The Demise Of Soap Operas, And Lessons For Content Marketers

In her new e-book, soap critic Lynn Liccardo writes about the culture of decision-making that facilitated the end of long-running daytime drama "As the World Turns." What could marketers and corporate communicators learn from where the show went wrong?

Marketing and communications professionals alike are increasingly thinking about themselves and their everyday work as acts of "storytelling." Often, though, this is said in a vacuum, with little thought about how lessons learned from professional storytellers in the media industries might apply to the stories companies tell.

Recently, I've been reading Lynn Liccardo's e-book, As the World Stopped Turning. Liccardo (who contributed to the Survival of Soap Opera, a book I co-edited) provides a personal account, as both fan and critic, of watching the gradual deterioration of a soap opera which had been a staple of the U.S. daytime lineup for 54 years.

In her focus on the particulars of As the World Turns, I see several key lessons that corporate storytellers should take to heart, lest we (once again) live out the cliche about those not studying history being doomed to repeat it. Here are a few of those themes:

  1. Listen to and empathize with your audience. In As the World Stopped Turning, Liccardo describes a show where the executive producer told fans not to bother with sending in fan mail because it wouldn't be read, and where a churn in management led to years of decision-makers who were disconnected with what the As the World Turns brand meant to its audience.
    Both media producers and marketers alike run the risk of spending more time measuring audiences than listening to them, and even more risk of focusing on what they want the audience to think or do, rather than looking at their brand or content from their audience's perspective. Neglecting to foster the ability to see things from your audience's eyes is one of the most vital dangers companies face, as the disconnect between the corporate vision of the brand and the audience's lived experience of it grows over time.

  2. Don't squander your reputation. Liccardo catalogs the series of frustrations that slowly led a "brand proselytizer" for As the World Turns to become ambivalent and—by the show's demise—in many ways relieved at the series' cancellation. For media and marketing storytellers alike, her account shows both the degree to which brand equity leads to a supporter sticking with an entity despite some missteps but also how that equity only stretches so far. Companies regularly disregard the cumulative effect that little breaches of the audience's trust slowly builds, slowly chipping away at the very relationships the organization worked so hard to foster.

  3. Believe in your company. Liccardo describes a soap opera industry where people are moved in and out of corporate positions in ways that have little logic and where people end up at the helm of shows where their knowledge about and passion for the programs they manage pales in comparison to the audience's dedication. What's worse, many of these leaders seem to subsequently look for every opportunity to replace actors with deep history on As the World Turns with talent they'd worked with on other shows and other networks. One could see, for instance, the constant turnover in CMOs and agencies alike at many companies in the same light—demonstrating little interest in continuity. And, worse, such turnover reflects a belief that storytelling is a craft in which practitioners can apply their skills to any product or service, with little need for either passion for or knowledge about the brand they steward.

  4. Don't neglect the connection between internal morale and external positioning. Liccardo describes an environment where the network loses faith in a program long before it goes off the air, the production company seems to eventually abandon its support, the executive producer gets beaten down by years of frustration, and the show's cast shows up to deliver their lines and go home. Many of her essays connect those glimpses at the internal atmosphere of the company with the dissatisfying product created by those working in such an environment. The lessons for any team dedicated to storytelling is clear: that a toxic internal culture not only affects the quality of storytelling but often implicitly becomes apparent to the outside world.

  5. Play to the strengths of what makes you different. Liccardo describes a soap opera in which new producers sought to distance themselves from the history that made the show successful, where the executive producer believed no one wanted to see a soap opera anymore, and which tried to replace the ongoing serial narratives that define the soap opera format with short-term, self-contained stories that sound more like a prime-time episodic form. In short, the people running As the World Turns turned away from rather than embraced the differentiators that defined their show and their genre. Too often, companies do the same, focusing on trends and competitors while losing sight of what sets their brand apart.

  6. Have a long-term strategy for building your brand. Liccardo describes a range of short-term decision-making that does little to take into account long-term storytelling implications at As the World Turns. She describes a series of isolated story arcs, disconnected from one another, that eventually creates a fractured show, with little continuity or connection among its various stories. One can see the "campaign-based mentality" of marketing and communications in this light as well, with corporate stories that frequently don't align or even contradict one another.

Recently, I wrote about how many lessons can be learned from an area—library science—which at first may sound irrelevant. That's precisely why I recommend marketers and communications professionals read books like Liccardo's, which arguably have more to teach us about our craft than all the "how to" marketing tactics guides you can ever wade through.

