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Brand storytelling lessons from the Serial podcast

Like many people, I’m addicted to Serial, the new podcast by Sarah Koenig, which tells one story throughout an entire season. This season, its first, examines the case of Adnan Syed, who was convicted as a teenager of murdering his ex-girlfriend.

(I’m so addicted I’ve now started to narrate my own life using Koenig’s tone, style, and voice: “The master bedroom was much colder than the rest of the house. Had it always been that way? Why didn’t this bother the original owners enough to fix it? This seemed weird.”)

Serial has broken Apple iTunes records for most subscribers and most listens. (Indeed, I “binge-listened” nine episodes over the Thanksgiving week.) It has generated discussion and debate. There’s an entire subreddit dedicated to “who-really-dun-it.”

What makes Serial so good is not the controversy over the case, or the question of whether Adnan or Jay is to blame – or someone else entirely. It’s the storytelling technique, which Koenig has mastered in her role as producer and reporter at This American Life, the WBEZ radio show hosted by Ira Glass.

You might be wondering now how this might be applicable to digital marketing. I promise you, it is.

Stay with me.

If we all agree that modern marketing is less about the sound bite and more about the story, then digital marketers should pay attention to Koenig’s storytelling method.

If we want buyers to stick with us, we need to be experts at crafting stories that do more than “engage” our audience. Our stories must entice our customers to become emotionally and intellectually invested in the story. Serial has been superb at doing this, so let me tease out a few of the methods the team has used.


The big idea of the story is a question: Is Adnan guilty? This controversy has captivated the attention of millions, generating a considerable force of armchair detectives keen on answering it. The mystery and suspense make compelling reasons to keep listening week after week.


Much has been made of Serial’s storytelling structure. Its narrative is told in serial (hence, of course, the name) format, each episode illuminating all of the previous. It’s not linear. It’s more like a maze that we’re wandering through, all the while wondering if we’ll find our way out of it. The story twists and turns upon itself as new information is revealed, testing our assumptions about Adnan, Jay, and the defense attorney, as well as several minor characters.

This detailed inspection of a topic served over many weeks is one of the reasons so many listeners are hooked. It’s the suspense. What information will be revealed next? Are my assumptions correct? It’s incredibly thought-provoking and not easily forgettable. It’s no wonder people were vocally upset about the decision not to release a podcast on Thanksgiving. Everyone needed their Serial fix. 


What does it mean to develop a character? This is perhaps the hallmark of a great story: to create characters so real, so tangible, and so just like us they might very well be our neighbors and our friends. The kind of people you’d hang out with.

There are several characters who play a significant role in the Serial narrative, and Koenig goes to great lengths not only to help us understand who they are and the role they play in the story, but also to help us relate.

Here’s how she describes Hae Min Lee, the young girl whose murder is the catalyst of the story.

“Almost 15 years ago, on January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee disappeared. She was a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County in Maryland. She was Korean. She was smart, and beautiful, and cheerful, and a great athlete. She played field hockey and lacrosse. And she was responsible.

Right after school she was supposed to pick up her little cousin from kindergarten and drop her home. But she didn’t show. That’s when Hae Lee’s family knew something was up, when the cousin’s school called.”

With Adnan, she first lets others define him, as she does here in Rabia Chaudry’s own voice:

“He was like the community golden child. He was an honor roll student, volunteer EMT. He was on the football team. He was a star runner on the track team. He was the homecoming king. He led prayers at the mosque. Everybody knew Adnan to be somebody who was going to do something really big.”

But she also tempers this image with her own, providing a counterpoint to Rabia and giving Adnan more dimension:

“When I first met Adnan in person, I was struck by two things. He was way bigger than I expected– barrel chested and tall. In the photos I’d seen, he was still a lanky teenager with struggling facial hair and sagging jeans. By now, he was 32. He’d spent nearly half his life in prison, becoming larger and properly bearded.

And the second thing, which you can’t miss about Adnan, is that he has giant brown eyes like a dairy cow. That’s what prompts my most idiotic lines of inquiry. Could someone who looks like that really strangle his girlfriend? Idiotic, I know.”

Is it possible for digital marketers to apply these lessons to their own storytelling efforts? I think so. Here’s how.

Start with your idea or theme.

For most businesses, your idea or theme will stem from your brand. What kind of company are you? What does your brand stand for? What’s your mission?

For example, the December issue of Runner’s World features ten people who’ve overcome health issues and adversity through running. The story is the result of a contest held by the magazine, but it’s not much of a leap to see how this idea could fit into Nike’s “Just Do It” brand story.

Determine the right structure.

Who’s to say a brand can’t follow the Serial structure? With a couple of good brand journalists, there’s no reason you can’t tell your story using the same method. But be prepared to devote months and even years to it. Investigative reporting is hard, time-consuming work. What’s more, objectivity is essential. Koenig succeeds because she strives hard to present all sides of the story in balance.

A simpler, less intensive structure could work. I’m a huge fan of Entrepreneur on Fire, John Lee Dumas’s podcast about entrepreneurship. Each episode features an entrepreneur telling his or her story, using a very uncomplicated structure. The guest describes a failure, an ah-ha moment, and then answers five questions designed to elicit advice for aspiring entrepreneurs. It’s effective, yet not at all difficult. According to Dumas, he has netted $1.7 million as of October 2014 by using this structure to tell a story and sell related products to budding entrepreneurs.

Make your characters relatable

I think Serial would have been successful simply based on the true-crime narrative, always a popular formula. But what makes it wildly successful is the way Koenig creates empathy for the characters. She doesn’t only describe them; she helps us relate to them. Hae is the effervescent teenager we all knew in high school. Likewise, Adnan is the popular guy that everyone liked. Even Jay, the amiable bad guy outside the regular school circle, is someone we were wary of but also wanted in our corner.

The best brand storytellers are the ones who put their customers at the center of their stories. It works because they’re relatable. When prospective buyers see themselves in your customer’s stories, they can see themselves with your products and services.

Good storytelling hinges on these elements, but digital marketers who can master them might just experience Serial-sized success.

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