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Marketing Showrunners

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By: Jay Acunzo on June 21st, 2019

Mailchimp Presents: Understanding The Software Giant’s Manic Race to Launch a Million Shows

Oh, what’s in a name? (I think it was Poombah from The Lion King who first said that. And I mean the original animated classic, not this live action wallet-grab, but here’s all of my money, Disney, because you own ESPN, the MCU, Star Wars, and my childhood. Sigh…)

What, pray tell, is in a name? I’m a believer that the actions people take give a brand name its meaning, and the words themselves just need to be easy to spell and easy to pronounce.

In that department, Mailchimp has it covered. (Well, except for that one woman from the now-famous Serial ads. #LongLiveMailKimp)

Mailchimp, as I know their team would admit, is no longer the exact right name for what they do. They’ve moved well beyond email marketing to announce the official roll-out of an all-in-one marketing platform earlier this year. This includes CRM, direct mail, landing pages, paid social media advertising and retargeting, and a whole lot more. But while Mailchimp is an outdated name, it’s always been a great brand. After all, actions give a name meaning … and hoo boy, has Mailchimp been active.

In addition to their platform expansion and their brand design refresh, the company recently announced the formation of a dedicated team to focus on making original series and films, and they created an entire arm of their brand to serve as a show network and central home. It’s called Mailchimp Presents. In less than six months, they’ve launched seven originals. That means they’ve averaged more than one new show or film per month.

I’m tired just typing that.

Here’s a look at the official trailer for Mailchimp Presents:

After the 19th email I received from Marketing Showrunners subscribers either sharing a Mailchimp show with me or asking whether it was a good strategy, I decided it was time we made sense of what the email marketing all-in-one marketing company is doing.

Why focus on shows? A marketing shift and a Mailchimp shift

On this site, we cover the craft of marketers making shows, but the reason we do so goes far beyond creating cool stuff (though we do love doing that). Buried beneath the trend is something more fundamental, a giant shift in the marketing mandate. The job used to be that Mad Men-style approach of launching campaigns and ensuring target buyers interacted with disparate “touchpoints.” The job was to grab attention. Many brands still run this playbook even today. However, the most modern companies are now focused on building owned audiences through content marketing, developing experiences worthy of time investment to increase trust and purchase intent. It’s no longer about pure awareness. In fact, I’d go so far as to say the concept of “brand” itself was once a blunt instrument, focused entirely on awareness. Today, smart marketers recognize how it blankets every step in the buyer’s journey, accelerating intent and actions taken.

We can summarize this underpinning shift in marketing in one pithy way: Our jobs are no longer to grab attention. Our jobs are to HOLD IT.

The best marketers care more about total time spent than total impressions. They want to see email subscribers, not simply views or downloads. When we talked to executives from companies like Wistia, InVision, and Contently, they made it clear: Marketing isn’t about who arrives. It’s about who stays.

On the heels of their new announcement, Mailchimp’s head of brand Mark DiCristina told The Drum, “[Mailchimp Presents] is a way to add a dimension to our relationship with our customers… Creating this original content allows us to make Mailchimp a brand that can be relevant to people when they’re washing their dishes or driving to work, or they need a break from work. Mailchimp can now provide real value for our customers and for people who may one day become our customers.”

Mailchimp seems to understand that there’s a fundamental human reason why original series matter, and they’ve embraced how that affects all of marketing.

“MailChimp is a leader in marketing and always has been,” Salesforce’s Mathew Sweezey told me. Mat is the tech giant’s Principal of Marketing Insights, an author, and a constantly-touring speaker. “They act more like an agency with a product, and I’ve loved so much of what they have done.”

Indeed, Mailchimp seems to focus their time trying to understand people first and foremost (and second-, third-, and fourth-most), as opposed to what many marketers do: fall all over themselves trying to understand each trend or tactic that someone said “works.”

In addition, however, they have a very company-specific purpose for launching shows, given the shift in what they sell. Since they’ve evolved from an email point solution to an all-in-one marketing platform for SMBs and entrepreneurs, Mailchimp is now focusing on elevating and broadening their narrative too. Changing what a brand is known for, especially one as established as Mailchimp, might take years, but it certainly accelerates the process a bit when people spend hours of their lives with you. That’s the power of launching shows and films.

