The “Season 2” Problem: How to Reinvent Your Brand’s Show to Grow Audience
Whether at work or just in life, I find it’s helpful if your enemy has a name. Mine’s name is JR.
We’ll get to JR in a bit. (Ugh. Freaking JR.)
For now, consider the biggest problem facing shows of any kind — a podcast, an online video show, a TV show, anything. It’s not launching it. It’s not promoting it. It’s something far more fundamental that the very notion of a “series” hints at: sustaining it.
According to a recent piece in Variety (there’s a publication I never thought I’d cite while writing about marketing), major TV networks ordered 76 pilots in 2018. You don’t need any insider info to know that the big networks don’t broadcast 76 shows. As for how many created shows actually find an audience? Even fewer still.
We may not make television pilots (someday, friend … someday…), but we as marketers should consider what plagues all these initial pilots and series rollouts by networks. They launch … then die. Sustaining a show is the hardest part. If you’ve ever worked at an agency that makes branded shows, for instance, you’ll know that most of your series don’t last past season 1. That’s typical of all series.
But it doesn’t mean we have to like it. We can take control as marketers. We can be proactive about ensuring the success of our podcasts and video shows — and do so before that dreaded moment where Season 1 ends and we’re unsure whether we’re doing a Season 2. Even if you don’t run seasons, you still need to grapple with this challenge of consistency. Things get stale when repeated over time, and the context around our work changes all the time. We need to reinvent our shows in order to hold attention. And why don’t we?
A Better Plan to Reinvent Our Shows
JR is an imaginary, obnoxious colleague who always requests we “Jump in a Room” to brainstorm. Maybe your team says something else: Book a room and hammer it out. Hold a whiteboard session. Do a deep dive. Go ideate. (Why don’t we ideate a way to sound less like corporate stooges while we’re at it? K thanks.)
Working for tech companies like Google, HubSpot, and Dailybreak Media, I found myself mired in endless meetings where the goal was creative problem-solving but the outcome was chaos, stress, and two loud-mouths steamrolling everyone. And look, occasionally, we thought we were building camaraderie and solving problems. There was palpable energy in the room. We came away with a few ideas that excited us. But even then, it turns out, we weren’t being as effectively creative as we could have been.
Study after study reveals that “jumping in a room” to talk through new ideas as a group rarely generates the most successful outcomes possible. That’s all thanks to the laundry list of issues that arise in groups that try to be creative together: loud, bullheaded people steamrolling others, distracted participants stress-checking their inboxes, first-idea biases, and many more.
In reality, as the science suggests, groups are not as effective as individuals at generating ideas. On the other hand, groups are better than individuals at vetting ideas. (You can read an end-to-end process for better brainstorming that is rooted in science here. It’s a surprisingly simple process meant to harness the full creative ability of everyone on the team, with the end results being more ideas and better ideas — quantity and quality — at the same time.)
Jumping in a Room can no longer be the way we try to sustain our brands’ shows. JR isn’t helpful for doing so.
Ugh. Freaking JR…
Instead, we need to make the reinvention process of our shows more knowable and concrete. We need a plan. Rather than hear “innovate” or “change” and picture this morass of every single possibility, and rather than rely on gut feel, we can get more proactive, install a few helpful constraints, and thus predictably and creatively reinvent our show to avoid stagnation.
Here’s how to pull this off … without JR.
Deconstruction Part 1: A Show’s Core Pieces
The first thing we need to do is break apart our shows into their component pieces, and there are only three — three things for which we need discrete strategies, three things that must be overtly discussed and reinvented.
1. The show concept.
2. The episode format. (There might be several types of episodes within a series.)
3. The talent.
A show is merely the combination of those three things. A great show is the strategic combination of those three things. You can read about all three in slightly more detail in this recent article on Marketing Showrunners.
Deconstruction Part 2: Identifiable Anchors
Next, we can break apart our show according to how the audience experiences it. The memory that forms in the minds of your listeners or viewers doesn’t include each and every little detail about your content. Instead, only certain identifiable traits are memorable. These are called “anchors.” Let’s define the concept quick:
Anchors: The qualities of a show that audiences can recall and we can control.
