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By Caroline Jackson

Pay Attention, Serial is a Media & Marketing Game Changer

If you’re not one of the one million users who are listening to the Serial podcast, let me tell you about the best podcast out there. It follows one story, with an episode each week unravelling a case of high school murder. The case is true, and the way producer Sarah Koenig and her team doles it out slowly and not so surely (but with great skill) is riveting and revolutionary (in my humble opinion).

Podcasts have slowly been edging up, adding listeners and gaining influence in the media zeitgeist. The leader of the pack has been This American Life, where Koenig learned her radio craft and where the first episode of Serial aired. Before the second episode had even been released to the world on Serial (which is a podcast, and not aired on regular radio and then added online, like TAL), Serial already had a viewership, subscribers who had added the show to their podcast app on the strength of TAL’s suggestion.  Serial has now surpassed its mothership and trampled the interview podcast WTF with Marc Maron (one of my favorites, and the reason I started listening to podcasts).

I want to give you a little background about the show without spoiling it for you…

A high school student in Baltimore named Adnan Syed was dating a young woman named Hae Min Lee. He was Muslim, she was Korean and they were both children of immigrant parents. Because of this, they had to keep their relationship secret. They enjoyed a high school romance for about a year, maybe there was some turmoil, and then they broke up. She began dating an older coworker of hers. Adnan began dating “lots of girls.” Hae went missing, and then a streaker (yea) found her dead. Later, Adnan’s cell phone records were subpoenaed. The cops were lead to an acquaintance/friend/drug dealer of Adnan’s (depending on who you ask) and he was interviewed by police. He “came clean” and said he helped get rid of Hae’s body after Adnan killed her. He said Adnan had given him his car and his new cell phone so Jay could pick him up after the deed was done. Jay says Adnan wanted revenge because Hae dumped him.

Adnan was found guilty. He’s been in prison for the last fifteen years. Koenig was lead to his story by a woman named Rabia who is Adnan’s best friend’s sister. Koenig found some things in the case that perked her ears up – Adnan’s lawyer didn’t follow up on some things, there was no physical evidence in the case, etc. – and she started digging into the story. She’s been digging for over a year, even getting the Innocence Project involved.


Now, this week on the blog… I want to hash out bit by bit why this podcast is not going to be an anomaly, and why it should be a beacon to content creators and marketers alike.
What is different about Serial and what does this mean for the media future?

It’s not like we’ve never been told stories of murder and revenge. As a marketer and a content creator, this is what I have asked myself after every episode (and I have listened to every one since the beginning, full disclosure: I’ve listened to each episode five times). But the storytelling here is different, and the format of it is  resonating with me (and many others, obviously).



Why am I checking for every morsel of information online? Why am I talking to everyone I can find about Adnan’s innocence or guilt?

Well the fact that I can do all these things from my phone has a lot to do with it, I think.

First, from a content creators’ perspective…

Radio is not a new medium. I worked in radio until 3 and a half years ago. I remember someone I worked with at WRIR 97.3 LP-FM in Richmond, Virginia once said, radio will always be relevant until they stop putting radios in cars. How wrong he was! Transmitting a story through sound alone works WITHOUT cars or car radios.  Podcasts are steadily becoming a serious contender in the media landscape despite all the choices we have, and many “radio shows” don’t even bother to run along airwaves anymore. It’s interesting that many of the top radio programs don’t (including Serial).

And Serial is very old school  in that it is a slow, week-by-week unveiling of a story. In fact, Koenig says she only had one episode in the bank when she started. This podcast isn’t moving toward the tactics of shows on Netflix like House of Cards (which I binge watched all in one sitting, because I could). The nature of the show demands you check in each week, because the show is evolving each week.

The quality of this program is hard to match. It is proving that long form can work if it’s done right.

The podcast Startup is must listen program, almost a companion to Serial if you’re considering how podcasts are changing, and changing the media landscape while they’re at it. It follows a guy (with loads of reputable radio cred, like Koenig he is a TAL alum) trying to launch a company that will create podcasts. He is pushed to make the case that he is one of the best in the world and he is. This stuff takes taste and diligence and time and storytelling but it does not take multiple cameras, days on set, etc. like television. It may be THE way to feed a hungry audience who wants lots and lots of compelling content to listen to. And they want it NOW (or every week if that’s how they have to have it).

I think what good podcast  do so well is seamless storytelling. We feel like we know the hosts and we trust them. I thought the blurb below (from Hanna Rosin’s article ) was a great explanation of how Koenig’s ability is hidden within her conversational likability. She knows what she’s doing, but she’s not going to flex and be a snob about it.


