It’s hard to stop watching TV shows, and that’s by design. Each episode ends on some kind of cliffhanger. Key information gets withheld over the course of entire series — or, in the case of This Is Us, reserved for an episode right after the Super Bowl. The lack of resolution strings us along.
It actually hooks us on a psychological level, Carlijn Postma noted in her talk at Content Marketing World, “Binge Marketing: A Practical Guide to Building Your Brand With Serial Content.” Most of us have a strong, unspoken aversion to ambiguity, or, as social psychologist Arie Kruglanski put it in the 1990s, a “need for closure.”
This comes up in our personal lives, and in how we watch TV. Once you’re into a show, it can keep you up at night.
Marketing campaigns, on the other hand, don’t really keep anyone up at night. Besides marketers.
Postma, founder of Dutch content marketing agency The Post, wondered why. Couldn’t content marketing be as bingeable as Netflix?
Well, it’s not exactly that easy, according to Ardath Albee, CEO of content marketing consultancy Marketing Interactions and interim VP of marketing at Modus. She knows the content and entertainment worlds well — she writes fiction in her free time — and she, too, led a workshop at Content Marketing World about the power of serial content.
But she sees a gap between Netflix shows and content marketing, rooted in the work of renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell. His name is almost synonymous with storytelling; Postma, too, mentioned Campbell in her talk.
He coined the term “the hero’s journey.”
Does Content Marketing Have a Hero?
The hero’s journey is the basic structure of most popular stories around the world, from folk tales to Pixar movies. Campbell outlined its many stages — 17, to be exact — in his 1949 book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
It starts like this: The protagonist, lolling around in the “ordinary world,” receives a “call to adventure.” She resists, but ultimately leaves for an unknown world, where she faces a series of escalating challenges before triumphing over adversity, learning something new, and returning to the ordinary world transformed.
On this journey, the hero encounters common character archetypes, like an antagonist and a mentor.
Serial content marketing can follow this structure. Especially in the B2C sector, Albee noted, it might make sense to craft a narrative around a hero character similar to your target demographic — perhaps a suburban mom with middle-school-aged kids who play soccer.
“You can take in lifestyle, and make something that people can relate to,” she told Built In.
Albee’s specialty, though, is B2B content, where content marketing is less about lifestyles than it is about buying committees. In her space, each buyer is a hero, on an epic quest (also known as the buying process) that can last up to three years.
B2B content marketers help them overcome the obstacles along the way, which rarely means crafting a hero’s journey narrative. More often, it means fulfilling the function of one specific Campbell character archetype.
“Our job is really as the mentor,” Albee said. “We’re the fairy godmother.”
Still, like Postma, Albee believes that content marketers can borrow techniques from Netflix — such as cliffhangers, on-demand content libraries and content that builds on previously published content — to “tell a story ... that keeps pulling people forward.”
The Scourge of ‘Drive-By Views’
The key: Avoiding “one-off acts of content,” as Albee puts it.
Yet in her experience, that’s exactly what most content marketing is: a cloud of unrelated blog posts, webinars and white papers, designed to fill the top of a company’s sales funnel.
This content often generates email sign-ups, which marketers essentially chuck over a wall to sales reps. It’s not marketing’s responsibility to turn them into full-blown sales leads — that’s the sales team’s project.
But this strict division of labor creates a problem. It often goes unnoticed, because marketers rarely experience their own campaigns from a customer perspective, Albee said, but it’s there nonetheless.
Basically, customers get drawn to the company’s website by a rich, relevant content ecosystem — but as they edge closer to making a purchase, they abruptly run out of relevant content. The ecosystem dead-ends. The content exclusively serves early stage prospects.
“Don’t ever finish your story,” Postma advised in her talk. This is what TV writers specialize in — offering some closure at the end of each episode, and season, without tying up all the loose plot threads.
From Albee’s perspective, it’s also important not to let readers feel finished with your story. As they mature as prospects, it should remain easy for them to find relevant content.
This is tougher than it sounds in B2B content marketing, because so many stakeholders — often six to 10 of them, Gartner reports — weigh in on the buying process. They range from an HR director to an engineering lead, and they all have different perspectives on the product, and different questions about how it will work.
So companies don’t just need content that sustains momentum through every stage of the customer journey. They also need content for every persona on the journey, that builds consensus across functions.
How do you do that?
The New, Netflix-Inspired Path
It’s easy to point to content marketing that stalls out at the top of the funnel. It’s harder to point to examples of robust, serial content marketing.
“There aren’t great examples out there,” Albee said. Netflix is serial content, but not quite content marketing. The serial projects Albee has worked on with her clients aren’t usually free to the public.
The Essentials of Effective Serial Content
- Think in terms of what the buyer needs to know, not what you want to say.
- Answer FAQs from different personas at different stages of the customer journey.
- Organize your on-demand content library in an intuitive way.
- Borrow Netflix-style techniques, like cliffhangers and recaps — but only when it suits your business goals.
However, she pointed to a couple examples: Energy University by Schneider Electric and IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign. She also noted that Arrow Electronics bought several media companies to engage the audience that buys their products.
None of this is exactly the serial content Albee advocates for, but all three companies are avoiding “pushing product,” or listing out cool new features. Instead, they’re publishing content that helps prospects figure out which of their problems the company can solve.
“Look at the buyer as the hero of the story, not your product,” Albee said.
In a way, she’s applying the underlying idea of customer-led growth to content strategy: think in terms of the customer’s objectives, not your own.
In content marketing, that means answering frequently asked questions from throughout the funnel. An early question might be: What problem does this product solve? Then they might wonder: What are other people like me doing to solve this problem? Then: I’m interested in this solution — how do I talk about it with other stakeholders in the buying process?
These questions don’t necessarily have to be answered in an FAQ format, Albee noted — content marketers can tackle them through narratives, or interview podcasts, or with video tutorials starring relevant influencers.
The key thing is understanding that each stage and persona in the customer journey brings its own unique questions to the table.
“Their context is shifting as they learn more and more,” Albee said.
Content marketers have to reach them where they are — and propel them forward. That might mean using recaps, cliffhangers and other addictive storytelling techniques Postma mentioned in her talk; at the very least, it means creating on-demand content libraries with intuitive architecture.
Often, Albee sees corporate websites organized around types of content, with separate verticals for webinars, white papers and blog posts. Really, though, customers should be able to search by their problem, their stage in the journey and their professional role.
“How much time and effort are [buyers] supposed to put into finding the next [piece of content]?” Albee said. “We have to help them do that.”
In that spirit, here’s the article we recommend you read after this one. It’s thematically relevant, and we mentioned it a few paragraphs ago — call back!
It’s not a full-blown cliffhanger, but when it comes to serial content marketing, it doesn’t always have to be.