In an era where storytelling is a slickly packaged affair and “content” has been cemented as a buzzword, it’s satisfying that the viral hit at the end of 2014 is a simple podcast.
Yup, I’m talking about “Serial,” the weekly radio show that delves into the 15-year-old murder of a teenage girl in Baltimore. The brainchild of the audio gurus at “This American Life,” this new offshoot is already breaking records, becoming the fastest podcast in iTunes history to reach 5 million downloads.
Despite its old-school medium and lack of cross-channel packaging (no YouTube channel posting hidden outtakes, no Instagram feed showing episode-relevant photos, etc.) “Serial” has all the touch points of a viral hit, inspiring rabid Reddit boards and nonstop media coverage and a fan base that has crossed oceans (British devotees have begun organizing “‘Serial’ listening parties”).
It even passed my personal “virality” test: Both my mother-in-law and my landlord have heard of it.
From a storytelling perspective, it’s not hard to see why the traditional radio format can still rivet a modern audience. What makes “Serial” so addictive is the same recipe that’s been making stories addictive for decades: gripping subject matter spun in an artful narrative. Host Sarah Koenig carefully ushers us into her investigation of a real-life crime drama: a young woman murdered, her possibly-innocent ex-boyfriend sent to jail for it, and a group of people giving accounts of what happened—at least one of which is certainly a lie.
The storyline is old as dirt, and the incremental reveal of Koenig’s findings is the same tactic that’s been riveting listeners since the 1940s, when people raced home to turn on “The Adventures of Superman.”
For marketers who want to derive meaning from all this, or learn the “secret sauce” for replicating “Serial”’s success, there’s good news and bad. Bad news first: The only way to recreate the show’s results is to find as gripping a story and weave as masterful a narrative. Koenig brings every element of good reporting to the table—including knowing how to invest a TON of time interviewing, researching, and hunting down leads. By episode 7, she’s been at it for six months. Great investigative reporting and careful editing are still key, and there are no shortcuts to doing them well.
Also keep in mind that with any runaway success like this, there’s bound to be controversy. Criticisms have popped up about the possible glorification of a young woman’s murder and Koenig’s questionable attention to the race and ethnicity of the key players.
Now to the good news: “Serial” does offer two useful takeaways.
First, there’s the proven appeal of a story told in real time. For all the talk that longform is dead and audiences have the attention span of a snail, here’s evidence that you can still inspire lasting devotion to a story told over the course of months and compel your fans to obsess over every detail. “Serial”’s case is complex, and Koenig’s investigation is an intricate maze, but audiences are right there through even the most exhausting details (piecing together every cell phone call placed in a high school senior’s day is no small feat).
The reason for this unwavering attention brings us to Lesson #2: the importance of stakes. What differentiates a fun-but-forgettable story from a riveting one is its impact on real lives. In the case of “Serial,” a man’s future rests on the line. The convicted ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, will either continue to sit in a maximum security prison or be exonerated. The possibility for real-time redemption shoots the series’ importance into the stratosphere. Big stakes bring big audiences.
Putting all this in context for brands is a case-by-case matter—suffice it to say most companies won’t be willing to align themselves with a convicted murderer, no matter how progressive their brand publishing efforts are (after all, Syed may wind up being guilty). But “Serial”’s runaway success is good news for everyone in the business of telling stories on the Internet. If anything, it’s comforting to know that the old rules still apply, and the future of storytelling is the same as it ever was.