The Biggest Reason Branded Podcasts & Video Series Stop Working
“I don’t understand!” she shouted. “This used to work EVERY time! What is happening?! What are we gonna do?!?! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!”
Okay, so that’s not really what she said.
This calm, cool, and collected friend and I were colleagues on a marketing team years ago. She was responsible for all things direct response, and I was responsible for the content. And her actual words were probably something like, “Uh, Jay? We’re not gonna hit our quota this month. I don’t get it. We did exactly what we’ve done a million times before. This should be fine.”
But despite those calm, cool, and collected words, I caught a faint whiff of existential dread. (And since we were marketers talking about leads, by “faint whiff,” I mean, a skunk wearing a vest labeled “FREAK THE EFF OUT” had just waddled across the office and took out decades of personal angst directly onto my teammate’s face.
Here’s why she was so distraught. For years, the company had run the same playbook to generate leads. Month after month, year after year, they would rely on a tried-and-true approach to content marketing. Arguably, this was my biggest failure as a team manager. Despite my best efforts — or maybe they weren’t — I couldn’t convince the leaders around me to invest more heavily in experimentation and story. By the end of my first year there, I was out.
But, I mean, I understand the resistance to change: They’d found their tried-and-true, and just like any company that does, they were beating the ever-loving snot out of it. If they decided to change their content marketing approach, well, it would be after it was too late.
Hence the “Uh, Jay?” from my teammate delivered with “WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!” urgency.
At the time, I struggled to explain this objectively, but now, I realize: We’d reached the Crapping Point.
When Tried-and-True Becomes Tired-and-Terrible
The Crapping Point is one moment on a chart I’ll share with you in just a second. I believe this chart can explain the effects of time on any series of content, no matter how exciting or hollow, big or small, well-intentioned or scammy — and everything in between.
Even the best, most creative shows run the risk of growing stale over time. There is no “set it and forget it.” Over time, the resonance wears away, whether that’s the resonance we feel when we create the work or the feelings our audience exhibits towards what we create. (BTW, trying to manufacture spikes in the numbers sets you up for eventual stagnation even worse than longer-term approaches. After all, what makes a spike is that both the up-swing and the down-slope stand in stark contrast to the line before and after it. In other words, just as quick as the numbers go up, they go down. That’s why it’s a spike, not a slope.)
In our efforts to make beloved original series, stagnation is the enemy. That’s why, when my former colleague said, “We did exactly what we’ve done a million times before. This should be fine,” she’d actually answered her own question. She just didn’t realize it. We’d done the exact same thing a million times before.
Yanno that old saying, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”? Well, in our line of work, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting the same results.
So let’s try to regain some sanity here. To do so, it’s important to fully understand the problem to then find a solution. Luckily, we can visualize stagnation as one part of a chart showing the resonance of our work over time. The natural decrease in that resonance in the face of time is something I call:
When we find something that works, something that resonates for us as the creators and for them as the audience, that thing undergoes a transformation we didn’t ask for and probably want to prevent. We can most vividly understand that transformation by thinking about our own reactions to launching A Thing That Worked Real Good. When we create A Thing That Worked Real Good, our reaction to what’s happening changes to match the change in resonance.
It goes something like this (follow the red line along with the words below):
“HURRAY! THEY LOVE US! THIS IS AWESOME! WE’RE AWESOME. THIS IS–Oh. Uh. Okay! This is still fine! This is fine! This is fine! This is–oh no. Okay. It’s not getting any better. It’s just okay. This is not fine. This is not fine. This is–OH GOD, NO! It stopped working! What happened?! This used to work! WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!”
I call this process Emotional Decay. The resonance wears away over time. That emotional pull we felt as the creators of the work and our audience felt as the recipients can slowly, or steeply, decay. That is the effect of time on our work.
