Episodic content is one of those buzzwords that’s made its way onto many marketing trends lists this year. Like many content marketing strategies, serialized content has its roots in pop culture. Authors have utilized this method of storytelling since the 17th century—the form being perfected by Charles Dickens in the early 1800s. Most recently, episodic content has found a resurgence thanks to the help of Netflix and other television networks.
Episodic content is great because, unlike a standalone piece, it allows you to explore a theme and sink your teeth into a variety of topics underneath that theme. It helps you provide more value to your audience and keeps them invested in your content, especially if they’ve been along for the journey since the beginning.
There’s nothing like staying in on a Friday night with some takeout and your DVR. Reaching the end of an episode is almost painful unless you have the next one readily available. But it’s that insatiable need to know what happens that keeps us coming back for more. How do show creators make the seven days between episodes feel like years? How do they keep us glued to our TVs week after week?
More importantly, how can we as content marketers create the same need in our readers?
Let’s explore some examples of successful episodic content and what about them makes people crave the next installment.
The Importance of Chapter Construction: Gone Girl
Source: Gillian Flynn / Gone Girl
Okay, so I know Gone Girl isn’t a serialized story in the traditional sense, but I think it’s a great work to study if you want to produce riveting content. Of course Gillian Flynn’s bestselling novel is a fascinating story, but there’s a lot of scaffolding she puts into place to keep her plot tight and the tension high. I’d argue one of the reasons Flynn’s novel has people reading late into the night is because of her flawless chapter construction.
When it comes to episodic content, chapter construction is the underlying foundation that keeps your story stable. As many authors know, a story’s success depends on well-crafted chapters. If chapter construction is neglected, your story will fall flat.
Flynn really works at chapter construction in Gone Girl. Of course she focuses on her novel as a singular work, but it’s through honing in on each chapter as a specific, important piece of the story that she establishes a tight pace and amplifies suspense. By varying chapter lengths and choosing when to reveal information and when to withhold it, Flynn keeps the pace clipping along and ensures her readers aren’t overwhelmed in the first chapter with a sluggish info dump.
When working on a standalone article, I’m always eager to get to my point right away and lay out all my data and research. This strategy doesn’t work for episodic content. Writing for a series requires more planning. You must be able to weave information through several articles, knowing where to expand upon an idea and what to leave for the next installment.
Like Flynn withholds key information for chapters later in her novel, you must identify what information your audience doesn’t need to know upfront. I find one of the best ways to do this is by creating an outline of each article in your series. Identify the major points you want to discuss in your series and map out which articles you will cover this information in.
A few ways to approach your series’s outline:
- Jot down each article idea on post-it notes and lay out where you might want them to sit in the narrative flow.
- Create a skeleton of each article with brief bullet points organizing the beginning, middle, and end. Then look for repeating ideas in each article outline, where you can expand, and where you can withhold.
- Write down each article’s theses on a separate index cards and, again, look for similarities in topic so you can arrange your series according to how each piece will flow into the other.
Another important takeaway from Flynn’s chapter construction is that she uses two narrators to tell the story. Gone Girl is told in alternating chapters by married couple Amy and Nick. This technique works for two reasons:
- Readers are more compelled to read on through the next chapter in order to get back to the other perspective.
- Alternating perspectives keeps the narration fresh and invites new ideas and beliefs into the overall story.
Alternating narrators is an easy way to construct your episodic content and build more anticipation. Like in Gone Girl, this will give your readers an opportunity to explore different perspectives on the same topic. It also gives them a reason to stick with the series, knowing that a narrator they may prefer will return in the next chapter.
One way to explore using alternating narrators in your episodic content is to have another member of your content marketing team write some of the articles in the series. Doing so will help you identify which perspective resonates best with your audience. It’ll also allow your content marketing team to maintain control over the series.
Another good way to experiment with alternating narrators is to blog swap with another company. Partnering on episodic content will not only give you some relief from producing all the articles for the series yourself, but it’ll also give your content a wider audience. If the series is successful, it can open more opportunities to partner up on future projects.
Understanding Cliffhangers: Serial
When I think of episodic content, one of the first things that comes to mind is Serial.—partly because of the show’s name, but also because it’s one of the best examples of episodic content’s power. Its first season blew up in the fall of 2014 and helped position podcasts as a content type that has mass appeal. It also paved the way for other true crime series like Making a Murderer and The Jinx. Serial’s second season launched in December of 2015 to the relief of many fans (myself included). Despite the story being different this season, Serial is still hugely successful.
Part of the reason people fell in love with Serial is because host Sarah Koenig and crew are experts at developing serialized stories. What stood out to me most while obsessing over the podcast is their masterful use of cliffhangers. Perhaps their most talked about cliffhanger happened at the end of the first episode of Season 2 when—after relaying the details and controversy surrounding US soldier and former Taliban captive Bowe Bergdahl—Koenig ends the episode by saying, “That’s me calling the Taliban.”
Yeah. With a cliffhanger like that, it’s no wonder Serial’s audience collectively groaned, realizing they’d have to wait another week to find out what calling the Taliban even means.