Again, actions give the brand meaning.

Mailchimp has been working on this original series stuff for awhile, but we’re just now seeing it publicly.

DiCristina told FastCompany that they spent nearly 18 months on this journey to launch Mailchimp Presents. Not only did they want more creative control than previous marketing approaches, he says, the team can now establish a direct relationship with the audience.

Read: Mailchimp wants to own attention, not borrow it. They want to communicate directly with their audience, not interrupt someone else’s — also known as paid advertising. Though that’s a part of their mix, their original series and films can hold attention and deliver a story and a feeling for well-beyond the usual 30-second ad spot, capturing 10, 30, or even 60 minutes at a time.

This all makes sense for Mailchimp specifically, but if we’re going to learn from what they’re doing, it’s worth asking…

Is this a good marketing strategy?

On balance, I say yes. (I run a company called Marketing Showrunners. You’re reading this on a blog about the craft of brands making shows. You maybe saw that answer coming.) But mine is a “yes, however” answer.

To address the pure “yes” part for a moment, I need to start by saying just how far ahead of the pack Mailchimp truly is. They deserve incredible amounts of credit for being visionaries. I don’t mean they see into the future, by the way. I mean they see the present more clearly than most. Making shows is the modern marketing — not 2025’s marketing. Brand and experience are far more defensible than product differentiation right now, given near-total parity and massive choice in almost every niche. Holding attention with a great experience increases the lifetime value of an audience, while lowering customer acquisition costs due to word-of-mouth referrals from that passionate audience. It should all lead us to launch shows — not because we’re “innovative,” but because we’re logical, realistic, and strategic marketers.

“I think Mailchimp totally understands that their potential customers are interested in a lot more than just email marketing,” said Dan Mills, creative director at Wistia, which has launched its own original series and even a product to help marketers making shows. “They own businesses, they care about design, and like everyone else, they want to be entertained.”

What Mailchimp is doing is even more impressive when you consider their size and the considerable halo of agencies and vendors and creators they work with to make these originals happen. (It’s publicly known they’re working with production companies like Pineapple Street Media and Pop Up Magazine, among others, along with their usual agency, Droga5). The typical brand constructed like that creaks forward a few inches at a time. Mailchimp is striding forward confidently, inviting their audience to come along for the ride … and challenging other marketers to keep up.

One such sign of that: We’ve gathered up hundreds of examples of brands making original series in audio and video here at MSR (we’ll share a master list soon), but we’ve found fewer than 10 brands building dedicated networks. That list includes giants like Red Bull and Shopify, the startups Drift and Profitwell, YETI Coolers, the video tech platform Wistia, the consultancy Convince & Convert … and Mailchimp.

Mills from Wistia continued, “There are so many ways they could have deployed this amount of marketing resources. Great creative is at the core of a successful video series.” But he says that when doing creative work, not everything will hit the mark, which means a brand is better off trying a few radically different directions before honing their strategy.

Said Mills, “Mailchimp made an investment and in my opinion gave themselves a lot of different opportunities to learn and to connect with different audiences.”

So, massive kudos to the friendly monkey from Atlanta for leading the charge. I have the feeling we’ll be covering their great work quite a bit on this site. They’re already a worldwide leader in this showrunning movement among marketers. 

But then there’s that “however” part of my “yes, however” answer. Is it a good strategy? Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt. However, why not push this further?

Before we do, a broader disclaimer, courtesy of SaaS marketing veteran, Janessa Lantz. Janessa was a senior comms manager at HubSpot for years and now leads marketing at a startup-focused tech firm, Fishtown Analytics.

“Marketing that markets marketing software to marketers is weird,” she says. (As someone who did that for the early part of my career, I would like to place one large order of Praise Hands Emojis, please and thank you. Because hell yes, it’s weird.) “I watched [a Mailchimp series] because I’m a marketer who is super interested in what Mailchimp is marketing, but would a potential buyer for support, sales, or developer software do that?” Janessa isn’t so sure. She believes, and I agree, that this is entirely dependent on your audience. Mailchimp stands way out compared to their dozens of competitors, but as with all things marketing, we shouldn’t let marketers who market to other marketers dictate how those of us outside that echo chamber go to market.

