‘This American Life’ Meets ‘Office Space’: How Slack Created the World’s Most Ambitous Branded Podcast

Earlier this year, we asked if podcasts were going to be the next big sponsored content territory for brands. With the viral success of Serial and Slate’s upcoming Panoply podcast network, it seems the stage is set for this to happen. But we haven’t really seen any huge steps in terms of branded storytelling for podcasts—until now.

Enterprise software company Slack burst onto the scene this spring with its Slack Variety Pack podcast. It’s basically a big, weird variety show. And that’s not a bad thing.

The podcast switches from funny sketches about office culture to serious reporting about quantum computing to interviews about what emojis sound like. As Slack’s Soundcloud page explains: “Think of it as This American Life meets Office Space meets Monty Python’s Flying Circus.”

Eight months ago, Slack didn’t even have a marketing manager. Once Bill Macaitis was brought on to be CMO, or, as he says, “Marketing Employee #1,” he jumped right in to the podcast space, sponsoring approximately 10 podcasts, including StartUp and 99% Invisible. Only a few months later, he started to think about what it would sound like if Slack created its own. The answer: It would sound like a bunch of stories about work and life, such as how the modern weekend came to be and that crazy time you saw your co-workers get into a fist fight.

“Slack is really transforming the workplace,” Macaitis said. “And we thought it would be really fun to think about a podcast that could tell those stories—tell them in a fun voice, and tell them in a way that would allow us to have a deeper connection with our customers.”

Given that a lot of Slack employees already listened to podcasts, they knew what worked and what didn’t. For example, many realized that podcasts often focus on one topic for an entire 30-minute episode, which can become boring or redundant. Slack’s goal was to reach a target audience of people who work in various departments such as marketing and development, so a one-topic podcast wasn’t going to do the trick.

“The Variety Pack was a way for us to tell more stories in a shorter, more condensed format,” Macaitis said. “And a way for us to move between topics. We’re covering a lot of areas here. ‘Work and life’ is a pretty broad subject.”

In order to split up these stories on the podcast, Macaitis took inspiration from Slack’s product, which is organized by channels and themes. So a Variety Pack listener can tune in to the “Office Channel,” when people re-enact a crazy office story, before hearing the “Random Channel,” when The Office writer and star B.J. Novak shares his productivity tips.

According to Macaitis, one of his biggest challenges with the series was figuring out how to promote Slack without hitting the audience over the head with advertising. This was accomplished with calls-to-action at the end of a few select stories throughout the episode. For example, after the re-enactment of a crazy office story, listeners were asked to tweet their own stories to @SlackHQ for a chance to hear them played out on the podcast. And at the end of every podcast, listeners are invited to share their feedback with #SlackVarietyPack. Slack only includes one prompt at the beginning of each episode as the narrator announces that the content is “brought to you by Slack.”

Macaitis’s marketing team doesn’t have all the necessary in-house resources to produce a podcast, so he teamed with an outside agency to make the sure the series was professional quality. The production process for the first episode took two months, from coming up with a template for the show to launching the finished product. Going forward, Slack will release a new episode every two weeks for a total of 12 episodes.

Macaitis doesn’t make the process of creating a podcast sound too crazy. So why aren’t more brands jumping on board with audio storytelling? Perhaps they’re still getting comfortable with the medium and understanding what audiences want to hear, or they just don’t have the resources to complete such a project.

“When you look at a lot of typical marketing roles—even in the content teams that are being created—you don’t always have visual or audio skill sets in-house to do that,” Macaitis said. “That’s probably the biggest barrier right now.”

Until brands can get those resources in-house, they’d be wise to consider working with an outside agency like Slack did, especially now that 39 million Americans are listening to podcasts each month.

“I don’t think brands are hesitant or afraid. I think it’s just the beginning of a new wave,” Macaitis explained. “Can you move beyond that traditional, static one-way ad? How can you have a deeper connection? I think podcasts really represent an opportunity for that, and I think more companies will start to explore them.”

Image by MPF Photography

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