphs?” “What keeps you up at night?” Explore from there.
  • If a guest wants to know what questions you’ll ask during the interview it’s okay to give them a few. But revealing the questions in advance generally eliminates fresh answers. You don’t want guests to prepare with lifeless or sugarcoated responses.

Preparation is the secret sauce in a great guest introduction.


Better Interviewing – II. The Most Crucial Story

Group Of Friends Having Dinner Party At Home

The Most Crucial Story

Sweating the details of a first impression builds audience.


Saving the best for last is often a great strategy. It seems logical to map out an interview that way, ending on a high note and leaving the audience wanting more. But, if anything, the opposite is true. The most critical part of an interview happens at the beginning. That’s when your audience is won or lost.

This idea hit home recently when I attended a wine talk by a Master Sommelier named Eddie Osterland. He preaches to dinner party hosts you have nothing to gain by waiting till later to surprise everyone with your finest bottle and a special hors-d’oeuvre. Instead, serve them first when palates are fresh and the capacity to taste and enjoy is at its height.

But there’s a more profound reason he advises to strike while the iron is hot. A fantastic wine and superb appetizer right from the start elevates the guest experience for the rest of the evening. Osterland has presided over thousands of dinner parties and he’s observed the phenomenon again and again—offer your best first, and people invest themselves more in the gathering, they have more fun, and fewer leave early.

The same idea is true of interview shows. What you serve first sets the tone for the whole show. Sweating the details of a great opening, a great guest introduction and a great first question pays off in attracting, keeping and ultimately building an audience.

Why Should Anyone Care?

When someone who’s never heard of your show tries it out, think of them as a director sitting in an empty auditorium about 5th row center, holding a clipboard… and you’re next on stage to audition.

You have about 30 seconds to show your stuff.

That’s about as much time, on average, you have to persuade the audience your interview podcast is worth their attention. For all intents and purposes you start with your largest audience at 00:00. How much smaller is it by 00:30? By 1:00? There are plenty of reasons to inspire someone to click the off button:

  • Start with an ad.
  • Wing it and ramble.
  • Play music for a long while.
  • Don’t identify the topic, guest or show.
  • Read a long generic description of the show.

These can be summed up as:

  • Fail to immediately tell the audience why they should care.

Granted, on the Internet any consistently published media will get some following. But to transcend that and to get people to stick with the show after they’ve clicked play, they need to be convinced they should care. And you tell them not with information but with a story, a very short one that presents a person’s challenge in a sentence or two.

For example, here’s a mundane circumstance related as information.

I went home to get my wallet so I could come back to the store to buy some great sale items.

But here it is framed as a story.

They were having a great sale at the store but when I got there I discovered my wallet was missing.

That’s a panic inducing moment we all identify with. Finding the story requires seeing the human drama in events as common as reaching for our wallet and not finding it. Sometimes a topic is about life and death—certainly, that heightens the challenge. But most topics are about the daily ebb and flow of life. Your goal is not to hype or overstate it, like a clickbait headline that doesn’t deliver on what it suggests. Rather it’s to appeal to our natural impulse to know what other people are doing through a story. Maybe the issue is whether enough rain will fall for this year’s crops or about an artist’s close call with almost choosing to become an accountant (or vice versa). In every person’s narrative abides the friction of action, change and realization.

This is what you want to capture and present in the opening of the show. You can write and voice it yourself or choose an excerpt from what the guest says in the interview. Once you start perceiving the story in events, you’ll be able to easily pick out (even as you conduct the interview) the best statements to use in the opening.

You might be asking, does it really matter that much to go to this trouble to frame the opening as a story? It depends on what results you want. If your podcast interview show is just a fun hobby, if you’re not interested in a return on investment, if the intent is just to merely make recordings and post them then by all means skip this. It’s work. But if you have something riding on your efforts to attract and serve an audience why overlook using basic techniques?

Before going further let’s get some terms down. Jargon isn’t necessary but it helps to organize one’s thinking. If the missing wallet statement were a clip from a recording it would be called a sound bite. A sound bite is more than just a sentence or phrase. It’s one that has import. Some sound bites are stories in themselves or story fragments. A compelling sound bite used as the first voice in the opening of a show is often called a teaser or at any other time in the opening it’s sometimes called a hook.

As an aside, I believe in mastering fundamentals but I also recognize the exceptions. There are probably great podcasts which violate the principles of presentation just as there are a tiny percentage of successful professional musicians who don’t practice and photographers who don’t understand the math of photography. However, there’s no blueprint. It’s not replicable for the rest of us. But the fundamentals can be learned and applied to great effect. If you want to break the rules at least first learn what it is you’re breaking.

