Serialized Content Is Back, and Brands Can Capitalize

Jun 28, 2016


BEST PRACTICES SERIES

Guess what the kids are into? No, really, guess. I'm not talking about a new boy band, some brain-melting club drug, or even the next big social media app. Apparently, the kids are into episodic publishing.

According to research from The London Book Fair, more than two-thirds of 18 to 23-year-olds read episodic fiction--and 41% read it every month. Serial publishing is all the rage. Of course, this isn't surprising--at least not to me. The wild popularity of Serial showed us all that there is a market for storytelling that keeps listeners--or readers--dangling at the end of each week's episode.

Serial may have been the highest-profile example of this, but there were podcasts (before and after) that made it equally apparent that people still love episodic stories. Welcome to Night Vale has been around since 2012, keeping listeners on the edge of their seats with twice monthly episodes in the style of community updates from the local radio station. It's a weird podcast about a weird town that sometimes is almost impossible to follow.

Even marketers caught on to the phenomenon. GE took a cue from Serial and created The Message, a branded podcast that eventually hit No. 1 on iTunes. But these are all podcasts, so they are inherently different than books, right? You can listen to a podcast in the car or while you're walking, and reading episodic stories is more of a lean-in experience. It seems to me, though, that episodic fiction is perfect for young people. Let me list the reasons:

  • Episodic fiction is great for (supposedly) short attention spans-We keep being told that attention spans are shrinking. I've often taken umbrage at that and suggest that subpar content is the problem and not the attention spans. But let's assume the naysayers are right and attention spans are getting shorter. In that case, writing short pieces of fiction that leave people hungry for more would be a great way to get them to read.
  • Episodic fiction is perfect for mobile devices-Young people are tied to their smartphones. While they may not be inclined to tackle War and Peace on that tiny screen, they will read a short chapter.
  •  Episodic fiction is tried and true-Charles Dickens famously published many of his most popular works as serials. Armistead Maupin did the same with his much more modern Tales of the City. And frankly, what are TV dramas if not an updated form of those old Dickens tales? But as time-tested as episodic fiction is, it's also perfectly suited to modern life, the devices we use, and the time crunch so many of us find ourselves in. (You may not feel like picking up a novel that will sit on your nightstand for the next 6 months, but you might be willing to devote half an hour every week to a chapter of a serialized novel.)

But how can brands use this knowledge to reach those finicky Millennials? All you have to do is look back to GE for inspiration. If The Message had been a serialized book instead of a podcast, would the response have been different? Maybe a little, but a good story is a good story, and audiences will respond to it. But who is to say it couldn't have been both?

We talk a lot about personalization and giving consumers the content they want when and where they want it. Why can't these kinds of serialized stories be multiplatform? The folks at Welcome to Night Vale now have books to their credit and do live shows for audiences. (That's not uncommon for podcasts. I saw the women behind Serial at the Bushnell Performing Arts Center in Hartford, Conn., and I am desperately trying to get the Gilmore Guys to come here.)

As a brand, the tough part is not delivering, or even creating, the content-it's making sure it is good enough to capture the imaginations of your audience.   


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