How to Grow a Podcast: Lessons from Over 8 Million Downloads

For five years, I led the team responsible for producing and growing the Shopify Masters podcast, which is (obviously) owned by Shopify. When I left, the podcast had earned over 8 million downloads, with hundreds of thousands of listeners per month.

Our producer ran the show, sourced all of the guests, organized our production workflows, and ran all of our experiments—she’s the real star of the show! In that time, we learned a lot about what actually grows an audience and what doesn’t. The best lessons come through mistakes, failed experiments, and a little bit of scar tissue.

If you’re looking to learn how to grow your podcast, this post reveals never-before-shared lessons from my time working on one of the world’s most popular podcasts for entrepreneurs and small business owners. Here are the top lessons we learned.

1. Define what your show brings to the table

One of the easiest ways to derail a successful show is to lose your sense of why people (should) listen in the first place.

Our most challenging decisions around growth came from the fact that, early on, we hadn’t sat down and laid out in plain language what made our show unique and special—and why people tuned in every single week. We just took that information for granted, and when it came time to develop new styles, experiments, and series, there was a lot of arm-chair debate on what felt “on brand” or not.

We could have saved ourselves a ton of headache—and you can do the same—by getting specific about what our show was, what value we wanted readers to get, and, just as important, what we were going to avoid.

“What we are” and “what we aren’t,” with specific examples, is a great place to begin. This is sort of like the unique selling proposition for your show; the reason why someone would subscribe and give you hours of their time over another show covering the same topic.

Once you’re able to express this in clear language—and source feedback from listeners who validate what you’re saying is true—the steps you can take to grow your show become much more obvious. Are people tuning in to get tactical advice, personal narratives, or deep investigations? You won’t know how to invest in or improve your show if you can’t answer that question.

2. Source the most interesting guests you can

Guests and their stories are the X-factor for every podcast. This seems obvious to say, but I’ve seen plenty of showrunners get caught up in the many other tactics for growing their show to the detriment of their guest quality.

We have tried so, so many non-content experiments to grow the podcast, and none of them mattered as much as experimenting with various guests, interview prep, or story angles from certain guest segments. In podcasting, it really is all about the content. Someday, I’ll tell you about the time we spent thousands of dollars on Spotify ads just to drive 50 clicks to our show.

But I hear you, “get interesting guests” is about as novel as “eat your vegetables.” The thing is, it’s just as true—both things are the foundation for success, even if they’re obvious. That said, there are a number of approaches to sourcing guests that I would consider for almost any show. Here are a few that worked for us:

A. Big names: Yes, they really do work (sometimes)

Influential guests and celebrity names can drive a lot of downloads, but honestly, it’s no guarantee. One mistake we made was banking too much on someone’s current platform and exposure versus whether they were a perfect fit for our audience or had a story that fit our podcast’s style and subject matter. Yes, this approach works, but don’t compromise your show for a big name—that won’t work and jeopardizes your show’s reputation.

B. ‘Just like me’: The power of a role model

One episode style that surprised us was no-name business owners driving more downloads than famous entrepreneurs. It seemed like the common factor was that the best-performing “Average Jane/Joe” episodes featured stories that really spoke to the motivation of our own listeners. For us, that meant interviews that dealt with failure, personal motivations for starting a business, entrepreneurship as a form of personal freedom, and people who overcame significant challenges. In short, people who felt like role models, whose accomplishments felt relevant to our listeners and personally meaningful. Who is the equivalent role model for your audience?

C. Hidden secrets: Is it the angle, or the story?

For our show, we had to get really deliberate about whether the main draw of a guest was a specific hook or bit of experience they could share or whether their story and personality was enough to carry the show.

For the former, we soon learned that somewhat uncharismatic guests could drive a lot of downloads if it felt like they had a “secret” to share. Put another way, anyone with hard-won experience and a strong hook could overcome the lack of a compelling personal story. But it essentially had to be one of the other: secret information, or a sensational story.

It’s worth considering what spectrum your podcast operates on. Usually, the worst of both worlds is to land somewhere in the middle of your spectrum—wherever that is. It’s better to know which distinct angles work best on your show and to nudge guests in that direction based on what you know about them rather than to let the conversation cover too much ground and dilute the episode.

3. Reinvest profit to improve your processes

The best way to invest any profit you make from your show is into the production process. There are, I’m sad to say, marginal returns to get from improving production quality for most shows, but there’s a much higher ceiling for improving the process that guides how your show gets produced.

Once our show started getting traction, we hired a number of key contract positions to take non-critical work, the “undifferentiated heavy lifting,” off our plates so we could focus on guiding and growing the show. Here are some areas where hiring gave us a positive return:

  • Editing. We listened to every episode before sending things over to our editor, but I’m sure once you’ve built rapport and worked with the same editor over time, you could even outsource this step. We used tools like Descript and Frame to add feedback and comments on episodes while also giving our editor room to make editorial decisions.
  • Mixing and engineering. This is probably the first area where you should look to outsource work unless you enjoy doing this yourself. Hiring a professional audio engineer unlocked both a noticeable step up in quality while also saving us plenty of time fixing audio issues.
  • Transcripts and descriptions. We published what we called Transcripts+ to our company blog along with the episode itself—these were short and concise summaries of the episodes formatted like a typical blog post. We also had the same person handle writing descriptions for the various podcast platforms where the show was hosted.
  • Branding and graphics. Creating and updating our tile, along with the visuals we used for our companion written pieces, required graphic design work that we didn’t have time for. So we sourced a designer to create custom images for each episode.

You can also get help in sourcing and preparing research for guests before they appear on the show. However, since we had already saved so much time with the work above—and since guests are such a critical component of a successful show—we kept a lot of this work in-house. We were able to deeply prepare for guests and spend time on the story because so much of the production process had been streamlined.

4. Produce a series for a step change growth

Producing a series is not a guaranteed way to drive downloads and listeners—no individual tactic is, honestly. But our most successful experiment for changing the trajectory of our month-over-month growth in downloads was investing in producing our first running series.

The series interviewed the co-founder of Bushbalm on how he ran his business and his experience throughout multiple stages of the journey: everything from initial product development to growing the team. The first episode over-performed, and we saw strong retention with people coming back to download future episodes.

The value of a good series is that it provides a hook and a form of consistency that makes it more compelling to come back and revisit a show. “If I like one, I’ll probably like the others” is a really powerful internal monologue to build with your listeners, and it’s why consistency has its place in a format like podcasting.

But a series does bring its own risk: it’s a higher level of investment compared to any individual episode, so if the series doesn’t land with your audience, you may end up spending a lot of time and resources on a dud. One way to circumvent this is to litmus test a series with a single initial episode and not make too many promises—if the first episode flops, you can leave it be and get back to your normal schedule. But if it lands, you can head right into development.

About the author: Gregory Ciotti is the executive editor on Shopify’s communications team, working on projects like Shopify Magazine. Before that, he led content marketing on Shopify’s growth team. Greg is a fan of simple websites, spicy food, and writing that’s clear as a country creek.

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