Think about your favorite podcast. What do you recall about it? Surely not every single thing that was said, nor every episode or voice. No, typically, we recall the things that surprise and delight us: the cover art, the show host, a few key moments or episodes, the “house style” of that show’s editing or sound, and so forth. This makes sense, given that we form stronger, longer-lasting memories in our brains thanks to novel experiences. This is a process called behavioral tagging.
When we’re surprised, we remember the thing that surprised us as well as the surrounding moments. So if we were delighted by a deeply moving story we didn’t expect to hear or a clever editing flourish we didn’t expect to watch on screen, we remember both the surprising element and the broader show.
Now, crucially, when we then recommend a given show to someone else (word-of-mouth), we only really discuss the anchors that formed our memory. In other words, what’s being “referred” when we create referrals isn’t the entire show. It’s the anchors. (There’s a reason we often use the name or, in a pinch, the host’s name to describe a show. Those are very obvious, consistently repeated traits of a show — traits audiences can remember and we can control.)
So what do anchors have to do with reinventing our shows for longevity? Well, rather than blindly feel our way forward and hope we do something consistently great, we can start by deconstructing our work into these anchors, literally writing them out in a list.
To help, consider breaking apart your anchors into four broader categories, then hunting for the specific list under each. The four categories of anchors are as follows:
1. The container.
This answers the question, “What is it?” What is the thing we’re currently considering improving or reinventing or even scrapping? If we said “the show,” that’s technically an answer to the question. That’s the container. But unfortunately, that’s so broad, we end up with more JR problems. Luckily, in Deconstruction Part 1, we already broke our show into three more concrete, fundamental parts: the show’s overarching concept, the episode format, and the talent.
So, “What is it?” What are we reinventing? What’s growing stale? What are we discussing right now, and which thing’s anchors are we trying to list? Is it the show concept? The episode format? Or the talent? It’s a short list: pick one of those three. That’s your anchor.
2. The contents.
This answers the question, “How is it made?” What goes inside the container? Is there a format, a process, a bunch of things we build into it? Can we articulate what we mean when we say it’s our show’s concept, or episode’s format, or our host talent? If our answer to #1 above is really short, this fleshes out the details.
- The concept of How I Built This with Guy Raz is, according to NPR, “the stories behind some of the world’s best known companies. How I Built This weaves a narrative journey about innovators, entrepreneurs and idealists—and the movements they built.”
- The episode format of author Neil Pasricha’s 3 Books podcast, where he interviews brilliant minds about the three books that most transformed their lives, is to first narrate an introduction of the guest and a few moments of intrigue for the listener to get context. Then he cuts to the in-person interview with the guest and describes where they’re located, then talks about each of three books, introducing each by title, author, year published, book description, and Dewey Decimal System categorization, before asking the guest why it was meaningful to them and leading a discussion for a few minutes before proceeding to the next book. (He also always wraps up with the guest the same way and concludes the episodes as a narrator the same way.) If we’re reinventing the episode format, we need to write out all these parts, what purpose they serve to the listener, and how long they run.
- The talent on tech startup Zaius’s Marketing Unboxed video show are marketing teammates Cara and Tim. I’d describe them as warm, smart, a little silly, and a bit bubbly. It’s clear they don’t have years of formal acting or media training, which makes them feel accessible as people, but also sometimes a little stiff as hosts.
3. The purpose.
This answers the crucial question, “What is it for?” Too often, we don’t have a clear understanding of what something is for in our show. For instance, host talent can be the star. They can also be the guide. (I’m biased towards the latter, as I think acting like a guide is what makes a great host.) Is the host of your show the go-to expert and star? That’s very different than a host who provides someone else’s story or expertise and guides the audience through it.
Likewise, your concept might have a distinct purpose that’s different from a competitive show’s. Maybe you’re on a journey live and in public to deepen understanding, versus another show that exists to hand the audience definitive answers each and every episode. Similarly, different parts of your episode format have different purposes. What are the opening few seconds or minutes for? What about the first section, what they call “A Block” in TV? And so on.
When we know overtly that X specific thing is for Y specific purpose, it changes how we think about and thus craft the work.
What’s that narrow piece for? What’s the broader concept or format or talent for? Make this overt, and you’ve helpfully deconstructed something into its anchors.
4. The people.
This answers the question, “Who does this?” Beyond just host talent, we know that others are involved in a show, both for production and for marketing purposes. Who’s involved? Who SHOULD be involved? Do we know who has authority and real say over the show, compared to who just provides perspective but no final say, compared to people who, while they may work at the brand and have ideas, aren’t actually allowed to have a say? Are there external people working on this? Should there be? Could we add a co-marketing partner?
