5 Reasons Serial Podcast is so Addicting...and What it Means for Nonprofit Communications

by Kevin Martone, Senior Program Manager, JCamp 180

If - like me - you've listened to the Serial Podcast, you are anxiously awaiting the next episode to appear on Thursday. Serial, a podcast from the team behind This American Life, is a wildly popular podcast that reinvestigates - one week at a time - the 1999 murder of a high school girl (Hae Min Lee) and the evidence (or lack thereof) that put Lee's ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed in jail for life. Each podcast is an opportunity for reporter Sarah Koenig to weave an incredibly engaging story about this tragic event.

Despite the obvious question about whether we SHOULD enjoy a story about a real-life murder, Serial is an unquestioned success - was the #1 ranked podcast in iTunes for weeks.

Of all the podcasts and true crime media out there, why has Serial touched such a nerve?

1. It tells a story. Each episode of the Serial podcast is focused on one facet of the case and provides a clear story arc: beginning, middle, and end. Fans want to continue listening to find out what happens next. Even the podcast overall uses this structure: although Koenig admits that she isn't sure if this podcast will have any definitive conclusion, listeners feel as if they are part of an ongoing narrative, not a staid news report. People want to find out how the story ends.

What does this mean for nonprofit communications?

Nonprofit communications need to be focused on stories. Find your protagonist and then tell their story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Facts and figures don't move people - stories do. Share stories in your eNewsletters, appeal letters, and blog that will connect with your audience. This incredible story from URJ Camp Newman about the Comforting Power of Jewish Camp is a great example of storytelling - the reader is transported to that time and place.

2. It has a relatable protagonist we care about. Syed appears to be a regular high school kid. He's from a middle class family and seems interested in sports and girls, just like any high school boy. He's not perfect- he spends more time smoking pot with questionable friends than he should - but that makes him even more human.  And the case hinges on a short time period after school on the day Lee was murdered. Syed - frustratingly - can't remember exactly what he did that afternoon. But who CAN remember all their actions on any random day?

What does this mean for nonprofit communications?

Remember to always focus your stories on a single, real person to whom we can relate. The stories you share via email and your blog should be about a particular person who was helped by your organization (or a volunteer and their impact story). Focus these stories on a single, relatable person. For example, Momastery runs regular "love flash mobs" to raise money for individual people. The stories highlight the recipients in vivid description that helps the reader connect with them personally and want to support them.

3. It has a human voice. The narrator - reporter Sarah Koenig - delivers the content informally. She provides her own opinion and shares the questions she has in her mind about this difficult case. Rather than providing the facts in a detached way, Sarah puts herself and her opinions front and center - it helps connect Sarah and the story to the listener. She offers asides - admitting she doesn't know what to make of Syed and once wondering aloud if her co-worker is even listening to her. This content engages the listener deeper in the process.

What does this mean for nonprofit communications?

Rather than formal, dry language, use a human, informal voice in your communications. Find your organization's voice - the one that connects in an authentic way with your audience - and stick to it. Keep technical jargon out, and even include opinion where appropriate. For example, truth - a program of the American Legacy Foundation focused on decreasing teen smoking - provides clear language aimed at their teen audience on the website; they "keep it real."


4. It uses cliffhangers. At the end of every podcast, Koenig sums up what we just learned and posits an obvious question that is still unanswered…which she promises will be considered in the next podcast. This simple "tease" adds to the tension; listeners can't wait until the next episode is released the following Thursday to learn more about the story.

What does this mean for nonprofit communications?

If nonprofits craft intriguing stories in their appeal letters, for example, they can omit the "end" to create tension. They could invite readers to go to the donation page to find out the end of the story…and support the organization to help other people like the protagonist. This 2012 study from Dunham+Company shows that 50% of people prefer to give online when they receive a direct mail appeal; a cliffhanger will make them even MORE likely to go your site to donate.

5. It offers insider access. Although the Serial Podcast is professionally edited, it doesn't omit leads that turn out to be useless. Instead, these frustrating paths are included, bringing listeners behind the scenes and deeper into Koenig's process. It gives the listener the feeling of transparency and inclusiveness that keeps them interested.

What does this mean for nonprofit communications?

Nonprofits can bring their audience behind the scenes to get them more connected to the organization. For example, nonprofits can share photos of event preparation on Facebook or Instagram. Or they could offer donors access to the people who provide services behind the scenes. For example, Charity:Water shares the stories of the people who help maintain the wells they build; and even create live videoconferences connecting donors with these maintenance heroes.

So…how can YOUR nonprofit communications be as engaging as Serial?