Master Class: Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday

Oprah learned her craft as a television reporter and built an empire on understanding how to frame events in people’s lives—not as information but as stories. Although she uses plain old formulaic broadcast storytelling techniques it’s hard to argue with someone who built a billion dollar empire on it. Here’s an opening to Oprah’s interview show called Super Soul Sunday. Can you spot the story? How about the hook?

OPRAH: Today, on Super Soul Sunday, she is the ultimate seeker, someone who loves the big questions as much as I do; best-selling author, thinker, teacher and a friend; Elizabeth Lesser is here.

LESSER: Cheers!

OPRAH: For a long awaited heart-to-heart under the oaks in my backyard. Can you share with the Super Soulers what you have been through? A family crisis put the spiritual trailblazer to the test.

LESSER: It takes someone almost dying, for me to come into a whole and loving relationship.

OPRAH: How Elizabeth was able to dig deep, drawing on everything she knows and how digging deep can help you too.

The Super Soul Sunday opening is 2 minutes long but Oprah sets the hook at 23 seconds: “A family crisis put the spiritual trailblazer to the test.” Then Lesser completes the conflict-resolution scenario: “It takes someone almost dying for me to come into a whole and loving relationship.” It’s a two sentence story shouldering the argument of why the audience should care.

The interview itself is pretty basic. It’s in her back yard for crying out loud. But in the show opening she serves up a compelling story (not just one but multiple ones), an excellent use of voice-over, music dynamics and editing. It’s as if Oprah invited us in, immediately popped open a nice bottle of Sandhi Santa Barbara County Bentrock Chardonnay with hors-d’ouevres of scallops in truffle cream. It elevates the experience of the whole show. The audience invests more of themselves, they have more fun watching, and fewer leave early.

Your show opening doesn’t have to be as fancy as Oprah’s. Hers didn’t require much in resources but it did take some editing. The soaring music and choreographed voice-over adds to the drama but it’s not absolutely necessary. The attention-getter is the story, which is critical to attracting, keeping and building an audience. In the next part of this series we’ll discuss story the next short story you need to tell in the opening moments of the show that helps to launch the interview onto the wide open sea of the conversation.


Better Interviewing – I. Winging It

Night club mic better interviewingMicrophone

Winging It

To create a memorable interview podcast there’s no escaping preparation.


Stand-up comedy is simple. It’s just you, a microphone, and an audience. And interviewing is pretty much the same dynamic only with an additional person. As a stand-up your aim is to make people laugh but as an interviewer it’s to get them to care.

There are a number of potential pitfalls on the road to making people care. The big one is winging it, a popular stylistic “choice” of many podcasters. They rationalize it makes interviews authentic which is what audiences supposedly want. Why waste time researching the guest beforehand? It’ll sound more fresh to find out about the guest in the interview itself. Voilà, that’s a show.

But the interviewer pulling questions from you-know-where is like the stand-up comic taking the stage with no prepared material, trying to concoct new jokes from scratch in front of a crowd. The audience doesn’t come to see a joke writing workshop. This is a critical concept that applies to interviewing. The audience of the podcast interview isn’t interested in a fishing expedition for occasional good questions and exchanges.

So how do the pros do it? All those questions they ask that sound off the cuff… most are not.  The interviewers and producers spend hours mapping things out. It’s planned to sound as if it isn’t planned, as if it’s authentic.

Authenticity is ultimately a meaningless concept. True authenticity of an interview is essentially impossible to capture as a show—it requires that we be unaware we’re being recorded. What happens when we know we’re on camera or the mic is on? We all become self conscious of how we look and sound, and put on an act of what we wish the users of the media to believe about us. Creating this illusion is inescapable. That’s not a bad thing at all. The question is what illusion do you want to present?

Being unprepared is merely one kind of illusion. Another kind is talking with the guest beforehand, mapping out a story line, devising questions, and giving a good performance.

This was well understood before podcasting arrived in 2005. Show development, research, and planning were standard practices in radio and television. But podcasting shook things up. You no longer needed studios, transmitters, satellites, collaborators or editors to produce a show. Recording equipment was cheap and distribution was free. To the podcasting community this was more than just a technological shift. It was power to the people, throwing old media and its practices over the ship of modernity into the waters of oblivion—or so they thought. There were a lot of godawful podcasts and still are.

