Zane Ewton has created internal podcasts to make every employee feel heard at work, currently for The Villages. Interested? Don’t stop here.
On The Inside is an interview series highlighting internal podcasters around the globe. While many of them are hidden behind company walls, we ask them about their podcasting journey. Why do they use the power of podcasts internally? How did they get started? Any lessons learned they want to share? And to be fully transparent here: Not all named people and companies in this series are Pager customers.
Zane, how did your internal podcasting journey start? I've been doing internal podcasts for about five or six years. Back then, we were launching a new employee app. It was an excellent opportunity to start podcasting, creating unique and exclusive content, and getting people on the app. That was the initial push to go ahead and get started finally.
Have you been doing the podcasting work alone or with a small team? At a previous company, I worked with co-hosts (shout out to Michelle Buchanan and Katie Curtis), and we collaborated on content and planning. At the same time, I took care of the technical aspects. Two years ago, I joined a different company and did all the production as a one-person show.
So you have introduced internal podcasts at multiple companies by now? Yes.
Awesome! Back then, did you already consume podcasts? Yeah, I absolutely did. That was one of the things that first got me interested in creating podcasts for internal communications. And the podcasts you listen to influence what you will make. So, in the beginning, I liked podcasts with two people having a conversation. Simple shows like that made me think I could do the same for our employees.
What did employees enjoy more? The raw conversations or heavily produced episodes? People like a little bit of both. It depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. In the first podcast series, we did a brief intro that led into a conversation (about 15-20 minutes) with a subject matter expert, and we’d come back at the end to recap and tease the next episode. My production values consisted of getting a clean interview, editing out most of the ums and ahs, and then dropping it between intro and outro music. Our focus was on people and their passion for what they do and why they do it. It was a simple premise, but people enjoyed it. The best feedback I got from that podcast was from an employee saying: “Hey, I listen to it every month, and I enjoy it. It’s quick, and I always learn something new.” And that was just what we wanted to achieve. Since then, I’ve tried a couple of different formats. I did a limited series with five or six episodes. I built in more production value, and I wasn’t the host. I coached another employee as the host. The limited series was a lead-up to Veterans Day here in the US because we had a lot of military veterans as employees. So we had them discuss some issues about transitioning from the military to the workplace.
It sounds like you always involve employees in your shows … Yes, that was always our goal. From the beginning, I had a list of what I hoped to accomplish with a podcast. Right at the top was giving a voice to employees. Employees have been my focus. I always wanted to feature and work with employees—especially those working at the frontline.
Interesting! I recently researched how you can engage desk-less workers with a podcast. I learned that many don’t even have a corporate email address. Have you found any challenges around podcast distribution? How did you reach them? It’s tough. That’s a big question in general, not just for internal podcasting. When we launched the new employee app, we focused on getting non-desk employees on the app. When I worked for an electric utility, many of our employees were linemen. They were in trucks heading all over the state of Arizona. They were anywhere but at a desk reading emails. I’ve learned that an employee app can be a fantastic resource, but it can also be an uphill climb to get people onto the app. You don’t have all the circumstances in your favor because people want to avoid downloading an employee app to a personal device. Or they need to learn what a podcast is first. At my current company, we’ve also launched an employee app because most employees are not at desks. We have lots of employees who don’t have smartphones. So there are still a lot of hurdles to work through in employee communications. Channels won’t fix everything, unfortunately.
What would make your life easier with reaching the people you want to reach? The challenge is keeping an internal podcast private because you depend on the internal channels, which are rarely made for audio. And HR or Legal teams usually want to keep a podcast internal rather than share it externally. So you cannot publish content to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever employees go for their favorite podcasts. You’re just trying to find relevant and interesting hooks to get people listening. And as funny as it sounds, podcasting is one of the things I’ve noticed in employee comms that really benefits from a grassroots approach. It grows from a grassroots perspective much more than any other type of content we create, more than our videos and written content. It takes time and a regular release schedule to make employees internal podcast fans. Maybe they listen to one or two episodes, and only the third time, they are hooked and tell a friend at work. It takes time, but you start getting people engaged through the content. Ideally, it becomes more of a conversation between the employees and us. That is the cool thing about doing audio content: There is a little more loyalty to it because there is more intimacy in the connection between people. You don’t get that with many other content types we create. Apparently, there is actual science that would support my claims.
Internal peer-to-peer marketing goes a long way to promote episodes, right? Oh, absolutely. We always tell our guests to share their episodes with their work friends and leaders. Many employees get excited when we invite them to the podcast because it's not as intimidating as being on video. And a little bit of celebrity goes with it, too. We keep it fun and approachable. It's one of those things that I've noticed employees are more comfortable sharing with their work friends. And we even get asked if they can share it with their families at home. So again, you can feel the excitement on their side, and that helps to promote the content we create.
With podcasts, you can give everyone a voice. Is that, like hearing a story directly from an employee, the real power of an internal podcast? I think it really is. That's where the magic happens with it. I was in a workshop on podcasting a few weeks ago. Someone was talking about the science behind hearing someone's voice, like, right through the headphone in your ear. There is this level of intimacy. And they used the word intimacy, which was interesting, and you realized how true that is. And when you have someone's voice in your ear, you do feel closer to that person. When we can give those frontline employees a chance to share what they're doing, you can feel their passion for their work. It breeds a lot of excitement about what's going on and their work. And it's hard not to get caught up in that.
