A B2B Marketing Perfect Storm: 5 Lessons for Marketers from MailChimp’s Blockbuster Partnership with Serial

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It’s Thursday morning when I stroll into the office, Starbucks in hand. In between the periodic greetings as I make the usual route from front door to desk, I can hear the whispers. “Did you listen this morning? “What do you think?” “I’m still not convinced…” The office is abuzz, and—like many offices globally—Capterra is buzzing about Serial.


Unless you live under a rock, chances are you’ve heard of the podcast Serial. (And if you do live under a rock, you need to come out into the sunlight quickly.) Serial is the true story of a 1999 murder, told over twelve episodes of a weekly podcast series from the creators of NPR’s This American Life. It follows reporter Sarah Koenig as she investigates Adnan Syed, a man currently serving a life sentence for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, a murder that he may or may not have committed fifteen years ago as a high school senior.

Koenig’s masterful storytelling takes the listener through her investigation, presenting all the evidence for and against Syed’s possible involvement, as well as her own thoughts as she mentally sorts through the evidence and struggles to make up her mind on who’s lying. As of today (12/5/14) there are only two episodes left until the story ends.

From a B2B marketer’s perspective, however, what on earth could Serial possibly have to do with MailChimp?


MailChimp (or MailKimp) is a sponsor of Serial and runs a short ad at the beginning of every episode. It’s a pretty unique ad for a few reasons. For starters, they sent the copy to the producers of Serial who then went out to the streets and recorded various people reading the copy. The ad itself has become beloved by listeners because—in part—of two of the speakers, one of whom is a child who struggles to correctly pronounce MailChimp and ends up saying “MailKimp”. The mispronunciation alone has actually sparked so much conversation MailChimp bought the domain MailKimp.com.

And Serial has gone insanely viral, breaking the record for the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads on iTunes. As Serial has gone viral, so has MailChimp.

“Sure,” you might think to yourself. “But didn’t MailChimp just get really lucky? I mean, who would’ve thought a podcast would or could go so viral? They’re so old school!”

Yes and no. MailChimp perhaps got lucky that the podcast went viral, but the marriage of MailChimp and this podcast were destined to be a success for several reasons, many of which can be applied to your B2B marketing plan. Here’s what you can take away from the pairing to hopefully catch your own lightning in a bottle.

1. Target Your Market. Better.

The B2B space is evolving. People are increasingly merging their personal life and work life (for example, large amounts of people use their personal Facebook accounts while at work, and check their work emails at home). My point? B2B and B2C are becoming increasingly indistinguishable now. In fact, some people are suggesting a whole new type of marketing: B2P – business to person.


by Michelle Rial for The Bold Italic

What does this mean for the B2B marketer? It means stop targeting the business and start targeting the people behind the business. That means speaking to people’s emotions and making your marketing memorable.

I’m willing to bet that a large portion of MailChimp’s customers are small businesses. What MailChimp realized, however, is that they could—and should—reach the owners and employees, the people behind the businesses, who are likely fairly independent and creative. The MailChimp team seems to have done their research to find partners that not only embody the same values of their brand, but appeal to those people behind the businesses. As MailChimp’s marketing director, Mark DiCristina notes in an interview with Quartz, “We’re interested in supporting content and content creators who are doing really interesting stuff.”

His team realized that many of the listeners of This American Life, a podcast that they first sponsored, are likely people behind the businesses he wants to reach. When the team behind This American Life created Serial, DiCristina realized the content of that podcast could reach his target audience as well.

The takeaway? If you’re not doing it already, your marketing team needs to start researching the types of people who make up the businesses you target, beyond just the businesses themselves. Find out what kinds of things these people like and pay attention to and advertise in those spaces. Start building brand awareness with them before they ever get to the board room.

2. Rethink Your Storytelling Strategy

One of the major pillars of branding is learning to tell your brand’s story effectively. But what MailChimp did so well—instead of telling its own story—was linking itself to the extremely powerful storytelling of Serial’s Sarah Koenig.

