June 20, 2016

There’s a scene from “StartUp” — the popular, confessional podcast about starting a business — that depicts two journalists wrestling with a dilemma facing newsrooms around the world.

As many do, the episode focuses on the struggles of Gimlet Media, the company behind a family of podcasts including “Reply All,” “Mystery Show” and “StartUp” itself.

The concern this time? Whether companies will pay for Gimlet’s variety of branded content, stories that sound like journalism produced at the behest of an advertiser.

After a disappointing call with a potential client, Creative Director Nazanin Rafsanjani worries that advertisers “aren’t going to do this extremely narrow thing that we’re willing to do, which is make you a super-expensive, white-label podcast that we do not distribute or pass off as on our own in any way, shape or form.”

“They want us to make a podcast for them that we put out over our channels that they edit with us,” she says in the episode, released in November. “…Of course that’s what they want! Because it would be great for them.”

A half-year later, those early kinks appear to be ironed out. Last week, Gimlet Media launched “Open for Business,” its first branded podcast, with eBay. The first episode toes all the lines spelled out by Rafsanjani in November: It’s not distributed over the company’s editorial channels, it’s not passed off as an editorial production and it’s not produced by Gimlet’s editorial staff.

Instead, it comes labeled as the inaugural effort from Gimlet Creative, the four-person team at Gimlet Media that makes the company’s advertising and branded podcasts. The team, led by Rafsanjani, produced the six-episode podcast in partnership with eBay, which meant that the online auction company had final say over the direction and content of each installment.

But the first episode features many of the same storytelling techniques that have come to define the company’s editorial podcasts: An engaging host, thorough reporting, a well-defined story arc and offbeat personal asides. It even features the same kind of quirky instrumental opening music that has become a staple of Gimlet shows.

There are clear differences, however: Although the podcast is about entrepreneurialism in general, it features eBay-related conversations throughout. Being an advertisement, it doesn’t contain any other advertisements. And, on multiple occasions, the host discloses eBay’s influence, as required by the company’s advertising guidelines.

“It was really important for us to have it in all of the show art and all of the descriptions,” Rafsanjani told Poynter in an interview. “Because even though we disclose it twice, if you’re listening to it at minute three, you might not have heard that. So we tried to be as transparent as possible.”

Although “Open for Business” is Gimlet’s first foray into branded podcasting, the concept isn’t entirely new. Panoply, the podcasting company from Slate, last year launched “The Message,” a fictional sci-fi podcast that shot to the top of iTunes’ rankings with a compelling blend of professional writing, acting and sound design.

“Open for Business” differs from “The Message” in that it’s a non-fiction podcast, but early results indicate a similar interest among listeners. Although Gimlet Media didn’t disclose how many times it’s been downloaded, “Open for Business” climbed to the top of iTunes’ rankings in the latter half of last week, meaning it’s quickly garnered a mix of new subscriptions, reviews and total downloads.

This early success is undoubtedly due in part to paid-for promotional spots on other Gimlet Media shows, including “StartUp” and “Reply All.” But it might also be owing to the fact that the podcast also sounds more like an entertaining piece of journalism like a traditional ad.

“We can’t force people to listen to these shows,” said Matt Lieber, the co-founder of Gimlet Media. “If you’re on the web, you can buy traffic. …But you can’t do that in podcasts. You actually have to do something good and hook people in and hold their attention. And that is really core to how we make this thing and promote it.”

The podcast is also a test case for what Lieber hopes will eventually become a significant part of the company’s overall business. Gimlet Media does not make its revenue numbers public, but Lieber predicts that branded podcasts will account for a “double-digit percentage” of the company’s overall revenue in 2017. Package deals that include a branded podcast and promotional ad spots on Gimlet’s other shows are typically priced at “mid-six figures or above”; Lieber sees them as central to Gimlet’s strategy of developing a diversified revenue stream.

What does eBay get? The company says the intimate and long-form nature of podcasting factored into its decision to tell the company’s stories with audio. They’ll count it as a success if small business owners find it interesting or useful and come away from the podcast with a better understanding of what the company does.

“We’ve experimented with different ways of telling these stories and extracting some of these insights from them, but hadn’t really found the right medium or platform to do it well,” Annie Lupardus, director of leadership and seller communications at eBay, said in an email. “Podcasting seemed like a logical and really right-sized medium for us, since it’s a bit more intimate and longer-form.”

As with its editorial team, Gimlet Media has scoured newsrooms to find its producers. Katelyn Bogucki, Gimlet Creative’s most recent hire, was instrumental in getting The Huffington Post’s podcasting efforts off the ground. Frances Harlow, a branded content producer, was previously an associate producer at NPR’s “Planet Money.” And Rafsanjani herself was formerly a senior producer at “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC. Nicole Wong, the fourth member of the team, came from Group SJR, an advertising agency.

Rafsanjani plans to grow her team over time to meet advertiser demand. Already, the team is working on a project with HP Enterprise and plans to begin a project with Spotify slated for the summer and fall. Gimlet Creative isn’t shooting for a specific headcount, but Lieber notes that it’s still early days for branded podcasts, with additional clients likely to come out of the woodwork.

“I know this is going to sound Pollyanna-ish, but we don’t think really much at all about competition,” Lieber said. “It’s not that there aren’t any other great podcast companies out there — there are. But the industry is growing so fast at this point that the success of any given player in this place is our success, too. I feel like we’re all creating new listeners and we’re growing the size of the pie of the industry, and that’s good for all of us.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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