But the medium is maturing. Winging it is still a popular approach but more novice producers are embracing best practices to attract and serve an audience. And broadcast professionals are taking over the space as advertising grows. Still, podcasting is wide open for anyone with a passion for a subject, a $99 recorder and an iTunes account.

How do you rise above the noise? How do you take an interview show beyond vanity project or infomercial to really build an audience? If you’re serious about making shows that move people, it requires an understanding that interviewing is essentially show biz.

What Is An Interview?

Asking questions and getting answers happens in the interaction between an interviewer and interviewee. But that in itself is not compelling. The mistake is to approach it as if it is, as if people are attracted to information. The interview is merely a method to gather the data.

That’s not what gets the attention of an audience.

People don’t tune in to The Tonight Show to acquire information extracted from a guest. If that were the case, it would be easier and cheaper to email questions to a guest, and then publish their reply. Why bother with the pain of creating a show, scheduling guests, and doing all that production? This is a question I have posed to corporate clients who want to make an interview podcast but only want it to be about experts talking about product features and benefits. Putting the text of marketing talking points in the mouths of people with titles whom we never really get to know isn’t going to make the information any more compelling.

So, why do people watch The Tonight Show? They’re drawn to the interaction of Jimmy Fallon and his guests. All of the great interviewers do it every time they open the mic: Charlie Rose, Larry King, Terry Gross, et. al. They bring out the drama of what their guests have to say. There’s a beginning, middle and end. They tell stories.

The dictionary definition of “interview” is fine for everyday use: a meeting at which information is obtained from a person. This covers many kinds of interviews from journalists gathering comments for their news reports to employers talking with job applicants. In this article I’m only concerned with the interview as a show presented to an audience. I find the definition below more effectively captures the dynamics.

An interview is a nonfiction play of impromptu dialogue directed by the interviewer.

It’s a weighty description, certainly, but don’t let that deter you. Approach your podcast as a performance rather than a perfect verbal power point presentation to disseminate information. A performance opens up a world of possibilities

Chasing the Squirrel

An interview show’s capacity to attract and hold an audience comes down to human empathy. In this regard there is a format that reigns supreme: the story.

Why a story is so effective at conveying information is a vast subject. As early as Aristotle, philosophers delved deeply into its power. The historian Yuval Harari asserts all human thought from the hunter and gatherer stage until now is a narrative, whether it’s the politics of nations or something as mundane as how to put on a shoe. He famously describes therapy as an attempt to stop believing one story about ourselves and start believing another.

People crave stories. When Jack Valenti (former president of the Motion Picture Association of America) was alive, he appeared on panels at media and tech conferences during the height of the Napster controversy arguing that stories are so vital to human existence more people steal movies than steal money. There’s no hard evidence to prove it, but it’s obvious stories are fundamental to human life given the profound presence of movies, novels, social media, news, television, radio, and music in our lives.

Formal story structure has changed little, if at all, over thousands of years. It’s comprised of at least three elements: [1] exposition, the introduction to the character and the events leading up to his or her challenge; [2] conflict, the challenge itself; and [3] resolution, the character meeting the challenge.

Stories are always about people. Stories happen to people, but never to objects, ideas or products. An object can be in a story. An idea can be the meaning of a story. But objects and ideas cannot become nor face a challenge and meet it. People can.

Like a squirrel to a dog, so is a story to an audience. It gets our attention. Conflict and how a person deals with it—no matter how trivial—formatted as a story appeals to human instinct.

Am I splitting hairs? Absolutely. The effects of preparation, especially if you are starting at zero and are an unknown talent, won’t be felt immediately. It pays off over time.

Corporate Podcast Interviews

I’m not suggesting a compelling interview needs to contain spectacular stories of thunderous drama. The issue is framing things in stories versus delivering information. Take corporate podcasts, for example, which have the added task of persuading the audience to feel good about the company. They hit all the right marketing messages while the host and guests can even get personal and exchange plenty of pleasantries. And yet, it’s so often dreadfully boring. The conventional wisdom is people will like the company more if everything is perfectly in place. But, if anything, the opposite is true.

By default you have the ingredients to make a compelling corporate podcast: the human beings in the show. They have feelings, a history, and truth. The product is just the context. Granted, a corporate presence is inherently going to turn off some of the audience no matter what you do. Nothing you can do about that. But you can do something to maximize what you have.

