A few weeks ago, Chris Giliberti arrived at the office to discover a delicious surprise.
Giliberti, chief of staff of Gimlet Media, turned up at the Brooklyn-based podcasting company and found a box of cookies from a nearby artisanal bakery on his desk.
A greeting was written neatly on the lid of the box in black marker: "To Chris + the rest of the Gimlet crew...from your buddies on the Slack channel, especially @Kan, @Milli @Sean!!"
The surprise delivery and the accompanying message would've been bewildering six months ago. But for Giliberti and Gimlet Media, the confections were an unexpected upside to an unusual business decision designed to boost revenue and give the company a cozier relationship with its listeners.
About a month ago, Gimlet Media unveiled the latest perk in its membership program, a listener club of sorts for the company's audience of podcast junkies. Like many news organizations, including The Wall Street Journal, Slate and the Voice of San Diego, Gimlet's membership program is designed to create another source of funding for the company while strengthening ties to its most enthusiastic fans.
For $60 per year, members get a variety of benefits, including early access to new shows, a Gimlet T-shirt and "weird audio surprises" conveyed via email. But the company's newest tweak to its membership program is one that puts listeners in direct conversation with the company's staffers.
The idea: Give Gimlet's members access to the company's Slack team, the network of instant messaging conversations Gimlet uses to communicate. Slack, a popular messaging app in vogue at newsrooms around the world, is used by Gimlet staffers to conduct the business of your typical podcasting startup: Plan episodes, chatter about the company and occasionally tease the CEO for his lack of digital savvy.
But they figured, why not let members into their Slack, too?
"It started out as an experiment — we didn't know what the hell was going to happen with this," Giliberti said. "This could be a great idea, an awful idea, something we need to cancel right away. We were nervous about it in the beginning. But it's been our most successful member benefit to date in terms of engagement."
If it seems highly unusual for a news organization to keep its audience that close, that's because it is. Although many outlets have membership programs that include newsroom tours, behind-the-scenes exclusives and face-time with prominent journalists, few afford even their most devoted fans this kind of intimate access.
But the equation is a little different for Gimlet Media. The first episode of the company's first podcast chronicled the founder's amateurish pitch to billionaire Silicon Valley investor Chris Sacca. Subsequent episodes detailed the company's struggles with diversity, its fraught search for a name and some initial uneasiness associated with the company's branded content. Transparency has been a staple for Gimlet from the get-go.
And it's not as if members have access to every conversation on Slack. Although members who've taken advantage of the perk are able to talk amongst themselves and message Gimlet staffers, they can't view conversations going on in the company's more proprietary channels, Giliberti said.
Since Gimlet opened its Slack team to staffers in mid-July, more than 1,800 members have taken advantage of the perk, Giliberti said. And unlike other digital spaces where audiences interact with journalists, the Slack has been surprisingly hate-free.
"When we initially launched it, we were like, 'This could be crazy. We could get some real weirdos,'" Giliberti said. "But there hasn't been a single issue yet that's led us to kick someone out. We haven't even had to approach a member and tell them, be careful with your behavior. It's been totally supportive. People are making friends on there that they're meeting up with in person."
The Slack group has so far proven to be a powerful incentive to drive membership, Giliberti said. Although he declined to disclose Gimlet's total membership, he says the perk has driven a 200 percent increase in new sign-ups month over month. Although it's impossible to pin down with absolute certainty whether the increase in membership was prompted by the new perk, sign-ups have gone way up since the company began promoting the Slack team.
It's unclear how much money Gimlet's membership program actually brings in — Giliberti called it "a small but really meaningful revenue stream." But it isn't all about the money. Looking ahead, it's possible Gimlet could use the Slack channel to mobilize its members as amateur sleuths, a la Serial, or ask them to help pore over caches of information.
As a possible incentive for this work — or just for random acts of kindness — Gimlet is also considering incorporating prizes into the Slack channel. Giliberti's been mulling the inclusion of Bonusly, a tool that allows colleagues to dispense money to one another in recognition of jobs well-done.
Those stipends will be going to members, not Gimlet staffers, Giliberti said. The listeners have already been generous enough. After sending the cookies and trying to destroy evidence of their plan by scrambling the messages, the three schemers were already plotting their next act of guerrilla goodwill.
"Then they were chattering about sending us pizzas, and at that point I was like, 'Guys, the benefit is supposed to go from us to you," Giliberti said. "No more sending us delicious food.'"