Case Study: How to Build a Vast Audience by Mastering the Art of the Interview

Content Marketing Case Studies | copyblogger.com

Srinivas Rao graduated from business school in 2009, straight into one of the worst U.S. job markets we’ve faced since the Great Depression.

But, instead of getting frustrated at the lack of opportunity in corporate America, Srini reinvented himself as a content marketer.

Srini’s interviews on his podcast, BlogcastFM, are legendary.

He’s hosted Chris Guillebeau, Danielle LaPorte, Tim Ferriss, and Seth Godin, and his site has become a sought-after stop for authors during any successful book launch.

His intelligence and knowledge of his subject matter allow him to extract the very best out of every interviewee, and he has built up a rabidly loyal audience who can’t wait to get his next episode.

Let’s take a look at how he did it …

The interviewer gets interviewed — A few questions with Srinivas Rao

What’s your site and what do you write about?

BlogcastFM is an online show where I’ve interviewed more than 300 bloggers, authors, and entrepreneurs.  The fundamental question that BlogcastFM answers is, “How do I (as a small biz owner) leverage media and content to fuel my business?”

We’ve brought in perspectives from every walk of life and the blogosphere. Our guests have included famous bloggers, successful entrepreneurs, and brilliant people you may never have heard of.

Who are your readers and how do you serve them? Was there a pressing problem you were trying to solve?

The people who listen to our show are a really diverse group.  We have the online business owners that you would expect. But the surprising ones are actors, actresses, comedians, and one of our listeners is the marketing manager for a Whole Foods store. She uses our interviews to put together her strategic marketing plans.

It all really started as a weekly blog post. One of the lessons in a blogging course I was in was to conduct interviews to drive traffic to my blog. I didn’t know anybody at the time. So I ran it as a weekly series called “Interviews,” and I spoke to up-and-coming bloggers. After about 13 interviews,  one of my interviewees sent me an email saying “You should spin these out as a separate site.” At the time there weren’t many interview-based shows online.  So it was really a fortunate accident.

What kinds of content are most important to your business? Blog? Email list? Podcast?

The core of what we do is our podcast. We publish two interviews a week. We also just started a Friday segment called BlogcastFM Backstage, where we share our own insights and opinions. We also send out a newsletter.  I have a personal blog and also do a bit of guest blogging for other sites.

What resources or tools did you find most helpful when you were getting started?

The most valuable thing I did when I was getting started was joining Yaro Starak’s blog mastermind course. You could easily get the information for free by scouring the web. But I think when you pay for something it causes a deeper commitment. It didn’t hurt that I had to ask my dad for the money and my track record with these kinds  of things had been flakey.  So I had some incentives to follow through.

What was your situation before you started blogging? Were you always a business owner, or did you have a more traditional career?

I definitely had a more traditional career. I worked in sales at some startups and some well-known market research companies. Between the first and second year of my MBA program, I was the social media intern for Intuit’s Turbotax group. I discovered lots of blogs, and started dabbling in content creation while I was there.

I got out of business school in April 2009, which was a horrible time to graduate. I wanted a social media job, but realized I had no tangible evidence of my skills. That was what motivated me to start a blog. Eventually that resulted in working at an online travel company, leading their social media efforts. I was building BlogcastFM on the side. My side project fueled my ability to do my day job, so it worked out nicely.

How do you use social networking in your business?

I use it as a connection and discovery tool. I find guests for the show using social media. I get to know our listeners. I look for the human being behind the avatar. Sometimes I think we lose sight of the fact there is a person on the other end of the screen.

What were some of your main tipping points or “a-ha!” moments? How did they come about?

When we started the show, we had this crazy idea that we’d interview famous people, they would tweet our interviews, and every single one would go viral. The problem with that mindset was that we were only thinking about ourselves. We needed to think about our audience.

The fundamental shift for me came when I asked “How can we make this as valuable as possible for our listeners?”

If you read our iTunes reviews, people use words like actionable, insightful, and useful to describe the show. That’s something I’m really proud of.

Another tipping point was a major design overhaul done by my business partner, David Crandall. For a long time, the design of our site didn’t match up with the quality of our content.  That redesign really altered our brand perception. People wanted to be on the show.

