Listen Like An Ad Guy

A photo of MailChimp marketing director Mark DiCristinaSix years ago, you could have counted the staff of MailChimp on the fingers and toes of any higher primate.

“There were fewer than 20 people total at the company,” Mark DiCristina said. “Now there are 400 of us.”

DiCristina, now MailChimp’s marketing director, was one of two people in the marketing department and he was there when the company made its first podcast advertising buy, long before the decision to sponsor the blockbuster “Serial,” before Ira Glass pitched “This American Life” at the first-ever podcasting upfronts, before most people had heard of MailChimp, let alone MailKimp.

He brings an ad guy and podcast-listener perspective for the latest in our “Listen Like A …” series. This interview has been edited and condensed.

AIR: What’s changed in the past six years, relative to MailChimp and podcasting?

DICRISTINA: It’s just been an explosion, especially over the past couple years. We started sponsoring podcasts maybe five years ago. We were interested in reaching web developers and designers and people who could directly impact our business in terms of signing up themselves or putting their clients on MailChimp.

The podcasts we started advertising on were very heavily focused on technology — language-specific podcasts or platform-specific podcasts, like a WordPress podcast or a Python podcast something like that. Pretty niche stuff.

Then as MailChimp grew and podcasting got more popular, the availability of shows definitely became more broad and diverse, but also MailChimp got bigger and we were more interested in becoming mainstream in terms of who the audience was that we wanted to reach. We started branching out from doing only tech-specific podcasts to doing more consumer-focused podcasts.


AIR: Is MailChimp pretty evenly balanced in that space? I have a heavy podcast habit and if feels like I hear about you guys on 60 percent of my podcasts.

DICRISTINA: It’s funny; people tell us all the time that they hear us everywhere. We definitely have a healthy schedule of podcast advertising, but I don’t feel like we sponsor that much.

We definitely sponsor what I feel like are the best shows. We’re definitely interested in podcasts that are telling great stories, like “This American Life.” We’re also interested in podcasters who are making creative use of the form, doing new and interesting things with it. “Serial” is a big example of that. “StartUp” with Alex Blumberg: When he started doing that, it was a more interesting, different take on what a show could be.

For the most part, we’re interested in creating awareness for MailChimp, aligning ourselves with great storytellers and great content. We would like people to see us as a company that’s supportive of creativity, of people who tell great stories, and represent those ideas to people so if and when they’re in the market for an email provider, they’ll have good feelings about MailChimp baked in when they’re making a decision.


AIR: How much of this strategic direction came from your personal taste, or was it just identifying a growth market? How did this emerge as a strategy?

DICRISTINA: I listen to all the podcasts that MailChimp sponsors, and I would be listening to them even if we didn’t sponsor them.

The primary thing for us is finding the right audience to communicate with on behalf of MailChimp. Every show that we sponsor is a show that I’m personally really excited about; I think that the host has a great point of view. There’s great content.

Now that I think about it, most of what I listen to, we either have sponsored at some point or it’s a good fit or we’re currently sponsoring. There’s definitely shows that I listen to that wouldn’t be a good fit for MailChimp, but for the most part I rely heavily on my own tastes and listening.


AIR: What makes somebody a good fit and what might rule out an otherwise wonderful podcast?

DICRISTINA: There are shows on the Nerdist network, lots of great comedy shows. “What the Fuck?” with Marc Maron is awesome. We’ve actually sponsored that occasionally, but shows that are really great for entertainment don’t necessarily feel like they’re a great fit for MailChimp, either because they’re too far out there in terms of explicit content or don’t align with MailChimp’s brand quite as much as I would like.

I listen to “On Being,” “Fresh Air,” things like that that are more great content but aren’t necessarily a great fit for MailChimp. I listen to a podcast called “Juan Epstein,” a rap podcast, based on Hot 97 in New York. They interview interesting old hip-hop heads. I find it really entertaining.


AIR: There’s a ton of storytelling out there and the space is becoming more crowded. As we see more podcasts emerging, how much of a factor is production quality? And what are you listening for in production, and looking for in metrics?

DICRISTINA: In terms of production, I think the content is always the most important thing. Production is great, but I feel like if the content is fantastic, the production values aren’t totally important.

“Longform” is a podcast that we love and sponsor as TinyLetter, which is another product MailChimp has. It’s not a highly produced show, but they get the most wonderful writers. They always have really, really great conversation. I feel like it’s a really scrappy podcast and it’s one of my absolute favorites. I love those guys and I think it’s a great fit for us, and production isn’t quite so important.

