In the 14+ years we’ve been making The Changelog podcast, it has never gone viral.
We’ve had popular episodes and not so popular episodes. We’ve made episodes we love and episodes listeners love. But we’ve never had a viral moment like Elon Musk smoking weed or Jeff Bezos talking Blue Origin on our show.
I’m not here to complain about that!
We’ve had tons of success with our shows and I’m super grateful that we get to make awesome developer pods for a living. I do think the fact is interesting, though, and worth exploring. Hopefully this exploration is an encouragement to other folks who record deep conversations for niche audiences like we do.
To debug why our podcast has never gone viral, we should troubleshoot both the content and the medium. And since I’m a firm believer that the bug is almost always in your own code, let’s start with the content.
Content is king 👑
This seems obvious, but sometimes it’s worth stating the obvious. If you want people to share your content you have to make something worth sharing. And if you want people to spread it hockey stick style 📈, it needs to be so good they just have to share it. Do we do that on The Changelog? In my biased opinion: sometimes…
Why we 💚 Vim reaches that quality threshold. A protocol for dying reaches it too. I could list more of our best episodes, but you get the point. However, do we reach that quality threshold on a weekly basis? No we don’t. I’m not sure we could if we tried.
A good example of a podcast that hits quality out of the park with pretty much every episode (and I see people sharing often) is Darknet Diaries, but Jack is making a different show than we are. A monthly, highly-produced story is not a weekly interview show. And we make a weekly interview (and news and talk) show.
The way interview shows often go viral is via the stature of their guest. I mentioned Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in the opener because these are exactly the kind of celebrities whose interviews go viral and exactly the kind of guests we don’t have on The Changelog. Our show is polyglot, but we are still in a niche (software) of a niche (technology).
“Celebrities” in our world have names like Kernighan, Hipp & Metz. These are not household names! The only person we’ve ever had on the show that our families knew about prior was Jack Dorsey. Again, not complaining! I’m just highlighting the difference between the show we want to make vs shows that goes viral.
The medium is the message 📡
Long-form, on-demand audio is excellent for consumption because it doesn’t require your full attention. Video and text both ask you to stare at them, reducing the rest of the world to a blur. Podcasts are complementary to life. You can listen to a podcast while you mow your lawn, drive your car, exercise, do the dishes, walk the dog… the list goes on!
But podcasts just aren’t easy to share, for a few reasons.
1️⃣ First, the best parts of a podcast are often somewhere in the middle of the episode. Tools have been created for clipping podcasts and many apps & websites like ours support deep linking to a specific timestamp of an episode, but none of that is easy. AI is supposed to solve this problem for us, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
2️⃣ Second, the complementary nature of audio means you’re rarely in sharing mode when consuming. I’m not going to stop my workout when I have the urge to share something right after I’ve heard it, for example, and by the time I’ve finished working out I’ve long forgotten the urge, let alone the location in the episode that I previously deemed shareworthy.
3️⃣ Finally, the open and diverse nature of podcasting (which we love!) means there isn’t a singular/central platform that could grease the sharing skids. A re-post on X is a re-post on X is a re-post on X. A share on Apple Podcasts will not translate to Spotify or YouTube Music.
I don’t think we’re going to solve this problem any time soon, which is why we began reformatting parts of our audio in to (sometimes viral) blog posts and (sometimes viral) videos. Example! Me talking about this very subject on a recent episode of our talk show:
So, is the medium to blame or is our content to blame? Probably some of both. Would I love to fix this problem? Of course! But do I lose sleep over it at night? Absolutely not.
There’s more than one way to measure impact
I say all that to say this. You can think about impact two ways: breadth and depth
Breadth of impact
Virality is all about breadth of impact: your content reaching as many people as possible as fast as possible. This feels great and is easy to measure, because the social media platform owners want you to know the audience you are gaining by posting on their platforms.
Unfortunately, virality rarely offers depth of impact.
People view your viral thing, consider it for a moment, maybe pass it on, then they’re off to the next thing. I created scores of viral memes over the years on the old Twitter. How many of those do people still remember? Maybe two. This one and this one. (I know, because they’re practically the only ones I remember! 😆)
Besides, is “I remember that” the bar for how you want to impact someone’s life?
Depth of impact
Depth is an entirely different beast than breadth. It’s opposite in many ways: slow to attain & difficult to measure. But impacting someone’s life in a deep way is incredibly fulfilling. Podcasts (especially long-form interviews & conversations like ours) are an excellent medium for depth of impact, for a couple reasons:
1️⃣ First, your produced audio goes directly in people’s ears. That’s about as intimate a form of communication you will ever get with a stranger. Deep connection!
2️⃣ Second, since people consuming podcasts are often doing other things, they have more time to consider what is being said than when they’re doom scrolling X or flicking through TikToks. Deep thoughts!
3️⃣ Third, people listen to podcasts habitually. You weave your way into their lives and accompany some of their favorite activities. This is weird when you think about it, but we’ve heard from listeners who walk their dog with us, take roadtrips with us & shower (yes, shower) with us. That’s deep!
The depth-first approach
Our podcast has never gone viral. It’s been slow and steady growth over the course of many years. But that’s okay with me, because I’ll take depth over breadth any day.
A note to podcast listeners
If you listen to a podcast that has affected your life in a profound way, please let them know about it!
- Did they help you make a career choice?
- Did they expose you to a new technology you now use/love?
- Did they inspire you to start something new?
It only takes a few minutes to shoot them an email and thank them for their work and it means so much to the podcaster. Trust me, we’ve received so many nice notes over the years and they really do provide us with fuel to keep doing what we do.
A note to potential podcasters
Would you rather impact many people in a shallow way or a few people in a deep way? I’m not saying you have to choose one or the other, but if you did have to… which would you choose?
If the answer is breadth, then podcasting is probably not for you. I’d suggest starting a social media account instead.
If the answer is depth, then podcasting may be for you. But! It’s going to take time and it’s going to take dedication. You won’t always be able to feel your impact. There won’t be some stat in some app that shows it. But every once in awhile, you might get an email from a listener who took the time out of their busy life to write you about how you’ve impacted it in a positive way. And that will make it all worth your while.