We can plot different moments we experience on this line, too:
Once we do something resonant, rather quickly, the audience experiences Nirvana. They think, “This is the greatest thing I’ve EVER experienced! This is how EVERYONE should do this thing! I love this show so much I want to marry it and have lots of little baby shows with it!”
We’ve all been there: That jaw-droppingly beautiful video. That gripping podcast episode. That unbelievably enjoyable newsletter written by one devilishly handsome author and speaker who would never, ever fish for compliments about his own writing — but maybe you subscribe, okay? Okay.
That kind of resonant work sparks awesome feelings. (I refuse to say “spark joy.” If you don’t know why, congrats on leading a more productive life than most humans with a Netflix subscription.)
Once others feel Nirvana with our work, it can carry, begin, or deepen our relationship together … for a time. Eventually however, we experience The Drop-Off. For instance, we start seeing diminishing returns from the tried-and-true thing, or we begin to check out of the work and look to automate it, or our audience stops feeling all the feels. They still love us, but the spark isn’t quite there anymore. No longer unassailable, we’re vulnerable to disruption and choice. (Anyone who’s ever been in a relationship for awhile knows this feeling. But unlike dating or marriage, our audience doesn’t care about hurting us when they immediately move on to the next thing.)
The issue continues: If we don’t do anything to refresh the work, we experience Stagnation. We keep trying the tried-and-true too long; we completely lose interest in the work on a personal level, and it shows; the audience expects more of us after experiencing Nirvana, but we fail to exceed those ever-higher expectations we’ve created; the market has caught up or changed in a way that renders our once-exceptional work stale.
Eventually, we feel like things are crumbling around us. Every month or quarter is a mad dash to generate spikes in the numbers just to reach quota. Every new trend feels mandatory. Every email from our boss or client feels urgent. We. Lose. Our. Ish.
We’ve reached … the Crapping Point. I dunno what happened! It crapped out on us!
What was once exceptional has ceased to be table stakes (stagnation), and it becomes downright crappy. That’s been the plight of, for example, gated ebooks in B2B marketing for awhile now. That will be the plight of nearly anything that works today, unless we keep refreshing our work to succeed tomorrow.
When we refuse to admit we have a problem, we face the reality of Emotional Decay only after it’s too late. Then what do we do? Typically, we try to manufacture a spike. We seek a shortcut, a hack, a quick fix. To escape that ever-urgent feeling that comes with the Crapping Point, we just start the whole damn process all over again:
Over and over again, we tell ourselves the same lie: THIS time will be different. But each time, it’s not. It’s the same schtick, the same slide towards apathy or even animosity from our audiences. This trend or that trend, this guru or that one. It not only continues, it speeds up! We need bigger guests for our next episodes! We need to generate more downloads, more views, more subscribers, faster and faster. It all spins wildly out of control until we risk devolving completely into a shortcut culture, obeying each and every ridiculous Business Bro who appears in a YouTube ad in front of a sports car with a wad of cash in his slimy hand.
WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!
How to Create a Show that Avoids Stagnation
What if we cared less about the spikes and more about the trajectory of the entire line? What if we thought longer term? What if we could avoid the crapping point and use stagnation as a signal to take action? We could do so, if only we responded proactively to Emotional Decay … before it was too late, instead of after.
That leads me to my fiercest belief about consistent creativity, one that’s easy to agree with but hard to implement:
We have to change what’s working WHILE IT’S STILL WORKING.
Creating consistently great work isn’t about finding THE thing that works, then putting that on repeat. That ignores the issue of Emotional Decay. Instead, we need a new idea of what “consistency” means. The work itself doesn’t repeat — only the resonance it creates. The delivery vehicle necessarily evolves and changes over time. Sure, we can lean into what works, but that doesn’t mean copy/paste approaches. That means continually exploring what worked, seeing how deep it goes and what remixed and refreshed versions we can create.
To truly avoid stagnation and combat Emotional Decay, we need to continually refresh the work.
The fact is, consistently great work consistently changes.
Ask yourself: Does yours?
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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