The evolution of episodic content is a story that I’m hooked on. As a marketing tool, it’s one of the smartest ways to hack the attention graph. Given that our brains consume an unprecedented amount of incoming information daily (reportedly the equivalent of a laptop-scorching 34 gigabytes), now more than ever, brands must find ways to embed themselves in people’s consciousness and stay top of mind.
And so, savvy brands must make like Scheherazade, the protagonist of the Middle Eastern classic collection of tales, One Thousand and One Nights. As the story goes, for 1,001 nights, she captivated an impatient and brutal king with her incredible storytelling abilities — and savvy use of the cliffhanger.
The art of storytelling seen through that ancient tale is just as relevant today. Scheherazade wasn’t fighting for her life; she was using her wits and knowledge to head off the competition, add value to her audience, and win his interest, loyalty, and trust.
To accomplish her end goal — not just to survive but to thrive — Scheherazade took a deep dive into the king’s motivations, preferences, and behaviors. She used that knowledge to create irresistible stories and foster a connection with him that grew stronger over time. Plus, she was witty, pleasant, and put his needs first.
That’s human-centric audience building 101. Making your brand irresistible and indispensable involves creating consistent content that your audience finds valuable on an ongoing basis. Aided by today’s technology, you have more tools at your fingertips than ever before. But the real magic happens when you utilize listening loops to be sure the stories you’re telling stay fresh, captivating, and compelling.
Leverage Listening Loops to Optimize Your Business
Employing an iterative “loop” is a classic strategy used by tactical thinkers from business titans for product development (i.e., IBM’s “the Loop”: observe-reflect-make) to fighter pilots for split-second decision making (OODA loop: observe-orient-decide-act).
For marketers, connecting the dots between what people see, think, feel, and do is at once simple and complex. Sentiment and topic analysis, an art as much as a science, is evolving — especially with the emergence of meme culture and Web3.
And it couldn’t come at a better time. Thanks to the rise of private social media groups, platforms, and communities (i.e., on Circle and Mighty Networks), once easily accessible data is becoming increasingly closed and off-limits to brands.
This is why it’s crucial for brands to level-up their listening loops. The psychology of social listening in the age of fickle attention spans is tricky. Maslow’s classic hierarchy of needs (physiological, safety, love and belonging, self-esteem, self-actualization) is juxtaposed against the quick loops created by our internet-driven instant gratification culture. And this can quickly become a swirling mess — unless you listen carefully to what people respond to.
In other words, follow the commotion. What does your target audience love (or hate) not just about your brand, but about other brands, media, and creators in your space? Pick up those breadcrumbs, and now you have a path forward to create compelling content that you can serialize over time.
The Evolution of Episodic Content
Episodic content is nothing new, as proven by Scheherazade. With the advent of the printing press and, later, electronic mediums like radio and television, serialized storytelling has long been an effective way to engage and keep audiences.
Today, pretty much all brands, whether it’s a product, experience, or personality, use episodic content to get their audiences hooked. Here are just a few examples and trends I’m noticing:
- Podcasts: It seems like more and more podcasts are mashing up reality programming with whatever their core topic is. For example, my wife is hooked on the true-crime podcast “My Favorite Murder,” which has 35 million downloads per month, earned the hosts a $10 million deal with Stitcher, and spun off into its own network (Exactly Right). While listeners love the storytelling, they’re equally enthralled on the personal stories the hosts, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, share about their pets, families, and dealing with mental health issues (among other favorite topics).
- Streaming programming: Binge-watching has been a thing for several years now, hitting the big time in 2015 when Collins English Dictionary dubbed it “Word of the Year.” Streaming platforms certainly recognize the value of cliffhangers in serial programming; studies show the dopamine download and other bliss chemistry helps reinforce the joy of binging. (This is the addictive side of episodic content — research shows most people watch three or more hours of streaming content per day, which isn’t so healthy. However, it also refutes the idea that we modern human beings have no attention spans — selective attention spans are more like it.)
The trend that’s been building steam is the return to the weekly serial vs. dropping all episodes at once (i.e., Hulu’s Pam & Tommy, HBO’s And Just Like That). This strategy helps amplify the hype, and of course, after the premiere, the entire series becomes more bingeable content.
- Shortform videos: The TikTok effect is ubiquitous and not just for kids: people are hooked on the content with a billion video views a day and 689 million active users worldwide. According to the Wall Street Journal, TikTok influencers who invite people to watch them do their thing multiple times daily, like Charli D’Amelio, are handsomely compensated. Last year, D’Amelio outearned leaders of many S&P 500 companies, including McDonald’s and Starbucks.