I’ll say one final thing on this. There is no one interview that will make your career. I’ve had some really big names on the show. But sometimes the people you’ve never heard of end up being the most amazing guests, and they end up bringing new listeners in droves.  They cause our audience to fall in love with them.  Instead of floods of mass attention, we get the fanatics who show up, listen to one interview, then download every other episode in our archive.

What were your biggest mistakes, or biggest wastes of time/money?

The biggest mistake is the one that every single person I’ve interviewed has told me they made, which is that we didn’t make our email list a priority in the beginning. One well-known author I interviewed once said if she lost every asset except her list, she could be back up and running within a week.  Now building my list (and taking care of my email subscribers) is a big priority.

I wrote lots of guest posts, and I never used custom landing pages for them. I lost thousands of subscribers because of that. An interview I did with your very own Jon Morrow made me change that.

I never had the foresight to hire a personalized coach or mentor — which is a bit different than just doing an online course.  It was something I should have done in the early days. While it’s not a magic bullet, it will allow you to see things you may not be able to spot on your own.  It will also shorten the learning curve.

Why do you think you became an independent business owner and blogger, when most people just stick with the career they have, even if it’s unsatisfying? What’s different about you?

I see lots of stories of people who leave thriving careers in the corporate world because they aren’t fulfilled.  That’s definitely not my story. I never thrived in the corporate world. I wasn’t good at being an employee. I hated sitting at a desk all day, and got bored easily. I was a corporate misfit. So in some ways, I didn’t really have much of a choice. I  was forced to end up on this path, and I realized it’s the one I should have been on all along.

In the The Icarus Deception, Seth Godin says many entrepreneurs have to choose themselves, because nobody else did.  I could really relate to that, given my previous work experience. I was rarely chosen. I graduated into two recessions (after undergrad and grad school). Because of that, the notion of a “tried and true” path is just not part of my worldview. I think the result is that I have a high tolerance for risk.

I should also mention that I’m an avid surfer. My life is kind of dictated by somebody else’s schedule … mother nature’s. So that makes the idea of a normal job even more difficult.

What does your business look like today?

Since starting BlogcastFM in 2010 I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews.

Previous guests on BlogcastFM include Ramit Sethi, Chris Guillebeau,  Robert Greene, Seth Godin, Chris Brogan, Tim Ferriss, Danielle Laporte, Mike Stelzner, Cameron Herold and hundreds of others.  The show has over 200 5-star reviews in iTunes, and is growing steadily every month.

I’ve self published multiple books:

The second book reached over 47 5-star reviews on Amazon, sold more than 600 copies in March, and was even endorsed by Chris Brogan. That was a nice surprise.

My other work includes producing the Vistage Podcast, and audience development at Search Engine Journal.

What’s next for you? What are your next goals?

I’m working on my next book. A potential title is Confessions of a Corporate Misfit: The Soulprint of an Unconventional Life and Career. Even if a book deal is not in the cards, I have to write that book. It’s something I’ve been wanting to write for a long time.

In terms of BlogcastFM, syndication and content partnerships are something we’re laying the groundwork for. I also plan to start expanding my speaking platform over the next year. One of my longer term goals is get involved with startups as an advisor in the area of content marketing.

What advice would you give to bloggers and content creators who are trying to build an online audience?

You have to learn from people who came before you, but you can’t just copy them.  You have to make it your own. You must deliver an unforgettable experience that only you can deliver.  Say the thing you can’t not say. Nobody else has your story.

Have a diversity of inputs. Robert Greene gave me this really amazing analogy about biodiversity. The more species you have in an ecosystem, the richer the ecosystem is.  Your content consumption strategy should be similar. If all you do is read social media blogs, you’ll become robotic.

The world is getting so noisy, and standing out online is trickier than it’s ever been. Rather than trying to get a massive amount of attention, get a small amount, and turn those people into fanatics. Rinse, wash, repeat, and eventually you’ll have a small army on your hands.

While you’re at it, stop by BlogcastFM — smart people share their insights there, every week.