OK. I’m tired of saying the word marketing. Let’s get to the specifics about Mailchimp, shall we?

Taking Mailchimp Presents to the next level

1. Audience development and the need to space out their launch cadence.

I mentioned already that Mailchimp has launched seven series within six months. That is a breakneck pace. Yes, the release schedule belies the massive effort it takes to get a show release-ready. That part surely takes them awhile. But now, with production clearly behind them on many projects, they’re launching stuff like a 10-year-old boy who was just handed a Super Soaker.

But let’s put aside my subjective “holy shows, Batman” reaction, because there is an objective business benefit to spreading out the release dates of these programs a bit more: community and audience development.

Yes, Mailchimp is gaining press and lots of “air-game” awareness from their many releases. But what if all that awareness led to increased purchase intent and decreased cost of customer acquisition, too? That’s the power of developing a passionate audience. They could build audience around one vehicle successfully, then promote the next show to that group, tumbling people through multiple, amazing experiences, while also ensuring that their results do something magical: compound over time. By releasing everything at once, they could undercut that ability.

I turned to Steve Pratt to explain. Pratt is a co-founder and partner of Pacific Content, which makes premium, original podcasts with brands like Facebook, DELL, Slack, Mozilla, Red Hat, Charles Schwab, and more. (Their blog is an incredible resource on podcast growth for brands. They have more data than most of us, after all.)

Here’s what Pratt told me when I asked about Mailchimp releasing every episode of their podcast Going Through It all at once: “We have done experiments with bulk dropping multiple episodes, and the episode at the top of the feed does better than the ones that are lower down. I think many listeners may not know to go ‘backwards’ in their feed for other episodes. The data for us showed that a bulk publish cannibalized downloads on those episodes not on top of the feed.”

While he admits to having seen some shows do well with bulk-drops (like the smash hit S-Town, a This American Life production), Pratt still believes in a drip approach — for good reason.

“We find drip to be best because it builds a regular listening habit and people can build the show into their weekly routines. We also find that it is easier to market individual episodes as they are released. We create plans for each episode that are specific to that episode, and we have two weeks to market each episode.” Best of all, he says, they’re able to adjust course if they learn anything from previous weeks, using those insights to improve both their editorial and their marketing, which adds up to more beloved, more successful, and constantly improving show.

“It’s easy to identify problems because we have actual data, and it’s possible to adjust course or double-down on things that are working unexpectedly well,” he told me. “All of those are really challenging to do with a bulk drop.”

Perhaps Mailchimp can better learn, improve, and grow by spacing out their episode drops.

Additionally, they can learn more about their audience (and better serve them as a result) by allowing people to subscribe to a discrete show via email, then moving people between episodes AND between shows. Over time, they’d have a fiercely loyal group of content subscribers with myriad benefits to the brand, from word-of-mouth referrals to direct purchases and everything in between.

Email is the easiest way to show measurable series ROI and to build community, but they could also explore a dedicated Slack or Discourse, or at very least, more public discussion on social media around a given show. (Imagine a Live video going behind-the-scenes of this first smash-hit … only to surprise the audience by announcing the NEXT show!)

The themes of the content help me feel like I’m part of something larger and special. The mechanics of the content and community-building efforts can easily follow. Audiences would benefit, and so too would Mailchimp.

2. Conveying trust through their network’s name

I’m not entirely sure this is a thing anymore, but it’s worth asking, especially if Mailchimp is trying to reach far more people than those like me, a 10-year content marketer from the tech industry:

Do most people still expect that a network called “(Brand Name) Presents” will feel like advertising or sneak-selling?

Said Joe Pulizzi in his recent newsletter (Joe’s a marketing author and the founder emeritus of the Content Marketing Institute), “They should create a separate content brand (a la Home Made Simple, or John Deere’s “The Furrow” magazine). In my experience, content brands that lead with the company name rarely work. People immediately think it’s marketing. I’m rooting for them, but I would expect a major pivot in nine months after they don’t meet expected results.”

