How Did Buffer Go Deeper with a Niche Audience? A New Show (Of Course)
[Editor’s Note: You know the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?” In our experience, it’s a saying the best marketers tend to ignore.
Instead, when confronted with something that just ain’t broke, the most inspiring marketers tinker with it. Add to it. Enhance it. Upend it. They mess with a good system, so they can create a better system.
That’s just what Ash Read, Editorial Director at Social Media Management platform Buffer, did. The company already had a successful podcast, but when a unique opportunity presented itself to him, he seized the opportunity to create a new show geared toward a specific subset of Buffer’s target audience.
Why? Because Buffer is an early adopter of the movement we’re trumpeting as loudly and frequently as we can. Ash and his team have leaned into the show medium, because they understand that creating superior content for a small, dedicated group is the best way to build brand affinity with that group. That’s why they took a risk in making a new niche show in addition to their tried-and-true podcast: they wanted to engage more closely with a new set of customers. For these customers, they wanted to build something better.
Here’s how they did it.]
“Hey Ash! I have a kicker for you – we are launching something really special…”
That was the opening line of an email that inspired our second Buffer podcast, Breaking Brand.
The sender was Emmett Shine. At the time, Emmett was co-founder and Executive Creative Director at Gin Lane — the agency behind brands like Harry’s, Sweetgreen, Smile Direct Club, and more.
Emmett and I had been emailing back and forth for a story I wanted to write about how Gin Lane approached building brands. The kicker he was referring to? It was even bigger than I could have imagined.
Emmet and his team at Gin Lane were shutting down their wildly successful agency — they’d helped launch over 50 startups, now collectively worth in excess of $15 billion — and were launching a new direct-to-consumer business called Pattern Brands.
Instantly, I knew theirs was a story we had to tell, and it popped up at the perfect time for Buffer and our content strategy.
We’d spent a few months ideating on launching a new podcast focused on the direct-to-consumer industry (a key market for Buffer), and this story felt like a perfect fit. So, I put aside the article I was working on and went all-in on turning this story into a podcast. The series would follow the Gin Lane team in near real-time as they transitioned from agency life to launching their first direct-to-consumer brand to market.
But why did we decide to tell this story in podcast format? How did we justify the investment? And what did we learn along the way?
I’d love to share some of the strategy and thinking behind the show with you.
Why Buffer decided to launch a second podcast
Buffer has been podcasting since 2017. Our weekly show The Science of Social Media has amassed over 2 million listens across its 180-ish episodes.
The show is great at connecting with a broad audience of social media marketers — its listeners range from freelancers and small businesses to marketers at large brands. In some ways, its broad appeal has been the key to its success.
But in recent years, marketing has started to shift. It’s no longer about quick hits and how far you can spread your message — it’s about creating content that people actually want to spend time with. Less hacks, more… well, just creating stuff — ads, blog posts, videos, etc. — that people actually want to consume.
Marketing is switching from interruption (forcing a message to someone through an ad) to active consumption (producing something people enjoy engaging with and want to consume). Marketing is entertainment.
Brands like Mailchimp, Shopify, and Wistia have really paved the way here by creating original series, and they’re using this content to reach new audiences and build brand affinity.
This type of content is unlike the traditional blogging we’ve done in the past… and it’s also a bit of a stretch from the type of content we produce for The Science of Social Media. But we saw an opportunity to create a new, narrative-driven show to help us build stronger relationships with an audience we’re excited to serve here at Buffer. That audience is direct-to-consumer (DTC) brands.
Why we felt podcasting was the right medium to serve our audience
There are so many ways you can tell a story. But we set our sights on producing a second podcast for three main reasons:
1. Alignment between our target customers and long-form podcast audiences
We noticed that this is a medium where our DTC customers are investing money themselves (many DTC brands advertise on or create podcasts), and there appears to be great synergy among the age, interests, and aesthetics of the people who work at these brands and the people who consume podcasts.
