Alex Blumberg’s Startup finds new opportunities in podcast advertising

Advertisers and podcasters may want to tune in as the producer tests potential of experimental advertising

When I meet radio producer Alex Blumberg, he is wearing the tennis shoes that his wife made him change out of for a meeting with a business investor in episode one of Startup. That’s Blumberg’s new podcast about how he is starting his own podcast business (he is aware that it’s meta).

Despite the shoe change, that first investor meeting was unsuccessful. But others, similarly documented in Startup, had better outcomes, and Blumberg now runs Gimlet Media (as the company was named in Startup’s fifth episode) out of a Brooklyn office with co-founder Matt Lieber.

It’s a hands-on partnership: Lieber, who this morning is busy sweeping the floor, has built their new recording studio inside the office, an old bank building shared with creatives and nonprofits. And yet, it was just months ago that a meeting between the co-founders to-be left Lieber thinking the partnership wouldn’t happen after all, and Blumberg questioning the true nature of the business world (in Startup’s episode three):

“You think it’s about numbers and bottom lines but really it’s just about raw feelings?”

Starting a business is about feelings when Blumberg tells the story. With a career as a long-time producer for This American Life, and co-founder of the narrative economics podcast Planet Money, personal storytelling is what Blumberg does best, and what he’s bringing to Startup, the first podcast to come out of Gimlet: “I felt like I hadn’t heard about the emotional side of starting a business. It’s lonely and confusing,” Blumberg says.

This knack for narrative has earned Startup an audience both among listeners who don’t normally care about business, and among some who never listened to podcasts but care about the subject, like entrepreneurs and small business owners, says Blumberg. “I wasn’t sure if people would be interested, but it’s had more pickup than we thought. It struck a chord.” It has around 120,000 listens per episode on Soundcloud, Blumberg says, and is available for free through its website, on iTunes, and on various podcast apps.

The podcast also helped spark a media conversation about the future and business of podcasts, one that Blumberg says he wasn’t trying to instigate but is glad to be part of.

The conversation covers Blumberg’s narrative approach to Startup’s sponsored content, promoted in a style that makes the ads seem like stories within the story. He says he is mindful of the potential pitfalls of treating ads this way.

“I want to be very clear about when it’s sponsored. Utterly transparent,” says Blumberg, who adds a distinct soundtrack to all advertisements in Startup and talks openly to sponsors about contracts during the segments (sponsor MailChimp, we learn in episode four, pays $6,000 per episode).

As Forbes writer Michael Wolf notes, the benefits likely outweigh any criticisms of Blumberg’s ad strategy. “[T]his storytelling thing? It’s big nowadays in marketing circles if you haven’t noticed,” he writes, adding, “I have to wonder why more don’t follow Alex’s cue?”

Wolf sees potential for profit in the approach, because Blumberg manages to engage listeners in the sponsor’s story through conversations and anecdotes. This dialogue is from an advertisement for NerdWallet, an online service that offers answers to money questions, from Startup’s first episode: Blumberg walks into NerdWallet’s office unannounced and tells an unsuspecting employee, Cliff, that NerdWallet is Blumberg’s first sponsor:

Blumberg: “Do you listen to podcasts?”

Cliff: “I do not.”

Blumberg: “Hmmm… Do you listen to the radio?”

Cliff: “I do.”

Blumberg: “Wait, how old are you?”

Cliff: “29” (laughs)

Blumberg: “So you’re a 29 year old, tech-savvy professional and you’re still listening to terrestrial radio?!”

Cliff: “I am a little bit of a grandpa around here” (laughs again)

Laughter in the background from Cliff’s co workers seems to support that statement.

Blumberg: “Crap, now I’m feeling bad about my business.”

Cliff: “Sorry to burst your bubble on that one.”

This personal, informal approach means listeners hang in there although the ads are often well over one minute long:

Beyond traditional audio ads, usually short statements read by a show host, Blumberg’s ads explain the sponsor’s mission using narrative.

In an advertisement for MailChimp in Startup’s episode three, Blumberg tells marketing director Mark DiCristina that he had heard MailChimp’s ads before but never really understood what it was. At the end of an anecdote about how he came to understand MailChimp via his own use of the digital newsletter service, Blumberg exclaims, “Ooooh, thats what you guys do!” as an entertaining way to convey the information to all his listeners.

In an email to CJR, DiCristina said that Blumberg’s approach is great for MailChimp.
“He creates more value for listeners (who get to hear stories and conversation instead of a sales pitch) and more value for us (because we get to show people who we are and how we do things instead of making a pitch),” he writes. And the response has been unusual, too, DiCristina adds. “Frankly, it’s surprising anytime people talk about ads at all—at least in a positive way—and there have been lots more people talking about these ads than normal.”

Blumberg says the show’s sponsored content approach grew organically out of his project but, whether it’s the narrative ads or just the general attention around Startup, something is working. “There has been a lot of demand from sponsors,” Blumberg says.

He isn’t sure if narrative advertising will be integrated in other podcasts Gimlet has planned (Blumberg notes that two other pilots will be coming out later this year), but he says, “I hope we can continue. To me it’s a great solution—it’s not as disruptive.”

The approach may have a limited scope—NerdWallet and MailChimp provide services to which Blumberg and his Web-savvy listeners can easily relate. But what if the show picks up sponsors with more controversial wares?

“That’s an issue we’d have to figure out: what kind of advertiser would be right for this kind of thing,” says Blumberg.

While the sky may not be the limit, the feedback so far suggests that other producers might consider paying attention to Gimlet’s strategies. DiCristina says he would love to see more creativity in podcast advertising, which is too narrowly conceived, he says, although he won’t encourage others to directly copy Blumberg’s style.

Now is a good time to get into podcast advertising. As the Washington Post recently reported, podcasts have become profitable with the number of unique listeners tripling to 75 million from five years ago, and with Itunes subscriptions reaching one billion.

There’s still at least three episodes left of Startup, which Blumberg hopes to continue in a different incarnation, maybe by following other companies, he says. So podcast listeners might get a chance to follow the life of their favorite sponsors too, beyond this fall.

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS. Tags: , , , , , ,