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The popularity of the “Serial” podcast, which recounts a journalist’s investigation of a murder case from 1999, caught many members of the media by surprise. It also surprised the lone, single, risky advertiser that agreed to sponsor the podcast before it became a widespread phenomenon, in ways that most advertisers would kill to achieve.

83402844The lone advertiser is MailChimp. It paid National Public Radio (NPR), the producer of the “Serial” podcast, a sponsorship rate based on the local station’s predictions of how many listeners the podcast would attract. Although NPR chose not to make those predictions public, they clearly were just a tiny percentage of the actual download tally, which has reached more than 31 million. Thus, MailChimp paid for minor exposure to a small audience, but what it got was massive exposure to a vast swath of listeners addicted to the reporting.

Beyond this exposure, the ad that MailChimp sponsored relied on the production capabilities of the same team that produces the “Serial” podcast. The quality and entertainment level of the ad were thus impressive, and it rapidly spawned a viral spread that extended the marketing even further. In one segment of the ad, a child mispronounces the company’s name as “Mail-Kimp.” The cute mistake has been remixed over and over, becoming an Internet meme in its own right.

Although MailChimp was the only sponsor to purchase a “launch package” when the podcast first began, the popularity of the broadcast obviously has attracted the attention of more potential sponsors. With this attraction, NPR faces some challenges in its business relations, because it has an ethical obligation to ensure that advertisers never drive its content. As a news-oriented podcast, “Serial” needs to make sure that it does not pursue only those stories that advertisers want it to investigate, for example. Even when the producers of the podcast also create the advertising, they actively maintain what the executive producer calls a “firewall” between the advertising and the editorial content.

In addition, “Serial” is a completely digital product, such that it easily could collect substantial data about listeners who download the podcast through their computers and mobile devices. However, to protect the privacy of those listeners, it only provides advertisers with the aggregate numbers of people who listen, not their specific characteristics or data.

Discussion Question:

What are the likely implications of the popularity of the “Serial” podcast for other advertisers?

SOURCE: Alex Kantrowitz, “Inside the Business of the ‘Serial’ Podcast,” Advertising Age, December 18, 2014, http://adage.com

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