I’ve long been bullish on episodic content; in fact, I think it’s likely the best kind of long-term content investment most online brands can make. The challenges are consistent creation (gotta keep those episodes coming!) and finding the right marketing flywheel to bring in fans, subscribers, and amplifiers. But, these can be overcome by crafting episodic content that promotes itself, or at least, is positioned for regular discovery and re-promotion. Let’s dig in…
What Is Episodic content?
Any format that fits three criteria qualifies:
- Content that’s produced as distinct episodes in a series of similarly-structured pieces
- Content that can be subscribed-to as a series, and in which subscribers are notified of new episodes
- Content that builds a back catalog of previous series that can produce ongoing engagement, sharing, and new subscribers
Numerous formats fit this mold: almost every podcast, most YouTube channels, most webinar series, most (online or offline) conference series, some serialized blogs, nearly every email newsletter, and plenty others. Even a social media account (Twitter, LinkedIn, TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, etc) could fit this mold, though I’d argue it’s unwise to keep any content of value exclusively on a platform you don’t own and control.
Why is Episodic Content Difficult?
The first challenge is creation.
Episodic content means an ongoing commitment to produce new pieces in the series—new podcast episodes, next month’s newsletter, next week’s video, etc.—with a regular cadence. It also means tying together these individual episodes with consistent content structure, style, design, and production.
The best advice I can give is to:
- A) Choose a content format you (or your team/consultant/producer) personally enjoy creating. I’ve never seen an episodic creator who was unenthused about their series do anything but flounder and fail.
- B) Choose a production schedule that sounds “easy” to you. Don’t be aggressive or over-commit; it’ll come back to bite you. And content consumers (in most niches) are perfectly happy with monthly or even bi-monthly launches.
- C) Create 3-10 episodes before you “launch” the series, so you can release already-produced pieces while you smooth the production process.
Weirdly, I’ve found two conflicting truths in the process:
- The more I create, the easier the creation process becomes. When I started with my first blog (SEOmoz.org in 2003), the Whiteboard Friday video series (in 2008), the SparkToro Blog (in 2018), or our relatively new Office Hours series (2021), the hours per episode were always much higher for the first few pieces than after a few dozen produced pieces.
- Inspiration and creativity fluctuate. Sometimes I can put together an hourlong presentation with 40 slides in 3 hours. Other times, those same slides take 30 hours. Some blog posts come rushing out of my fingers like an unclogged spigot. Others slowly drip, drip, drip until 3 weeks of mind-numbing paragraphs finally come together.
How anyone overcomes this paradox is a mystery. For me, the key is to have those “drip, drip, drip” pieces sitting in the drafts folder as long as it takes, then bolster them by striking when the iron is hot on the “unclogged spigot,” pieces.
The second challenge is short vs. long-term ROI.
Episodic content can be expensive to set up, and it rarely produces conversions or leads early on. Even if you choose relatively cheap investments (e.g. a newsletter or a blog, neither of which require specialized equipment), the time demands are real, and the fatigue of schedule-dependent content creation can burn you out.
Worse, episodic content (like almost all content investments) takes a long time to show positive ROI.
Say you start a new video series next week. You’ll probably…
- buy a bit of equipment to make your videos look and sound good
- invest in some production and editing software (or hire a contractor to polish up the videos for you)
- spend a few dozen hours learning and getting comfortable with your setup and practicing your video takes
- pour another dozen hours into your content strategy and individual episode contents
- film your videos, which you might get right on the first take, but probably not 🙂
- edit, produce, and publish those videos (another couple of hours, minimum)
- spend weeks or months experimenting with distribution channels and tactics
- earn a small audience at first, then slowly grow it over time
- 1-6 months from now, start to see conversions/sales you can reasonably attribute to the video content
- 12-24 months from now, have enough data to convince yourself (or your boss/team/client) that the series is returning far more than you’re investing
Content takes a long time to get right. It takes a long time to learn how to distribute. It takes a long time to show ROI. And it will probably never show the kind of high-fidelity, easy-to-prove metrics that advertising channels do.
However… episodic content, when it earns real engagement from the right audience(s), is unbeatable as a marketing investment. It scales without dollars. It builds a back catalog that continues to produce value forever. The brand awareness and brand preference lifts are second to none. And, because few of your competitors are willing to make these investments, it’s still one of the best ways to stand out in a crowded space.
The Solution: be willing to fail, learn, and iterate for a long time before you find success.
Yes, you should research your audience, investigate successful competition, form theories about what works, doesn’t, and why. But even the best laid plans rarely survive contact with the market. You’ll have to take the leap, produce regularly (even if that’s 1X/month or even 1X/quarter), and prepare for disappointing results.
E.G. Even here at SparkToro, we sometimes worry about whether a resource-intensive investment in episodic content makes sense. Amanda and I are working on a new podcast series for 2022, and we know it’s likely to be a slog.
