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4 Lessons from Serial We Can Use to Craft a Compelling Brand Story

If someone had told me a year ago that a podcast produced by National Public Radio (NPR) would turn the world upside down, I would have called that person crazy. It’s probably obvious that I’m talking about Serial, the hugely popular and massively addicting podcast produced by Sarah Koenig through NPR’s This American Life, the brainchild of media superstar Ira Glass.

With more than 40 million downloads since its first episode release in October 2014, Serial is gritty, emotional and, more than anything, a testament to the journalistic process. Each episode, Koenig explores another facet of the case against Adnan Sayed, a Baltimore teen who was accused and convicted of first-degree murder against his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, in 1999.

Now well past 30 years old with more than 15 years served in federal prison, Sayed speaks to Koenig about the details of his case. Koenig spent more than a year tracking down other people involved in the case and interviewing family and friends of the accused. Sounds compelling, right? It is. What can we learn from this incredibly popular podcast?

Compelling Content Trumps the Medium

Podcasts are undoubtedly a niche medium – firstly, they’re only available to those with a smartphone or access to the Internet. They’re more popular in specific age groups (millennials, mostly) – and yet, people across all age, economic, social and racial groups are downloading this podcast. That means that people who don’t have a podcast app, or regularly listen to anything at all during their commutes or down time are making changes. More than anything, this is proof that compelling content trumps the medium. People will seriously inconvenience themselves to be a part of something popular. I, for one, finally learned how to use my phone’s podcast app in order to take part in Serial.

Keep this in mind when you’re telling your brand story. Choose how your message is best received and give it 100 percent. Don’t try to be everywhere at once – some stories are for Good Morning America, and some stories are for the neighborhood newspaper. 

Everyone Wants Someone to Root For

Check out the comments on any article about Serial and you’ll see fan theories left and right – people arguing about whether Adnan did it, or if someone else was involved and Adnan was framed. People are rooting for Adnan to be released from prison. People are rooting for Jay, another major player in the saga, to tell more of his side of the story. People are rooting for Koenig to produce a second season to look into the case further. Propelled by emotions that were stirred into a frenzy during the duration of the podcast, everyone is rooting for someone.

When you’re telling your brand story, tell a personal story. Highlight an outstanding franchise or a member of your team. Tell the founding story – what compelled the CEO to start the business? Let their experiences tell a positive tale and paint your brand in a flattering light.

Every Story Has an Enemy

As essential as a protagonist is to a compelling story, an antagonist is just as necessary. I’ve seen serious arguments go down on Serial links shared on Facebook – people want someone, or something, to hate.

Keep this in mind when you’re crafting your brand’s story. I’m not suggesting you create an enemy from a real person – but surely you’ve overcome an obstacle of some sort on your entrepreneurial journey. Maybe it’s an oppressive former industry, your own self-doubt or even your finances. Show how you’ve faced your conflict head on – it creates trust with your brand.

Transparency is Critical

Serial is successful and addicting because there’s really no way to know what actually happened. Maybe Adnan did kill Hae. Maybe he’s a total sociopath who’s spent the last 15 years scheming to get released from prison. Maybe he’s defending someone else. Maybe he wasn’t involved at all – there’s no way to know. Each week, Koenig diligently researches a different part of the case. She tries to remain objective, and qualifies any bias she might be extending to her listeners.

There’s a lesson in that. Honesty and transparency can’t be overstated – look at what happens to brands (and visible public figures) who have been accused of lying. Try and remain objective when you can – after all, a press release that says that your brand is great is a lot less credible than an actual human being talking about how the company has changed his or her life.

Lastly, don’t forget that consumers can sniff out lies, and they have the ability to find the truth. Stay honest, especially in your communication, and your brand will be trusted.


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