Behind the Scenes: How to Handle Content Creation Like a TV Writer

December 2, 2016 Alex Grant

content creation

Every time a holiday rolls around, Netflix, HBO, and practically every other entertainment powerhouse focuses its content creation efforts on developing a list of shows to binge-watch. And even though many of us are busy juggling gatherings with family, belated friendsgivings, late nights spent wrapping gifts, and long days at the office covering for out-of-town coworkers, we all inevitably make time to binge many of the shows on those lists.

Why? For one, content is more accessible now with the rise of streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime, as well as digital media players such as Roku, Chromecast, and Apple TV. Instead of replacing live television viewing, these developments augment viewers’ TV experience, making it altogether easier to lose oneself to interruption-free entertainment.

But mostly, we make time because of the simple fact that we love watching TV. The medium presents a visual story we can easily absorb and offers an extended dedication that movies often don’t provide. When a TV show is crafted thoughtfully (think Stranger Things or Westworld) and put before the right audience, that audience is almost sure to fall in love—guaranteeing a group of viewers (or readers) who crave that show’s content.

The same is true in content marketing. By creating thoughtful stories that speak directly to our audiences, we can become the brands that people crave—not just for our products, but also for the experiences we provide.

The problem, though, is this: right now, much of our content is falling flat. Much like there are many beloved TV shows that don’t make it past their third seasons, there is a lot of great content out there that gets overshadowed by other brand stories. It can feel impossible to come up with a story that’s as genuinely compelling as the competition’s, let alone something as addictive as Black Mirror.

Today, let’s talk about why that’s not the case.

Marketers can learn from TV writers about telling stories that stand out. These are the top three lessons I’ve gleaned.

1. Listen Carefully and Act with Flexibility

In an interview with Ezra Klein for Vox, Bill Gates argued that TV shows are becoming more complex as an answer to an evolving market:

Look at IQ test capability over time. Or even take a TV show today and how complex it is—that’s responding to the marketplace. You take Breaking Bad versus, I don’t know, Leave it to Beaver, or Combat!, or The Wild, Wild West. You know, yeah, take Combat! because that was sort of pushing the edge of should kids be allowed to watch it.

The interest and complexity really does say that, broadly, these tools have meant that market-driven people are turning out more complex things. Now, you can say, “Why hasn’t that mapped to more sophistication in politics or something like that?” That’s very complicated. But I don’t see a counter trend where there’s some group of people who are less curious or less informed because of the internet.

That makes sense: after all, people don’t consume TV passively. This year alone has shown how responsive viewers are to the shows they watch. And with the growing number of shows viewers can easily access, it makes sense that they’re turning to certain networks above others to watch them.

Before a show goes on air, there are several ways it can be conceptualized, but eventually it ends up on one network. Depending on that network and its viewers, the story will take shape to suit the audience—factoring in key information such as interests, ages, and habits. Networks might not all set strict rules on what shows can and can’t be about, but you will notice that shows from certain networks have distinct looks and feels (HBO vs. CW, for example).

Supergirl/Nerdy Pajamas

The same is absolutely true in content marketing. As with TV, people are not passive about their preferences and consumption habits. Especially in our digital world where people are given access to a multitude of niche products and services, they will actively seek out those they love most. And they’ll use certain channels (and types of media) to do so.

Marvel Additionally, everyone in TV could work on different projects, but they all know the kind of show they’re working on based on its network. For example, a TV writer working with Marvel would know that their show would either be on ABC (a Disney company like Marvel), Netflix (which recently released Marvel’s Luke Cage) or Hulu (in the future). And even though those networks have similarities, each of these distribution networks affects its content differently.

You might have one brand, but you almost certainly amplify your content through different social media channels. We always see Twitter stats based on age and gender, but rarely on interests like those depicted in Foursquare’s Dungeons and Data infographic (pictured on the right).

