I love the podcast Serial.
I remember when I first heard it. From the first moment, and the dulcet tones of Sarah Koenig, I was hooked.
From This American Life and WBEZ Chicago, it’s Serial. One story. Told week by week.
To start with, the good thing was that I was behind. I listened to episode after episode, headphones in at all times, ignoring my family, drinking in this story.
And then I caught up. That was it. I was in with everyone else. One story. Told week by week.
(One week I got my days mixed up and practically wailed out loud when I realised my mistake and had to wait another 24 hours for the next episode.)
Fresh content brings you a fresh community
When Season 1 launched in 2014 it felt fresh and new. It was before we made real life crime drama popular via Netflix. It was a time of peak binge watch. Seasons dropped with all their episodes available at once. It was a race to watch as much as you could.
And here was a podcast that went against all of that. A real life case. An episode each week. Giving us something that we thought we’d moved away from, the week-long wait, and suddenly making it feel like the very thing we all needed.
By the time that Season 1 finished everyone was talking about the case of Adnan Syed, which the podcast centred around. Sarah and her team had taken apart the case and gone over each part of it. Week by week they looked at a different part of the case, some evidence, something that had happened, took it apart and analysed it.
It was such amazing storytelling. A story spun together from an intriguing case. I remember one of the reasons that I was so hooked so early on was that Syed maintained that he didn’t know what he had done the afternoon he was accused of the murder of Hae Min Lee. I just remember turning that over in my head. How could that be?
A community building around your content
As the podcast grew in popularity so did the discussion around it. People were talking about the case online, finding the people mentioned on the podcast, coming up with their own theories.
Other media outlets were covering the podcast, it was being discussed in detail amongst some of my friends and we would open all conversations starting with an update on what had happened in the last episode.
Taking something we thought we’d had enough of, real life, told in episode form, it spun the whole thing on its head and had us all hooked.
So how do you top that?
With a growing community around Season 1, it was hard to see where it would go next. People had directly taken up Syed’s case, talking to people involved and making their own YouTube videos about what they thought happened. YouTube channels investigating other similar stories appeared.
Jay Wilds, a key witness in the case, gave an exclusive interview with The Intercept. It was clear that the podcast had hit a nerve and the community around it grew up in different ways.
Don’t do the same all over again just because people want it
For me, I find this is where the ‘follow up’ syndrome comes from. I’m a firm believer in the fact that nothing is as good second time round. Whatever you think that sequel is going to deliver, whatever you want to know about the characters or people you’ve spent time getting to know, trust me, it’s never as good.
So I approached the news of Season 2 of Serial with trepidation. How could they do better than Season 1? Would they try? How could they continue to deliver something of such high quality second time round?
Take what is great, and make it better
Season 2 focused on the story of Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl and the night he walked away from his post in Afghanistan and what happened next. There was no murder in this story, it was the story of Bowe. Why had he done what he did? What happened to him? How had it affected those around him? What could we learn from this?
For me, this took the idea at the core of Season 1 and took it to the next level. Sure, everyone was waiting for another case, another murder, another trial taken apart week by week.
But that’s not what the team delivered. For me, they took what was at the core of Season 1, insanely good storytelling, and doubled down on that. They took what made Season 1 a success, the dissection of a story with so many different things going on within it, and brought that to a new story.
By the end of Season 2, I felt that they had asked questions about army enrolment, US involvement in Afghanistan, relationships within army units, ranking officers and keeping a team together no matter what. It really got to the core of everything that made up the story they had tackled.
For me, this is what it takes to go on a journey with your audience. Yes, you could continue to give them what they want, exactly what they want. They could have chosen to cover another murder case. Instead, they looked at the core of what they had created, the threads of the story that they had told, and went out to find another that could be teased apart in the same way.
Unravelling what looked like a straightforward story, week by week, they took their community on a journey with them to ask tough questions and see where that took them.
Here comes Season 3
And so here we are. This week, September 20th, sees the launch of Season 3.
I’ve already listened to Sarah’s dulcet tones on the trailer. I’m already hooked.
This year, in some ways, they are going back to Season 1. In the trailer Sarah talks about spending a year in the court system in Cleveland, Ohio. (If you are asking why there, she also answers this in the trailer – they let them record anywhere and everywhere in the court and court buildings.)
She says that people always ask her what the first season said about the court system in American. And she would always say the same thing – not much. The case they looked at in 2014 was so extraordinary that it didn’t shine a light on much that goes on in the court system every day. It just told its own story.
So this time, Serial is telling the story of a whole year in court. A year in court. Told week by week. What will the every day cases tell us about the justice system as a whole? What will we see? How will it shine a light onto a system that many feel is broken? I can’t wait to find out.
And it brings us another story that we can connect with, not just a rehash of what was popular the first time around. The first Season sparked a real interest in the court system in the US, so why not move on to tell that story? People felt that the case featured in Season 1 said something about many wider issues in the US, so why not look at smaller, everyday cases and see how those show these issues in even more of a myriad of ways?
Again, it is keeping what makes Serial so great at its core, and taking the power of that to shine a light somewhere that its audience might not have looked by themselves.
Your community deserves the best, not just the same
Whilst I love a good podcast, and from this blog we’ve learnt that I love Serial in particular, what I also love is being able to extrapolate a great lesson from something that inspires me. So what is the lesson here?
Your content is your storytelling. It tells the world what you want the world to know. About you, your business, or a story that you think is worth telling, no matter what. And your community are the people who will talk about your stories.
The temptation is to have a hit with your audience, and then keep replicating that hit over and over thinking that you are giving them what they want.
But take a step back. Everything changes. Your stories change. Nothing is set in stone the way it was when you first started. So why would you keep telling the same stories, trying to replicate the same greatest hits? It’s a comfortable and tempting option but the alternative is so much better.
Take what it is that is at the heart of your content, and take it to the next level. Take the thing that connects with your community, and use it to engage them with your next big idea. Don’t just keep making the same thing over and over. That’s where the true magic happens, and your community will love magic above all else.