Maybe our SparkToro podcast will pay off in the first 5 or 6 episodes. Most likely it won’t. For me, there’s an almost sixth-sense-like feeling for whether episodic content is working. Do I want to listen to it? Am I getting emails about it? Is it catching on with our social audiences? Am I seeing folks share it without a nudge? Is it earning more and more mentions and links over time? Is Google/YouTube/Instagram/etc. occasionally ranking it well or giving it more algorithmic visibility?
Those signs (and plenty of others) tell me whether I’m onto something vs. in need of a rethink. It’s art and (soft) science, not hard analytical rigor, that clues me into whether the flywheel is turning.
If you regularly create work that engages and resonates with your audience, there’s only one impediment left to making your episodic content an incredible marketing channel.
The third challenge is distribution.
Why do most episodic content investments fail? Distribution.
Some would argue effort is the problem, and I agree that sometimes it is. But often, content creators have the belief that the right content should mostly promote itself. We all see content that earns regular amplification from its audience and think: “if I was doing the right stuff, I’d see that, too.“
Were I assigning the weights, it might be:
- 70% – create the right content for the right audience and (most) distribution will happen on its own
- 25% – put enough elbow grease into manual promotion, distribution, pitching, remixing, and re-sharing and a lot of content that would have failed will produce positive ROI
- 5% – why the heck did that work/not work? It makes no sense.
Episodic content is work. To produce. To edit. To polish and publish. To stick with that schedule you’ve promised to subscribers. So when distribution goes badly and engagement is low, it’s soul-sucking, budget-shrinking, executive-buy-in-sapping torture.
The Solution: Self-Promoting episodes
“Wait, episodes can promote themselves? You mean I don’t need to use social media or email marketing or any of that stuff?”
To the first question: Yes.
To the second one: No.
I’m not arguing in favor of replacing the broadcast-style promotion and multi-network amplification you (and/or your brand accounts) conduct. I’m proposing that by adding elements that nudge amplification behavior to amplification-likely groups, you can create episodes vastly more likely to earn cross-channel, cross-format bumps from a vast variety of folks.
10 Tactical Tips to Make Episodes that Promote Themselves
- Target topics your audience is actively talking about, in ways that add *unique* value
i.e. don’t rehash already existing content, but *do* take new positions or answer unexplored questions about topics that have proven interesting to your market. Those are the ones most likely to get engagement and sharing activity. You could also explore or attempt to trigger new topics of interest; I love that approach, it’s just more challenging and has less certainty.
- Take controversial positions; have an enemy
Enemies don’t have to be people. They can be companies, old ways of doing things, popular aphorisms or advice, even big concepts (e.g. I take a lot of anti-hustle-culture and anti-VC-startup positions)
- Make a short list of people you “could totally see sharing this,” and email or DM them to ask
- Create using the Hook, Line, Sinker model
- Feature the work of others, i.e. use Permissionless Co-Marketing
- Make it disturbingly easy to enjoyably consume the content, share it on any platform, and contact the author
Yes, I know that means you get a lot of email spam. Just delete it. It’s not that hard, and the real inquiries you’ll earn are worth it.
- Involve guest contributors, even if they’re not guests
My least favorite use of this tactic is to ask for a quote (but even that works pretty well!). My favorites are asking folks to help you gather data (like sharing a survey), or asking them to give their most controversial opinion on a topic, or asking if they’d like to co-create a piece with you (a joint webinar, a podcast episode, an over-email or DM debate)
- Use visual assets that look similar to other well-shared visuals in your field
e.g. in economics, health, and many scientific fields, complex charts work great. In fashion, music, pop culture, crafting, and cooking, punchy videos of <10 seconds are far more effective.
- Leverage content discovery and distribution networks
e.g. Reddit, Hacker News, Techmeme/Memeorandum, Google Discover, YouTube, Pocket, Flipboard, Metafilter—and plenty more. Not every one will be a match for every type of content or audience, but there’s almost certainly some opportunities in every sector.
- Give your content consumers an obvious, compelling “next episode”
Don’t use algorithmic WordPress plug-ins for this. Do a few minutes of legwork on your own content catalog and come up with the ones likely to earn the most. This is a phenomenal way to to turn one-time consumers into subscribers, and subscribers to sharers.
Every piece you produce should use at least the first six. They’re really just smart content design. The latter four are optional, useful sometimes but not always, and certainly valuable But I promise your episodes will do better
Bonus: SparkToro can help with a lot of this. I made a short, <3min video to illustrate
As the video shows, you can:
- Find the topics, words, and phrases popular with any given audience
- Learn how they describe themselves, their interests, and demographics
- Discover the hashtags they use, the websites they visit, the social accounts they follow, etc
And employ all of that data to fill in the blanks to execute on self-promoting episodes.
- Choose topics your audience has recently been talking about in social posts
- Use hashtags (or ID more topics from them) that are popular with your audience targets
- Invite the right guest contributors (i.e. the ones well-followed by your target audience)
- Pitch the right people and publications with amplification requests
- Include work from those same people/publications in your permissionless co-marketing tactics
Episodic content is challenging to create. So, make it worthwhile. The processes above are, all combined, less than an hour or two of additional work per episode, yet can make the difference between pointless futility and immense ROI.