About the Author: Beth Hayden is an author, speaker, and social media expert who specializes in Pinterest marketing. To find out how to get more traffic to your website or blog using Pinterest, grab your free copy of Beth’s e-book, The Definitive Guide to Driving Traffic with Pinterest.

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Comments

  1. Very inspiring achievements Srinivas!

    I had never heard of you until this post and will be sure to check you out from now on. Keep it up and one day you may interview me too ;)

  2. As someone who’s been interviewed on BlogcastFM by Srini, and I agree that he does a phenomenal job with interviews! The passion he has for what he does shines through in the best of ways.

  3. Loved the advice for bloggers and content creators at the end – especially the analogy from Robert Greene.

    I’m finding both the point of having a diverse number of inputs and focusing on attracting a smaller, specific group of people are right on. It just takes a little bit of creativity to transform those ideas from different sources into something your audience can use.

    • Kasey,

      Part of the thing that I’ve been very intentional about even with the way I chose my guests is bringing in a diverse group. Sometimes the interviews that end up being the real gems are the ones you don’t expect.

  4. I’ve gotten hooked on BlogcastFM since beginning my business relaunch process. Fantastic interviews and great information. I’ve been inspired by his work and plan on starting my own interview-based show this year.

    • Kirk

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m glad to hear you’re finding the show valuable. Listener experiences is something I spend a ton of time thinking about.

  5. I wrote about this very topic this morning on my blog, although your take is far more interesting. “The problem with that mindset was that we were only thinking about ourselves. We needed to think about our audience.” This is quite a feat to accomplish given the constraints of time and space. But your approach to the matter is helpful. I have a few exercises I go through periodically to try and keep in touch with who I am writing to.

    Thank you so much for the experiences,

    Darin L. Hammond

    • Darin,

      It definitely takes work, but it’s totally worth it. I was going to say you get rewarded in the long term, but the key is not to even think about how you’ll be rewarded. The thing that I’ve said is that when you have a small audience you can create a VIP experience for every reader of your blog. Here are a few ways

      1) Email each reader personally
      2) Send them a card in the mail (amazing how snail mail makes you stand out)
      3) Host a call for them. Have office hours, and let them ask you anything

      There’s lots more.

  6. I love Srini’s show and also feel he’s one of the better interviewers around. His skill lies in listening well, basing new questions off of guests’ previous responses, yet staying true to his agenda. Great inspiration for a newbie interviewer such as me.

    • Faheem,

      Thanks so much. As you know I don’t script any interviews. So as a result I have no choice but to listen really closely or I won’t be able “shift gears” :)

  7. Great interview with two of my favorite people!

    • Kristina,

      Thanks so much. I’m so glad that you’ve been a part of the journey of so many amazing people. I kind of saw it as a sign from the universe that you were a surfer. So it’s a given that if I get the opportunity to write a book you’ll be my first call.

    • Thanks, Kristina! I’m so happy that you and Srini have become a powerful team! :)

  8. very useful interview for beginners like me. It encourages me to write what i think instead of copying other success ideas, specially last few lines “The world is getting so noisy, and standing out online is trickier than it’s ever been. Rather than trying to get a massive amount of attention, get a small amount, and turn those people into fanatics. Rinse, wash, repeat, and eventually you’ll have a small army on your hands”

    Thanks to copyblogger for such useful interview

  9. Great article.
    What I’d like to know is what system do you use to interview folks, Skype, Audio Acrobat,or what?

    • Hey James,

      I use skype to record all my interviews and then I do the editing in garage band. I like that because it’s not crazy to produce. To add to that I’m an avid surfer, so I like being able to record from “inconvenient” locations. When I interviewed Jon Morrow I was at a bar in Costa Rica :)

  10. I agree that a small, committed audience can be more valuable than a large, disconnected one. :)

  11. This is a a new find for me I don’t think I have heard of Srinivas. But it sounds like he is knocking it out of the park!

    I was wondering and maybe I missed it, but doe you have a podcast where I can find your interviews and listen on the go?

    Thanks for great interview!

    • Hey Eric.

