Are you looking for a time-tested way to keep viewers returning week after week? It’s a method employed by the big broadcast networks since the 1940s: producing a series of presentations and releasing them one at a time. Let’s explore how to apply this audience-grabbing technique to the modern world of YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Twitch and other streaming video services.

In the television industry, whether it’s NBC, HBO, or Comedy Central, producers typically release one episode per week using the “season” model. Netflix blew up this model by dropping an entire season of their own episodes simultaneously — binge-watching was born! While releasing large chunks of content is always an option for creators, dropping new content on an announced schedule has a significant advantage: an increase in viewer loyalty.

Basics of storytelling

Let’s compare two ways to tell a story with video: “episodic storytelling” and “serial storytelling.” In episodic storytelling each video is self-contained. Whatever conflict that emerges is resolved by the end, the videos stand on their own — like most situation comedies. 

Episodic storytelling gives viewers an easy entry point by allowing them to watch and enjoy a single, random episode — without needing additional backstory. This creates an audience that connects with the recurring personalities in each episode and hopefully increases interest in watching more. But, there’s an even stronger way to hook an audience.

Serial storytelling requires viewers to watch each video in the order it was released.

Serial storytelling requires viewers to watch each video in the order it is released as the ongoing story unfolds. They sometimes end in a “cliffhanger” that creates a desire in the audience to see what happens next. After all, conflict resolution is future-focused.

The classic example of serial content is the daytime drama. Unlike a typical episodic sitcom, a viewer will likely not understand a randomly viewed daytime drama. Viewers must watch more to appreciate the story’s big picture. Other examples of serial television include “Lost,” “Arrested Development,” “House of Cards,” “Breaking Bad” and “Game of Thrones.”

Serial content creates loyal viewers who feel invested in the series after spending countless viewing hours — a good thing! The negative side of the equation involves the big time commitment that not everyone is willing to offer. But this shortcoming doesn’t diminish the huge positive effect of an audience of loyal viewers willing to subscribe and follow.

What’s the big idea?

Let’s take what we’ve learned about episodic and serial content and apply it to success on YouTube, or other platforms.

Every story starts with a concept, theme or idea that will hopefully draw an audience — this is hard work. Telling a completely scripted dramatic or comedic story in serial format is a powerful way to grab an audience, but it’s out of the reach for some. The producer will need a sequence of scripts, actors, locations, props, wardrobe and all the associated equipment to shoot and edit. Are there other ways to harness the power of serialized content with less production overhead? Yes, read on.

Serializing reality

Imagine a YouTube series that stars a grandfather named Jerry who loves to restore classic Ford vehicles. Not all car buffs are crazy about Fords, but enough are to make a successful series based on the theme, especially if the audience emotionally connects with Jerry.

In season 1, Jerry and his 15-year-old granddaughter restore a rusty 1970 Mustang. In an aside, Jerry reveals to the audience that he is going to give the car to his granddaughter on her 16th birthday. The granddaughter, unaware of her grandfather’s gifting intentions, works on the car for the sheer joy of the experience. 

Each episode chronicles a bite-sized part of the restoration process. The audience knows there will be a huge emotional payoff at the end of the series. So they loyally watch the car transform into a masterpiece, and eventually witness an elated granddaughter driving her gift.

Season 2 finds Jerry rebuilding a Ford F150 truck — a duplicate of the one he drove in high school. Jerry spins stories about his younger years, as the audience experiences the rebuild step-by-step. This season is less serialized because it lacks the big ending of season 1. But, it still has the serial aspects of the continuing steps of the restoration process. 

In season 3, Jerry and wife drive the restored F150 cross-country to Michigan to tour the Ford F150 plant. They stop at several car museums along the way. The truck’s two mechanical meltdowns, and a road closure due to a spring snowstorm in the Rocky Mountains, bring drama to the story.

The future of storytelling

Creating viable new story ideas is the hardest part. It turns out that some stories are actually a hybrid of the episodic and serialized models. 

Don’t feel constrained. The best ideas often shun established models, choose what works best for the story you want to tell. For example, Netflix is breaking from the season model and has started calling some of their content “parts” and “volumes.” 

So, put your thinking cap on and come up with a theme. Figure out how to turn that theme into a sequence of videos that keep loyal viewers coming back as they anticipate your next release.