The Science of Why Some Branded Shows Thrive While Others Fade
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It’s one of the most frustrating things about making shows as marketers: a few innovative teams we admire seem to routinely create amazing episodes, apparently without much trouble, while most of us struggle to break out. As a result, when we think “INNOVATE” … we panic. We pull last-ditch stunts, work at an all-out sprint, and try to “go big” and make radical changes to our shows. Anything to spike the numbers. Anything to “innovate.” But everything feels like it’s on fire.
This. Isn’t. Sustainable.
So what’s the difference between those two types of teams? It turns out that the world’s best organizations don’t have the creative “gift.” They have a system — one that approaches creativity as an ongoing process, not a one-off stunt. Their everyday way of operating naturally leads to innovative work. In the end, these teams know that success isn’t measured by random spikes but by the trajectory of the entire line. In other words, they do what seems impossible: They make a memorable show in a world drowning in forgettable stuff.
What does that really take?
For starters, we have to adjust what we celebrate as creative. As marketers, we tend to applaud one-offs: the viral tweet, the standalone film, the interactive microsite. We read about the N Most Creative Somethings in listified blog posts on industry trade publications, and we think to ourselves, “How can we create our version of That Thing Everybody Is Talking About?”
I call these one-off projects Random Acts of Creativity (RACs).
RACs aren’t part of a larger strategy or continual pattern of publishing content. Instead, they dangle loosely from the bones of our brand. At best, they’re bloated attempts to generate press mentions, and at worst, they’re mad-dash distractions for the team. And why?
Can’t you just picture it? Someone shows you the numbers behind your latest episode and … THERE IT IS! I KNEW IT! The numbers went up! The views, the shares, the fame, the critical acclaim! You throw on your sunglasses and waltz over to the CEO to show her.
But maybe, just maybe, random acts don’t matter as much as coherent strategy.
Maybe, just maybe, one-off spikes aren’t as productive as delivering results consistently.
Because maybe, juuust maybe, we have to repeat what we did well today as soon as we show up tomorrow. And the next day. And the day after that.
We love us some RACs in marketing because we crave the spikes, but give me a positive trendline over a glowing headline any day — and every day.
The Science Behind Memorable Content
We can distill the difference between forgettable junk and memorable show down to a single scientific phenomenon. Understanding it deeply allows us to proactively harness it with the work we create and distribute to our audiences. The concept is called behavioral tagging.
Buried beneath our beloved RACs is a simple but powerful idea that we can use to make our original series more original, and our innovation more consistent — instead of random. According to a study from the University of Edinburgh, novelty of experience creates long-term memories. When our audience experiences something that they feel is new and good (let’s call that “refreshing”), their brains can better recall both THAT moment AND the moments immediately surrounding it.
When we encounter something exciting and new, our brains release a little hit of dopamine, which is a chemical that, among other things, aids in the formation of memories. This is called behavioral tagging. When we’re surprised, both THAT experience AND those surrounding it are imprinted on our brains, creating an unusually long-lasting memory.
This is an evolutionary trait. When our ancestors went wandering through a forest and happened upon a patch of delicious berries, it was rather useful to remember the path they took to reach those berries … even if they weren’t proactively trying to remember the path while walking it originally. The novel experience of finding a bounty of food deep in the woods helped them remember how they arrived there, as well as what “there” looked like and what happened in the moments preceding and following the discovery, like knowing to turn left towards the food and not right towards those deadly snakes we saw the first time through.
Of course, in our era, this is less survival-based, but behavioral tagging can be just as powerful in the brain. For example, if, say, LeBron James randomly showed up to a school to surprise a group of students, those students would be more likely to remember their afternoon lessons than those who experienced a routine day. (The same could unfortunately be said of something terrible happening in the school in the morning. Those students would also remember the afternoon far better. There’s a reason we all remember where we were during 9/11.)
In marketing, we like to “go big” with our surprises and manufacture these outlandish and random acts of creativity. However, as the studies reveal, the moment of surprise doesn’t need to be quite so radical, nor can it be quite as random, if behavioral tagging is to work. We don’t need to call in Michael Jordan as the surprise for our audience to form a longer-lasting memory of us.
The problems with Random Acts of Creativity are both their randomness and their radicalness. The science is clear: refreshing experiences create a longer-lasting memory of the moment of surprise and the surrounding experiences. We all want that. We want our latest episode or our shiny new show to delight others, but in experiencing that content, we want our brands (the “surrounding experiences”) to be remembered and beloved.
The good news is, scientists didn’t actually use Michael Jordan as the surprise to study the formation of positive, long-lasting memory formation. Instead, they discovered that small but novel experiences are all we need to provide to create those memories. Instead of asking a celebrity athlete to appear before some students, scientists merely asked teachers to surprise students with an impromptu music lesson that wasn’t normally on the schedule, after which they returned to their routine math class. Those students then remembered their arithmetic better than students who never attended the impromptu music class.
Small but refreshing changes are all we need to be memorable.
What This Means for Marketing Showrunners
We think “creativity” means “big.” We hear “innovation” (or, more commonly, “INNOVATION!”), and we think “transformative.” But the point isn’t to do something award-winning. The point is to do something different and good — something refreshing. The big stunts and the random acts may not be sustainable, but making small but constant changes can definitely become a consistent way of operating for our teams.
After all, what is a show if not a forced exercise in constant reinvention?
What if, to innovate and earn the trust and love of others, we focused less on one-off, shiny projects and more on evolving what’s working in little ways? What if, instead of last-ditch stunts to spike the numbers, we could improve the trajectory of the entire damn line? Small moments of reinvention are all we need. Tiny wrinkles on the expected.
What if we were consistent in our creativity, instead of random?
With each minute that passes in a given episode, reveal something refreshing. Add a segment, introduce a character or a concept, provide an editing flourish, or ask a refreshingly simple or different interview question. Throughout one episode, and over the course of several, make small but welcome changes to the expected norm.
Yes, we should find a repeatable process to build our shows … but then we should play with that process ever so slightly. Find the framework to break the framework.
The very best original series don’t pull random stunts. In fact, there’s a term for that, created by a last-ditch effort by the TV show Happy Days to juice their ratings: “jumping the shark.”
In our line of work, stagnation is the enemy. To avoid plateauing or even losing audience, we must teach audiences to expect the unexpected from us.
If you want to win an award for creativity, or rank on a blog posts listing the Top N Most Creative Shows, then sure, keep launching those Random Acts of Creativity. Those are useful if the goal is to drink some bubbly at Cannes next year.
But if you want to win an audience, not an award? If you want to be memorable over time, not forgotten once the calendar turns over? Ditch the stunts, and focus on making small but welcome changes all the time. Learn what the audience expects, and give them something delightfully unexpected … all the time.
In the end, the existential threat to our shows isn’t making the wrong, giant change. The real danger is not making enough changes.
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, author of Break the Wheel, and host/producer of docuseries about creative work. I’m a believer that exceptional work happens when you find and follow what makes you an exception. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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