Issue 204,  published April 18, 2019

Mailchimp’s Changing Relationship

Here’s a joke that folks persist making in my general direction: “Once Mailchimp stops advertising, will the podcast industry just collapse?” (In fact, I heard it just last week! Alas, my eyes, they have lost all motor function required to roll.) The snark is, for the most part, a testament to the skepticism that continues to pervade the podcast business, built on the increasingly wobbly assumption that the market is only supported by a handful of players.

On my more generous days, though, I prefer to focus more on how it expresses Mailchimp’s storied stature as an early podcast advertiser. The Atlanta-based email newsletter giant was part of the generation of DR advertisers — see also: Squarespace and Stamps.com, among others — that bought into the space early and heavily, reaping tremendous value to the point of becoming somewhat synonymous with podcasting itself. (I’ll skip the Mailkimp anecdote, you probably know that one already.)

But here’s the thing: Mailchimp has already been scaling down its podcast buys for quite some time now. “It’s definitely not a core part of our evergreen mix as it used to be,” Mark DiCristina, Mailchimp’s Senior Director of Brand Marketing, told me. “We were really successful with podcast advertising, but obviously the industry grew and matured like crazy… it’s become much more expensive to have the kind of impact we’ve had in a way that’s scalable at all.”

Which is why they’re shifting gears a bit as they return to the fold. Yesterday, the newsletter giant rolled out an original podcast of their own, an interview series called Going Through It, and from what I’m told, it’s the first of many more to come.

Hosted by Call Your Girlfriend’s Ann Friedman and produced by Pineapple Street, Going Through It features interviews with notable women discussing pivotal moments in their lives, careers, and relationships; decision points, as it were, about whether to quit or keep going. The interviewee list includes Hillary Clinton, the writer Rebecca Traister, chef and author Samin Nosrat (who’s having such a moment right now!), the investor and activist Ellen Pao, and recent congressional contender Audri Scott Williams. The entire podcast dropped yesterday.

Going Through It is the first of further Mailchimp editorial efforts to come. Mailchimp’s media adventures draw some inspiration from Red Bull’s now well-cited brand marketing exploits, in that it’s seeking to create media experiences that can stand alone and generate positive halo effects back unto the brand itself. It’s the assumption of the studio model, where the company itself is going out to develop what they perceive to be fully editorial projects and directly compete in the attention marketplace. (Personally, I tend to see these efforts having some considerable distinction from “branded content” as we conventionally think of it, though the adjudication of such differences tends to lie with tone, comport, and execution. That hair-splitting might mean nothing to you, but it does to some, so I thought I’d mention it.) At this writing, DiCristina’s team is exploring the possibility of producing short-form, episodic video as well. “We’re not trying to Netflix or Hulu or anything… our audience is pretty busy, so we’re thinking about more snackable things that people can chew on in between things,” said DiCristina.

Anyway, like I said, Mailchimp has a few other original podcast projects in the pipeline. We’ll learn more about them in the days to come, but for now, I wanted to know if Mailchimp will go back to buying more podcast ads straight-up again. The answer, it seems, is probably, to some extent.

“We take a very different approach than most advertisers in that we see ourselves more of a patron — we’re more like, ‘Let’s find some shows we really believe in that’s aligned with our target audience, and let’s really work with them and help grow,’” said DiCristina. “Podcasting is a much different space now than when we started supporting shows in 2010… it’s just a much larger market now, and there’s less opportunity to do stuff like that.”

Podcasting will remain a some part of their marketing mix, sure, particularly when it comes to seasonal campaigns. (Also worth noting: they’ll be taking out podcast ads to promote their original podcasts.) It’s just that the company’s relationship with podcasting will increasingly be more as a studio and a creator.

“We definitely have been pretty quiet in the podcast world for a couple of years,” said DiCristina. “And I hope that Mailchimp becomes synonymous with podcasts again, but in a different way.”