YouTube is filled with corporate attempts to deliver information packaged to come off as not marketing. Audiences sniff this stuff out pretty quickly and when they don’t, sometimes feel they’ve been duped by fake media. As an industry, content marketing isn’t ready to let go of things like putting up appearances or using stealth to hide the producer’s intentions. But many marketers are seeing the value of simply being upfront, shifting from information to stories, and making real media. Tom Foremski pointed this out a decade ago when he said every company is a media company.

The Play’s the Thing

Your quest as an interviewer is to find your subject’s stories. If the interview is 30 minutes long does that mean 15 minutes of exposition, 10 minutes of conflict and 5 minutes of resolution? Maybe, if you’ve set down a good plan. But a good interview is generally made up of many small stories, some of them lasting a few minutes.

Your guest probably won’t be thinking in terms of stories but you will. Here’s an over-the-top example I’m using only for stark illustration. Suppose you’re interviewing a runner who just won $100 million and bought a beautiful home on a private island and a Bentley. They achieved it by winning an arduous 1,000 mile race through the Himalayas up and down treacherous roads where they almost died.

Do people care what it’s like to have a private island or a Bentley? Maybe, some. But as an interviewer the treacherous roads, big and small, are your stock in trade. If you look for them they are everywhere. And once you see them they become the foundation of the story structures of your interview.

The story is what you use to get your audience to care. Your performance is how you deliver it. Hamlet knew this when he hatched his idea to write a play so devastating to the senses, upon seeing it his stepfather would involuntarily reveal his guilt over the murder of Hamlet’s father. Hamlet predicts:

“The play’s the thing, wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.”


Marketers Face Humanity’s Biggest Challenge

The stakes may not be life and death, but the job of a marketer is to attempt to do something that has been central to the human drama since the dawn of history. It’s played on a stage as large as World War II and over a family dinner table as a son announces the plan to drop out of college to follow the Grateful Dead without a source of income. And we encounter it every day usually on a smaller emotional scale than these examples.

It’s the attempt to change someone’s mind.

Calendar Pages and Clock

We can trace advertise back to the Latin word adverto, which means to pilot a ship or to turn. In advertising this is the core challenge: to change the course of someone’s thinking.

As a content marketer it can be a sobering question: is your messaging really designed around a plan based on an understanding of human behavior as it relates to winning minds, or is it merely a marketing activity?

Advertising agencies and scholars have done volumes of research to understand just how people’s minds can be changed. One great example is the FCB Grid developed by Richard Vaughn, research director at the agency Foote, Cone & Belding (now known as FCB). It’s based on a consumer’s emotional and rational states and just one of many approaches to the issue. I bring it up merely to point out that numerous serious investigations into behavior and decision-making go back many decades. If you’re a content marketer it wouldn’t hurt to become a mini-expert in the science of how people respond to messages.

Unfortunately, most of the online messages we receive throughout our day are designed and executed as if the problem confronting marketers is an accounting one: the greater the number of messages delivered means more minds are changed. Check, done.

You don’t need a pile of research to know that telling someone to buy a product, adopt a belief or divulge personal information is not an act of persuasion. You can’t just tell someone a marketing message and, voilà, they change. That’s not how it works.

Only after many repetitions of consuming your valuable content will the audience trust it. Notice I wrote valuable? That means real content that a person feels truly added to their understanding of something or entertained them.

Time is On Your Side

Content that affects how people think rests on one critical strategic element: time. I’m not referring to the time it takes to produce video or audio, or the calendar spacing between posts. I’m talking about factoring in the passage of time as a purposeful tool of persuasion. If you don’t include the element of time in your content marketing toolbox, you might as well consider the challenge of winning someone to your point of view nearly impossible. If you’re starting up an audio or video podcast for your company you need to give it at least two years.

The optimum content marketing plan is made in the mold of a media company. It uses an audience-centric approach, defining valuable content as whatever the audience defines as valuable. And the content does not advocate for the maker of the content but rather for the audience. Marketing messages appear outside of the content, never in the content. The goal is to build an audience — a group of recurring readers, listeners or viewers. The strategic piece that makes this happen is time.

One proviso: if your company defines valuable content as content it likes, and if the message in the content advocates for the company, then time won’t help any. The production may look like an interview show or brand journalism but the potential audience will sniff out that it’s an infomercial a mile away. It might be better to simply pay to put your messages in front of someone else’s audience. Let CNBC, Sunset Magazine or whoever has the audience you need to reach deal with making content. Buying an ad might be more expensive upfront, but the ROI will beat out infomercials easily.