The fact is, posting the same images on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram will yield different results depending on what segment of your audience is using each platform. Instagram, for example, is heavily driven by attractive visuals, while Facebook leaves more room for succint-yet-substantial captioning.

Time also comes into play when you’re considering your cross-channel editorial calendar. Consider shows on streaming services like Netflix where binge-watching is key. According to Variety, more than two-thirds of Americans binge watch shows with the average viewing session lasting five episodes. Most TV writers probably didn’t have this in mind when they first started writing shows—and it’s not up to them to decide how to release the content.

What can you learn from them? Simply put: flexibility.

When it comes to social media (think Twitter, Facebook, etc.), you already know the value of having a post schedule. But in putting your schedule together, consider the content creation processes of media like video and podcasts, both of which do take considerable time and attention. U by Kotex, for example, sponsored a web series that turned into a social media hit. When it first started out, episodes were released twice a week on YouTube, but the third season changed by releasing episodes in batches as most people who got into the show became fans after binge watching.

Don’t be overly dogmatic where your strategy is concerned. Flexibility might be the best way to get an audience for your content—and to adapt your content as the market inevitably evolves.

2. Know the World of Your Brand—And Share It with Your Team

On television dramas, writers have the most control over their stories since they usually have the whole season planned out before it goes into production. But that doesn’t mean they’re the only ones who can affect things. Actors can quit, the crew might have logistical issues, and even nature could decide to make things difficult. Everyone on a TV show’s team needs to work together to make it work despite any obstacles. A writer might have to make a few changes to the script. An actor might have to spend a few extra hours on set. Everyone plays an important part in the whole picture.

What’s more, TV shows typically have more than one writer: take Battlestar Galactica for example, which ran from 2004-2009, and had over 15 different writers. And despite all those moving pieces, the story, characters, and themes remain consistent throughout the show’s four seasons—thanks to this document written by the show’s developer Ron Moore. In it, Moore not only outlines the characters and the stories, but also writes about the jargon within the Galactica worlds as well as what kind of technology characters have access to. He has essentially provided the framework for a universe with its own rules and inside jokes—one that is undeniably unique to the show itself. Documents like this one help different writers keep characters in character. As production picks up, it can also list shooting locations and include visuals to help the production team bring the showrunner’s vision to life.

The same is true for your brand. With so many employees, teams, and departments comprising your organization, it can feel impossible to get everyone on the same page. That’s where crafting a brand narrative and brand guidelines can help unite your teams in the world of your organization. Like a TV show’s bible, your brand guidelines and narrative will contain everything related to your company and help maintain consistency and tone throughout all the content you create—not to mention the way your employees speak about the company, both to each other and to potential customers.

3. Make Storyboarding Part of Your Content Creation Strategy

As every TV show on a particular network has its own story, writers also have different methods creating theirs. But you’ll be hard pressed to find a writer’s room that doesn’t use a board and index cards to map out the story. This technique is the same throughout every show but it’s adapted differently depending on who’s on the team and what they want to convey.

The same goes for storytelling. Within the world of your brand you may have several, shorter stories you want to tell—all with the goal of highlighting your mission and vision and connecting with your audience. Once you’ve mapped out the world of your brand, you’ll want to find some way to organize structure, and develop the stories you create to ensure they’re cohesive and align with your content strategy.

There are techniques and resources every brand can use to ideate and structure content, but the rules don’t have to be followed dogmatically. Brands don’t always have to produce content that’s directly related to their products, for example—they can act as publishers, opting to tell stories that are powerful (and brand aligned) and share them with the world. There are always best practice elements (calls to action, for example) but, like the best TV shows, there’s always a twist that people love.

One final note: story plays a huge role in TV, but that doesn’t make it the most important aspect. Even the best story can perform poorly on a ratings basis. That’s where SEO comes into play. Make it a goal within your content strategy to publish original content that’s SEO friendly and seeks to educate and entertain. Not only are you that much more likely to reach your audience when and where they’re looking for you, but you’re bound to find fans who keep coming back.

And that’s a wrap.

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