Looking at data to learn about the success of ‘Serial’
When the team at This American Life announced they were going to produce a new, digital-only show, we knew it would be successful. On Stitcher we see the benefits of audience cross-pollination in seeding new shows with an initial set of listeners. With This American Life’s new venture Serial, we knew the team could tap into their large digital and terrestrial audience to give their first spin-off a lot of listening from the start. However, Serial’s success has exceeded any expectation imaginable. The show climbed to the top of the Stitcher List quickly and continues to crush each week’s audience numbers with steady, strong growth. We decided to dig into data, hoping to expose consumption patterns specific to Serial. For instance, we found most of the listening happens within the first two days of each episode’s release — which confirms how addictive the show is.
But the most interesting behavior we noticed is the rate at which listeners binge on episodes. We compared Serial listening to similar shows, and the results mimicked the way many people consume popular television shows.
Binge Listening: Moving Beyond Television
According to Netflix, 76 percent of TV streamers say watching multiple episodes of a great TV show is a welcome refuge from their busy lives. We looked at three shows and measured how people listened to each program’s initial six episodes to assess how many episodes people consumed in a single day. Six episodes in, 21 percent of Serial’s listening behavior matched our definition of binge listening. As a point of comparison, Alex Blumberg’s new StartUp Podcast, which is also serialized, saw 12 percent of listeners binge. Looking at non-serialized shows like WNYC’s Death Sex and Money, bingeing behavior drops to only three percent of listeners. Serial is proving that podcasts listeners are just as inclined to binge on episodic radio shows than on TV series.
So what makes Serial so binge-worthy? There’s obviously the high caliber of production and journalism that the TAL team brings to the show. But we think it’s a combination of Serial’s true crime subject matter, serialized storytelling format, and television-like length and frequency that together have made Serial the most successful show on Stitcher. These are ingredients for success we believe other audio producers can learn from.
Subject Matter: Bringing Crime’s Mass Appeal to Audio
Serial’s execution is gripping, mostly thanks to the genius storytelling of This American Life’s production team, but also the combination of two universally appealing frames: a high school drama and a real-life murder mystery. Sarah Koenig tells the true story of a pretty, popular female student who was allegedly strangled to death by her ex-boyfriend. Serial is Koenig’s investigation of whether Adnan Syed, the convicted murderer, actually committed the crime for which he is currently serving a lifetime prison sentence.
Crime has alway been an addictive genre across all media; Americans have been obsessed with crime and prison culture in TV, movies and literature for decades. Crime-related television programming like NCIS and Criminal Minds regularly find a place on primetime TV’s top rated shows. Services like Hulu and Netflix have also taken on creating their own original programming geared toward drama and crime loving viewers. But in audio, nobody has taken advantage of the genre’s mass appeal. On Stitcher, there are very few crime focused programs and none of them have appeared on the Stitcher top 100 list.
Telling a Story, Serially: Following in the Footsteps of Great Entertainment
Serialized storytelling isn’t something that has been widely tried in the audio space in recent years. Radio drama once ruled the airwaves, but disappeared with the advent of television. Since the invention of the podcast, there has been some experimentation with a serialized episode format, but none have really broken through; less than three shows in Stitcher’s top 100 list followed this storytelling model before Serial was released this fall. Many shows have had underlying themes that carried episode to episode but almost none followed just one story.
Serial’s success using this format suggests the long-form, episodic story consumption that has driven the success of TV shows such as The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Game of Thrones works for podcasts as well. The Serial team tapped into this consumption trend both from a storytelling perspective and from a marketing standpoint, making its episodic structure a major element of its communication around Serial by noting the story is “told week by week” in its tag line and at the beginning of every single episode.
Length and Frequency: Tapping into Existing Media Consumption Habits
Another show that has seen success in using a serial format but hasn’t had quite the same mass appeal is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. In one set of serialized storytelling, Carlin’s four-part Blueprint for Armageddon episodes saw week over week listening numbers climb like Serial’s.
However, one thing that may have prevented it from quite as big mass appeal is episode length. Each episode was over 90 minutes long, which based on Stitcher research can often be intimidating length of time for to new listeners to commit to. Serial’s episodes average around 42 minutes, which allows it a lower barrier to entry for new listeners as it takes about the same time to watch a TV show with similar content. Also, the frequency of Carlin’s Hardcore History episodes isn’t weekly. Serial listeners are accustomed to a weekly release at the same time and day of week, which allows for an easier habitual behavior in consumption to occur and keeps the show in front of people’s memory. It also allows for anticipation to build and discussion to happen weekly. Fan groups know their excitement will be fed in a specific time frame and which is shared and builds inside of digital communities; another important factor in the show’s success.
Serial’s success has to do with many things: exceptional storytelling, a gripping true crime story, and a smart narrative structure that leaves its audience desperate to hear more. While each story calls for a specific format and narrative structure, there are a number of elements podcasts producers can leverage to increase engagement on their shows. Serial, for instance, forces people to listen to every single episode of the show in order to understand the story. What’s most exciting about Serial’s success is the fruition of an idea we always thought to be true here at Stitcher: audio has the potential to be just as appealing as more mainstream mediums like television.