It’s true! You can’t get much closer than speaking right into the ear. Yeah. I like to use the example of my first podcast series that I did. It focused on the frontline employees doing the cool work just below the radar and not getting the big campaign push internally and externally. But it’s the work that you hear rumblings about. Letting them share stories from their work brings excitement not only to them and also offers a learning component for each listener.
Did you have any goals? What did you measure? So far, I've published internal podcasts through our employee apps. Therefore, keeping track of a podcast's progress has also been tied to those apps. The challenge is that there needs to be better analytics for audio content. It's hard to tell how many people listen to an episode beyond page views. And so, we always had to focus more on qualitative feedback directly from employees. How we measure the success of a podcast is more based on the conversations we're having with the audience rather than tracking numbers only, which is really cool. But sometimes, you need those numbers to show how a podcast is performing and set some goals for the future. It's been a hurdle to have definite analytics behind it. More analytics would be available if we'd publish in another way, with Pager, for example. I know that. It's one of the drawbacks so far from the approach we've taken with using employee apps.
I get it. If a company and its culture are built around numbers and stats, you need them and benchmarks to define success for your internal podcast. But I also root for qualitative feedback from employees because if an episode is a conversation starter beyond the podcast, that’s success and engagement, too, even though it’s harder to measure. Yes, I wish employee communicators were more comfortable leaning into some of that feedback and the qualitative information they're getting back because we rely so much on the numbers, which is good. I know there's value to that, but there's so much more, and it's so much more human when you have people responding in a real way, and they're not just listening, clicking the like button, and moving on. Our content sparks action, and that's what we want. Capturing that better will only help support the argument for audio content in internal comms.
We talked about engagement. Wouldn't the ultimate employee engagement look different, like employees starting internal podcasts? What's your take on this more decentralized way of internal podcasting? I would love to see that. And I would love to reach a point where I could help employees develop audio content, be more comfortable speaking, and do it in a way that fits their schedule because there's a ton of value to that. If they wanted to do something just for their team or department, that could be phenomenal. That could work great for them and help them connect, learn, and grow. Maybe there's something that they want to create and share with other teams. There are so many different things you can do with employee podcasting. What's tricky about that approach is the same reason why many internal comms pros don't get started: They think there's more to it than there is. So there's that analysis paralysis before they start creating audio content. So it's the same for frontline employees. They express interest and want to do an internal podcast but already have the job and other responsibilities. So yes, it's about finding the right person with lots of excitement and commitment to creating audio. That would be phenomenal to see.
It's the classic question of do we keep employees engaged or do they engage each other. The latter would mean moving from top-down to peer-to-peer (audio) communications within the workplace. Audio content and internal podcasting appeal to highly-engaged employees. They're leading the employee resource groups. They're interacting with all of your content. They're reading the newsletters. They're consuming everything just because they love what they do. It's as if they're plugged into the company. They want to do well, and we want to keep them happy. Those people are essential. So let's give them all the resources and support to keep them focused and engaged because that helps with retention. But also, as they're doing all that, they can inspire other employees.
More internal comms people start internal podcasts. But many still prefer writing. What's your explanation of why internal comms champs hesitate to create one? I was right there. I was not comfortable with the sound of my voice. I could hear it when recording interviews at the beginning, just how much confidence I lacked. I have a journalism background and am very much behind the camera. I'm not part of the production. So doing a podcast was me stepping out there using my voice, being that employee avatar. I had to tell myself: Don't be afraid of asking dumb questions. I got to own that. I know I don't like the sound of my voice; I just needed to get comfortable with it. And I found that I got better when I started to push through it. I started getting more confident in my interview skills. I discovered that I could direct and host a conversation like you would hope you could on a podcast. Good podcasters can do that. Those skills were sharpening, and my questions were getting more concise. The podcast work helped every other aspect of my work. So what I say to people standing on the fence about starting a podcast: It's going to be uncomfortable for a few episodes, maybe a few months, but you're going to learn so much. Sometimes people need permission to try something new, which is odd. Still, if that's what people need, I've gotten so much value from podcasting personally and professionally. It is one of the better decisions I made in my career.
Last question, Zane! If you have advice for someone thinking about starting an internal podcast, what would you tell them? Just go out and try it. Don’t get hung up on technology, software, or equipment because that’s where lots of us get tripped up at first. We think we need to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into equipment. Don’t start there. Start with your phone. You can get one of those cheap dual microphones that plug into your phone, give it to one person, give it to you, sit down, have a conversation, and listen back to it and grow from there. You got to sit down and start doing it. I would only mention being very clear and specific about your purpose for internal podcasting. What’s our goal? Drill down what you want to accomplish by creating a podcast series for your employees. But then, jump in and start. That’s when great things can happen.
Fantastic end. Thanks so much for being loud about internal podcasting, Zane!
Zane Ewton is a comms pro who loves sharing stories to make connections and build community. He currently works for The Villages, a collection of quaint retirement neighborhoods in the heart of Florida where people's dreams come true!
And a new interview is dropping soon. On November 30, Mette Thesbjerg Klint will tell us how she started an internal podcast from her walk-in closet. Keep your eyes peeled!