But, back to the optimum content marketing plan: it takes advantage of the Internet’s capacity to scale a company’s media output, over time, without spending millions of dollars. This wasn’t and isn’t possible in broadcast media or in print. Suddenly, a company can create an online show about issues in its industry. The costs for a year are less than an ad on network television. And the audience belongs to the company creating the media.

Does this mean companies can be real media companies, creating real publications and shows?


Jason Lopez


Facebook’s Charge for Page Boost is a Content Marketing Opportunity

If you administer a page for a business on Facebook you know the platform is making it harder to reach people who have liked your page. Facebook wants you to pay to boost your reach as well as to freely engage with followers. And in fact, as Social@Ogilvy’s research indicates, you’ll eventually have to pay to reach just one person.

But there’s no need to worry about strategy in a system that charges for advertising. The world of business messaging before the Internet — advertising on radio, television, print, and billboards — offered zero organic reach and it was expensive. Companies had to make every second and every word count. And ads weren’t only costly to publish or air, they took a small fortune to make.

But the Internet is a much larger place with low barriers to entry and plenty of competition. Unlike broadcasting outlets, limited to a fixed number of over-the-air frequencies per market or bundled by cable and satellite operators, web media is less prone to the effects of artificial scarcity. Facebook knows it can’t raise prices willy nilly because supply can easily be created elsewhere. Still, marketing on the web will eventually cost something on social media platforms, but in terms of cost per thousand remains cheaper than using traditional media.

Therein lies the opportunity for marketers. I believe free marketing is actually a negative for campaigns. Just as the effectiveness of direct email is watered down by the large quantity of spam that users have to contend with, low and no budget campaigns are faced with launching messages into a sea of noise.

The dwindling organic reach on Facebook isn’t the end of the world but an open door. Armed with the knowledge of how media companies really operate, you have a head start in understanding how to develop content marketing strategies.

Media Realities

[1] The media business is still the media business, even on the Internet. Facebook is a media company. It attracts an audience and then sells the audience’s attention to advertisers and marketers.

[2] The Internet media environment is subject to an essentially limitless supply of communication and social media platforms and channels, which keeps advertising and marketing prices lower than in traditional media. This may change with new net neutrality rules, but for now this is what is.

[3] The bad news: there is no free lunch in reaching an audience. It’s been free in the beginning. Players like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, et. al., are only just figuring out how to monetize the audiences they attract.

[4] The good news: ad and marketing costs are a barrier to the vast majority of content-centric noisemakers. Plus, you don’t want to make cheap media in a strategy that if it doesn’t work there was nothing to lose.

[5] Users create Facebook’s content. Every word you write on a status update is content. Every person who reads your status update is a Facebook audience member.

[6] Every person who consumes something on Facebook belongs to Facebook’s audience, just as every person who watches a Chevy commercial on NBC belongs to NBC’s audience. As an advertiser or marketer, you’re just renting.

[7] The web has not disrupted storytelling. It has disrupted marketing. In traditional marketing you pay someone (like NBC, The New Yorker, etc.) to attract people with content they desire and then place your message in front of them. On the Internet you the content marketer are on the hook for creating media that attracts an audience.

[8] You attract an audience with real content not with ads, i.e., people are not attracted to media that tries to persuade them to buy a product, adopt a belief or divulge personal information.

Get Ahead of Conventional Wisdom

The dismay over Facebook’s moves to tap more revenue from marketers and small companies comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what the company is. But I think marketers can use the news of Facebook’s recent changes as a kind of trial balloon to improve their media intel.

“This is what happens when Facebook controls the signal and it defines you as noise,” goes the headline of one article about how Facebook mistreated businesses by changing its algorithm and charging for reach. And another online report defends Facebook page owners who, “worked hard to entice people to Like their Page.”

Eat24, an online food ordering business, wrote in a blog post gone viral, “You lied to us and said you were a social network, but you’re totally not a social network.” What kind of social network could they be referencing? Apparently, not one run as a business.
What eat 24 imagines
This, perhaps, is social media’s grand conceit. CEO titles like Head Mambo Teacher, Hustler, or Grand Poobah at some point in the future will elicit groans but for now they communicate, “we’re not about money, but being groovy and having fun.” It appears Eat24 buys into this image of a social network with the foosball table in the middle of the room and the company logo emblazoned on a surf board hanging from the ceiling. So, of course, what Facebook did was highly ungroovy and outrageous.

Facebook gave their value away to marketers in the beginning. It’s difficult to say it was by design. Mark Zuckerberg and his early team had only notions of how to make advertising work on the platform. But once you give something away unintentionally, it can be hard to take it back peacefully. The recipient is going to feel ripped off even though they paid little to nothing, with no formal agreement in place, to market on Facebook’s platform so that they could make money.

