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How Red Hat Hacked the Success of their Branded Podcast Using Audience Development

Marina Hanna, Marketing Lead, Pacific Content

When Brent Simoneaux, a Director of Content at Red Hat (and an ethnographer in a previous life) would sit down face-to-face with the people that use open source software created by Red Hat (now part of IBM), he discovered something critical: developers and sysadmins “do not like marketing or things that feel like marketing.”

Where does an audience insight like that leave Brent, or anyone with a content marketing career for that matter?

For Brent and his team, it led down a path that resulted in the sleeper hit Command Line Heroes, a podcast about the people who transform technology from the command line up, now in its eighth season. Looking back, Brent attributes their success to a decision they made early on. They decided to create something for a very specific audience. He reflects, “we didn’t try to go big and broad. We didn’t try to talk about ourselves as a company. At the end of the day, we made something for somebody.”

By the time this article is published, Command Line Heroes will have been downloaded 4 million times, in more than 200 countries and territories (including Antarctica!) From the data collected, we can see that half of the audience had no previous experience with the brand.

But how did they get there? There are no real quick tips and tricks to making a good show. To put it more accurately: No quick tip will fly without first establishing a solid audience development strategy.

I checked in with our head of audience development at Pacific Content, Dan Misener, to understand what role audience development plays in developing a successful podcast (particularly in the case of Command Line Heroes, since Dan was there from the very beginning).

In that spirit, I’d like to present three questions to contemplate for any brand storyteller who is thinking about creating a podcast. Take your time with these questions and answer them as authentically and accurately as you can.

Who will your podcast serve?

This is the single most important question that a brand can ask itself before creating a new podcast. Dan told me that what Red Had did incredibly well was to start from a place of deep understanding: “They understand software developers, IT architects, sysadmins. What makes them tick?”

What does the existing podcast landscape look like?

Something Dan likes to do early on in a strategy session (and sometimes just for fun) is taking a dive deep into a podcast category. In this particular case, Dan and the Red Hat team took a closer look at the technology category and listened to a bunch of shows that were made for developers.

Dan recalls that “a lot of those shows were ‘this week in software development’ style shows featuring two dudes talking about fairly nerdy technical things.” These shows were light on the story. Mostly interview or chat-style with not a lot of production value. Both Dan and the team from Red Hat agreed that they would avoid making another one of these shows.

What is the show that you are uniquely suited to make?

Know thyself. Brent and co. not only had a good sense of their brand but also their audience. “I really have to give a lot of credit to the Command Line Heroes team because prior to creating this podcast, they spent hours and hours speaking directly to software developers at conferences, at meetups, and interviewing them for the comics and coffee program that they ran,” says Dan.

This was a show that only they could make because no one understood open source software developers like they do.

Maybe it was the ethnographer in Brent that made him want to know what makes people, or in this case, developers, who they are. And after so many interviews, he reveals that “you start to see and recognize those moments where people light up… And you know when you see that often enough that’s something that you can make a podcast about.”

Beyond being able to answer these three fundamental audience development questions, Red Hat made many more smart decisions about Command Line Heroes. Dan points out that “they have amazing product packaging. The visual identity for the show is wonderful and keeps evolving season after season.” They also recruited an amazing host, Saron Yitbarek, who is herself an incredible software developer.

Audience Development factors into each and every step of a show’s life.

There was a long pause after I asked Dan the question: ‘How does audience development factor into the life of a show?’

It was a tough question for him to respond to simply because as he sees it, “It's like air, or if I was a fish, it's water.”

Even after a show launches, audience development has a role to play when it comes to deciding on season themes, what stories to tell, what guests to book, and so on. According to Dan, his team can “help make those decisions in part by looking at what has performed well in the past.”

It ties into measurement. Looking at what stories really resonated with listeners in one season will factor into how a show is produced in the next season.

It also ties into marketing and promotions. After you have put all that work into creating a great show, Dan asks, “How do we ensure that the greatest number of people in that target market of software developers, sysadmins, IT architects know that the show exists and why they might want to sample it?”

An audience development strategy will guide you in making decisions on the earned and paid media fronts.

But, what is this all for? And, how do you know if you’ve done the job you have set out to do with your podcast?

We know that millions have downloaded the Command Line Heroes podcast and that half of the listeners were not previously engaged with Red Hat in any way.

Dan says that he looks at brand lift. “Did Command Line Heroes change people's opinion when it comes to Red Hat as a brand?” From the brand lift study conducted by Signal Hill Insights, we know that the show “has been an incredible boon to the Red Hat brand. People think more favorably about Red Hat for having listened to Command Line Heroes.”

If you reached this point, you might be realizing that making a show is a lot of work. And, that the show isn’t really about you, though it does reflect your values.

What’s incredible is something Brent points out. They were able to accomplish what they wanted with a very light brand touch. The name Red Hat is only mentioned twice in every episode. It's at the top, and at the bottom of the show: “This is Command Line Heroes, an original podcast from Red Hat.”


“We wanted to just form a relationship [with our audience]. Give them something that we hoped that they would love, you know… just a gift to this really big group of people.”


About Marina Hanna

Marina Hanna is the brand marketing lead at Pacific Content. She also programs films for the Reelworld Film Festival and has previously worked with TIFF, Tribeca Film Festival, and The Gotham.


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