News & Views

Take risks, be loved.

by Nick Parish

In case you were unclear, this is what success looks like if you’re sponsoring something. When the fans are so rabidly interested in every single second that they're scrutinizing your creative enough to pick up on tiny endearing inconsistencies and turn them into a private joke. 

By now you should have all heard about the podcast Serial, a riveting episodic drama focusing on a teenager who was murdered some fifteen years ago in Maryland.

Sarah Koenig, the show’s reporter and executive producer, is bringing a massive amount of listeners – approaching a million an episode – along as she digs into the relationships and coincidences that surround the murder and the trial, and the fog of time that blankets it all.

The frenzied public response has had a beneficiary beyond the NPR affiliate producing the shows, WBEZ Chicago (or, I guess, the intrinsic pursuit of truth): the podcast’s sponsor, MailChimp.

When it comes to sending marketing emails, MailChimp is ubiquitous, for everyone from the hobbyist (me!) to the pro (Contagious!). And MailChimp has been sponsoring podcasts for a long time.

But it has finally hit an enormous seam of gold in Serial, after sponsoring the series’ launch. 

Each episode starts with a lovely ad crafted by WBEZ in which a wide range of people on the streets of New York read copy about MailChimp. One has a very strong Italian accent. One sounds like Dave Chapelle doing Moe from the Simpsons.

The final voxpop even says ‘I use MailChimp!...I love it’ as the promo fades out and the Serial intro begins.

You should listen to it now, because it’s almost perfect. (But don’t get addicted yet, just listen to the first twenty seconds.)

But the cutest part—when the young girl gets tripped up and pronounces MailChimp incorrectly-sparked a growing in-joke with podcast listeners (an increasingly large group, of course).

Smart enough to know to play along, Mailchimp bought MailChimp’s CEO Ben Chestnut even changed his Twitter bio to ‘Co-founder and CEO of @mailchimp (mail---kimp?)’



Mailkimp quirkiness aside, Serial has been successful for MailChimp because podcasts are clearly something they love, and it feels like they're sharing in its triumph.

They didn’t buy in to a huge property, they took a chance on something new. More accurately: they took a chance on a number of somethings, and the best of those somethings is so good that it touches greatness. 

‘We don’t sponsor a lot of podcasts,’ MailChimp’s marketing director Mark DiCristina told me, ‘But we hear from people pretty often that they think we sponsor everything. I think that must be because the ones we sponsor are some of the best and most popular podcasts out there.’

While initially MailChimp stuck to a core area of expertise related to its product, and sponsored podcasts around design and web development, the company has been branching out to more mainstream shows.

‘Our thinking as we expanded wasn’t that we wanted to reach the largest possible audience, but that we wanted to reach the right audience,’ DiChristina says. ‘For us, it’s primarily about finding our people, and creating some brand awareness with them. Shows like This American Life and 99% Invisible are right on.’ 


A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure to speak with Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT. Zuckerman’s thoughts on another topic will arrive in a few weeks, along with our 10th anniversary issue, which we're calling Contagious X

(Please allow me to pause here and say something that isn’t hyperbole: Contagious X is the best issue of Contagious we’ve ever done. You will love it. There.)

So back to Serial and Ethan Zuckerman. Zuckerman who comes from a web background (he was an employee at Tripod, an early web company) recently wrote an essay for The Atlantic called The Internet’s Original Sin. Of course, that is advertising. Zuckerman essentially argues that we sold our privacy down the river when early webmasters collectively settled on advertising as the model to support content.

So, naturally, once we finished talking about the Contagious X stuff, we turned to what the model for brands to support creative things could become, if it isn’t about micro-analyzing audiences and serving them entirely targeted blinky-flashy-sneaky-tricky ads, the dancing alien that crowds your entire screen, or the un-closeable mobile ad that fills your phone.

And, Zuckerman argued, we’ve overcomplicated it. What internet advertising did was unseat this much older advertising model. 'You want to be in the New Yorker because, smart cool people read the New Yorker. And that’s the sort of customer you looking for. And so now the question is: Did we abandon that too soon? I suspect that we actually kinda did.'

It turns out that, finding the most efficient way to deliver to exactly who you think you’re going to reach may not be the best way to handle advertising.’ Mainly, Zuckerman argues, this isn’t the best way to do it because it’s created a race to the bottom, a quest for hyper-efficiency rife with bad actors and outright scams (we've covered this ground before).

This is the hiding in plain sight, as my colleague Arif Haq suggested brands need to do, to shed the hidden shame at making marketing by making things you can be proud of because they’re good, or because you’re helping bring something great and new into the world.

Brands like MailChimp and many many others embrace their role and don’t shy away from personifying the sponsor, the ‘brought to you by’.

In this case, though, it’s a lot more personal than buying an ad during the hourly news brief. MailChimp is taking a risk together with a creative person who’s great at what they do. Sometimes we forget that creativity is newness, and creativity is the unknown. Ed Catmull from Pixar talks a lot about this

Back to Ethan Zuckerman. ‘One possible model for services and also even for, digital creativity, it’s to essentially say look, brands have money, they don’t just want your attention, they want to be loved, and you know, you’re probably not going to be loved by showing up in some ones Facebook feed ten times a day, because people don’t get loved that way.

‘For some brands it might be about saying, “Look we are going to take our commitment to corporate philanthropy and we’re going to make that really visible, and we are going to make that really transparent and really participatory and we are going to do something wonderful for the world that way. For someone else it might be something truly strange and random. And we are either going to either do our own creative work or subsidise someone else’s creativity.’


You can imagine Chestnut, or Mark DiChristina, sending out a note to the company saying ‘Hey, we’re sponsoring this new thing Serial, and we’ve sponsored a lot of podcasts, but this one you’re going to love,’ and it being completely true, not just corporate rah-rah for the annual big-brand CTO golf tournament that swings through town, or the new campaign of banner ads that are going to be targeted to readers of Newsletter Weekly. It's the same impetus behind backing something on Kickstarter, really. 

And that’s one of the secrets. DiChristina says it himself. ‘We never sponsor shows only because we like them,’ he told me, ‘But liking a show is always a prerequisite for sponsorship.’

When Ethan Zuckerman and I talked, he brought up Welcome to Night Vale, an endlessly kooky and wonderful universe that its creators have brought to life through oddball stories broadcast across a strange town's radio show. Night Vale and Serial are leading this new podcast revolution, indie creativity writ large, with massive distribution and rabid fans.

Jeffrey Cranor, one of Night Vale’s co-writers, recently analyzed Night Vale’s success and wrote something powerful:

‘You have no real control over popular success. You only have control over artistic success. If you're not concentrating on the latter, the best case scenario is you do not achieve the former.’

Brands have forever forced popular success by ramming messages down people’s throats, blanketing the media with condescension, or emotional pornography, or unrealistic standards, sowing fear and anxiety.

So it has taken brands like MailChimp, new brands, living in a post-mass world, to earmark part of their important budgets for this sort of patronage, to try things out, to have faith and be steadfast.

Find a thing that matters to you. Do it well, or give others the support to do it well. And be secure in the fact that is its own reward. That is the recipe for success, both with customers that will believe in your brand and creating powerful, enduring communications.