To you marketers, just know a significant number of people believe Facebook is somehow in the wrong. Even Valleywag, which loves to denigrate the tech crowd, fails to observe the bottom line and sides against the social network: “Facebook pulled the best practical joke of the internet age: the company convinced countless celebrities, bands, and “brands” that its service was the best way to reach people with eyeballs and money. Maybe it is! But now that companies have taken the bait, Facebook is holding the whole operation hostage.”


It’s your cue to move ahead with strategies that align with reality.

Jason Lopez


Content Marketing: What’s Wrong with Content-Centric Media Creation

The most crucial content strategy decision a company will make is whether to be content-centric or audience-centric. It determines the size of your audience before you even open a mic or turn on a camera.

Most companies adopt a content-centric model, which is to produce videos, audio shows, or what have you, and then seek an audience for it. No company purposefully tries to leave audience on the table. But the fine point is when a company talks about what it wants to talk about, audience size is inherently limited, generally to people who already embrace the messages. When a company finds out what people want, and talks about that, then the ship can leave the harbor to cast its net for a bigger audience.

Choices - content vs audience centric

Three of the Biggest Reasons Companies Adopt a Content-Centric Media Strategy

Assuming an Audience Behaves the Way Customers Behave

Companies study customer demographics, wants and needs, and employ this data to communicate the features and benefits of a product. These marketing messages aid and influence a buyer to purchase. But it’s a critical mistake to assume those messages are audience magnets and then fashion those messages into media content.

Customer data serves as poor intelligence to understand how to attract viewers and listeners. The reasons a person decides to buy and why they are attracted to content are very different. Massive amounts of audience research, conducted since the 1960s, have shown that audiences are most highly motivated by stories and depictions of people; and far less by ideas and things.

Assuming There Is Nothing to Lose

The rise of the Internet has handed marketers a practically free way to launch messages to the world. So, many content marketing budgets are miniscule. Content marketing is supposed to be cheap. Why spend on audience research and strategy? You make the media and then post it to see if anyone bites. If it only gets 200 views there’s always the next one.

Unfortunately, this misses out on exploiting the time-value of media, which is significant. It’s like renting a home rather than owning. While the content-centric model is cheap, it results in a series of one-off posts and fails to leverage the value of video and audio content over time. With each new piece of media you’re basically starting over to attract an audience.

However, in an audience-centric model the individual pieces of content are like Lego blocks which make up a whole greater than the sum of its parts. The media company strategy is to build a whole offering for an audience.

Assuming an Innate Understanding of What Other People Like

It’s hard to recognize just how much distortion exists in our own tastes. It’s not a big deal in our personal lives, but in terms of business, no media company driving bottom line revenue can financially sustain the failure rate of content created on the basis of personal tastes and hunches. Successful media companies revere what audiences think.

When a company favors the likes and dislikes of its marketers and executives over the audience’s, it risks creating an organizational acceptance of a lack of audience building which comes with a content-centric approach. The culture insulates itself from a professional practice of self testing and scrutiny because the company likes the media it produces even if the audience doesn’t.

 A Company’s Media Is a Product Just Like the Other Products It Makes

To put it in a series of unemotional factual statements, a media presentation, regardless of what it’s about, is a product. That product is composed of scripts, stories, transitions, editing, narration, personalities, intros, outros, music, etc.  It will either be a good product or a bad product. The producers will either make that judgment based on their opinion, or on the opinion of the intended customers. If they consistently rely on their own opinion they will attract fewer customers. If they use their customers’ opinion they will get more customers.

Steve Jobs once replied to a contentious question during a stage presentation, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you’re going to try to sell it.”

Jason Lopez



Content Marketing: Instilling An Audience-Centric Culture

Conte the movie

Creating media and posting it on the web is easy. Creating media to attract and hold someone’s attention is difficult.

It starts with knowing what people want. We know what people want, right? We know good content when we see it. If we like it then other people will, too.

Well, no.

Figure Out What Makes Them Dance

Leo Hindery, a legend in the TV business, once told me in an interview about the state of video on the web, “People think they are experts in what a good production is because they watch TV. They are experts. They’re experts in what they like. But they aren’t experts in what I like or you like or anyone else until they ask.”

Hollywood learned a long time ago there is an inherent disconnection between creators and audience – the gut instincts of movie executives and producers to predict box office success weren’t reliable enough. By the time The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind were made in the 1930s, movies were being tested in front of preview audiences. Today, testing and research has become a part of media culture in movie studios, broadcasting, cable, the music industry and even on Broadway.

