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Making "Calls to Action" Work

If you read many “how-to” podcast articles, or–like me–have entered the endless loop of how-to-podcast podcasts, you’ll see the same advice over and again about calls to action: Focus on one. It could be “subscribe in iTunes” or “follow us on Twitter,” or “tell us what you think about xyz,” but it should be only one so you get a critical mass behind it. And while I sympathize with the desire to move away from the ubiquitous podcast outro:


I think this advice is actually solving for a problem that doesn’t exist. Or at least is fundamentally misunderstanding the problem of audience engagement.

No One Has the Answer

I’ll be the first to admit audience engagement is a slippery beast, and the last to claim to have slayed it. A recent poll from the Reuters Institute Digital News Project showed that only about half of digital publishers even felt like they had a common definition of what audience engagement means within their organizations (there’s a good breakdown of the poll here). If you don’t have an agreed-upon definition for engagement, how do you measure it? How do you know if you’re even doing it well? How do you craft calls to action when you don’t even agree what that action would mean in the end?

And if you look further at those numbers, publishers aren’t sure what constitutes “engaged”: Is it social shares, page views, comments? The answer, to my mind, is that there’s no one size fits all, and this is how it should be. Despite the “one-call-to-action-to-rule-them-all” mantra of the how-tos, they key to audience engagement is actually multiple points of entry for a diverse audience to respond to that call.

Different Strokes

At this point, I need to give a huge shout-out to my friend Jennifer Brandel, a public-radio-producer-turned-entrepreneur whose startup Hearken is transforming how newsrooms think about engagement. When I was starting The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian, I called her up and in one short phone call she reoriented/fixed my thinking on all of this. You can read some of her and her colleagues’ thoughts on this topic at their Medium feed.

The fact is you need to be ready for an audience with varying habits and comforts with various online communication tools. You are going to have listeners who love your show but for whatever reason won’t go further than subscribing in iTunes or liking a Facebook page. And then you’re going to have listeners who want ways to get their ideas to you—via Twitter, Facebook, email—but don’t have the time, inclination or personality to record themselves for you. And finally you’re going to have the super-engaged: the people who will not only want to to call in, record a clip for you, answer a riddle, etc., but who wouldn’t really engage if you didn’t give them that outlet to get excited about.

This is basic human nature, and it’s basic tiny human nature, too. We all know there are quiet kids who suddenly sing Beyoncé when put in front of a mic, and chatterboxes who freeze up when the camera comes out, and a spectrum in between.

The goal with calls to action should be to hear from all of those types, in whatever way is most comfortable for them.

So while I understand wanting to avoid the deluge of audience asks at the end of an episode, I think it’s important to acknowledge that every listener will hear something different in those calls. If you’re truly wary of that, make sure you have a robust contact page on your site, and direct your audience there. It takes some experimentation, and a bit of tracking to see what’s working, but it’s worth it.

Next time: Moving from Calls to Action to Calls to Community


Jonathan Messinger writes and produces The Alien Adventures of Finn Caspian, and is the author of the short-story collection Hiding Out.

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