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14 January 2019

Why Serial’s true power lies in the re-invention

Written by: Alex Eeles, Principal Writer at Edelman

Brand, Innovation

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?’

But what 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.

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