Who is Your Podcast for? Defining Your Ideal Listener

Podcast listener woman with headphones and journal

I remember a time when network television in the U.S. was the worst: Really bland sitcoms with hokey jokes that didn’t really offend or interest anyone. TGIF, I’m looking at you. Those shows were designed to appeal to the masses who did not have a ton of content options.

But now there’s a TV show for everyone, and while these more niche shows have fewer viewers than the mainstream sitcoms of the ’80s and ’90s, they have fans who are often more loyal and passionate.

The same thing applies to the kinds of podcasts we create. We can’t be all things to all people. While it’s tempting to try and create a show that appeals to everyone -- and to want to be liked by everyone -- that leads to watered-down content that doesn’t really help anyone.

And trying to please everyone holds us back from being our true selves. When we think someone might judge us, we’re not as open about what we share. We overthink how a certain podcast episode or social media post will be received.

Sadly, no matter what we do, we will never be everyone’s cup of tea. Someone might not be interested in our topic. Or might just be a negative grump who don’t like anything. We don’t need to worry about the naysayers. We are not creating for them.

Instead of wasting our time trying to win over the wrong people, let’s focus our energy on the people who deserve it: our ideal listener, the person who is all-in on our message and community.  

What’s an ideal listener?

Business and marketing folks talk about customer ‘avatars’ or ‘personas.’ For podcasting, I think ‘ideal listener’ sounds a lot more human. This person is your super fan, the one you really want to serve.

When you’re speaking into the microphone, you’re talking to that one person. And use that language when you podcast: say ‘you’ rather than ‘you guys’ when you’re talking into the mic. You’re connecting with one person.

Why is defining your ideal listener important?

Understanding your super fan makes your podcasting life so much easier. It gives you a clear vision for the content on your podcast, on your blog, in your social media posts.

Everything you do is in service to that one person. Of course, your show will appeal to more than just your ideal listener, but this laser focus will bring out the uniqueness of your show and eliminate the confusion some podcasters feel when coming up with episode topics.

Having a specific audience can also help with brand collaborations and sponsorships. Most podcasters do not make any real money with traditional podcast advertising, which pays around $25 per 1,000 downloads per episode. If you’ve joined an advertising network, they will take a cut of that, and these networks and advertisers usually want you to have at least 5,000 downloads per episode before they will pay attention to you.

But you can be much smaller show and still attract sponsors if you have a niche podcast with a loyal fan base where you’re considered an influencer. There are other ways to make money podcasting, too, including promoting your own business or product and getting listenership support through something like Patreon. I’ll talk more about monetization in a future article.

How do I come up with my ideal listener?

Are we just making all of this up? In a way. Your ideal listener could be you. It could be you five years ago. It could be someone you know. It could be a TV character. It could be a complete invention.

When defining your ideal listener, go beyond the basic demographics of age, gender, occupation. Create a story about who this person is. What are their dreams? Where are they stuck? What kind of podcasts are they listening to?

For my travel podcast, Postcard Academy, my ideal listener is Amy.

Amy’s 36 and teaches English as a second language in Montana. And while she likes her job, it’s not her passion. She’s feeling stuck in her small town and wants to find a way to live in Italy, where she studied abroad for a semester during college. This is more than a dream for Amy: she’s taking action and evaluating ways she can start an online business to work from anywhere. She’ll drive an hour to spend an afternoon in a cozy bookstore so she can flip through information on global travel and how to live abroad (and she’ll take a sneak peek at the celebrity mags). While she’s jogging in the morning, Amy listens to a mix of ’80s pop, NPR, and podcasts about travel and world affairs. She loves history and walking tours and wants to learn to salsa. She’s not huge into social media, but you’ll find her on Instagram, seeking travel inspiration and sharing her passion for wine and Italian cooking.

So that is my ideal listener. Who is yours?

Where can I learn more about my ideal listener?

Once you’ve fleshed out who your one person is, go find real people who are similar to them. Join relevant Facebook Groups and other forums. What questions are they asking? What are they curious about? What are they struggling with?

Answer their questions. Be active in these groups. Tell people you’re starting, or that you have, a podcast and ask what kind of episodes they want to hear. A lot of Facebook Groups have rules against self promotion so just be careful about your wording; make sure what you post follows the rules and is in service to others.

To learn more about your ideal listener, you can also follow related blogs and YouTube channels. What is going on in the comments section? Ignore the unfortunate nasty comments that plague social media and pay attention to the relevant questions.

You can also join Meetup groups and other in-person events to engage with your ideal listener and tell people about your show.

What social media platform should I be on?

When it comes to social media, you don’t have to be everywhere. Choose one social platform to focus on, the one where your ideal listener is hanging out. Yes, share your content across other platforms but don’t kill yourself over creating the perfect caption and image for each one. Just be real and intentional. Show up. Listen to people. Respond to comments and share content your ideal listener wants to see, hear, and read.

In addition to serving as a guide for content creation, defining your ideal listener can also help you gage how long your episode should be and when you should release it.

If you make games for kids and want to start a podcast for busy moms who want quick tips on fun activities to do with her children, shorter shows make sense. If your ideal listener is a public policy junky and wants a weekly roundup of what’s happening in Washington, an hour-long roundtable could be your ideal listener’s favorite option.  

Your ideal listener might grow and change

You can revise your super fan’s description as you start learning more about your audience, what they want, and what you want. As your show grows, your listeners will start sending you feedback (though many podcasters wish they would hear from their listeners more often). You can survey them.

Dave Jackson from the School of Podcasting often throws out a question in his podcast; his listeners answer it via voicemail; and he weaves that into his show, which I think is a fantastic way to engage your audience. He knows who he is talking to.

Focusing your creativity on one person will attract a larger audience

One of my favorite podcasts is The Art of Manliness. Am I Brett McKay’s ideal listener? No, I am not. He has a business geared toward guys. But he has interesting guests on his show. He asks good questions. Even though I know this show wasn’t designed for me, I don’t feel excluded. And even though I’m not likely to purchase a ‘Stay Manly’ mug off his website, I tell other people they should listen to his show. And word of mouth is everything in podcasting.

To sum all of this up

Knowing your ideal listener keeps you focused but flexible, which I love. I once planned on doing a travel episode on Charleston, South Carolina, but then I learned the fascinating story about a slave named Nat Fuller. He became the most celebrated chef in Charleston during the Civil War, and when it ended, he organized an integrated Reconciliation Feast that brought black and white diners together for the first time. I decided to dedicate an episode to Nat’s story instead of travel recommendations about Charleston. I knew my audience would appreciate me taking this different path.

Knowing our ideal listener gives us the freedom to try new things and experiment.