For movie producers, radio and TV program directors, or music label marketers personal taste is essentially irrelevant. Songs, shows, movies, news programs and such are just product: like cheese, Frisbees or shoes. This is not to suggest media professionals don’t appreciate art. It’s show business. And whatever you are creating, whether it’s an avant-garde production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni or a one minute promo video for a mom & pops web page, if you are making media with the intention of attracting an audience you are in show biz, kid.

Time and again those who’ve learned how to make a living in media, preach being audience-centric (identify audience then make media). Guitarist and music business mentor Tom Hess implores new musicians to forget iconoclastic illusions. He writes that the first thing you need to do is “find and identify the people who you will give value to.” And in a book that explores more than the title suggests, How to DJ Right, Frank Broughton and Bill Brewster assert, “The whole point of DJing is that you interact with the people on the dance floor… your job is to get inside their heads and figure out what makes them dance.”

Dollarphotoclub_23600570 turntable

Can’t Afford Free Anymore

As journalist Tom Foremski observed every company is a media company. At first glance that obviously means any company creating media on the web, in order to be successful, must produce well made content.

Let me take you back where the sausage is made. The primary function of a media company is not to make content. Granted, media companies spend a significant portion of their resources on creation. They hire lots of creative people to produce text, images and sound. But regardless of these activities, without revenue the company would fail. A media company’s raison d’être is to sell an audience’s attention to advertisers or sell the content directly to an audience.

But let’s examine a non-media company like a maker of widgets. It wants to get its widget message out to as many people as possible. So, the company’s marketing department, armed with a shiny new website, makes content about widgets and then seeks people to read, watch or listen to it. This is a content-centric model: make media then find an audience.

There’s no need to sell advertising or charge a fee to the audience, because the company makes its money selling widgets. It finds out what the market needs and then manufactures widgets to fulfill that need. Why should it apply this business model to its media creation? The cost to make it is modest. With direct access to millions of people over the Internet and with a cheap microphone or camera the widget-maker can theoretically upload an unlimited amount of content.

Well, about eight years ago the mere process of making a video and uploading it was a great result in itself. It was free. However, through trial and error many marketers have realized they can’t afford free without an audience. Marketers are moving, some more quickly than others, toward being audience-centric. They eschew making media from their personal tastes or assumptions, but instead identify their target audience and “ask” the audience what it wants before ever turning on a microphone.

The web is full of content-centric media looking for an audience. Most of it is noise. But with a shift to an audience-centric model — i.e., treating content creation like a business — marketers can reach more people with media that’s actually valuable and builds brand awareness. In many organizations the shift from content-centric to audience-centric will require a cultural change, perhaps even a tectonic one.

Jason Lopez


From On Air to Online: A Social Media Story

Audio gear with icon 3

My foray into writing about and reporting on technology began in 1997 while I was working as a freelance radio reporter in San Francisco. A colleague knew I was looking for additional work and introduced me to a small marketing company in need of someone who could pitch stories to newspaper editors. They were handling a product from a Los Gatos company called SoloPoint.

The device essentially enabled the control of a phone via a personal computer. By today’s standards it was simplistic, but I was fortunate to have a phone call with an industry analyst to get better acquainted with it and learn about the lofty heights the SoloPoint technology road map pointed to. Our conversation drifted from the SoloPoint solution to the future of telephony – a future where cell phones would become mini computers more powerful than PCs at the time.

That experience led to covering technology for commercial news radio, starting a business news operation at KBZS-AM in San Francisco, and reporting for NPR for several years. Concurrently in 2005 my friend Tony Perkins, the founder of Red Herring magazine, had begun to develop his next project called AlwaysOn. I had been thinking of helping him with the online audio and video piece of the website, but Tony realized it might be awhile until it would be built. So, he introduced me to John Furrier who had started a company called Podtech.

John began doing audio interviews and blogging as a way to get noticed in the job market. But he has a keen sense for something that has “it” and realized there was more to online media than just posting interviews. He already had exerted a constructive influence on Mike Arrington’s early development of TechCrunch, and John saw the audio realm as something he could run with. When I joined Podtech at the end of 2005 he was courting venture capitalists to fund the expansion of his many ideas.

