In 2014, Serial took the podcast world by storm. Sure, there’d been podcasts before it, but none had come close to sniffing the success of this particular true-crime audio series.
And the numbers back that claim up, too. Serial became the fastest podcast ever to reach five million downloads and streams, shattering previous Apple podcast records at the time. The show is often credited with revolutionizing the entire podcast industry and opening the doors for the new wave of popular podcasts that came after.
Serial captivated audiences unlike any podcast before it. Its time in the spotlight was truly unprecedented, and there continue to be valuable lessons marketers can pull from the original viral podcast’s meteoric rise. Keep reading for five actionable takeaways you can apply to your own brand show.
There’s an old adage that goes, “If you’re not first, you’re last.” Okay, we got that one from Ricky Bobby in Talladega Nights, but you get the idea.
Part of what allowed Serial to capture such a large audience was that podcasts like it didn’t exist at the time. It was able to dominate the podcast market thanks, in large part, to a lack of competition in the space, in addition to its unique approach to format. In the world of podcasts, being first matters.
One of the most important pieces of the podcast puzzle, which Serial found, is to find a fresh format and stick to it. Nobody else was telling serialized true-crime audio stories that felt just as exciting and suspenseful as a movie or TV series.
“One of the most important pieces of the podcast puzzle, which ’Serial' found, is to find a fresh format and stick to it.”
“I love serialized stories of any kind,” Sarah Koenig, Serial’s host and executive producer, told Rolling Stone in 2014. “I’m a huge sucker for any kind of series. My hope is just that we can keep making them, and that even if it’s not life or death, or something with the stakes quite as stark as this one, that it will be just as compelling, and people will get just as hooked in because we’re doing it right.”
The podcast market may seem saturated, but there’s still plenty of room to stand out with a little creative thinking. Take HubSpot’s Weird Work podcast, a show that explores people who have broken out of the 9–5 grind to pursue their passions — no matter how weird it might look on paper. The show has interviewed everyone from the Head Knight at Medieval Times to an Elvis Impersonator Wedding Officiant to an International Pizza Consultant. The show’s focus on professional passions aligns with their small business audience with a fun and entertaining twist. They took what could have been just another small business interview show and created a unique and engaging podcast experience. It was truly a first-of-its-kind show, and it continues to captivate new listeners years later.
While it’s good to try to make your podcast the first of its kind like Serial was, it won’t matter much if you can’t carry out a great audio series over time. To find an example of a podcast that wasn’t the first in its niche but still owned it, you don’t need to look any further than Crime Junkie.
Debuting in late 2017, Crime Junkie is one of many true crime podcasts clearly influenced by Serial. The big difference is that instead of one overarching narrative across several episodes, Crime Junkie focuses on a different true crime story in each episode. While the idea itself isn’t completely original, it was a fresh take on the true-crime narrative and tapped a passionate, niche audience. The show became a massive hit and even reached the number-one spot on the Apple Podcasts chart in the United States.
Seeking out opportunities to build a podcast around subject matter your audience wants and hasn’t been covered by any other popular podcasts is a good practice, but it isn’t make-or-break. There are many different ways you can tell a story without sounding like you’re covering old ground. Being first doesn’t always translate into being the best. So, if you’re not first, ask yourself, “How is my podcast better than what’s already out there?”
“Being first doesn’t always translate into being the best. So, if you’re not first, ask yourself, ’How is my podcast better than what’s already out there'”
Privy took a page out of Crime Junkie’s niche playbook in 2020 when they launched The Ecommerce Marketing Show. Privy helps small e-commerce store owners sell more products through a set of online marketing tools, like email popups and text alerts. By deeply understanding their audience of e-commerce marketing managers, they were able to craft a show that speaks specifically to this small but mighty segment. This laser-like focus helps them cut through the noise in the small business podcast space and reach highly relevant listeners for their brand.
