5 Lessons the TV Series Finale Holds for Content Marketing

How I Met Your Mother

Image courtesy CBS.

“How I Met Your Mother” (#HIMYM) ended a nine-season run with its series finale earlier this week. Of course, like most series finales, it received mixed reviews.

The critics in this instance are my content marketing colleagues. In fact, #HIMYM inspired a broader discussion from which we pulled five lessons content marketers can take from the TV series finale.

1) Don’t Be Lazy: When Greek playwrights were unsure how to finish a script, they’d employ the plot device “deus ex machina.”  Latin for “god from the machine,” it allowed them to resolve a seemingly unresolvable storyline.

Sometimes this involved a god intervening to literally remove the actors from the stage to end the play. For several TV series, including “Dallas,” “Newhart” and “St. Elsewhere,” this involved an “it was just a dream” sequence to end storylines that had run for several seasons.

And while every brand’s editorial strategy will evolve based on changing audience needs, think in terms of evolution and not revolution. If a significant shift is warranted, changing a brand’s editorial focus too abruptly can lose an audience’s hard-earned attention.

2) Soaps & Cartoons as Sustainable Narratives: Soap operas may be an endangered species. But along with politically incorrect animated series like “The Simpsons” and “South Park,” they’ve become much more than pop culture guilty pleasures.

Both genres have well-defined editorial missions. By following these missions closely, each one delivers steady ratings year after year. As one of these series inevitably jumps the shark with one audience, an entirely new audience discovers it. It’s a reminder of the importance of focused, consistent editorial.

3) Don’t Bait & Switch: ”Seinfeld” still holds appeal – 16 years after its final episode. One reason why? By showing how badly its main characters behaved, by comparison, audience members felt better about their own lives. “Seinfeld’s” much-maligned finale found the cast in jail. This realistic, giant dose of karma wasn’t just a departure from the series successful formula. It was an indictment of its audience.

The content marketing equivalent of Seinfeld’s bait and switch is following a shiny-new content tactic based on someone else’s success using it.

BuzzFeed’s editorial approach is a great example of this. Its approach to short form content is imitated by a variety of media. But the form a piece of content takes, from an infographic or short video to a quiz and beyond, is secondary to the story it tells. If a brand lets content’s form define the stories it tells, it will impact editorial effectiveness.

4) Kill Sacred Cows: Killing a sacred cow engages an audience by challenging and surprising them. “Game of Thrones” redefined this concept, killing several popular, prominent characters in its season three finale. Several shows, all still on the air, have quickly followed suit. “Scandal,” “Homeland” and “The Good Wife” have all killed a main character recently, paying “Game of Thrones” homage at a much smaller scale.

Constantly changing consumer needs and technology require content marketers to disrupt their processes. Killing sacred cows is one way to continually challenge ourselves and iterate our approach to storytelling.

5) Go Out on Top: ”Family Ties” set a rare example we wish more TV series had followed. When this popular series ended, many argued it was too early. But shows like “Friends,” “The Office” and “Mad Men” (yes, I said it… the AMC icon my entire industry drools over) could all learn something from “Family Ties’ ” sense of timing.

Not all editorial topics are broad enough to be sustainable. Ongoing content optimization, based on audience engagement, ensures we know which topics are trending and which ones we should be ending.

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This ensures, for example, a consumer packaged goods brand is not talking about the Atkins Diet. It is talking about the Gluten-Free Diet. And all the while, they’re learning more about the Paleo Diet for a potential future article.

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Like anything else, TV has changed as much as its stayed the same in recent years. Content marketers can learn from this storytelling establishment. Otherwise, we risk going out like “The Sopranos” and

Kevin Dugan – has written 48 posts on this site.
My content creation habits were formed as a kid -- filling notebooks with writing and taking stacks of pictures. These habits have evolved through my 20 years in marketing, as I’ve been immersed in all forms of content, social media and online technology. As Editor-In-Chief of Media is Power, I guide editorial strategy and ensure your needs are met. This is one way I help tell The Empower Group’s story as the director of marketing.

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