I’m so close to the marketing industry that it’s tough to say just how much of the world thinks about pushy marketing when they hear about a brand launching shows. I wonder though: What’s the downside to another, thematic name? If Mailchimp Presents was called something like the SMB Network or Owner Originals (or something way better that I can’t think up right now), would more of the right audience self-select that these shows are for them with confidence?

Again, this may be dated thinking at this point. Maybe the market is over it, and doesn’t care where the content comes from. I’d wager though, given the fact that Mailchimp has grown well beyond early adopters and is pushing into the mass market (such as there is such a thing in B2B), that there’s upside to be unlocked by naming a content brand something other than your company name. Me personally, I don’t shy away from consuming brand-built content, but I’m too close to this stuff to know how most people who don’t spend time analyzing this stuff will react.

Still, Mailchimp has done the hard thing: Creating world-class programs focused on themes the audience cares about. There’s no sneak-selling, no product placement, nothing to turn audiences away. It’s quality- and story-first content. I’m confident that someone seeing it would “get it.” The question is, are some people deciding it’s not for them simply because it’s branded as Mailchimp Presents?

3. Who do audiences trust? Mailchimp’s approach to talent

This is a giant pet rock of mine in this craft of making shows. I think the ideal scenario for any brand making an original series is for an employee to host. After that, the next best choice is a professional host without a massive brand and business behind them. Lastly, celebrities. Why? It’s all about audience trust.

(And yes, anyone hosting a show must actually be good at the craft and practice it. Goes without saying: employees may take the longest to get great at this. But hear me out…)

Shows are these linear experiences, built to hold attention and engender trust and create all kinds of great emotions between the audience and … who? It’s important to ask.

In a fictional show, it’s the cast. In a nonfiction show, it’s the host. The best-case scenario is that an audience’s trust and relationship with a show are built around someone who actually works for your company, otherwise the decision to more deeply engage with a favorite host or characters takes the audience away from the brand. Hurray for the host, who sells some more books or speeches or custom clothing or whatever, but unfortunately for the brand who owns the content, they divide attention and trust.

And look, let’s be realistic: When you build a network, it is a portfolio approach. Mailchimp should use some established talent not only due to their skills but the tangential benefits like an existing audience. But somewhere mixed in, we as marketers must ensure WE are gaining trust, not just the celebrity or author host we brought in.

Think about your own TV experience: Do you love the network, or the show? If Parks and Rec or The Office or This Is Us were dropped by NBC, then picked up again by CBS, would you really care so long as you had your show? Would you miss NBC?

What if a network fired three major actors from one of those shows? Would you care then?

Would you rather a show drop a few of its actors in order to remain on its current network, or change networks in order to keep the show as is?

Right now, Mailchimp is the network, and they’re providing a platform for external creators to tell stories. I want to be totally clear: THIS IS AMAZING! MORE OF THIS PLEASE!

However (and maybe this is coming), I think the single-biggest missed opportunity by Mailchimp Presents right now is not fostering in-house talent in addition to their external creators.

The brand is already dong the absolute right thing in taking a back seat as a brand, letting the value and creativity and emotion of the content and its creators lead the way. However, there’s room to foster relationships more directly between employees-as-storytellers and the audience.

Again, I’d like to applaud what Mailchimp is doing, and from what I know about their team, they’ll continue surfacing underrepresented talent and stories to give them a platform. Utterly amazing. Truly. The world doesn’t need yet another white male author launching a podcast with TED or NPR — nor does it need another in-house executive stumbling through an interview or drawing on a whiteboard to explain something better-suited for a blog post. The world desperately needs a diversity of voices, creative formats, and show styles, all of which explores meaningful, diverse themes. Kudos to MailChimp for acing that — and here’s hoping we can also build a relationship with someone who works at Mailchimp soon too.

If nothing else, I just want to be able to tell more people there: This is great. You’re doing the right thing, and you’re well ahead of most companies. Keep going. (And if you’re not Mailchimp, well … keep up.)


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Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.

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