MailChimp is also a company that’s getting much larger, so it’s going to make more sense for us to look at the best and most wide-reaching podcasts that are out there.

In terms of metrics, we’ve never been particularly concerned with seeing the conversion [from listeners to customers] on podcasts. We’ve mostly been interested in creating awareness. There are rough ways we measure that — sentiment on Twitter, when people are talking about us. Generally that doesn’t happen that often; people don’t usually talk about advertising, but with “Serial,” for example, the ad became deeply connected to the show itself and we had this tremendous amount of lift.

At this point, it’s such a small percentage of our marketing budget, and awareness is such a tricky thing to measure, anyway, that we’re not super concerned with it. We have this intuitive sense of how impactful it is. We hear from listeners and hosts about how much they love working with us and how helpful it is to work with MailChimp, so that’s good enough.


AIR: On the other side of metrics, one of the big problems on the podcaster end is how to present yourself. Is it important for podcasters to show downloads, listeners per week, or subscribers? When someone’s approaching you to sponsor their show, what do you want to see?

DICRISTINA: Listening, I get a sense really quickly of whether this is a good show or not. I’m an avid listener. It’s not important to see number of downloads.

For someone who’s buying ads who isn’t into podcasts, or isn’t listening to the shows, those metrics are important. It would be important to tee up one or two episodes that are representative of the best of the show — maybe not the whole show itself, but a little reel of five minutes of really great conversation, a great story. “This is what we’re all about; this is what you’re getting when you come on board with us.”

Downloads help. Testimonials from other advertisers, that’s another thing I think that’s generally very effective. If I were considering a podcast and I saw that two or three other companies that I respect, whose marketing is really on point, [and saw that] not only do they sponsor the podcast but had a great experience, had some benefit from it — that would be valuable.


AIR: You and NerdWallet have been effective at these hugely entertaining, radio story-style, host-read ads. Is that an expectation now? As you’re growing, are you moving toward dropped-in, agency ads?

DICRISTINA: I think they’re wonderful. From my perspective as an advertiser, what makes them special is that they’re more engaging than a traditional ad. They actually deliver some benefit to listeners, so they’re not just this interruption that the listener doesn’t want to hear.

The way Alex Blumberg did the “StartUp” spots, they’re another story within the story. They’re compelling and I think he did a good job of separating the ad from the content, and made it clear to his listeners that this was a paid placement.

I don’t expect it. I tend to be pretty respectful of how the podcast or the host wants to do that, but I do think there’s something really special about having a host read the spot, and I do think that some type of native advertising is great. There’s so much more for the listener and it also presents the advertiser in a more human way.


AIR: We talk about rates, CPM. I think a lot of podcasters are at sea about what the value of their ad inventory is, and what kinds of deals you guys are interested in making.

DICRISTINA: I don’t have a target CPM that I look for; it varies by show and it varies by the value of the show, too. I’m willing to pay a higher CPM for a show like “Serial” that’s got a great big audience, the best content in the business. A show that’s not as large, where the audiences is not as engaged, the CPM would be lower.

I think when you’re starting out, the potential for creating long-term relationships is more valuable than getting the great rate at first.

Start in a place that feels low and is a real, great deal [for advertisers]. As you build an audience and a base of advertisers, increase that rate. It’s really normal on my side to see a rate go up. If we advertise on a podcast for six months or a year, if that rate goes up by 20 or 30 percent year over year, I expect that, because the audience has grown or there are additional costs because the production value is higher. I would never be afraid of increasing rates.

Don’t ever be afraid to raise rates if you’ve been doing it a while. That’s a normal thing that people expect.


AIR: People are looking at Midroll as a starting point for rates. Do you think they’re on target?

DICRISTINA: Yeah, I think so.


AIR: Is there anything you wish podcasters knew before approaching MailChimp?

DICRISTINA: We love hearing from everybody. We don’t say yes to everybody. We don’t say yes to most people.

Think in terms of making the decision as easy as possible in terms of putting the best foot forward. Anything that makes things easy for an advertiser, that’s always a good thing. They generally don’t have much time and are trying to make a lot of decisions in a day. The easier you can make it, the better.

I, personally, I’m a huge fan of podcasts. I was into it before we got into it for MailChimp, and I will be into it. It’s nice that my job and life align like that.


AIR: Last thing. Will you think about it and email me your five favorite podcasts that aren’t sponsored by MailChimp?



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