Episodic Content: The Future of Content Marketing?

Episodes

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?

  1. 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?

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. Ethos

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.

  1. 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.

Be A Careless Artist

netflix-original-abstract-the-art-of-design

In the first episode of a documentary series about design I’ve started watching, the filmmakers spend some time with an illustrator named Christoph Niemann – known best for his New Yorker magazine covers (20 and counting). In discussing his process and his craft, Christoph muses on the duality of creator and editor. The act of creating something (or at least creating something good) requires a free spiritedness and a letting go of judgement. The act of turning that creation into a fully realized work that achieves its purpose requires control and logic. This can be summed up in two short sentences: Be a careless artist. Be a ruthless editor.

carelessartist

In all the creative work I do – whether songwriting, videography, writing or brainstorming ideas for new client marketing campaigns – I feel an ever-present tension in the the push and pull between these two personas. As a “responsible adult” who wants to be taken seriously in this world, I find it difficult at times to escape the pragmatic, criticism-wielding part of my brain and fully enter a careless, free-spirited headspace. [Even as I was writing that sentence, my internal editor stopped me from typing and started laboring over what word I should use – zone? dimension? space? Ahh…headspace, that’s it.]

But, the element of play is an undeniably essential component of creative work, and the most creative people I’ve known, even if they come across as serious people, have an uncanny ability to always let their minds be at play. I like to think of it as having a thought party in your head where all the ideas are invited and get to mingle as equals. Christoph has an Instagram account where he does just that: plays with ideas. And it’s delightful.

img_1852

 

This element of play also serves as the gateway to imagination and ultimately to problem solving. If you’re an artist or are in the creative industry, this applies to you. If you’re an accountant, this applies to you. If you’re a parent, this applies to you. Freeing our minds of the constraints of logic and “how things should be” can open doors to ideas and solutions that would otherwise be inaccessible. And the ruthless editor is not the archenemy but more like the parent helping a child as he takes off on his bike for the first time without training wheels. The editor guides, aligns a trajectory that’s not going to send the idea crashing into a curb, then – just at the right moment – lets go of the bicycle.

Wow, I don’t know how we ended up with a personification riding an idea bicycle, but hopefully it works. That’s the best part of play: you never know quite where it’s gonna take you.

Exciting New Facebook Ad Targeting Functionality

FBadsheader.png

What you need to know about Page Engagement Custom Audiences

So, you can guess from the title that I’m about to nerd out a little bit. But this is a big deal! And these are helpful new capabilities if you’re trying to reach a target audience on Facebook.

The ability to target custom audiences based on uploaded lists, website traffic, etc. has been around for a while – but Facebook just rolled out additional features that allow you to target audiences based on page engagement.

fbads1_red

This option allows you to target people who have previously interacted with your page or posts based on the kind of media they engaged with – which is a huge leap in potential audience segmentation.

fbads2

This functionality offers advertisers the ability to follow up with retargeting ads super specific to what the user has already engaged with, which will not only likely lead to higher conversion rates but also will give advertisers the opportunity to create a cohesive experience in terms of creative execution and storytelling in the ads.

fbads3

Clearly, being able to know how a user engaged with your page or content will help you craft messaging strategies that are much more likely to connect with them and drive action than broad retargeting efforts can accomplish.

The only drawback here is that because Facebook Business Manager is a bit of a beast to navigate, finding exactly where and how to create these audience takes some clicking around. Feel free to shoot me a message if you need some help!

Tis’ the Season for…Lots of Work

November was a busy month, and blogging momentarily slipped to the back burner. More blogs are in the works, but today I’ll just give you a quick update of a couple other things I’ve been working on.

At my agency, we’re in the thick of production for our second round of content for Enough With The Puff, a cigarette smoking prevention/cessation public health campaign. The design updates to the website are done, and you can see those here – and we’ve got tons of new content that will be going up on the site in mid-January. This morning, I had the pleasure of going out near Conifer to the shoot for two of the new commercials for the campaign. It was chilly but a lot of fun. Can’t wait to see how these turn out!

img_1604

Over the weekend, I headed to Ophelia’s to see Wildermiss, one of my favorite new Denver bands. I just happened to buy a new telephoto lens for my DSLR that afternoon, so I decided to try it out at their show. I will confess that I screwed up about 90 percent of the photos because there proved to be a pretty good learning curve on that lens, but these are the few that came out well. (Click for higher res)

The Necessity of Trial and Error

tumblr_o0toi0dz4q1qh943go1_1280
I took this photo about 15 times before I captured the right moment with the right settings

My approach to trying new things or learning new disciplines is and has always been to jump right in and do it. From teaching myself how to play guitar as a kid to becoming a vegetarian to engineering complex big data systems for clients, I always just go for it and figure it out along the way. I like to think this is a good trait – though it’s incredibly detrimental to putting together Ikea furniture.

But of all the things I’ve done in my life and all the passions I’ve pursued, I think I can say that the one that has involved the most trial and error – and the most facepalm moments – is photography and videography. I don’t mean point-and-shoot photography or taking photos on my iPhone. I mean switching your DSLR to manual mode and manual focus and going to work taking photos and shooting video.

The other complication to this is that I’m a perfectionist, so my idea of error includes a shot slightly out of focus or a little overexposed. But when you’ve never taken a class or had professional training in a discipline (and sometimes even if you have), the learning process involves trial and error. And the key word there is error. Error is an essential element of that equation. If you ever find something you do perfectly the first time, then you’re probably not going to enjoy doing it for very long because there’s no challenge, there’s no personal art to it, there’s no chance to hone your craft.

The chemist and author Orlando A. Battista once wrote, “An error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” I would expand on that to say that a number of errors don’t equal failure as long as you keep at it to get them right. This is really the nature of producing anything – of creativity, of craft. The people who get really good at a skill or an art often had people tell them (maybe for years) that they were no good at what they were doing or that the product of their work was crap. But if you can sift out the constructive criticism from the noise, then going through that actually provides a pretty accelerated learning curve.

In addition to continuing to overcome errors in the process of creating, another essential element is getting work done. My friend Alan talks about how good work that is finished is, by nature, better than “perfect” work that was never completed. Because we all know there’s really no such thing as perfect anyway. The illustrator and cartoonist Jake Parker hits the nail on the head in a video about this. He makes this point: “The world wants, and it needs, people who finish things.” So, go do the thing you want to. Get it wrong, mess it up. But do it. Because just in doing it, you’re exponentially closer to doing it right than people who are afraid to try it in the first place.

Subscribe to the blog to get blog posts delivered to your inbox!