How Buffer Broke the Rules with "Breaking Brand"—A Narrative Business Podcast

Choosing an angle for a podcast can be daunting. See how Buffer ventured into new territory with Breaking Brand.

When Ash Read, the Editorial Director at Buffer, reached out to Emmet Shine, Executive Creative Director at Gin Lane, he was hoping to learn more about how this creative agency became such a success. But a few minutes into the conversation, Read was presented with some news he was not expecting to hear — they were shutting down Gin Lane and turning it into a direct-to-consumer company called Pattern Brands.

Why would an agency like Gin Lane, one that had helped launch brands like Harry’s, Sweetgreen, and Smile Direct Club, make such a big move? After working with over 50 startups — and creating nearly $15 billion in market value — Gin Lane would be leaving their past as an agency behind in order to build a direct-to-consumer business of their own. Read knew this was a big story to tell, so he jumped on the opportunity to share it with Buffer’s second-ever podcast, Breaking Brand. But, the road to actually producing the show and sharing it with the world was a long and winding (however fruitful) one.

Image courtesy of Buffer.

Buying into podcasting as a business

Let’s take a stroll down memory lane for a minute. Buffer saw a ton of success with their first podcast, The Science of Social Media, which was a more traditional, interview-style show. But for their second podcast, they really wanted to try something totally new.

“We launched The Science of Social Media in 2017, and it has attracted a pretty big audience — 25,000 downloads per week and over 2 million in total,” says Read. “That proved to us that our audience is interested in podcasts. With Breaking Brand, though, our main motive was actually to try and do something different.”

“With Breaking Brand, though, our main motive was actually to try and do something different.”

But that doesn’t mean Breaking Brand was purely a passion project for Buffer. It was a business decision, propped up by three main findings and beliefs.

First, was the alignment between Buffer’s target customers and the people who like to listen to long-form narrative podcasts. After doing some research, it turns out that millennials, marketers, and the folks that make up Buffer’s target customer persona all enjoy listening to in-depth, narrative-style posts.

The second finding that helped make the case for Breaking Brand was a recent report from Spotify about podcast listenership. The report stated that 60% of Spotify’s users who listen to podcasts tune in in order to educate themselves.

And last but not least, Buffer simply has a core belief that marketing can and should be entertaining. Too often marketers fall into the trap of thinking that they’re only competing with other brands. But, these days, they’re really competing with every other brand and business for attention. And Buffer thought they might be able to hang with the best of them.

“We wanted to create a show that showed our customers how the experts at Gin Lane built a brand in real-time, but we also wanted to make it so gripping and entertaining that they’d binge-listen to it,” says Read. “It’s like what Masterclass is doing with Steph Curry teaching shooting or Gordon Ramsey teaching cooking — we had Gin Lane showing our audience how to build a brand."

Finding the right story to tell

What attracted Read to Pattern Brand (formerly Gin Lane’s) story in the first place wasn’t just that they were trying something new — it was that they were going all in on it. And following along on this type of journey firsthand is something you don’t often get to do.

Image courtesy of Buffer.

“From the outside, Gin Lane was incredibly successful, and it seems crazy that the owners would willingly shut it down,” says Read. “But success looks different for everyone, and I think that’s powerful. Success isn’t the biggest clients or the most money — it’s about working towards a mission that you’re passionate about and feeling fulfilled by your work."

Pattern Brand’s story was also the perfect one to explore over multiple episodes. By doing so, Buffer thought they could create a series that their audience would hopefully stick with to the final episode.

“If we spent a 45-minute episode covering the story, we wouldn’t do it justice,” says Read. “To create a great show, you need compelling characters and tension, but that’s really hard to build up over one episode. You can definitely add points of tension throughout a single episode, but if your audience hasn’t gotten to know the characters over two, three, four episodes, those points of tension aren’t as impactful.”

Getting the green light for “Breaking Brand”

At this point, Buffer knew they wanted to invest in another podcast, that they wanted it to be narrative-driven, and that they wanted to focus on the story behind the making of Pattern Brand. But before they could actually get started, they needed to get the green light for Breaking Brand from the powers that be.

When it came time to make the case for their podcast, they knew the first place they would have to look is their marketing budget. Luckily for Buffer, they always set aside a portion of it for freelancers and outsourcing. So that means if they ever wanted to produce a video series or a podcast throughout the year they already had a healthy budget for it.

Next, Read highlighted the fact that a narrative-style show could build brand affinity rather than brand awareness.“There are a lot of potential customers who vaguely know what Buffer is. So Breaking Brand wasn’t so much about building awareness — it was about how we can build trust,” says Read. “Building trust with 5- or 10-second Facebook ads is quite hard, though. But If we can get a couple of thousand target customers listening to a five-part, 20-minute episode series, that’s a huge step in building these relationships.”

Finally, Read pointed out that the cost of not producing a narrative-driven podcast for Buffer was simply too high to ignore.

“If we hadn’t started blogging years ago, Buffer isn’t what it is today. But if we kept solely relying on search, which is still huge for us and always will be, and Google just changed the algorithm on us at some point, we’d have no defensibility against it,” says Read. “If we have a podcast audience, however, we can still supply the demand for our content. We can still reach our audience. In some ways, there’s more risk in doing what you’ve always done than taking the leap to try something new. ”

“In some ways, there’s more risk in doing what you’ve always done than taking the leap to try something new.”

