S-town podcast

Four things marketers can learn from S-Town

Phil Szomszor

11 Apr 2017

Have you listened to S-Town, the new podcast from the makers of Serial and This American Life? No? Seriously, stop reading this, get out your podcasting app and listen.

The premise – without giving too much away – is that it’s about a small town in Alabama. A reporter asks an angry resident to investigate a murder in the town and witness the “decay and decrepitude” that lies within. What follows is a death, a nasty feud and a hunt for buried treasure.

I binged the whole thing last weekend and was blown away. Amongst the many layers and metaphors of the near seven hours’ listening, marketers can learn a few things too:

1. Podcasting has its second ‘Serial moment’

Podcasts have been around for years, but were always seen as a niche interest. That is until Serial, a true crimes story which ran in 2014. It almost single-handedly put podcasting on the map.

S-Town gives the format another boost, redefining audio storytelling and reaching new audiences. Once you’ve got people’s ears and into the habit of consuming longform content in dead moments, it opens up new opportunities.

2. Longform content rocks

If you’re a marketer disenfranchised by the idea that content is a race to zero, S-Town is proof that people really do have more than the attention span of a gnat. Yes, we do live according to the new rules of the attention economy – it just means the content needs to be better.

3. Storytelling is an art form

S-Town has been likened to a ‘nonfiction novel’ – the creator admits it was created as one in this interview – and shows again the importance of narrative structure.

I know what you’re thinking. “I’m marketing datacentres, not telling Dickensian tales of epic scope.” Maybe not, but there are aspects here that can be appropriated: characterisation, telling real people’s stories. The element of surprise. Creating a sense of time and space in a visceral way.

4. There are new rules for content distribution

The publishers of S-Town dropped the whole thing – all seven episodes – in one go at the end of March. The Netflix approach appeals to binge listeners and, somewhat counter-intuitively, encourages people to get on board and listen to it all quickly to avoid missing out on the post-show conversation. Promotion is largely word of mouth, backed by some carefully selected interviews.

It won’t work for everyone, but even challenging distribution norms once in a while can’t be a bad thing.  


If you’ve listened to S-Town, I can recommend Brian Reed’s Longform interview. Whilst I loved the show, I was intrigued about how they put it all together and had some ethical concerns about the impact of putting a magnifying glass over a small community – the interview answers all this and more.

Finally, if you’re interested in the podcast format for your business, talk to us. Our content and social media team loves making podcasts and we believe they have an important role to play in telling brand stories. Drop me an email and we can have a chat.