One of the initial strokes of genius the Serial team had in promoting the podcast was hyping it up before it was even released. They did that primarily by leveraging their already large social media following of This American Life, of which Serial is a spin-off.
It doesn’t matter how big or small your following is; you should always try to leverage whatever existing social media following you have ahead of your podcast debut. If your brand already has a loyal audience, those are the best people to share your podcast with first since they can engage with and share promo content. If you don’t have much of a social media presence yet — don’t fret. A podcast is a great way to help build a community (more on that later).
Think of your existing audiences as early podcast tastemakers who are getting an exclusive look at your show. Let them know you have a podcast on the way and why they’ll love it. Give people teasers on different social media platforms in the form of audio clips, episode trailers, and show art. You could even start building a dedicated subscriber list for your show by tapping your existing audiences and offering exclusive content and perks to early adopters.
And remember — social media isn’t the only place to promote your show. Leveraging your existing email database and building a podcast destination on your brand website can also help bolster anticipation and hype folks for the show launch and episode releases.
Once you’ve released your podcast, reach out to the social media community around it and get their thoughts. Engage directly with top fans and followers by interacting with them or reposting their comments. You can also set up polls and even ask for episode input if your podcast is set up for it.
In Serial’s case, a Reddit group dedicated to the podcast pushed theories and shared insights as the show progressed. There was even a spin-off podcast called Undisclosed, which dove deeper into the case covered on Serial. The hype around Serial mounted, in large part, thanks to the social media conversations that were happening away from the podcast.
Social media’s power in helping drive awareness around a show can’t be understated. It’s centered around an audience that already follows your brand and generally knows your other content. And, in many cases, it’s completely free to promote your podcast via online channels.
Think about how you can replicate this tactic to drive engagement for your podcast. Set up alerts on social for hashtags and mentions related to your brand and show. This can be done with tools you might already have, like Sprout Social or Buffer, or via free Google alerts. Actively engage with listeners and start conversations about show content. Support your podcast with other types of content, like videos and blogs. You could even host live events for fans or release exclusive content for subscribers.
While it’s up to you to develop a concrete strategy, you essentially have free access to a promotional tool that can help drive your listenership to new heights. Show promotion and engagement might be work — but it works.
One of the best things about Serial is its uncanny ability to keep listeners engaged throughout all 12 episodes of the first season. Every episode builds up the mystery and suspense, and listeners craved each new episode that was released weekly back in 2014.
For Serial, the power of attracting recurring listeners stemmed from the podcast’s compelling narrative that didn’t have a clear conclusion to it at the time. Koenig was along for the ride with her audience and finding out new information as it came to her.
“I don’t know where it will end, actually,” Koenig told The Guardian in 2014. “The way we have to think about it is, ‘If this, then what? If that, then what?’ We’re forced to build out different scenarios. If this thing turns out to be true or not true, then what do we do? I’m trying not to freak out about the end right now — we’ll get there when we get there.”
Serial’s compelling story had listeners hooked and wanting to hear how it would play out. You can apply a similar concept to any type of podcast in different ways. For example, focus on teasing upcoming guests, sharing upcoming podcast topics, and even setting up contests and giveaways to engage listeners. Identify a unique value proposition that will keep listeners hungry for new episodes.
No one has nailed binge-worthy quite like Buffer. Their narrative-style show, Breaking Brand, took a unique approach to podcasting. Instead of following the traditional one-to-one interview format, the show took a documentary approach to sharing the story of Gin LaneThis successful agency was pivoting into the direct-to-consumer space with the launch of a new company, Pattern Brands. The podcast focused heavily on the brand transition story and all of the juicy challenges, successes, and drama along the way. The structure and format of the show made each episode super suspenseful and gave listeners a reason to come back.
While we can’t promise you’ll get 5 million downloads and streams right out of the gate, we are confident these tips can help you find listeners that love your show. And who knows — Maybe you’ll become the next Serial for whatever podcast lane you’re looking to cover. We believe in you!