Besides being captivating on its own, I believe Serial is so popular because it isn’t just a podcast! Yes, that is where part of the story is skillfully presented, but you have to consider how listeners are supplementing the podcast with information they find online. The Serial website has loads of extra information, Reddit is exploding with over 9000 people eager to share information with each other, there are spoofs of Serial, memes of Serial, dozens of articles about Serial and public records about the case (affidavits, Jay’s arrest record, etc.) are available online.

See the Serial Podcast Media Guide I tediously collected here. Or download the PDF by filling out the form below.  [contact-form-7 id=”386″ title=”Serial Podcast Media Guide”]

One of the first things I did after hearing Serial was to look up Jenn’s Facebook page, from there I found Jay’s Facebook and put a face to the character in Koenig’s podcast.

I listen to Slate’s Serial Spoiler Special after the show airs, and check in on the Google Hangout “Conversations on Serial Podcast” with Rabia and Pete Rorabaugh too. Rorabaugh (an Assitant Professor of English in Southern Polytechnic State Univ.’s  Digital Writing and New Media Department) has said this about those weekly chats with Rabia:


He went on to say…


And there’s the shift in a nutshell. The future of media is not one product delivered to an awaiting audience. Successful products will now have to have supplements available on lots of different platforms. This new delivery systems is uncomfortable for many media folks right now but it will soon be the norm.

The only question I have left about that is, will the Serial podcast interact with what is happening in the outer world of the show? THAT would be even more layered craziness.

And, from a marketers’ perspective…

Based on the explosion this podcast has inspired all over the internet, marketers need to pay attention.

There is one sponsor involved in Serial and I think the ad created for them is really well executed. (Note: During episode 8, Serial added an ad from Audible.) MailChimp has a 20 second ad at the very top of the show where different people read a line about MailChimp. One of those people bungles the name “MailChimp” and the last person to speak says they use MailChimp and love it (a producer chimes in delighted, “Oh you do!”).  I think the ad is well-handled. It’s seamless. It’s engaging on its own. That 20 seconds has made an impact, even inspiring memes of its own. And importantly, the ad and MailChimp are mentioned lots of times on the Reddit page. One commenter even assessed the delivery the MailChimp ad…


It’s a joke now that you hear the same advertisers on podcasts (Audible,, MailChimp, etc.) but that should not be true for long.

At the top of one of Marc Maron’s recent podcasts, he said “68% of WTF listeners bought something they heard about on the podcast.” If that’s true, his ads are very effective. Much more effective than banner ads, subway ads, etc. is the company that helps match Marc’s show (and other podcasts) with advertisers.

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 4.15.12 PM

Midroll says podcast ads are two to three times as engaging as other ads, and that the way they are delivered provides “an aspect of endorsement.” Midroll’s approach to marketing itself comes across as a tacit endorsement to those they represent.

The MailChimp ad on Serial has an impact because it is subtle and appears as an authentic shoutout. I think this character shift  will evolve even further, permeating marketing across the board – from individual ads (less banner, more sponsored media) to the advertising agencies (less hired guns, more enthusiastic supporters).

I don’t want to bore you with marketing talk, but I fully believe this podcast will be a benchmark when we look back at the quick evolution of media and how we engage it. As a marketer, I have to consider how how products, services, etc. will be a part of new new media. MailChimp  made a very good call supporting this program in exchange for being mentioned on the most popular podcast right now.

Finally, from a listener’s perspective…

Koenig says in the first episode of Serial  is about 20 minutes after school one day. But is it? Can it be? It is crazy to think that well-reported coverage of 20 minutes could spawn so much attention and one million captivated listeners.

It’s certainly is also about memory. It’s about people.

I took Koenig’s challenge from her first episode and tried to recall a day from 6 weeks ago. I couldn’t until I sifted through old emails, text messages and took a look at my work calendar. Like the aids I used to put together my own story of a day, people of the 2010s have access to information that those of the late 90s did not! In obsessively following this story, I have had access to tons of documents not covered on the podcast. If this was airing even five, ten or fifteen years ago, I would not have the same experience I’m having with Serial today.

While I am excited as a content creator and a marketer for a new wave of media, I might be most excited as a listener. Content like this is a jump off, not the end point. And that’s cool. It also makes it so the content creator and marketer in me will have to become more adaptable and sophisticated as well, so I am able to satiate viewers appetites and seamlessly integrate into their new news and entertainment.


By Caroline Jackson