The key to her and other popular TikTok users’ success is holding your attention with compelling stories. The platform’s algorithm notices how long you linger on the content or rewatch it and serves you up more and more “episodes” to consume.
- Event releases and EPs: Releasing music more frequently with “events” that are woven into the story of the drop is used today by the biggest names in the world — think Bieber, Beyonce, and Kanye. Speaking of Ye, have you noticed how “Donda” has been a series of episodes? From the hype of listening parties around the original drop in August of 2021 to today with the release of his sequel album, Donda 2 (available exclusively on his Stem player), supported by episodic documentary trilogy, Jeen-Yuhs on Netflix.
- Online games: The essence of gaming is storytelling, and it’s a vast market — just witness Microsoft’s recent purchase of Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion. And why not? Their purchase of Minecraft in 2014 has certainly paid off, as the game remains one of the most played with 141 million active monthly global players. Games are often released in a serialized fashion, from the classic Grand Theft Auto to Fortnite and still top-grossing franchises like Pokémon and Call of Duty.
These are just a few examples, but the point is that brands (including personality brands) are publishers. And episodic transmedia storytelling, which leading brands do, can create vast communities of dedicated customers — and drive consistent, ever-growing business. All they have to do is, like Scheherazade, notice what captivates and keep serving up more.
How to Figure Out Your Next A.C.T.
Because serial storytelling demands rapid iteration, my team and I designed a framework called A.C.T. to help us quickly strategize on how to engage customers without losing the human-centric perspective — that essential customer experience factor.
The first column, “Audience,” is all about habits and behaviors, unlike the old-school persona development that looks at salient details like demographics. Taking a deep dive into what makes your desired audience act is the point — and that’s the kind of information you cull from listening loops. What are their preferences? What’s on-trend? If you look at popular episodic content, for example, the show Euphoria, you’ll know things like retro style are driving engagement with Gen Z. If that’s your audience, then as a brand, you might use that aesthetic in your social media storytelling.
Moving through the A.C.T. framework gives you a simple but powerful customer journey map that supports your serial content development. A continuous flow of new behaviors, opinions, and influencers that your audience responds to drives your content/communication and decisions about touchpoints. After all, where and how you tell the story can be as important as what you’re saying.
Because ultimately, content drives conversations; conversations build communities; and communities drive commerce.
It’s also critical to keep in mind that communication is a two-way street. For example, my team and I worked on the marketing launch for the AAA award-winning BioShock Infinite game in 2013. At the time, it was one of the hottest and most anticipated game releases, and the worst-case scenario happened: the game wasn’t ready in time for the original release.
Here’s where episodic storytelling comes in: we made a quick pivot to bring the super fans — 500K+ strong in their Facebook community — into the story we were telling. That move to give them the power to drive the “next episode” of BioShock Infinite swiftly turned what could’ve been a disaster into an incredible opportunity for the fans and the brand.
Harnessing the power of superfans is something that massive franchises like The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones have used to build hype and grow their audience. Fanfiction and cosplay are an incredible testament to the power of artful episodic storytelling: people are so hungry for more, they don’t wait for you… they take the storytelling into their own hands.
And this is precisely what happened with the BioShock Infinite community. We quickly built a strategy centered around introducing new characters for people to give up/down votes, and the audience took it from there. The listening loop we initiated encouraged fans to help shape the game’s lore and legacy while providing the game creators with more insight and intel to improve the storytelling.
The result was tons of viral content, new ideas for the game’s endings, and an even bigger release than projected.
The moral of the story? Episodic content developed at the pleasure of your royalty (aka your customers) is an invaluable connector. Having a say in what comes next in your brand’s story lets people know you’re listening and you care.
And that’s one of the most potent forces to retain your existing fan base and attract new customers — the linchpin of brand growth.
The Next Episode: The Future of Marketing
It’s no secret that the rise of the creator economy has changed the way we all do business — to the tune of $104(+) billion. As the founder of a demand design consultancy, I’m currently building an interactive content studio that taps into the unique interplay between influencers, brands, and the communities and customers that interconnect them all.
So, I’m looking for masterful episodic content creators and other creative professionals dedicated to closing the gap between community, creator, and customer. If you’ve got experience creating performant community-building content, from audio (i.e., podcasts) to video to social storytelling, hit me up in the comments or reach out to me on Twitter (DMs are open).