What marketers can learn from… Serial

What it took to take a story from side project to cult hit to media phenomenon

For a few weeks at the start of the year, I became one of millions of people around the world wondering about “The deal with Jay,” what was up with the exhibitionist who found Hae Min-Lee’s body in Leakin Park, and did Adnan Syed really do it?

My infatuation with the Serial podcast has even extended to making its haunting theme music my new ringtone, replacing old favourite Game of Thrones (yep, I’m a bit of a geek).

But I’m not alone in loving Serial. The 12-episode podcast, which exhaustively chronicles a 1999 murder case in Baltimore, has been downloaded more than 76 million times to date, and has spawned spin-offs such as The AV Club’s The Serial Serial and Slate’s Serial Spoiler Specials. Ewan McGregor and Sarah Silverman are among its celebrity fans.

Seth Lind, director of operations for Serial’s parent show This American Life, says its runaway success came as an “absolute surprise” to producers. “We figured we could get the word out about it by promoting it to the This American Life audience, but we would have been off our rockers to predict it would take off like it did,” he says.

Until Serial’s breakout success, the humble podcast was generally regarded as a minor cog in the huge pop-culture machine; a June 2014 ad spend forecast from ZenithOptimedia called for U.S. advertiser investment to remain steady at just US$34 million through 2016.

Paul Verna, a senior analyst with eMarketer in New York, says his company stopped covering podcasting as a core subject around 2010. “In the earlier days of the iPod, before everything started going to streaming models, the idea of downloading a piece of content through the device and playing it from the device just made a lot more sense than it does in today’s world,” he says.

Now though, Serial’s success has led some to proclaim this a “golden age” for podcasts – although they haven’t really gone away since The Ricky Gervais Show set a Guinness World Record as the world’s most downloaded podcast in 2007 (it has now been downloaded more than 300 million times).

CanadaPodcasts.ca, the self-described “home of Canadian podcasting,” currently lists about 450 podcasts on its website, while reports have pegged the number of podcasts available on iTunes at more than 250,000.

Serial also helped turn its sponsor, e-mail marketing service MailChimp, into a media sensation. Its 20-second spot, which features a series of people reading otherwise mundane ad copy, became an internet meme after Serial listeners seized on one woman’s mispronunciation of its name as “mail… kimp?” It’s no wonder that Lind says sponsors are “quite interested” in a second season of Serial.

Pete Jackson, a senior planner with the London-based media agency Mr. President, recently wrote about Serial’s success for the Advertising Week Social Club. In an e-mail to Marketing, he describes Serial as a prime example of the “cult to mass market” lifecycle of so many modern media properties.

“It breaks through with a cult following who listen to it first and weekly,” he says. “They generate the noise and excitement that brings in the late adopters, who then employ binge watching [or listening].”

He likens the podcast’s success to the hit AMC series Breaking Bad, which attracted just 1.4 million U.S. viewers for its 2008 premiere but steadily gained a following through word-of-mouth (exacerbated by its 2011 debut on streaming video-on-demand service Netflix). In 2013, Breaking Bad’s final season premiere attracted 5.9 million viewers in the U.S. alone, as both early and late adopters alike tuned in to discover Walter White’s fate.

A second season of Serial will likely produce a similar result, as late adopters continue to discover the podcast through word-of-mouth. The show’s profile has also been raised by recent news reports that its protagonist, Adnan Syed, has requested a new trial.

Pundits say podcasts’ convenience holds strong consumer appeal in an increasingly on-the-go society, particularly as smartphones become more entrenched. According to a November report on commuting as part of Bensimon Byrne’s ongoing Consumerology report, more than 34% of Canadian drivers say they listen to music playlists or podcasts on a mobile device while driving to work, a number that increases to 58% among people using public transit.

Meanwhile, another recent U.S. study by Edison Research identified podcast listeners as “super listeners,” consuming one hour and 45 minutes of audio per day than the average American and spending more than a quarter of their time listening to podcasts.

But Mr. President’s Jackson says that despite a significant audience, marketers have yet to fully exploit podcasts. “While every brand out there is jumping into the social media and video content game, no one is paying attention to podcasting – despite the fact millions of people consume content in this way,” he says. “It’s a massive opportunity.”

While eMarketer’s Verna remains sceptical about podcasts’ broad-based appeal – “[Serial] is still a story about one popular piece of content, not so much about a medium that’s going to be lifted to great heights,” he says – he admits that podcast audiences are highly engaged and likely to reward advertisers that sponsor their favourite shows.

“It’s never going to be a big mainstream opportunity, but one thing that marketers do know with a podcast audience is that it’s not a casual audience, it’s a very attentive one,” he says. “What a marketer’s not getting in scale and reach, they are getting in engagement, so when they decide to support this type of content it’s with that knowledge.”

But Mitch Joel, president of Montreal digital agency Mirum and the host of more than 450 episodes of the long-running Six Degrees of Pixelation podcast, says it’s wrong to view podcasts through the traditional model of surrounding appealing content with advertising.

Joel podcast doesn’t generate direct revenue through advertising, for example, has helped position Joel and his agency as thought leaders, helping distinguish Mirum from its competitors.

“That multiple is so much different from looking at it and saying ‘What’s the advertising revenue?’” he says. “The bigger and more realistic opportunity for brands is to look at taking new ways of how to create and distribute content, and look at what you can do besides throwing your name in front of it, the middle of it, or the end of it,” he says. “What if you actually created the content?”

In a January article entitled “Are podcasts the next big thing for sponsored content?” New York-based content marketing firm Contently said that while brands were quick to adopt online publishing channels including blogs and social media for their content marketing endeavours, podcasts – despite being around for more than a decade – have yet to catch on.

The main reason, it said, is that quality podcasts are difficult to create and can take time to build an audience – two factors that can deter brands looking for a quick payoff.

In other words, it requires both talent and resources to create a killer podcast like Serial.

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