Almost every company has a Facebook page now, and probably Twitter and Instagram and maybe even Snapchat. And guess what? They’re cranking out a ton of content. Most of them are posting links to their site, links to blogs or articles, text graphics, funny gifs – and more and more are posting video content.
So how can any brand stand out among all that clutter? How can you offer current and potential customers something valuable…and something interesting enough to keep their attention? What can you create that can be used across all channels? The one answer to all of those questions is episodic content.
Episodic content works because, like other good content marketing, it transcends the pitch and makes the hard sell look overzealous and uncouth. This holistic approach to content marketing also provides five key benefits for any brand. I’ll get to those in a minute. First…
What is it?
Serialized content has long been how humans have shared and consumed stories. It is a practice as old as language. Though one of the first notable examples of it in storytelling came with Scheherazade’s One Thousand and One Nights, the practice truly broke into the mainstream of popular culture in the 1830s with serialized novels, where authors would publish installments of their novels either on a weekly or monthly basis. One of the most successful examples of this was Charles Dickens’ novel The Pickwick Papers. For the sake of brevity, fast forward 180 years to TV shows like The Walking Dead or the podcast Serial, and you start to see the point I’m getting at. Serialized content – episodic content – never went away, it just became so ingrained in the very nature of the media we consume that we don’t consciously notice it.
Episodic content is how humans tell stories, and always have. So why did that change when digital marketing came along and everyone started posting one-off content with no cohesive strategy or storyline? Because episodic content is hard to create. That’s a can of worms for an entirely separate blog post, so let’s look at the five key benefits episodic content offers a brand.
What does it offer?
- A narrative arc
Episodic content allows a brand the opportunity to craft a narrative arc that creates a cohesive experience for customers. The content should be thoughtfully developed to provide value to viewers by sharing information that makes their lives better, by entertaining them – or, ideally, by doing both at the same time. Creating this narrative arc provides a secondary benefit: it becomes the lodestar for a brand’s editorial mission. Once you create the arc and define the mission, then every idea and every piece of content can be quickly and simply assessed with two questions: Does it progress the story? Does it further the mission?
- Thematic opportunities
Though you may tell a story over months or even a year or more, episodic content allows a brand to pursue different themes tied to evolving business goals, specific campaigns or current initiatives. Think of it like a concerto. The narrative is the overall composition, but, throughout, one can hear multiple variations on a melodic theme that all come together to take the listener on a unique journey.
- A recognizable style
Of course, your brand already has an established look and feel, and possibly has a brand book so thick that any junior graphic designer feels bound, gagged and thrown in a closet. But that’s not what we’re talking about here. Sure, stick to your brand standards with your content. However, what episodic content offers is an opportunity to create a consistent style that appeals to your target audience. Do you want videos with high production value, videos that look more organic but are still clearly produced and polished or videos that are a down-and-dirty DIY style? And if your episodic content takes the form of blog posts or videos…what voice, style and imagery will you employ? The style you choose should be based entirely on the demographic/psychographic you want your content to connect with.
I taught rhetoric for more than nine years, so of course I’m going to work in an Aristotelian concept here. Ethos basically means credibility. Less basically, it is a rhetorical appeal that seeks to persuade an audience by convincing them of the high character of the speaker. It’s an appeal to authority: i.e. trust me because I’m believable and share the same values as you. Yes, it sounds familiar because, you know, politicians. At any rate, episodic content allows you to further build a brand’s credibility with an audience and begin to inspire loyalty, or at least a degree of affection, within that audience.
- Return visitors
Out of all of the offerings of episodic content, the most important one is return visitors. We all know it’s significantly more expensive to acquire a new customer than retain a current customer. The same goes with viewers of your content. Episodic content significantly increases the chance that users will come back to see more of your content because it’s memorable and because it’s telling a story – and because they probably want to find out what happens next.
While I’ve mostly referred to episodic content above as video, it doesn’t have to be video only. It can take the form of a series of blog posts, articles, photo essays, videos or a mix of all of those.
Will it work?
A case study conducted by Content Standard found that average pageviews per article included in an editorial series was 124 percent higher than that of content published outside of a series.
Buzzfeed, a publisher I consider a leader and trendsetter in the digital realm, is sinking significant resources into episodic content in an effort to grow their their viewer base and retain viewers longer across platforms. My favorite TV-like series they’ve launched is called “Worth It.” They eat a $100 doughnut in one of the episodes. You should watch it.
The person I would consider the king of episodic content is Casey Neistat. He has the luxury of his narrative arc being his relatively fascinating life, but even he recognized the necessity of labeling his vlogs as “episodes” during his year-plus long stretch of posting a video every day. The consummate self promoter, he teases what’s coming in future episodes and references previous videos to retain viewers and drive engagement with legacy content. His videos average more than 3 million views per video typically within 24 hours. In fact, his consistent episodic content is so powerful to influence viewer behavior that he just announced he’ll start daily vlogging again (to the ultimate end of promoting his new joint venture with CNN).
Brands and media outlets like Kate Spade, Coca Cola and MSNBC are putting more resources into creating episodic content, and you can check out what that looks like.
Having spent the better part of a decade working in digital marketing, I will wholeheartedly admit this may be something no one is talking about a year from now. But the reason they may not be talking about it is because marketers have integrated it in brand storytelling so well that customers aren’t even aware of it. Wink, wink.