The ‘It Girl’ of Content Marketing: Episodic Content

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Article ImageOn the web series Royal Crush, sophisticated teens fall in love with each other on cruise ships that bring them to some of the world’s most majestic destinations and have playful onboard attractions such as a rock climbing wall, a spa, and a teen lounge. It’s perfectly delightful entertainment, but that’s not all. It’s also a grand marketing effort from Royal Caribbean International.

Yes, Royal Crush, which has been packaged into 24 episodes over four seasons since 2014, seeks to make a Royal Caribbean vacation look so enticing to teens that they’re inspired to hit the seas on the next family trip. “Just because it is branded content doesn’t mean it needs to feel like branded content,” says Carter Hansen, executive producer at AwesomenessTV, the media company behind the show. “We aim to create branded content we would want to air on our channels even if you took the brand out of it.”

Royal Caribbean is one of many brands that have embraced episodic content, which refers to a single narrative developed over multiple segments. It’s an elaborate content marketing play that employs the power of compelling stories to build stronger brand connections with viewers. 

A Resurrected Approach

Major League Baseball, GE, Kate Spade New York, Qualcomm, and Nike are among the brands that have also invested in serialized branded entertainment recently, but the trend isn’t new. Procter & Gamble got into the game with radio serials in the 1930s before producing soap operas such as As the World Turns and Guiding Light.

Today, brands have distribution options beyond television and radio, and many are gravitating to online video and podcasts to keep targets engaged with hopes of scoring marketing wins. “It often takes an audience six to seven touchpoints with a brand before they actually become a customer,” says James McCrae, strategy director at the digital agency Blue Fountain Media. “So [episodic] helps build that ongoing relationship.”

But to keep audiences from tuning out, content has to entertain and have a light brand touch, as the Royal Crush creators recognized. “We worked very closely with the team at Royal Caribbean and built a story where we were able to show rather than tell what was so great about these trips,” Hansen says.

He adds that the ship is not just a setting but also a character in the YouTube series. “We crafted a story where the ship is what always brings our lead characters together, lets them explore the world, and is the place they fall in love,” he says. “Royal Caribbean became the best friend that was there for every big moment in our characters’ lives, from the first day they met through ending up together four seasons later.”

A Rewarding Tactic

To be sure, episodic content isn’t for every brand. “Understanding what works and what doesn’t is a key differentiator in the branded content space,” Hansen says. “There is no reason to try and force something when the solution might be a simple social campaign that resonates with an audience and drives massive engagements instead of an episodic series that may not resonate with the audience.”

But Royal Caribbean’s scripted series is resonating: It’s generated more than 84 million views. And when it works, episodic content has plenty of advantages. Hansen has found it invites viewers to connect with a brand they may not have known existed, and it allows companies to shape characters and storylines that represent the brand and its messaging.

“It also gives us a longer runway to not only build our story, but continue that story on other platforms to give fans a way to dive deeper and engage,” he says. Viewers can get behind-the-scenes content about Royal Crush on Instagram and Tumblr, for instance, and could participate in a live Twitter watch party with the cast. 

The effort has produced impressive marketing outcomes, according to published results from a custom Nielsen study. It found that after watching season three, 75% of viewers said they’re more likely to try to persuade their parents to take them on a cruise. The study also found that among respondents who saw the third season, the lift in likelihood to recommend the cruise line to others was nearly double that of respondents who viewed a Royal Caribbean TV ad.

Getting a Farmer’s Ear

Another brand that has been rewarded for its episodic effort is The Mosaic Co., which produces phosphate and potash crop nutrients. It created a podcast drama called The Great Yield Mystery. Behind the concept and execution of the podcast is the marketing agency Broadhead, which was brainstorming ways it could help its client reach farmers—specifically, high-acreage corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest—during the long and busy days of the harvest.

It’s at a time when farmers are thinking about how to improve the next season’s yield, says Wayne Carlson, Broadhead’s director of insights. It’s also when many farmers are active on social media, often sharing and viewing harvest photos.

“At the time, Serial was the biggest thing in podcasting, and somebody made the comment, ‘Well, it’s too bad we don’t have something like Serial that would be really engaging about a farmer who lost yield and couldn’t figure out why,’” Carlson says. “Somebody else said, ‘Why couldn’t we make that up?’”

They could, and the resulting 10 weekly podcasts provide technical content about crop nutrition in a way that draws from three familiar programs. “It has the homey feel of A Prairie Home Companion, the mystery factor of Twin Peaks, and the investigative quality of ‘I want to figure it out myself’ of Serial,” says Carlson.

Broadhead created The Great Yield Mystery as a social media campaign that used podcasting as a vehicle for delivering long-form audio content, Carlson says. During the late 2015 run, the company offered clues to the mystery on its Facebook and Twitter pages, directed followers to helpful resources, and invited listeners to solve the case to win a prize.

Mosaic saw a 20% jump in Facebook page Likes during the campaign. It also exceeded its quarterly social media engagement goal for Facebook and Twitter by more than 300%.

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