      We’re actually in iTunes so you can definitely listen to the show on the go. Just do a search for “BlogcastFM”. We’re also available on stitcher if you don’t like the Apple podcast app.

  12. So, how do you go about figuring out the best questions to ask?

    I assume step 1 is making sure you’ve done your research and have a good grasp of what the interviewee does, but beyond that how do you get important, unique information out of them? Something that hasn’t been covered a bunch of times already in other formats?

    • Kristen,

      This is a great question and the answer will probably be different depending on who you ask. So let me explain it based on one angle. When Robert Greene wrote the book Mastery, he said that people had said he should read Outliers. They are very similar books. While Robert was a fan of Gladwell’s New Yorker Articles, he intentionally chose not to read Outliers or books that were similar to Mastery because he didn’t want it to influence his voice. So you’re probably wondering what that has to do with the answer to your question.

      Every person who does interviews is different. Some interviewers learn from other interviewers. I actually don;t listen to other people’s interviews, especially when I’m about to interview somebody they have interviewed because I don’t want my questions influenced, so this is one thing that enables me to ask questions that other people don’t ask.

      On Research:

      I think you need to have some understanding of what your interviewee does, but too much research kills some of your spontaneity. I actually usually just read the bio or about page of the person I’m going to interview. In my mind you want just enough to get the conversation started.

      Asking Questions:

      This is where you’re going to probably get some varying opinions. I don’t plan any of my questions ahead of time with the exception of the opening and the closing. I think that when you have a scripted list of questions it goes from an interview to an interrogation. It also makes it harder to listen. Here’s the simple structure that I use to ask questions

      Ask a question==> Listen to the Answer==> Ask a question about the answer== (rinse wash repeat), and when you’ve dug deep enough, then you move on to the next question.

      This is my secret to getting information out of people that they don’t talk about in other formats. I’ve oversimplified it because it’s something I’ve done so much that it’s second nature. That being said, it can totally be learned. Like anything else it takes a ton of practice. I actually have an in-depth post on BlogcastFM titled 7 lessons learned from interviewing famous people. That goes into a ton more detail.

      The thing you have to keep in mind is that people ask some well known interviewees the exact same questions. So when they’re asked the same things they’ve been asked 1000 times they become robotic. The other thing to keep in mind with your questions is the most important thing “how will the person listening benefit from the answer to the question.”

      One final thought is that you should practice on smaller names. With big names you get one shot, and if you’re not good you won’t be able to get them back. But with the smaller names you can “build you chops.” There are certain interviews that I’m really glad didn’t happen until the 3 year of our show.

      Hope that helps and feel free to email as well

  13. I’ve been hooked on blogcastFM for a while now, but wish I learned about it much sooner and started implementing the ideas I learned here and through the interviews. Appreciate this interview, and thanks again Srini!

  14. Great stuff! I need to read that “Small Army” book. It sound like a must read.

  15. I am happy each time I hear of the success story of people who take advantage of the difficult job market and reinvent themselves

    • Nina,

      Thank you. I’m still reinventing myself. My friend James Altucher says that reinvention is a 5 year process. I’m on year 4 and strangely I still feel like I’ve got a long way to go.

  16. Wow I’m so happy for your achievements!

    • Thanks Tom. Really appreciate it. I hope you get a chance to visit BlogcastFM and check out our guests. They’ve had some pretty amazing achievements.

  17. Inspiring story and some wonderful advice. I will be sharing with the founder of Success Decoded which is aiming to interview successful people in all areas. Fantastic. Thank you for sharing this.

    Lauren

    • Thanks Lauren. I’m glad you found it useful. Interviewing people was something that really changed my life in very unexpected ways.

  18. A really insightful interview. It is at least as interesting learning about people’s failures as their successes. I also really like his comment about “We needed to think about our audience” as it’s so easy to be wrapped up in ourselves and our own interests

    • Hey Gary,

      Thanks for your kind words. Thinking about the audience is not the easiest thing to do. I think in all our work there is a level of self interest, but that’s ok. You need to have that. But the key in my mind is how can your own self interest benefit other people. Sometimes when I have a guest on my show I’ll ask a question and I’ll use myself to frame a tactical example. But I know that there are actionable take aways that other people can apply to that. So even if you write about yourself and your life, figure out how other people can benefit.