“Now you’re just splitting hairs,” you’re thinking. “What’s the difference?”

Your brand story is the story of your company – who you are, how you came to be, why you came to be, your core values. That kind of stuff. This sort of storytelling is important, but what MailChimp has done with Serial is different.

They’ve taken an interesting story,  and connected their brand to it. While television advertising is technically a form of this, what distinguishes the MailChimp-Serial relationship is how intertwined the two are.

By Michelle Rial for The Bold Italic

By Michelle Rial for The Bold Italic

The spot is the only ad on the podcast (or was the only ad on the podcast before other sponsors started joining in); it’s the same ad; and it airs at the same spot in each episode. Another recent example of a brand that has done it really well is Gatoradewhose ad resonated deeply with Yankee fans and Yankee-haters alike.

MailChimp did really take a leap in putting their name on something that doesn’t relate to email marketing at all. But the content is compelling in its own right. MailChimp chose to advertise on the podcast simply because they liked the story so much and they knew others would, too. In fact, just liking the content is enough for people to have positive feelings about your brand. To put it in the words of Mark DiCristina:

“I just think the fact that the show is so good, a lot of that rubs off on the ad itself. Part of what people are responding to when they’re responding to the ad is really their affection for the show itself. We’re beneficiaries of that excitement, but I don’t think that it’s necessarily a result of the ad itself.”

That quote perfectly sums up why compelling, likeable content, regardless of how well it embodies your brand message, should be where you advertise.

3. Don’t Be Afraid of Long Form Storytelling

Tons of people might argue that long form storytelling is dead, and that people only want to consume bite-size content because in the digital age we’ve all lost our attention spans. However, long form storytelling has been around forever (see: The Odyssey), and it’s not going away anytime soon just because we developed the smartphone.

But there are tricks to using long form storytelling effectively.

The first is to recognize that while long form storytelling is still alive, it is enjoyed more sparingly. Therefore marketing budget should be reserved only for the best long form stories: the most intriguing, the most attention grabbing, the most emotion-evoking. As Taylor Swift said in her Wall Street Journal op-ed:

“People are still buying albums, but now they’re buying just a few of them. They are buying only the ones that hit them like an arrow through the heart or have made them feel strong or allowed them to feel like they really aren’t alone in feeling so alone.”

She hits the nail on the head when it comes to long form content. Incredible content – like Serial – will have incredible reader/viewer/listenership.

You also need to keep in mind that long form storytelling should be used differently from most other content. The vast majority of the content that brands create is educational or informative, whether to educate an audience on who their brand is or about trends in the company’s industry. But what makes MailChimp’s partnership with Serial and other podcasts different—and what you should take note of—is that they use long form storytelling to create a relationship with an audience.

The MailChimp spots aren’t trying to sell you MailChimp’s services and platform then and there. They don’t occur every thirty seconds, like the aggressive Walmart ads during NBC’s broadcast of Peter Pan Live. No, the MailChimp ad airs once, right at the beginning of each 30-60 minute episode of Serial. They’re almost saying “MailChimp hopes you enjoy this episode, and to prove it, we won’t bother you again.”

4. Don’t Force the Big Moments

How MailChimp has handled this entire situation is actually the most crucial aspect of their success. From the very beginning, MailChimp was fairly hands-off in their approach to Serial and its success. Remember that they let the Serial producers create the ad spot? Letting the producers of the content also produce the ad ensured that the ad worked with the content, rather than jarringly standing out.

by Michelle Rial for The Bold Italic

by Michelle Rial for The Bold Italic

Next, when #MailKimp started trending and the internet began buzzing all about MailChimp, MailChimp purposefully stayed out of the conversation. They recognized two things that many brands seem to miss:

  1. When people are talking about your brand, particularly on social media, they want to talk about your brand, not to your brand. If they want to talk to you, they’ll call you up, or call you out on social media.
  2. When people are buzzing about your brand and the content it’s created or sponsored, you should recognize that they’re not actually talking about your brand. They’re talking about their lives, upon which your brand has had an effect. Once again, they want to have a conversation about you, not to you.

