As an open-source solutions provider, Red Hat’s main area of expertise — open source software solutions — might seem a little dry or ambiguous to the average person. To tech-savvy engineers and developers, however, they’re the gold standard for all things open source and technology.
Red Hat wanted to find an entertaining and innovative way to engage and grow their audience while also shaping the narrative around complex tech topics — a seemingly tall order. Their content team wanted to figure out how they could strike a balance between “entertaining” and “complex," and after doing some research and brainstorming, they settled on the perfect middle-ground with their highly produced, narrative-style podcast, Command Line Heroes.
Not only did they manage to make the topic of open source technology entertaining, they were also able to build a loyal following for their show. To date, Command Line Heroes has run for four seasons, has attracted 75,000 subscribers, and was even nominated for two Shorty Awards in 2019.
Read on to learn how Laura Hamlyn, Red Hat’s Senior Director of Global Content, and her team worked together to tell captivating stories on this award-winning podcast.
In 2017, Red Hat had their largest product launch of the year coming up for their new operating system, Red Hat Enterprise Linux, but they didn’t want to just follow the standard product marketing playbook. Instead, they wanted to do something cool and different, something big — they wanted to launch a show. But before they could start coming up with a concept and writing their first script, they needed to figure out which medium was the best fit.
“We did a lot of research into which mediums would make sense for a technology company. You don’t want to assume that a certain medium is going to work because you want to create within it,” says Hamlyn. “We worked with a third-party company to find the watering holes for our prospects — where are they getting their information and where do they go to find it? The research ended up telling us that there was a gap in podcasting for technology companies.”
“You don’t want to assume that a certain medium is going to work just because you want to create within it.”
Red Hat was ecstatic about producing a podcast. But it wasn’t just because they had always wanted to create one. A huge reason why they wanted to launch a podcast was that they knew telling highly produced audio stories could differentiate them from most podcasts in the tech industry. This was an opportunity to really stand out from the crowd.
“We were podcast fans, so we had always wanted to make one, but we had never created one at Red Hat. It was new to us, and when we were looking at the shows that we really liked, we noticed that they all told really good stories,” says Hamlyn. “So the ability to tell cool stories through the medium and the fact that most tech podcasts are just two guys talking about something made us realize that we needed to make one.”
After deciding to create a podcast, Red Hat started building their podcast dream team.
Brent Simoneaux, Senior Manager of Content Marketing and Story Development, took the lead as Program Manager. He runs the day-to-day show management and collaborates closely with Pacific Content, the agency of record chosen to manage podcast production.
On the editorial side of things is Casey Stegman, Associate Creative Director of Copywriting, owns the show concept and story. He’s the podcast’s editorial director, comes up with the central theme for each season, and does all the research to plan each episode.
The production team also leans heavily on other internal groups — user experience, graphic design, account management, and more — to source ideas and inspiration for episodes.
Unlike bloggers, who can use keyword research or analytics to inform their content, podcasters don’t have as many data-driven tools to rely on. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; one of the most common ways to source ideas for a show is arguably the most effective — interviewing your audience.
“I think a lot of what we do can be really dry, especially if you’re thinking about the B2C world, podcasts in general, and all the interesting stuff that they cover. But I think the way that we approached Command Line Heroes was influenced by the fact that our program manager, Brent Simoneaux, is also a researcher,” says Hamlyn. “He actually received his PhD in rhetoric, so he went into this role with a researching mindset. For the creative process, his influence was ’let’s listen first', which we did a lot of at customer events.”
At one of these customer events, Red Hat set up a booth called Comics and Coffee, where they offered beverages and snacks along with the services of caricature artists. At the booth, Red Hat representatives would ask people what they were interested in and what they thought was cool. By the end of the event, they had countless hours of transcripts from which they could extract interesting ideas and comments.
But out of all the questions they asked, Hamlyn considers “Does an operating system matter?” the most transformative one.
“Asking ‘does an operating system matter?’ is a very provocative way to get creative because that’s the product we make. It also raises some tension and drama. The best, most compelling stories have drama. Everybody knows that,” says Hamlyn. “But as a marketer, it’s really hard to infuse drama in your content because you’re conditioned to always say, ’our product is great, there will be nothing ever wrong with it, it’s perfect.' The reality is that you need to add a little drama to your story so you can identify a hero.”
“The best, most compelling stories have drama — you need to add a little drama to your story so you can identify a hero.”
The next step of Red Hat’s creative process is fleshing out the big ideas they’ve heard during the year and turning audience data into insights that can inform the show. To complete this step of the process, Red Hat spends an entire workweek with Pacific Content and the show’s host, Saron Yitbarek — and that’s usually when most of the show’s obstacles crop up.
