The madcap nature of Christmas with a
young family doesn’t leave much time for anything else but when I did get a few
glorious moments of festive calm (i.e. when the kids were asleep or stuffing
their faces with sugar in front of a film), it was with some trepidation that I
delved into season three of the hit podcast Serial.
After all, the first season, exploring the
murder conviction of high school student Adnan Syed, had completely captivated
me but season two, charting the story of army deserter Bowe Bergdahl, had not. Maybe
the bar was set too high by that enthralling, enraging, trailblazing initial
series. Maybe I didn’t fully appreciate the nuances of the US military. But for
whatever reason, Bergdahl’s tale just didn’t grab me in the same way Syed’s had
done a few months previously.
Would season three be a return to form or another disappointment? Emphatically, the former.
As ever, Sarah Koenig is at the helm but
the similarities to previous series pretty much end there. Rather than focus on
one high-profile story unpicked over several weeks, each episode instead investigates
a smaller, more ‘everyday’ case from a single Cleveland courthouse. To use the
show’s own words: “one courthouse, told week by week.”
The insight to the workings, characters
and, yes, injustices of the US judicial system are fascinating, illuminating
and maddening in equal measure – definitely worth a listen. Yet
thought-provoking as it all is, the actual content wasn’t what really got me
thinking. It was the re-invention.
When Serial first launched back in 2015, listener figures went through the roof and media commentators were falling over each other to point out how it’s fresh storytelling format would re-shape the podcast industry forever.
But rather than simply ride the crest of
that wave and copycat it with a new case for season two – something that true
crime rivals like Up & Vanished, In The Dark et al have done to good effect
– the show took a completely new approach for the story of Bergdahl.
As I’ve said, personally I didn’t think it
worked – something the download figures seem to bear out too: 175 million for
season one; 75 million for season two. Yet, even so, rather than revert to the
successful template of that first, record-breaking series for season three, Koenig
and co went back to the drawing board all over again.
For me, that’s the difference between good
content creators and brilliant ones. The combination of skill and courage that inspires
them to challenge and reshape the formula rather than follow it – no matter how
successful it was first time out.
For those of us working in a marketing
communications industry increasingly centred around quality, shareable content
and driven by brands’ desire to become publishers in their own right, there’s a
temptation to look at what’s worked previously and simply refit it for our
current purposes. Especially with budgets as tight as they are.
Yet while this might achieve a few reads, views,
likes, shares, etc. in the short-term, it’s unlikely to have the long-term
strategic impact desired. Why? Because consumer trends shift, the zeitgeist moves
on and before long, you’re running to catch up again, all the while look
derivative and uninspired.
On the flipside, constantly challenging
ourselves to be original is a recipe for earning attention – then keeping it.
As American novelist Herman Melville once said, “It is better to fail in
originality than to succeed in imitation.” Or put another way, far better to take
a risk, create something genuinely new and set the zeitgeist for yourself.
This isn’t a rallying call for irrelevance
or for firing out random, off-the-wall stuff that no-one understands just for
the sake of being different. Far from it. The first and foremost consideration
for any brand when it comes to content creation should still be ‘what does my
audience actually want and will this (whatever ‘this’ is) deliver it?’
they want isn’t necessarily the same as how
they want it.
So, to return to Serial for a moment, while
the answer to ‘what’ might be a real-life insight to the US justice system, the
answer to ‘how’ might not necessarily be a serialised podcast about one epic
case. It was once, but perhaps it isn’t now. Just as not every PR programme
starts with a press release anymore and not every ad campaign features a
big-budget TV commercial.
Indeed, if Serial season three has taught
me anything (apart from never enter a courtroom presided over by Judge Daniel
Gaul), it’s that, as content creators, we should be daring and diligent enough
to step away from readymade, off-the-peg solutions and instead seek new, more unexpected
ways to engage people.
If we succeed, great. If we fail, ok. Either
way, we must recover fast, learn faster and try to change the game again next
time. Otherwise, all we’re doing is rolling the same dice on a slightly
different board. And, as anyone who played as many kids’ boardgames as I did
over Christmas knows, that just gets boring for everyone.