Attracting an Audience
While strong promotion is always important for the success of an original series, creating a communications strategy can present fresh challenges for brands new to episodic content. “[HBO] wouldn’t put out Game of Thrones and then just tell the television industry about it,” says Steve Pratt, co-founder of Pacific Content, which creates branded podcasts. “They’d do a marketing campaign for all the people who are going to watch Game of Thrones, and in a way, that’s a new behavior and new mindset for a lot of brands as original content creators.”
Broadhead recognized the importance of building buzz early and did so, not surprisingly, on social media. The agency created a trailer that served as a teaser video, for example, and gave prize packs to those who shared it. “You can elevate something really uniquely by putting some shine to it early and generating that snowball effect, and the trailer was important in doing that,” Carlson says. Positive industry press helped too.
AwesomenessTV also uses social media platforms to build early engagement for its branded entertainment projects. It’s no coincidence that the two stars of Royal Crush, Meg DeAngelis and Alex Aiono, are YouTube influencers. “We learned early on at AwesomenessTV how important and valuable these influencers are,” the producer says. “Not only does it allow you to market to their audience, which is already established on the platform, but it allows us to speak organically and authentically to them as well.”
But relying too heavily on social stars can be dicey, as Bullfrog Spas discovered from its 12-episode comedy web series, The Principal, which debuted on YouTube in late 2014. The YouTube and Vine celebrities in the cast did promote the show to their followers, but the timing was brief, says Jake Ricks, digital marketing manager of the hot tub brand’s parent company, Bullfrog International. In hindsight, Ricks says a better strategy would have been to work out promotional deals with the influencers and for the brand to do other types of promotions.
“Expecting virality is not realistic,” Ricks says. “It’s a better approach to plan for how you’re going to promote and have the appropriate budget for that.”
A List-building Vehicle
Bullfrog created The Principal as high-funnel content to reach a younger audience before they were actually considering buying a hot tub. Ricks says the company hoped its show would boost brand recall when folks get into the market, which would be especially beneficial since brand recall is traditionally poor for the industry. “More than anything it’s the element of surprise—‘Oh yeah, that brand did a show, that’s pretty cool and interesting,’” he says. It’s been hard to measure that goal’s success, although Ricks says people still occasionally reference the series in post-purchase surveys.
A more concrete outcome is the marketing list Bullfrog was able to build from viewers who answered questions about the episodes for the chance to win a hot tub. “We achieved some success, but not overwhelming success because … if you’re going to do episodic content that’s primarily to entertain, you have to go for big reach and big exposure—and we got what I would consider modest exposure,” Ricks says. “There are other ways to market our company and our products that may end up being a little bit more cost-effective.”
Episodic content can be resource- intensive, but it doesn’t need to be. “You could do [episodic] at any scale,” McCrae says. “A small business could do episodic content on Instagram, for example, … continuing a consistent content narrative. I think that’s easy, low-hanging fruit.”
Businesses could also write blog posts with narratives that are compelling enough for people to stay tuned or use Snapchat to tell a tale. There are even alternatives for video—a high production value isn’t necessary. “It’s OK to have a down and dirty, do-it-yourself video, especially for a small business,” says Matthew Vermillion, a digital media strategist at the integrated communications agency SE2. “There’s an authenticity that customers really connect with.”
Episodic doesn’t need to be scripted either. Qualcomm’s second season of its #WhyWait Invent-Off, for example, is a competition that challenges two teams to create something that can help save a life and incorporates Qualcomm’s technology.
Another option is to produce non-fiction content akin to Serial and its S-Town spinoff. But it’s tricky. “You have to find a ridiculously compelling story that is well-suited to being told over multiple episodes—you need to have the time to capture and tell that story brilliantly,” Pratt says. “And this is the piece that Serial and S-Town don’t have to deal with: It has to align with your brand strategy.”
In addition, there are risks in creating a series with an unpredictable ending. Pratt points to the podcast Missing Richard Simmons. “Everything was built up to this climax of, ‘Is Richard Simmons going to come on the podcast or tell us what’s been going on?’ and he didn’t,” Pratt says. “It was a deflating ending in a way, and I think they handled it well, but if I was a brand, I wouldn’t want … an audience letdown as the last experience you have with the brand.”
The Next Chapter
So what is the future of branded episodic content? That ending has yet to be written. Cost and time are just two of the many practical barriers that could hold marketers back.
Still, serialized content is making its rounds on content marketing trends lists, and Vermillion agrees with its inclusion. “I see it as the next evolution of content marketing,” he says. The one-off content that many marketers are producing today “is just noise,” but episodic content can help a brand cut through the clutter by making a consistent offering of content that ideally informs and entertains, he says.
Ricks is bullish too. “What’s likely to happen, in my opinion, is some of these platforms like Netflix and Amazon are going to start buying episodic content direct from brands,” he says. “Those types of platforms are proving they’re here to stay, and they’re kind of starved for content right now.”