Our Blog

Five lessons that the success of Serial teaches marketers

There are timely lessons marketers can glean from the phenomenon that was the Serial podcast and it’s all about being human, as our  head of integrated startegy James Hankins explained to Marketing Magazine.

Every once in a while a story reignites in a category. Last week brought an end to the unprecedented success of podcast Serial, which detailed reporter Sarah Koenig’s investigation into a 15-year-old murder in Baltimore. This intriguing story grabbed attention due to the classic narrative of a man claiming a wrongful conviction and a number of question marks that still hang over the case to this day.

It’s captured the imagination beyond US shores to become a global phenomenon. Serial topped the iTunes download list by some distance, filled page after page for media outlets, and spawned various Reddit discussions where amateur sleuths discuss their own theories about the case and tried to discover more.

The story has also become even more poignant with the news that Adnan Syed, a man who has spent the last 15 years in prison, will have his case reviewed in the New Year – a final roll of the dice to convince the judicial system of his consistently maintained innocence.

With any cultural movement, there are always lessons and insights into people’s behaviour that brand planners can take and apply to their work. With this in mind what can we learn about Serials success and can apply to brand planning?

Human interest always grabs the attention
People love stories about other people. They care substantially less for what a brand has to say about itself. So when thinking about content, marketers should look to stories with a human element at their heart. This in turn will create an emotional connection that will resonate beyond established brand advocates.

Great content is indeed great content
A good story doesn’t need bells and whistles. A podcast is a truly stripped back form of storytelling putting the onus on the author to create a complete and consistent narrative. In an age, where we are constantly striving to create cut-through amid the clutter it’s important to remember that we don’t always need to fall back on the power of celebrity.

Create salience
Don’t be afraid to make a ‘mistake’ (or at least stick with it) in your advertising. Anyone who has heard the Mail Chimp ad at the beginning of Serial will have picked up on the young lady who mispronounces the brand. It’s created its own internet meme and naturally ‘shocks’ your ears into listening for the rest of the message (and if you’re like me looking up what Mail Chimp actually is and what it does).

Facilitate don’t dominate
No-one likes to be dictated to. People will discuss good content naturally, and what’s more they will find their own platforms and ways of doing so. Don’t restrict this process but instead provide easily accessible information that people can take away and use as they see fit.

Scarcity helps drive talkability
If you can manage the drip of content, people have to wait and whilst people wait (and if the content is strong enough) they will talk about and expand upon what you have released. In a ‘box set’ world where people binge on content, there is still a place for managed content that helps brands build to a crescendo. We’ve seen programmes like Game of Thrones and Homeland set Twitter alight as people eagerly discuss each episode and this has driven them to watch each weekly episode to avoid spoilers.

Evidence from the IPA tells us that emotional campaigns are the most effective way to drive an emotional connection and human interest stories are pivotal to this. Christmas even provides us a pertinent example of this with Adam & Eve/DDB’s work for John Lewis becoming synonymous with the festive period and a national event. The success of Serial should provide a timely reminder for media owners and agencies to keep the humane aspect of a story at the heart of what we do.

James Hankins is Head of Integrated Planning at Vizeum UK
This article was originally published on Marketingmagzine.co.uk