Cliffhangers are the secret ingredient to creating impactful episodic content. Some think cliffhangers are passe, but they’re still an effective method in episodic content—a tried and true tool that’s been in use for centuries. It’s your audience’s final impression of the chapter and it’s what they’ll ruminate until the next. Cliffhangers are an art. They must provide value to your audience, but they also must be a tease. When trying to execute a good cliffhanger for your episodic content, you must hone in on the last couple paragraphs, ensuring they close out your piece while setting up the next installment.
When writing cliffhangers, you should have a solid idea of what you want to cover in the next episode before finishing up the first draft of the current one. Constructing a gasp-worthy cliffhanger is easiest when you know what you want to say next, you’ll have a better understanding of how to position that information.
You don’t need to have the entire article written, but as I mentioned above when discussing chapter construction, it’s smart to have an outline of your series. This outline will keep your content focused and give you the guidance for how to create cliffhangers that’ll have your audience coming back for the next part in the series.
Another easy way to create cliffhangers is to pose a question at the end of your chapter that alludes to the next. It doesn’t have to be a challenging question, just a simple seed you plant in your audience’s heads, one that’ll continue to grow until the next installment. Koenig does this quite flawlessly in Serial, particularly in Season One when in episode 10, she sarcastically questions if Adnan is a psychopath. This question perfectly sets up episode 11 and keeps listeners counting down the hours until its release.
Using Time to Build Anticipation: Watchmen
Source: Alan Moore / Watchmen
Time is an often overlooked tool when crafting episodic content, but it’s one of the major ways in which content creators can heighten the audience’s need for the next episode. How many times have you binge-watched all the episodes of your favorite TV show only to realize you’re all caught up?
That feeling of having to wait is pretty miserable, but it’s also exciting. It’s through waiting that anticipation grows. People get excited, they discuss the last episode with their friends, scour the internet for more information on what’ll happen next, and start forming theories.
One of my favorite examples of using time to heighten anticipation is comic books. Growing up, I was a big comic book collector. I remember waiting for Wednesday to roll around and pouring over the latest batch of comics. All that waiting felt so satisfying once I got to actually hold the next installment in my hands. Though I wasn’t alive for the initial release of Alan Moore’s Watchmen, it’s a good comic book to talk about when discussing timing in episodic content (not to mention crafting killer content).
Most people know Watchmen as a graphic novel. However, it was actually published between September 1986 and October 1987 as twelve individual comic books. That’s right, the wait for each new chapter in the series was a month. Having read the series as a whole, I don’t know if I could’ve taken that kind of waiting. Fans did, however, and I believe part of the reason Watchmen is still popular to this day is because its initial run as serialized content drummed up so much momentum.
Now, I’m not suggesting you only distribute one installment in your series per month (though depending on your campaign strategy, that can certainly work). But I do believe having a distribution timeline in place before you begin publishing your content will help you get a good sense of how long you should wait before releasing the next piece. It also helps to know how many chapters you anticipate for your series. If you’re planning on a lengthy series, it may be be best to experiment with longer wait times since there’s more content for your audience to explore. However, if you’re series is on the shorter side spacing it out over a few days might be more manageable for you and your audience.
Another benefit of publishing your series over time is the opportunity to feed your audience’s anticipation through social media and email. Use Twitter to tease the next chapter in your story before it’s released, or send subscribers an email with an exclusive sneak peek at what’s to come. Take advantage of this time between parts in the series to build hype and create a need for your audience to come back. DC Comics does this on their Twitter account, divulging details about long-running series here and there to whet their followers’ appetites.
Episodic Content in Action
Publishing episodic content is still a relatively new concept in the marketing world. At Ceros, we just ran our first episodic campaign, Interactive Storytelling 101, in December 2015 in partnership with Skyword. The series provides a great overview of interactive content, while still digging into the details. In four parts, the authors cover meaty topics like why interactive content benefits content marketing strategies, how to write for interactive formats, and UX & architecture tips, and interactive design best practices.
What’s so valuable about Interactive Storytelling 101 is that it gives readers a thorough introduction to a somewhat new storytelling method. By relaying this information episodically rather than in a single article, the authors can dive into the topic and give each point appropriately details coverage. If they opted to cover all four topics in one article, they’d have to leave out a substantial amount of detail, cheating their audiences out of useful information.
Each part in the series fits perfectly. The articles build further meaning as a collection, but still stand on their own. Parts one and two end with compelling conclusions that entice readers to continue through the series, employing cliffhangers to keep their audience coming back. It’s also structured with two narrators which, as previously explained, provides varied perspectives on the same theme.
Another way these pieces drive engagement is through integrating interactive content to build structure and pacing. The infographic embedded in each piece guides readers through the story at a smooth pace. They also help craft tension within each installment by creating timed visual cues for readers to drill down further into the content.
The Bottom Line
Episodic content is a valuable strategy when you have a meaty topic you really want to dig into. Start by establishing a plan for your series and creating a rough outline for each piece. Use this map as your guide to creating effective cliffhangers and constructing solid episodes. Experiment with timing when you publish each piece and drum up anticipation through social media.
Since this is a relatively new strategy in content marketing, looking to pop culture for episodic inspiration is a good way to find different techniques to experiment with. If anything, this is just another excuse for you to binge-watch Netflix this weekend. Think of it as research.
What do your favorite TV shows and podcasts do to make you come back for more? Let me know in the comments!