PumaPodcast CEO Carl Javier thinks podcasters should think about community engagement from the start. He’s found that audiences are thirsty for connection with their favorite podcasts and fellow listeners.
Carl Javier arrived in the world of podcast production after a journey through creative writing, teaching, journalism, book and comic book publishing, the NGO sector and even bartending at the bookstore/bar he co-founded. He’s now the CEO of PumaPodcast, an award-winning podcast production company in the Philippines founded at the end of 2018. Puma has become an influential player in the Southeast Asian podcasting landscape.
The company, which produces around 50 podcasts, had a big win recently. It took the top spot on Apple for news in the Philippines, beating out big players like the BBC, the Economist and other foreign producers. PumaPodcast shows have been charting internationally as well and they’ve started collaborations with other producers in the region.
Part of the company’s success, Carl says, is their emphasis on community engagement. They’ve done the research, conducted focus group discussions, and found that interaction is extremely meaningful to audiences. It builds connections, which builds loyalty and support. And it allows podcasters to learn how to present stories in ways that audiences really care about.
DW Akademie: Your professional background is very diverse, including work with the printed word and with images, like comic books. How does this history play into your success with a medium where the focus is not on the visual?
Carl Javier: Given my experience with different media, understanding how the brain responds to each medium has become an obsession. I'm trained as a fiction writer but can navigate different artistic media because I pay close attention to their differences. The beauty of audio and what I do at PumaPodcast is totally different from comic books. I’m forced to confront an artistic medium that deprives me of the thing that I have been so good at.
Why do you think it’s important that podcasters think about community engagement?
Well, I didn't believe in community at the start. I was very old school. I thought ‘I will create this beautiful art and it will get to people.’ But we started working with Splice Media out of Singapore and they told us that we needed to ask our audience things and that that audience will support us because they want us to succeed. You know, podcasters are often introverts. They’d prefer to be in a corner editing and writing and doing research, and they don't want to be in front of people. But then we found out that when we talked to our audience, we did focus group discussions and just hung out with them, the interaction was really meaningful to them.
And that surprised you?
We were podcasters and we thought our audiences came to us because they love audio. But that's not always true. They come to us because we’re making content they want to engage with. It just happens to be a format that fits into their lives. The most important thing is that we’re engaging them.
We ask ourselves: how do we present stories in a way that our audience cares about them? Because then, you know, it empowers, guides and informs them. And more importantly, it makes them want to share our content so that the audience grows and creates meaningful engagement, which in the long run leads to meaningful social change. That’s our grand plan, but we can only make an impact if we are properly engaging our audiences.
What does this engagement bring to the audience and the producers?
We’re looking for opportunities to connect with people and each show has its own potential touch point. For example, with the news we're trying to figure out the best channel through which we can have very immediate conversations with our audience. Every week we used to have a session on Twitter Spaces talking about something in the news. During elections here, people needed a safe space to have conversations, and we would facilitate that. I think one of the most meaningful moments that we ever facilitated was right before the elections. People talked openly about their anxieties. At one point a father of young children talked about what he hoped for and the kind of country he would want his children to grow up in. He had like this real connection with the rest of the audience and people started cheering. In general, our audiences are looking for places where they can engage, and I think they turned to us as people who can provide the context.
Does community engagement affect the monetization and sustainability of the podcast?
That’s definitely going to be a path. For example, we are effectively able to monetize certain shows because we can go to sponsors and show them the kind of audience we’re reaching. We're able to show that our podcasts reach specific key demographics that sponsors are interested in. We have a show called Go Hard Girls about women in sports. In 2019, it was the only one. We were able to go to brands who were seeing that the market was shifting toward women. We were at the forefront of showing what women's sports journalism could be. And we could engage with brands who wanted to be a part of that story.
The Mabuting Maki event gathered the PumaPodcast audience to celebrate reaching one million listens
What are some other ways you are going about engagement?
We may be one of the first companies to have an “audience engagement executive”, and she has a team under her. The very obvious thing they work on is social media content in different formats. But we try to be creative, like putting up a crossword based on the podcast, all kinds of things that will pop up on Instagram that people can sort of have fun with. I have a podcast about the future of work, and we've done live sessions on LinkedIn. So, each show has their own kind of interesting engagement points. I also do a guitar show. When we were emerging from the pandemic and restrictions were being lifted, we rented out a recording studio and had an open jam for guitarists. Last year we did a gig that was a concert but also featured a poetry reading and art. We try these different ways that we think will get people to interact with our content.
Who exactly are people interacting with at these events? The podcasters?
For one, they want to interact with us. We’ve held focus group discussions and found that people want to hang out with us, which was very weird for us introverts. So basically, we hosted an afternoon hangout meeting. And at the end of the official event, people hung out with each other longer, and some of them wound up going to gigs together that evening. People want to connect with other people listening to the podcasts they love. They’re looking for us, but they're also looking for each other.
When should podcasters start thinking about these creative ideas around engagement? Is it important that you have an established audience already or should you start with engagement from the very beginning?
We always consider the type of content a show has and then build out an engagement strategy around that. So, our Twitter Spaces were built around talking about news stories from a news podcast. The guitar jam provided people who’d never played guitar with other people a safe space. It’s funny, one of the guys who came had zero experience playing with other people. But he'd written songs during the pandemic. So, he showed up and suddenly felt like he had locked into a community. It was great to see. So, you can’t necessarily determine the kind of experience you're creating, but you’re making a platform for those experiences. And you see what happens.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.