Who does this?
Once we deconstruct a show into its component anchors — which, by the way, should always be informed by what you’ve been hearing from the audience — it’s time to reinvent the show.
There are just five ways to do that.
Exploration: Select How You’ll Change an Anchor
Now that you have a list of all the various identifiable traits of your show — or at least the ones that contribute to how others remember the show — it’s time to reinvent it. Remember, we’re trying to avoid this double-problem we described before. The first problem is sustaining a show. It’s hard to keep people engaged over time, and often, our work grows stale. Then, our usual solution poses another problem: JR. We simply won’t routinely refresh our show and innovate over the status quo when our solution is to Jump in a Room and Brainstorm. It’s not just an opinion. It’s as close to a scientific fact as there is in this creative world.
So, we’ve got our list of anchors. It’s time to reinvent one or several. How? We make one or several of five small changes on the status quo — call them “wrinkles.”
Wrinkle #1: Reuse
We’re pretty damn good at doing this as marketers. When something works, we tend to beat it to death. My hope is, in deconstructing our shows as we’ve done above, we can identify a few positive traits that are being underused. An easy example: perhaps our host is really charming but often takes a back seat to the episode format: a narrated story. They’re acting as a guide. Maybe “reuse” this anchor by asking them to create a monologue to close each show, thus giving superfans who consume every minute additional time with something they already love: the host. Reuse a gag, a theme, a joke, a moment, a music track.
To reuse an anchor is to increase the number of times others encounter it within the same project.
But we can also reuse an anchor in ways that support entirely new projects. That’s the next way to reinvent our shows…
Wrinkle #2: Repurpose
To repurpose is to increase the number of times others encounter an anchor in a different project. Now we’re starting to think about our shows not as one contained vehicle but as brand IP. That show host is beloved on video? They now host an original podcast, or emcee an event, so come along and join that host you love, won’t you? Maybe a specific episode within your show’s typical run of episodes did so well that you’re now making it a miniseries. It’s technically the same vehicle (your podcast or your video show), but you’re creating a brand new project that lives inside it: a miniseries.
Thus, when we identify an anchor that’s working, we can repurpose it.
Wrinkle #3: Replace
To replace an anchor is to substitute one for another. “Hey, um … Sam? Sorry to break this to you, man, but … we’re bringing on a new host. Yup. I mean, to be fair, nobody thought guinea pig themed monologues were all that compelling.”
Wrinkle #4: Remix
To remix something is, of course, to combine it with refreshing new elements. A great example of remixing a show that both keeps the program itself refreshing and helps grow the audience is to create a miniseries with a co-marketing partner. (Honestly, we do co-branded ebooks and events and research reports and other such content all the time. This logically should extend into the world of making shows.)
Wrinkle #5: Refine
To refine something is to remove unwanted parts (or the entire thing, without replacing it). This is addition by subtraction. Maybe take that lightning round that literally every other show seems to use and whittle it down from 10 questions to 3, or else remove the whole dang thing. We can refresh our shows and keep people engaged by removing things as much as by adding stuff.
Avoid the Slow Death of Stagnation
By its very nature, a show is a forcing function for reinvention. We face new moments within episodes, new episodes, and new seasons. But the bigger the leap between elements (episode to episode, or season to season), the harder it can be to bring others along for the journey with us. That’s why we need a better, more sustainable, more proactive plan to reinvent our shows. Deconstruct yours into the three component parts, then go even further into tinier pieces: anchors. That’s what audiences will remember and share with others. That’s what can cause someone to stick around or get tired of it. Lastly, reinvent the show — not through random stunts based on gut feel, but through the proactive tweaking of specific anchors. There are only five ways to do that.
In the end, we all want to create a show that persists. When we talk about a successful series, that’s what we mean: consistency. Consistently great work consistently changes. It doesn’t grow stale. The great way we make others feel might stay the same. The vehicle for triggering those emotions cannot.
Let’s make the reinvention of our shows predictable and proactive. Let’s avoid stagnation. Let’s bring everyone along the journey with us over time. (Well, everyone except JR. Freaking JR…)
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, host of 3 Clips and other podcasts and docuseries about creativity, and author of Break the Wheel. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. 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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