If you’re like us, you’re one of the two million people that streamed each episode of Serial. Since it made its debut in October 2014, Serial, the new podcast spinoff of “This American Life” consistently topped the iTunes charts, spawned dozens of discussions – both online and offline – and made a lot of people anxiously excited for more each Thursday morning.
It’s been a month since the podcast ended and momentum around this is still running hot. The subreddit is constantly updated with facts, debates and discussion even after the series ended. What was so engaging about the podcast? After we peeled the layers back, we realized it may be the intersection of three main PR pillars: content strategy, audience identification and platform selection.
1. The Story Itself
Audiences are captivated by stories that are emotional, encourage discussion and present mystery. For Serial’s inaugural season, they choose to focus on the real-life story of a 32-year-old man named Adnan Syed, who was convicted of murder at age 17 in Baltimore, MD. The story detailed the case that convicted Adnan, the fact that Adnan continues to profess his innocence, and the current interviews and audio of witnesses that lead to the police’s case. Because the story touched on those areas, it created a sense of mystery that drove the audience to find the answers, to start discussions, to develop their own theory. The story turned audiences into Sherlock Holmes to solve the case. Serial was a success partially because the story kept the audience guessing and made them feel like they were part of the journey to find answers. We’re always told that content is king when telling a story, and while that is true, it’s important to consider how we interpret the story to fit how an audience will engage with it.
2. The Characters/Players
There’s no denying – people can relate to other people and characters. The podcast structure reproduces the conventions of classic novels; each episode unfolds the plot and characters from episode to episode. It was the way each character, including the narrator, became a storyteller that made Serial so engaging. The audience could either relate to life as a teenager or understand the struggle of recounting every moment of a day six weeks prior. We see the narrator take the role of main character in the story and the audience is driven to trust her as a journalist. Listeners ultimately connect with her as a narrator as though she is a friend. Character development is critical to creating an engaging piece of content. Infographics and articles were written just about the characters in Serial. Fans would rave about it to friends and family on Facebook and through word-of-mouth, celebrities tweeted about it, and a subreddit spawned more than 43,000 subscribers who discussed each character and their role at length.
3. The Delivery
The most engaged audience responds to an emotional connection to a story, andSerial is no exception. When we create content for our clients, we ask ourselves, “Will the target audience relate? Would they share it?” The delivery was successful in several ways. The installments of episodes, the website and even documents and maps that helped the audience understand each played a role in the success of Serial. While the story was told in weekly episodes, once the final episode was published, a resurgence of new fans emerged who binge-listened to the entire season. The story was not just told through the eye of one person, each character and the actual audio of interviews led to the success. Even the theme song for Serial was so unique that it would excite the audience every time they heard it. Serial was executed in a way that drove emotion and mystery to its audience and that delivery was optimal for audio storytelling.
4. The Medium
While podcasts have been around for about 10 years, Serial has definitely helped the medium gain popularity. So why now? We know content has something to do with it. As listeners waited for new episodes each week, they re-listened to the series. They savored the details and gained a deeper appreciation for the story. They turned to other outlets – news articles, blogs, Reddit, Twitter – to learn more.
At the end of the day, the podcast structure invited listeners to do their own investigating, leading to a shared experience – online and offline.
The truth is, podcasts are a very unique medium compared to television, film and even social media. We listen to podcasts during our commutes. We put them in our headphones when we’re going for a run. These entertainment sessions are much more intimate; typically podcasts are something we listen to alone and talk about with others later. With such an intimate experience, it’s very common for those who listen to quickly become addicted to them and think of the podcast hosts as friends. Even the sponsors become a part of your life; who can’t stop thinking about Mailkimp – er, Mailchimp?
We live in a world of rapidly evolving technology and our endless thirst for more content, however, to yield returns, sometimes we’ll need to harness the power of slow. Podcasts are the perfect medium for just that.
5. Engagement: Bringing Online Offline
Social was always intended to be a way for people to connect along the lines of shared interests, but with a goal of finding each other and connecting offline as well. We’ve lost sight of that, and this content experience brings it back – revealing the true power of “social as social.” We recently hosted a brown-bag lunch in Edelman’s Washington, D.C. office to connect and discuss our varying perspectives on Serial. It was riveting and even more engaging for those in the room (and even via phone from Edelman’s London office) than we imagined it would be. We had a room full of colleagues, many of whom wouldn’t typically interact, but here we all were. Why is this, and how do we harness this magic for clients? We simply cannot underestimate the power of word-of-mouth marketing – creating and crowdsourcing viewpoints is the first step, but sharing these viewpoints with others and driving people to online discussion boards gets us to the real heart of social: engagement. Engagement is key. Content is the driver but when done right, the social engagement takes on a life of its own and evolves the content into something new and even more valuable. Something everyone feels some ownership stake in. This is when true engagement happens. This is the magic that moves the needle – for a community, for a courtroom, and for a client.
This post was written by Aimee Rose, Tatiana Posada and Aleena Hasnain
Image credit: shinemy