Building the right team to make the show

Buffer had produced The Science of Social Media in-house, but they had never crafted a narrative-style series before. So, from day one, they knew they were going to need some help.

“Honestly, when we got the go-ahead for the series, the first thing flying through my mind was, ‘Don’t mess this up. You’ve got a really good opportunity here. Make something great,’” says Read. “But to do that, we needed to hire people who knew how to make something great.'”

Those people were Message Heard, a podcast agency that has crafted many branded and original docuseries, and Buffer worked with them to coordinate just about everything for Breaking Brand.

For instance, to record the interviews for the show, Buffer would meet with Message Heard in a studio in London, and the Pattern Brand team would go to a studio in New York. Then, from across the pond, they’d all connect and record the interviews.

Message Heard also connected Buffer with a sound engineer in New York to record additional interviews. He was the man on the ground, frequenting Pattern Brand’s office and launch parties and interviewing a few minor characters, like a New York Times journalist whose focus was on startups and burnout.

For any brand that hasn’t produced a narrative-style podcast before, Read recommends they learn from the pros like he did. “We brought in the experts who know how to do this stuff because I don’t know how to produce a narrative podcast from scratch. There were so many moving parts,” says Read. “I’d also never booked a recording studio before. I’d actually never been in a recording studio before. I don’t speak that language. I don’t know how to pick a good sound engineer in New York. There are just so many things to juggle. That’s why it’s so important to hire the pros to help you out.”

Overcoming production hurdles along the way

Since Buffer was following Pattern Brand’s journey firsthand, one of their biggest challenges was mapping out the series’ plot points. Initially, Read sat down with his team at Message Heard and scribbled down what they thought the story would look like. Then, they mapped it out on the wall, moving stickers around to figure out how they could introduce the characters and hook people into the story during the first episode.

But when they had to identify the points of tension, it threw a wrench in their entire creative process.

“It took us three or four attempts to find a narrative that felt right. But as we learned more about the wrinkles to their story, we had to move sections around, add in new scenes, and cut ideas during production, even though we mapped everything out beforehand” says Read. “Sometimes a point of tension that we thought was there actually wasn’t, so we had to adjust accordingly. But planning out the narrative beforehand enabled us to adapt on the fly with the end goal of the series in mind.”

Another challenge for Read? Gin Lane was trying to launch a new business — that’s right — Pattern Brands — all while being a part of this podcast. “How can we go behind the scenes, but not get in their way? How can we be there, but not be there?” says Read. “We just really had to be empathetic to everything going on in their lives. They can’t say yes to everything. They’re going to say no. Ideas that we were really passionate about were going to get canned because they just weren’t feasible.”

Fortunately, Buffer was able to overcome this challenge by relying heavily on over-communication and planning. “If we wanted four behind-the-scenes pieces of footage, we needed to ask Gin Lane ahead of time,” says Read. “That means if the other two got rejected, we’d still get two pieces. But if we just pitched two pieces and both got rejected, we’d get nothing.”

Seeing the podcast’s impact on Buffer’s bottom line

After launching the show last November, Breaking Brand has racked up over 25,000 listens, 2,500 of which are unique listeners. On average, people also spend 18 to 19 minutes per episode listening, which has amassed over 1,281 hours of listening time. Additionally, the completion rate for each episode is about 83% — 3% higher than what Buffer’s producers deem as great for a branded show.

But Breaking Brand’s benefits aren’t just limited to an analytics dashboard. Since narrative-style series are evergreen, Buffer can continue to share the show with new customers as they sign up.

“The way I think about my role in content is to build an audience of people who resemble our ideal customer,” says Read. “Some of them will sign up, a lot of them won’t, but if we can give them all a good experience, that means more people will be talking about Buffer and sharing our content with more people who also might be in our target audience. Word of mouth is one of our best acquisition tools.”

“Some of them will sign up, a lot of them won’t, but if we can give them all a good experience, that means more people will be talking about Buffer and sharing our content with more people who also might be in our target audience. Word of mouth is one of our best acquisition tools.”

To keep growing this word of mouth and building an audience, Read believes they need to continue crafting narrative-style content.

“When people sign up for Buffer, they can self-attribute where they first heard of us, and that allows me to see how much of our target customers have signed up for Buffer through the podcast. And that, to me, validates this strategy being the right thing to do,” says Read. “But it’s important to note that we don’t look at sign-ups to see how much revenue we can generate or if we can recoup production costs on the podcast. It’s to see how big we can grow an audience that actually cares about Buffer and resembles our customers. In other words, we want to build a media company for our niche.”

Buffer’s future with binge-worthy content

Based on the lessons they learned from producing Breaking Brand, Buffer decided to refresh The Science of Social Media’s production process. They’re also exploring potential topics for Breaking Brand’s second season and evaluating what other stories they can tell.

“Maybe we’ll revisit Pattern Brands, or maybe we’ll see if there are other brands out there,” says Read. “Hopefully, it’s another once-in-a-lifetime story.”