Originally I envisioned a platform for freelance journalists to create accounts, upload assets and work on stories. But it was Podtech’s marketing services (called Podtech Pro) for large clients that prospered. From 2006 to 2008 my team, made up of professional broadcast writers and reporters, developed several successful online content strategies for Silicon Valley clients. We were essentially an agency within Podtech while the greater company was tasked with coming up with the next hot Internet thing.

Podtech functioned like a social media laboratory. Robert Scoble seemingly interviewed every player in Silicon Valley and tried every device and app he could get his hands on. Jeremiah Owyang was imagining how social media could help companies work better together. Steve Gillmor as his unapologetic self saw social media’s proper role as gadfly. He created a video, interviewing’s CEO Marc Benioff among others, sprinkled with profanity. Steve showed he knew a lot more about edginess in media than anyone else in the company. Benioff later hired him.

Although Podtech received a lot of flack for some of its less-than-appealing video programs on its network, many of our 3rd party producers were nationally recognized writers and creators. Tom Foremski had been writing from Silicon Valley for the Financial Times when I had been reporting daily for NPR. We had never met in those capacities but at Podtech I heard him say, for the first time, “every company is a media company.” Larry Magid of CBS News radio, whom I had previously bumped into at technology events, began producing at Podtech. And I remember like it was this morning, John Furrier watching a Loren Feldman1938 Media” commentary and there in the offices of USVP on a beautiful California morning he called Loren to recruit him into the network. I don’t know why it sticks in my mind but perhaps it’s because of the effortlessness in Furrier’s ability to make those connections.

The talent at Podtech was, to use a very overused word these days but appropriate in this case, amazing. On my team: Michael Johnson, a production guru with NPR and a creative genius; Catherine Girardeau, a master storyteller who had been a lead producer at Antenna Audio in the Marin headlands (if you’ve ever used an audio tour in a museum anywhere in the world chances are you’ve heard her work); Paul Lancour, a media wizard from KQED-FM in San Francisco who can do anything in front of or behind the camera; Patrick Haynes, a videographer able to work with any equipment under any conditions and make professional images.

Taken at the RSA Conference in 2007, from front to back: Vera Yu, Catherine Girardeau, Jason Lopez, Patrick Haynes (r) and Michael Johnson (l).

Taken at the RSA Conference in 2007, from front to back: Vera Yu, Catherine Girardeau, Jason Lopez, Patrick Haynes (r) and Michael Johnson (l).

Kevin Edwards, our architect now at Connected Social Media, was on the Podtech software team and central to the platform. He had been the first graduate at NYU to earn dual degrees in film production and computer science, and had been one of the early hires at CNET. There’s a lot of conjecture on the web from web pundits about how social media works and what will happen, but Kevin sees it under the hood from the code to the actual download or page view. He’s like a designer who also rolls up his sleeves and works on the manufacturing floor. A little known fact about him: Kevin once worked for McDonnell Douglas on an assembly crew building passenger jets.

Darold Massaro, Connected Social Media’s President, grew up in Silicon Valley steeped in technology development. His father was a key figure in the creation of the 5.25 inch floppy disk drive at Shugart Associates, and then at Xerox persuaded the company to make an investment in Steve Jobs’ Apple Computer firm. At Podtech Darold was instrumental in establishing some order in the chaos of ideas, helping to clarify what the web was and was not disrupting and what the technology could and couldn’t do. As an example of how far the advances have come, Darold is running Connected Social Media from his boat as he and his family fulfill a life-long dream of sailing around the world.

And I wish I had the space to run down the list of the dozens of other very talented people involved in the serious pursuit of trying to understand the new concepts of social media. At Podtech we looked at media from just about every angle. We investigated just about every idea from audio blogging via phone to automated cloud-based video editing which probably requires artificial intelligence to pull off. John Furrier’s stock phrase was, “fail fast.”

There were numerous creative tensions in such a milieu of practice, theory, and entrepreneurship. In the end, however, creating the next online juggernaut was not to be. The VCs pulled funding, Podtech’s assets were sold, and the second incarnation of the firm failed, but not until a handful of us doing the agency work in Podtech Pro made a commitment to finish client projects without compensation. We wagered that we had developed enough trust with our client project managers they would stick with us on future initiatives. They did and Connected Social Media started business in 2009.

This blog is a collection of insights learned in my years in broadcasting as an on-air host, reporter, program director and station manager; and over the past 8 years immersed in social media in Silicon Valley at Podtech and Connected Social Media. I have more topics than I know what to do with but it’s my hope that I might help anyone who reads this blog and especially help prevent them from reinventing the wheel… or perhaps make an improved version of it.

Jason Lopez

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