  19. I especially like the last point: learn from those who came before you before you copy. However, I think I’d go one step further: learn, but don’t copy. Sure, we might use some of the ideas from those before us, but we should also blaze the way, creating new ideas, strategies and tactics.

    • “You have to learn from people who came before you, but you can’t just copy them. ” Dan, I think you misread the last sentence, so we’re in complete agreement. I agree that you have to learn. I think best practices have destroyed many potentially brilliant voices on the web.

  20. Srinivas – Very nice to see you here and to know a little more about you.

    For all other readers, Srinivas was also featured on my ‘naked truth” series – http://www.dailymorningcoffee.com/the-naked-truth-about-srinivas-rao/

    It is a pleasure knowing him and to see what he does for the community. Keep it going.

  21. Always the best information from you guys. Really great tips. Thanks so much. They really couldn’t have come at a better time.

  22. Great questions! We recently started an interview series at my company, and I found that coming up with a script of questions to ask was surprisingly difficult. Next time maybe I’ll try a more natural, spur-of-the-moment approach like you recommend.

    • Hey Brett,

      It takes a bit of work to develop the skill. But you end up being so refreshing. The problem I find with scripting things is you end up asking the same questions as everybody else. With the rise of interview based shows the host is going to be the distinguishing factor.

  23. Awesome article Beth and Srini!

    Srini, I’ve learned so much from you and the guests you’ve had on the show. Congrats to you and David on all of your success! Looking forward to your next book.

  24. Simply fantastic, Srinivas.

    I, too, graduated in 2009 but was able to get a job within two months as an online English teacher in a corporate office. It was horrible. Three years later, I quit, and became a freelance blogger and writer.

    I’m taking many of these steps you recommended, including taking Jon’s guest blogging course, and surrounding myself with mentors in the Freelance Writer’s Den. On my blog, I’m also making landing pages for each place people may come from, and I’m creating an ebook to give away to email subscribers. I have a series of interviews with professionals lined up to help show my readers how to become pros in those fields.

    But really the best piece of advice you have to hold on to is what you said: you just need to create a fanatical small following and then they tend to do the rest! You’re on year 4 of your reinvention process, and I’m on year 1, but it’s people like you who make us babies more certain that we’ll grow up the right way.

    Thanks so much for the interview (and to Beth for conducting it)!

    • Hi, Bree – I completely agree that it’s smart to focus on building a fanatical audience, but I also think it’s smart to think about products and services that your audience will love (even if you don’t create them right away). One of the best things you can do is find out what needs your audience has that aren’t being met, and then start figuring out ways to meet them. Best of luck with all your online pursuits! :)

      • I am actually thinking of that, as well! My ebook that I’ll give away for free meets a unique niche, and I’m hoping to compile information and conduct interviews for a gaming journalism class I can sell/teach (right now, lots of students want to be gaming journalists but only a VERY few colleges teach this).

    • Bree,

      Bet h definitely made some good points. There are plenty of things I’ve done wrong. This year has probably been the year in which i’ve been most prolific in terms of creating things. But it’s still a work in progress. I don’t think there is ever a moment when you’ve “arrived.” That’s why at some point the process has to become the thing you enjoy. I love doing what i’m doing with my interviews.

      • Srini, I totally didn’t mean to imply that you had done anything wrong….I just had an experience recently in my own business where I assumed that everything would be easy once I got over a certain number of mailing list subscribers. But at that time, I actually was selling them the wrong product at the wrong price, so it still wasn’t a success. Anyone, sorry if I offended! Not my intent at all! :)

        • Not all Beth :). It’s funny you mention that because we just recorded an episode about the fact that certain numbers don’t correlate to revenue.

  25. Archan Mehta :

    Srini,

    It gladdened my heart to find you here on this fab blog. Congratulations for being interviewed. If anybody deserves the spotlight, my friend, you do. You have been pursuing this work for the longest time, so you deserve to reap the rewards of your efforts. Best wishes from a fan of your work.