The guys who always wear shorts to the office. The social awkwardness of elevators. The teacher who wants to take a one-way trip to Mars. The parents who really have no idea what you do for a living…
All such life is present in the Slack Variety Pack, a breezy, quirky magazine-style podcast about “work, life and everything in between” put out by the buzzed-about startup, Slack. When it launched this spring, the podcast got some of the same love as the company’s much-lauded workplace communication tool.
The Slack Variety Pack is billed as the “first branded entertainment podcast” by its producers, Vancouver-based Pacific Content. In this respect, it diverges from sponsored podcasts that tend to feature more overt commercial messages.
Instead, the brand largely gives way to a series of short, content-driven segments in the bi-weekly, mostly half-hour episodes. Its creators make no claims that it emulates journalistic content, although some of the stories covered wouldn’t be out of place in the feature pages of a newspaper.
Why a podcast?
A messaging app for teams might seem to have little in common with podcasting. But Slack already had a strong affinity with the format, having sponsored a variety of podcasts.
The decision to launch a podcast of its own was about developing a “deeper connection” with its customers and further building its brand, says Slack Chief Marketing Officer Bill Macaitis. Those who buy or advocate for Slack in companies tend to be early adopters, he told TheMediaBriefing.
“Although podcasts are becoming more mainstream, if you’re a die-hard listener of podcasts, there’s a good chance you’re also an early adopter, so it was a way for us to help spread the word about Slack.”
Wanting to avoid one-way ads blasting indiscriminately at people, for Slack the idea of a branded podcast was a way to connect directly with its users and tell stories that embody its values, says Macaitis.
The company found a like-minded partner in Pacific Content.
“Why would a company rent space in somebody else’s podcast when they could build their own?” asks Pacific Content co-founder Steve Pratt. For him, it makes sense for a company to have its own media product that reflects “their brand’s voice, their brand’s values and created for their target audience”.
The latest Slack Podcast: Posted on July 28, 2015
Podcasting’s ‘HBO and Netflix moments’
The Slack Variety Pack is among the latest in a profusion of audio products contributing to the rebirth of podcasting. Approximately 46 million Americans aged 12 and over are now listening to podcasts each month, according to Edison Research and Triton Digital.
The popularity of standout podcasts like Serial, and developments in technology such as in-car listening and the fast growth of smartphones and other mobile devices have contributed to this revival.
“It’s also having its Netflix moment – people are realizing there’s an amazing amount of great stuff out there to listen to and they can listen to it whenever they want.”
For a seasoned broadcaster like Pratt, previously director of digital music at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, a virtue of the branded podcast is the ability to target niche areas of interest and reach audiences who are fervent fans of a particular subject.
In contrast, a traditional mass media product has to please a large mainstream audience. “I think that’s where the opportunity is: to create things for a smaller group of people that are very targeted that they’re just going to love,” he says. “They’ll go to the ends of the earth to be appreciative that it actually exists.”
Image: Erin Garrity and Dave Shumka in the Pacific Content studio recording the Slack Variety Pack. Copyright: Rachel Nixon
Once Slack had decided to put out its own podcast, Macaitis and others worked closely with Pacific Content to develop the overall plan.
“We decided pretty early that we wanted to adopt this Variety Pack model which harkens back to the ’50s and ’60s when some of the late-night shows were coming out with a lot of small snippets and different pieces of content, and we transformed that to more of a Slack paradigm shift where these were almost like [Slack] channels.”
Following intensive collaboration upfront, Slack has continued to give feedback after each episode and talk about topics for future podcasts. Pratt says: “The level of feedback that we get from the Slack team is better than what you get from a media company, and it’s not about protecting their brand in any way – it’s about making better stories.”
In the podcast itself, the brand takes a backseat to the stories, though is not entirely absent. Between segments sit slogans such as “Slack: Love what you do” and “Slack: Making work less work-y.”
There are also calls to action to listeners to get in touch through Twitter and other means.
“It’s a very soft sell,” Macaitis says.
“Too many marketers want to go straight to selling the product, telling you why the product’s great, and they don’t really think about the customer or understand this is a journey, that there’s going to be a lot of opportunities to tell that story.”
Importance of social
Social media has been central to user engagement with the Slack Variety Pack so far, says Pratt, and the format has been designed in part with sharing in mind.
Listeners can download the whole episode, but each individual story, labelled as a “Slack single serving”, is available on Soundcloud. This enables targeting of groups who identify with a particular subject – like those guys who always wear shorts in the office – who’ll then go on to share them with their friends.