What these two things mean is that taking a step back and not trying to control the conversation is a good thing. You’re not stifling the conversation or, worse, turning the conversation against you. You’re letting the audience do the marketing for you, building brand buzz. Sometimes you just have to let things happen on their own.

5. Take Risks.

“What’s the ROI?”

That’s your boss, immediately after you present a proposal to sponsor a piece of well-targeted, brand aligned, long form storytelling. If I were Mark DiCristina, this would have been echoing in the back of my mind constantly from the moment Serial producers first approached me about a sponsorship. Podcasts are a dying medium. Who’s it going to reach?

Additionally, Serial was brand new when MailChimp came on board. There had been a grand total of zero episodes produced. What if the podcast audience rejected it? What if MailChimp put money into this sponsorship and these ads, and the entire thing flopped?

On top of that, Serial produced the MailChimp ad. While DiCristina’s team wrote the copy, he heard the ad for the first time when he listened to the first episode. Considering that during the 2012 national election, 22 staffers had to approve a single 140-character tweet for Mitt Romney’s campaign before it was sent, to throw money behind a full-fledged ad and not even listen to it once before it goes live requires a great deal of trust. Sure, you could point to their experience sponsoring This American Life as a way for them to have a little more trust in the Serial team, but very few marketing teams would risk their budgets that easily.

DiCristina and the MailChimp team were willing to take risks to sponsor something they believed in. They found something superiorly engaging, that was targeted toward the people they needed to reach, that aligned well with their brand (not in message, but what they found interesting), and was compelling long form storytelling, and they went for it.

My advice for any B2B company that finds something special that meets these criteria: You should go for it too.

Have anything other marketing lessons from Serial and MailChimp’s success with podcast we can learn from? Leave them in the comments below!

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About the Authors

Cara Wood

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Cara Wood is a marketing associate at Capterra and a graduate of Mary Washington! When she's not hard at work at Capterra, she can be found horse-back riding, reading and just generally having a good time at life.

Dylan Echter

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Dylan works on Public Relations, Social Media, and Brand Marketing at Capterra. He's a NJ native, DC resident, and graduate of the College of William and Mary. He enjoys live music and compelling stories, and has a casual interest in ekistics.


Personally, I thought everyone who needed to send mass-emails already knew about MailChimp! Well, everyone except the girl who says “MailKimp”, who I’m pretty sure is a teen or adult who speaks English as a second language. It’s a sad state of affairs if American children know what a chimp is.

Regardless, it was clearly a good sponsorship choice on their part. Given the pedigree of This American Life, it probably wasn’t that risky of a decision. MailChimp does, however have an advantage over most B2B marketers in that just about any business at all would consider using their services. When you sell something as broadly applicable as “email marketing system,” you can’t throw stick without hitting people who probably want to use something like what you offer. But if you’re a company that sells a niche B2B product, any target audience as broad as “people who listen to popular podcasts” is probably a very loose way to spend.

The MailKimp girl is actually a 13 year old american girl… I can dredge up a link for you if you’d like. I do think its weird she has no idea how to pronounce chimp though, haha.

I certainly agree that MailChimp has an extremely broad reaching target audience, so This American Life was not as far out of left-field as it could initially seem to be. Of course, that was kind of our point – MailChimp figured out the sorts of platforms their audience frequented and then advertised on it. What seems like a risk at first is quickly proven to be great research. And that’s a lesson any company, B2B, B2C, niche or broad-appeal, can take from it. I certainly don’t recommend that every Tom, Dick and Harry should start advertising on This American Life.

By the way, if you’ve been listening to Serial, how excited are you for this Thursday? I personally can’t WAIT!

[…] Marketers that create podcasts to provide an alternative content delivery channel often find serial marketing campaigns track even more […]

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