2. Podcast audiences are more engaged than other mediums
Spotify reports that 60% of its audience say they tune into podcasts to educate themselves, and two out of three podcast listeners give podcasts their full attention. We wanted to produce content that people would spend time with, and a podcast felt like a perfect match.
3. Marketing should be entertaining
Marketers aren’t just competing with other marketers for attention; we’re competing with Netflix, YouTube, Instagram, and major media networks. Boring marketing simply gets ignored now, and we believe that marketing content (maybe that should just be “content”) should be fun and interesting to consume.
Justifying the investment
Producing shows is hard, and as a team we felt that the story we’d lined up — Gin Lane’s transition to Pattern Brands — was one we had to justify. We knew we wanted to hire a podcast producer or production agency to lead the way and show us the ropes.
As such, the show quickly went from an email exchange with Emmett to an internal idea to a project with producers, sound engineers, and studio bookings in London and New York. This wasn’t just a case of buying a mic, recording a few Skype calls, and throwing it all together.
But it was a big investment for Buffer. The Science of Social Media is a show we produce internally, so working with a production company was a new experience for us… and something we’d never spent any real budget on before.
Before I address how we justified this investment, here’s how we fit the show into our budgets.
We started planning Breaking Brand in April 2019 (around 7 months before launch). At that point, podcasting wasn’t something we had pre-planned in our budget for the year. However, we do have a pot in our budget for “freelancers and outsourcing.” This budget isn’t really assigned to a specific discipline (e.g., SEO, paid acquisition, etc.). Instead, it’s a pool of money we can dip into as and when projects come up throughout the year. It gives us a little space to be reactive and try new things.
But just because the money exists doesn’t mean we can spend it on absolutely anything. We still need a strong business case. When it came to justifying the investment in a new show, I focused on a few key points:
Expanding on success across content marketing and building a new audience
Experimenting with a new podcast series gave us the chance to create an immersive, captivating content property that will keep people’s attention and help us connect with customers.
Diversifying our content
We’re big on blogging at Buffer, and most of our content success has come from search — our Library generates ~1m visits per month. Though this is a strength, it’s also a weakness: any Google algorithm change could have a big impact on our audience. A new podcast would create new opportunities to build our audience without being at the mercy of algorithm changes we can’t control.
If you’ve spent any time listening to Marketing Showrunners’ podcast or read anything here on the blog, I’m sure you’ve heard something along the lines of “Great marketing isn’t about who arrives. It’s about who stays.” Many of our potential customers are already familiar with Buffer, so our goal is less about building awareness and more about building trust. It’s hard to build trust with fleeting 5-10 second interactions, which is why a longer-form medium like a podcast made sense for our goals.
And finally, it’s hard to quantify but equally important: the cost of not trying something new. For example, what if 7 or 8 years back Buffer never tried blogging? You could argue there’s more risk in sticking to what you’ve always done than taking an explicit risk by trying something new.
How we measure success
Breaking Brand launched in November 2019, and one of our key measures of success was how long listeners spent actually listening to the show.
Since launch, the show is seeing really strong completion rates — on average, people are listening to 83% of each episode. This means that the audience isn’t just showing up, they’re sticking around and engaging with the content. If we continue to publish content in this feed, they’ll continue listening, and that feels really valuable for us.
For us, the true metric of success was people spending time with our show and following the story. We didn’t want people to dip in for a couple of minutes and leave; we wanted people to follow the story from start to finish across all five episodes. As of this writing, roughly 84% of listeners have followed the series from episode one through to episode five as best we can tell (calculated from the number of downloads of episode one compared to the number of downloads of episode five).
It felt like a bit of a risk to focus so much on this metric; once the series was out there, we couldn’t go back and optimize or edit anything. So we needed faith that the series was worth listening to before we hit publish on episode one. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous when it came time to launch.
Downloads are also an important measure of success for us, but since we created the show to serve a specific niche, we weren’t focused on getting hundreds of thousands of listeners. Instead, we wanted to connect with a small community of people who really cared about the subject matter.