—Sam Ford is director of digital strategy for Peppercomm and coauthor of the forthcoming book Spreadable Media with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green. He is also a Futures of Entertainment Fellow, a research affiliate of the program in Comparative Media Studies at MIT, and an instructor with Western Kentucky University's Popular Culture Studies program. Sam was named 2011 Social Media Innovator of the Year by Bulldog Reporter and serves on the Membership Ethics Advisory Panel for the Word of Mouth Marketing Association. He is also co-editor of The Survival of Soap Opera with Abigail De Kosnik and C. Lee Harrington. Follow him on Twitter @Sam_Ford.

[Image: Flickr user Michael Himbeault]

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  • Lastly...I did want to give further clarification to one of the things Lynn's book pointed out. Lynn's example was indeed the case with ATWT's Executive Producer saying fans shouldn't bother with writing in. In an interview with Soap Opera Digest in 2008, he had this exchange: Digest: Do you ever look at message boards? Goutman: I never go online. Digest: Do you get a mail report about what people are saying? Goutman: Vaguely, but I really don't look at it. Digest: So would you recommend that people not bother sending things? Goutman: Yes, I do. Digest: It's not going to make a difference? Goutman: Not to me.

    Hopefully, that helps provide a little further context...

  • Second, Linda, you're absolutely right that fan's can't be pleased all the time. But listening and empathizing with your audience is different than doing whatever people say. As you indicate...different fans want different things. And one thing fans want is to advocate for the direction they want things to head and argue with other fans, etc. I think there's a difference in just putting a couple back together immediately because a faction of fans want that, or just putting everything up to a popular vote...and, on the other hand, ensuring that you don't do things that seem a violation of storytelling/continuity to a large portion of your fan base, if that makes sense.

  • Hi Linda...First, my sincere apologies for responding to this way after the fact. I never was alerted to the comment and didn't realize you'd left one. I wanted to make clear at the outset that I didn't write the title of the column, only the article itself...the editors wrote the title. I'd originally labeled it "Don't Wait Until Your World Stops Turning: 6 Lessons Marketers Can Learn from Soaps," specifically aimed at Lynn Liccardo's ebook and the example of As the World Turns. As you (hopefully) know, I wholeheartedly agree with you that soaps are continuing to flourish, including four traditional shows that continue on in the daytime slot and aren't showing signs of slowing down--as well as the many ways serialized storytelling from soaps has been adapted into primetime formats, web formats, etc.

  • Linda Marshall-Smith

    Producers and writers of soap operas walk a fine line in developing content that engages their audience. In the case of the soap opera, As the World Turns, I am not aware that producers told fans not to bother writing in because the fan mail would not be read.  Contrary to that, producers of soaps consider one piece of fan mail to equate to the sentiments of 1000 fans.  If they did, in fact, totally disregard reading it, no wonder the show suffered.  However, let's get back to that fine line, again. There are, what I have dubbed, fan factions.  The legions of soapers who love one couple or other, or who are dying to see their favorite veteran characters on air all the time.  When you please one faction, you, by default, alienate another.  Younger viewers no nothing of the patriarch who may have been the hunk 25 years ago, the one that got you hooked on your favorite soap way back then, but in order to now hook a new, younger audience, an audience that will remain for 25 years from now, you must create and write for younger characters.  Bottom line #1:  You can't please everyone all the time.  Writers and producers must craft story that makes the most sense for the overall good of the show on a long term basis.  The reason As the World Turns left the airwaves was simple. Procter and Gamble no longer wanted to be in the soap opera production business.  It was a business decision. Did they attempt to sell off the rights to the shows to another production company?  Perhaps, but if so, were apparently unsuccessful.  Bottom Line #2:  For soap operas to remain on air they need viewers to tune in.  Plain and simple.  Additionally, I disagree with your  "The demise of soap operas..."  Soap operas are not dead. They are just finding new audiences in prime time (Scandal, Once Upon a Time, Revenge, The Good Wife, Grey's Anatomy, etc.), online and on demand (Coronation Street, All My Children, One LIfe to Live), and feature films (The Twilight Saga).  I do agree that content marketers can learn from the wins and losses of the soap opera genre. Bottom Line #3:  Adapt. Pivot. Engage audiences on many levels.

    Linda Marshall-Smith, MBA
    Founder & CEO