Marketers are told that they must start thinking and acting like publishers – and to their credit, many of them are. In fact, in a Content Marketing Institute study, 70 percent of B2B marketers said they created more content than a year ago. But with this massive amount of content flooding the market, target audiences are also overwhelmed with noise. So how do they reach their audiences with greater effectiveness to forge connections and engagement?
Yale University psychology professor Roger Schank wisely said that “Humans are not ideally set up to understand logic; they are ideally set up to understand stories.”
Forward-thinking marketers are using a strategy – episodic content – that leverages storytelling to connect with customers and keep them returning for more.
Why Episodic Content?
Episodic content is already capturing the attention of your target market. For example, Netflix discovered that 61 percent of its subscribers binge-watch shows at least every few weeks. Viewers are hooked. They simply can’t wait for that next episode. But what does this mean for marketers?
For starters, it shows the power of episodic content. If the content is done well, not only will it capture the attention of viewers, but also it will force them to come back for more content as quickly as you release it.
But episodic content doesn’t include only video; it can include a blog series, images, or audio. Anything released in multiple stages could be considered episodic content. But how are major brands delivering this type of content with success?
Brands Using Episodic Content
The webisode series “The Spot” is one of the earliest examples of episodic content. The series, which was created by Scott Zakarin in 1995, was likened to the “Melrose Place” of the Web. The characters, called “spotmates,” kept online diaries (similar to what we now call blogs), responded to emails and posted images of current activities.
“The Spot” engaged its audience by inviting them to become part of the storyline and give advice to characters, which sometimes changed the course of the story. Brands, such as K-Swiss and Toyota, took notice of the power of episodic content, and sponsored the series. Eventually brands moved from sponsoring this type of content to creating it themselves.
For example, Coca Cola produced the “Crossroads” series, which is focused on teen challenges, and features teens choosing kindness and compassion over cruelty. The content tells a story to a specific target audience, develops characters that are relatable and drives brand awareness and engagement.
Another great example is “Appetite for Life,” which was created by Toyota. The brand makes an unexpected connection between food and cars. Each five-minute episode features celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern, who educates and entertains viewers on the most recent culinary trends. They also partnered with nonprofit organization Feeding America to encourage online donations from viewers.
And perhaps the most entertaining is “The Beauty Inside,” which was created by Toshiba and Intel. Each day the main character, Alex, wakes up in a different body. Viewers connect with Alex through social media, but also have a chance to audition to play Alex.
The show is split into six episodes, distributed across multiple channels – a microsite, Facebook, and a custom YouTube channel. The concept performed so well that it was nominated for a Webby award.
Tips for Success
1. Focus on the story
Ernest Hemingway said, “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” Customers don’t want to spend time viewing online commercials, which is why episodic content should feel different. Create compelling characters (not caricatures) and a plot that resonates deeply with the target audience.
Once you have your storyline and characters developed, plan ahead and map out each piece of content. Decide the number of episodes and what each episode will include.
2. Create killer cliffhangers
Steven Spielberg famously said, “People have forgotten how to tell a story. Stories don’t have a middle or an end any more. They usually have a beginning that never stops beginning.”
Unanswered questions drive viewers crazy (which is why they go on Netflix binges). In fact, there is a scientific reason why people respond this way, with neuroscientists at Georgetown University Medical Center finding that anticipation is directly related to action.
An excellent example of creating amazing cliffhangers is the podcast “Serial,” which quickly drew in millions of readers. Each season has a single story, but at the end of each episode, there is a nail-biting cliffhanger. Listeners must tune in next week. And they also must tell their friends (which is why the audience grew so fast!).
Marketers can take a page from the “Serial” playbook and create the same suspense in their episodic content.
3. Design a call to action for each episode
This is tricky, because the content must not look like an advertisement. The call to action must be subtle. For example, Kate Spade created a video series called “Miss Adventure.” The goal was to start a conversation online with the company’s target audience.
During each episode, something goes seriously wrong for the main character. The storyline is interesting; however, it doesn’t resemble an advertisement in any way.
The actress is wearing Kate Spade attire from head to toe, and at the end of the video, viewers are invited to shop for the featured items online.
4. Share the content strategically
Similar to other types of content, it’s important to share each episode of content strategically. For example, Toshiba and Intel invite viewers to share their favorite food pairings on Instagram and connect through social media channels, such as Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Keep the audience engaged by offering a variety of options for interaction with each episode of content.
5. Time your episodes right
Timing is critical when designing the release schedule of your content. If you wait too long, your audience will get distracted and forget. But if you release the content too fast, you’ll lose some of the anticipation built in the first episode. “Serial” releases a new podcast each week. Start with a seven-day release schedule, and measure your results. Continue to test your strategy for maximum impact.
Marketing thought-leaders are predicting that episodic content will become increasingly popular this year. And if you create excellent content, cliffhangers and unanswered questions, readers will become hooked on your content. But for marketers to be successful, they must be more than marketers. They must become storytellers.
Have you used episodic content? If so, please share your experience.
Blogs, whitepapers, and social content are now a crucial piece of a modern marketer’s digital strategy. So how do you cook up really great marketing content that will get your prospects to love your brand and want your product? Check out Act-On’s eBook, “The Perfect Recipe for Creating Killer Content,” to learn the ingredients for an effective content mix.