One of the most pressing problems that Red Hat faces during their creative process is staying rooted in audience feedback. Fortunately, a second pair of eyes from Pacific Content always seems to steer them in the right direction and remind them that their ideas need to be data-driven.
“We try to be very careful not to assume what our audience wants to hear from us,” says Hamlyn. “I remember the last time we went into planning, Dan Misener, Pacific Content’s Head of Strategy and Audience Development, stopped us at one point and asked if any of the ideas we were talking about were based on the data we gathered. We knew we liked the ideas, so he told us to consider that before we moved forward.”
Crafting a relevant and relatable show is also a hurdle that Red Hat has to constantly jump over, especially in the open source technology space. But as creative, story-driven marketers, they always manage to find a way to sharpen a dull topic. More specifically, by weaving in compelling, well-known themes like the Apple-Windows OS wars into their show.
“When you listen to the first season of Command Line Heroes, we started with the OS wars. Then we talked about the operating systems everyone uses,” says Hamlyn. “We try to talk about Apple and Windows and things that are really relevant to people. And even if they don’t understand what a command line is, they at least understand what an operating system is.”
Soon after, though, Red Hat came to discover that relevant and relatable wasn’t enough to build a loyal, passionate audience. To do that, they needed to stick to their core identity and rally their true believers, which also produced a pleasant byproduct for them — mountains of audience feedback.
“With the OS wars, we went really broad. But then we decided to narrow down to programming languages to focus more on hardware. We got back to our nerdy roots because, honestly, you don’t want a broad audience that just comes and goes,” says Hamlyn. “You want that core audience that is really going to love your work, inform it, and basically tell you, ’here, this is what I want to hear.'”
“We got back to our nerdy roots because, honestly, you don’t want a broad audience that just comes and goes. You want that core audience that is really going to love your work.”
The first of its kind, The Shorty Awards honor the best in social media and digital, attracting millions of streamers to its annual event. Past winners include Taylor Swift, J.K. Rowling, and Malala Yousafzai. And, in 2019, Command Line Heroes was nominated for Best Branded Podcast, was a finalist for Best in Technology, and won the audience honor for Best in Technology.
“The Shorty Awards were great because it proved that our audience liked the show and it’s popular. A lot of people have to like it for you to win the award,” says Hamlyn. “So, to me, it was partly surprising because we knew we made a good show. But we didn’t know how many fans we had. We knew how many listeners we had, but we didn’t really know how much they loved the show. I think the Shorty Award just validated that we were able to make the topic interesting.”
Command Line Heroes has not only developed a passionate following, but it has also produced the results that every CMO would love to see. To date, the podcast has:
- 2,000,000 total downloads
- 644,000 unique listeners
- Downloads in over 200 countries
- A 90% average episode completion rate
- An average time spent listening of 23 minutes
In addition to these performance indicators, Red Hat also keeps tabs on the marketing metrics that measure the things that are more important than just content performance. Namely, brand identification and brand affinity.
“A big benefit for Red Hat, beyond the fact that there’s a lot of people listening to the show for a long period of time, is that 96% of listeners identify Red Hat as the creator of Command Line Heroes,” says Hamlyn. “This is what Pacific Content always emphasizes. The show is very lightly branded, so our jaws dropped when we found that out, because we don’t talk about Red Hat much at all, which was a big risk for us. That was a huge metric to show management — it proves that our brand is actually breaking through.”
“A big benefit for us, beyond the fact that there’s a lot of people listening to the show for a long period of time, is that 96% of listeners identify Red Hat as the creator of Command Line Heroes.”
Red Hat also saw a 21% lift in people’s opinion of Red Hat before and after listening to the show. Additionally, they discovered that 80% to 90% of listeners either liked or loved the podcast. Talk about brand affinity!
Command Line Heroes has garnered so much interest outside of the company that many of their offices around the globe want to localize the podcast. Hamlyn and her team have just started to experiment with the initiative.
“Our Latin American team is actually considering hiring actors and voice actors to perform the podcast. We’re looking at all kinds of localization efforts,” says Hamlyn. “And after going to Podcast Movement this past year in L.A., I will say localizing an English podcast is very uncharted territory, but we’re still trying to figure out how to do it.”
Red Hat’s video team has also ventured into a different type of binge-worthy content — a video series. In May 2020, they released two video series, What Happens When You Hit Enter and Technically Speaking, which dive into technical topics with Red Hat experts and are considered extensions of some of the interviews conducted on Command Line Heroes.
Back on the podcasting front, though, Red Hat has decided to stay focused on Command Line Heroes. And after learning about the show’s story, one can only assume it’s for a good reason.
“We’re definitely doubling down on Command Line Heroes. We have season five in the works right now, and then we also have a complementary video series,” says Hamlyn. “We’ve had some thoughts about other podcasts, but, right now, we’re solely focused on Command Line Heroes.”