With these shorter clips, if “you put time and effort into thinking about a good headline and a good image and make it playable inside Facebook, you can get some really big engagement that you wouldn’t with a traditional podcast,” he says.
Social is perhaps doubly important for companies like Slack. Unlike regular media outlets, it has no traditional platforms to rely on to promote and distribute its content.
The podcast is now halfway through its initial run of a dozen episodes. To judge whether it’s working, Slack tracks some of the regular media metrics such as number of downloads and listeners. It also looks to brand metrics such as aided and unaided recall and sentiment, as well as listening in to user feedback on social networks like Twitter.
“We believe if people have a great experience with Slack and we measure that through NPS [Net Promoter Score] there’s a good chance that they’re going to recommend us,” adds Macaitis, “and that’s going to allow us to grow sustainably and to scale efficiently without spending a huge amount of money on more of the traditional one-way forms of advertising.”
‘The Red Bull of podcasting’
Slack is by no means the first non-media company creating its own content to reinforce its brand appeal to consumers. Firms such as Red Bull, GoPro and Pepsi are prominent forerunners.
But for companies looking to this particular format, says Pratt, “there’s a huge opportunity to be essentially the Red Bull of podcasting.”
He looks to Red Bull’s video output as an example of how to make compelling branded content that doesn’t shove commercial messages.
“No one’s ever drinking Red Bull, no one’s ever giving you product pitches about why it’s the best energy drink or what’s in it or any of that sort of stuff. It’s: here’s awesome content.”
As far as other podcasts are concerned, Pratt expresses admiration for the makers of Serial, and the Gimlet team for “rethinking different ways of providing advertising that are more storytelling based”.
With users becoming increasingly savvy about how to skip traditional advertising, creative approaches to get users to pay attention to a brand are going to be increasingly necessary, he says.
“The challenge that every brand is going to have to think about is: where are we going to spend our money and how are we actually going to make sure it’s something that creates positive value for the company or something that people actually see or listen to?”
In this respect, podcasting may offer a new frontier for branded content – and Pratt sees opportunities for companies able to create the right audio mix. “The podcasting space is still relatively uncrowded for brands to make high-quality programmes that do terrific storytelling and can make an impact and find an audience pretty quickly.”
He predicts more firms will follow suit.
“There’s going to be a shift to seeing non-media companies becoming the media companies of the future. You’re going to see some real breakout programmes, and brands making amazing content that will surprise people that the thing they love the most is coming from a brand.”
Not all non-media firms have the skills in-house to make this happen. This potentially creates new demand for staff from traditional media companies at a time when these outlets are often cutting back.
“I think you’ll find a lot of content creators from media backgrounds going to work in content divisions for companies or being consultants on how to tell stories more effectively,” Pratt says.
There have always been traditional media epicentres such as New York, London or Toronto, but with brands now on the scene as content creators, “this opens up a whole new world where you can produce stuff wherever you want and for whoever you want.”
The Pacific Content team (l-r): Jennifer Ouano, Dave Shumka, Chris Kelly, Pat Kelly, Steve Pratt
For those companies considering putting out a branded podcast to get closer to their customers – or tasking an agency to do it on their behalf – Pratt has five key takeaways:
1. Understand the brand: “Invest time and effort in getting to deeply know the brand you’re working with and set up a very collaborative and open relationship from day one.”
2. Tell strong stories: “Think broadly about the themes and the types of stories you can tell that would be a good fit. It doesn’t have to be really literal.”
3. Think social and shareable: “Each individual story should be considered for how it’s going to be received and whether it’s something that people would want to talk about or share before you greenlight it.”
4. Be community minded: “Don’t think your job is done after you’re finished publishing. You have a lot of work to make sure that the communities represented in the story are aware of it and that you’re letting the appropriate people know that it exists.”
5. Put audience first: “Very consistently check yourself to make sure you’re focused on the audience first at all costs.”
Rachel Nixon is a digital news executive based in Vancouver.
Most recently she was Editor-in-Chief of MSN News and Sports in the US. She was also Senior Director of Digital Media for CBC News in Toronto and, before moving to Canada, one of the first journalists for the BBC News website in London. Rachel is presently a Political Science MA candidate at the University of British Columbia, studying how changes in media and technology impact global and political issues.
You can follow her on Twitter: @rachelnixon