What Serial Says About the Power of Storytelling

serial-social-logoSerial, the much talked about podcast, returned for its final episode last week and its legions of fans couldn’t be happier. The show, which spun off from public radio stalwart This American Life, tells the story of a 14 year old murder case in Maryland.

Serial is a fantastic show — gripping. perfectly paced and impossible to forget. But for people like me who work on the advertising side of the media business, the series has has sparked another watercooler conversation about the future of podcast advertising.

But what seems to be largely missing in the breathless blog posts and future of media think pieces is the fact what Serial really does is tap into a very old tradition indeed: radio storytelling.

I’m bullish about advertising on shows like Serial. In fact, I’m incredibly bullish about audio advertising period. Why? Because in a brave new world of infinite media choices, spoken word advertising is more powerful than ever.

Audio, and specifically radio, is not only alive and well — it’s thriving. Here are five reasons why.

1. The incredible psychology of the spoken word

Listening is deeply embedded in American culture, in part because of its deep ties with our national pastime: driving. But radio listening isn’t just a warm and fuzzy yearning for the past: a trove of data shows that listening to the spoken word has an elemental place in our psychology.

A fascinating study examining “sonic branding” found that the ability of sounds and music to trigger brand recognition is profound. Audio advertisements stimulate brand recognition and those who hear them experience a profound range of emotions, associating audio clips with concepts like “protection,” “truth,” “friendship” or “relaxation.” Even TV advertisers understand the profound power of audio cues: sleigh bells jingling or a hearty “ho ho ho” permeate traditional holiday advertising.

Other research finds that consumers feel that their local radio host was “like a friend,” and more likely to trust their recommendation than a commercial.

It’s not simply the “audio” that does the trick, otherwise there would be no qualitative difference between TV and digital video ads. Even after the advent of the radio, many speculated there was something about the disembodied voice that was particularly powerful. And they were right, audio without visual distractions leaves us more engaged with the spoken word.

2.  Millennials love listening to music — together

There is a pervasive belief that young people never listen to the radio, but in fact millennials are voracious consumers of it. 93% of consumers above the age of 12 listen to radio at least once a week, and over 65 million people in the 18-34 demographic — around half — listen to broadcast radio every week. Millennials spend about 11 hours a week listening to radio, mostly during their daily commute.

Communal listening — on the way to school, at a party, while on a road trip — is a big part of this appeal.

The case of Serial only goes to show that Millennials are eager to consume great audio-only experiences. And of course no aspiring pop star can ever break through without radio play. Can you imagine Taylor Swift’s year without constant airplay on the radio?

3.  There’s less fuzzy math in audio

A lot of of digital media salespeople promise perfect accountability and measurability. But digital advertising, as powerful as it can be, is also alarmingly unpredictable.

Take, for instance, the massive amounts of click fraud and URL masking found in digital campaigns. 85% of all digital banner clicks come from the same 8% of people. Forrester’s recent study that found the vast majority of brands are simply wasting their money on social media with engagement rates as low as 0.07%.

To say nothing of the shifting sands of the platforms themselves. Marketers who spent millions building fan bases on Facebook seem to have recently discovered that organic reach is approaching 0% for brands. It doesn’t matter if you like a brand and want to hear more from them. Seemingly overnight Facebook has become a pay-to-play medium.

4. You Know Your ROI

Nobody can cite more mind bending analytics than a pure play digital ad salesperson. But businesses and brands who spend on these platforms often leave disappointed. When it comes to building local brands, radio sponsors have some real advantages.

Unlike TV and digital, radio maintains 93% of its lead-in audience for its commercial breaks. After all, cars don’t have DVRs to simply skip past them, and most people are simply too focused on driving to find a new station.

In fact, studies routinely find that radio advertisers have their investment returned to them eight-fold.

5. It Plays Well With Others

No sane advertising person will argue for a one size fits all marketing solution. If local marketing has taught me anything, it’s that the message has to be tailored for the medium and the locale. And more often than not, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

In the case of audio advertising, it pairs well with TV advertising. A Nielsen study found that TV and radio combined were far more effective are better than either one alone.

Despite countless technological innovations and competitors, audio advertising hasn’t gone anywhere, and it won’t anytime soon. People love listening, and the fact that it maintains listenership after the advent of on-demand music only goes to show that it has a deep, intimate, relationship with its listener.


Podcasting proves what the those of us in the business have known for a long time: when it comes to reaching consumers, listening is everything.