We’re now approaching 20,000 downloads across the five-part series and have an audience of around 2,200 subscribers (estimated by Anchor). As a show targeting a niche audience (DTC brands), this feels really great.
Some of this initial audience came from promoting the show to our existing subscribers in The Science of Social Media feed. We also shared news about the show in our email newsletter and promoted it across our social media accounts.
Reaching new people within the DTC market was also important to us. To achieve this we focused on:
1. Telling a story that mattered to the industry (Gin Lan’s transition to Pattern was a big story in the DTC world), and
2. Interviewing industry experts and influencers for the series (where it made editorial sense. The story always came first).
This helped us generate social traffic from word of mouth, with much of our landing page traffic coming from tweets shared by industry influencers.
The show was also featured by Apple Podcasts in the UK for a few days upon launch, which helped to drive some initial downloads. It’s hard to tell if this feature helped us to connect with our target audience, but it felt great to see our show alongside well-known shows from large media businesses.
We feel encouraged by these results. I’m treating it as “product market fit” (“podcast market fit”, maybe?), as we know Breaking Brand is resonating with our target audience and listeners are sticking around. Knowing this means we can continue to promote with confidence that new listeners will be engaged with the series and not bounce seconds after pressing play.
This project also pushed us to make some improvements to our internal reporting and tracking. When new customers sign up with Buffer, we ask them, “where did you first hear about Buffer?” We have now added a podcast option. Though signups aren’t a key measure for our podcasting strategy — we’re more focused on building an engaged audience of people that look like our target customers — it’s still nice to know how many people come through the company’s doors after hearing one of our shows.
4 Things I wish I’d known before starting
Before Breaking Brand — aside from countless hours of listening to Tim Ferris, Bill Simmons, and The Ringer’s NBA shows — my podcasting experience was pretty non-existent. I’d written maybe 2-3 episodes of The Science of Social Media. So, it’s safe to say there was a learning curve here.
The team at Message Heard (our production company) was incredibly helpful in guiding me through the production process. But when it comes to marketing a show, there are a few things I wish I’d focused more on. These things center mostly around how we promoted the show and approached growing our audience.
1. Craft the show’s messaging early
With this series, we knew the story we wanted to tell, captured all of the content, then worked on crafting the messaging, promotion plan, designs, etc. during post-production.
In the future, we’d like to flip this process. Once we know what we’re making, we’ll craft the copy / messaging and design along with a rough distribution plan. We’ll then try to wrap all that broadly together before we begin recording.
2. Don’t forget pre-launch marketing
In the same way Netflix builds excitement for new films through months of pre-promotion — dropping clips / trailers, interviews with stars in the media, etc. — we should do the same to capture our audience before we’re ready to release the series.
With Breaking Brand, we had some embargoes to stick to as we couldn’t talk publicly about Pattern Brands until they had launched. In hindsight, though, I still think we could have done more to build an audience prior to launch.
3. Create a media plan
As we focus on connecting with DTC brands and marketers, it’s going to be important to think about how we can reach people outside of our existing audience.
We can reach some people organically on social media or through press coverage, but I feel it’s important to look at how we can utilize our advertising budget to create a paid media plan for any future series we launch.
4. Focus on repurposing content
It takes a LOT of recording to create a podcast series, 80% of which is cut from the final production. There are plenty of opportunities to repurpose this content into short videos, social posts, and blog posts… as well as repurposing segments from the final production.
That’s a wrap
Producing Breaking Brand was an incredible experience for me, and I can’t wait to start on season 2 (coming soon!).
There’s still so much for us to learn about the world of podcasting and creating shows here at Buffer, but I hope this post helps give you an overview of our approach and how we got over some of the early hurdles like justifying investment in a show.
At the end of the day, we’re finding that our initial hunch is proving true: that a show has been an ideal medium to engage with and maintain our small and passionate audience. Because, as we all know: great marketing isn’t about who arrives. It’s about who stays.
Ash Read is the Editorial Director at Buffer.