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Learning from Popular Television: 5 Key Story Structure Elements



Evolutionary biologists believe humans started telling stories around two million years ago — around the same time we developed the ability to speak. And since we didn’t start writing until 3200 B.C., speaking was our main form of communication. In turn, storytelling was the best way to teach others how to navigate our ruthless, prehistoric world.

To put it simply, storytelling is an evolutionary trait. Our brain craves stories because they were crucial for our survival. Interestingly enough, natural selection also shaped the act of storytelling.

Even though Netflix, Hulu, and our local movie theaters are chock-full of stories, only one story structure survived the evolutionary pruning process. That’s right — most of today’s stories follow a structure that’s been honed over millions of years. And Hollywood was the first industry to monetize our need for them.


From The Fault In Our Stars to Inception, all the best stories follow the same structure. Although the order of events may vary, each story includes all of the following elements:

  • Exposition: The world or situation the hero lives in, their status quo.
  • Inciting incident: A major event that disrupts their status quo, creates a pressing problem in the hero’s life, and compels them to solve it to return back to their normal life.
  • Progressive complications: Obstacles that hinder the hero’s chances of getting what they want, escalating the story’s conflict.
  • Turning point: A revelation that helps the hero realize what’s required to succeed.
  • Crisis: A tough decision that will either set the hero on the path of success or failure. They will never return to their regular life again.
  • Climax: Gutsy move necessary to succeed, often revealing the hero’s true character and changing their worldview forever.
  • Resolution: Indications of how much the hero has changed.

It’s easy to see how each of these elements plays out in a major motion picture like The Avengers, but it’s also possible to include some of these components in your next video series.

If you want to master the craft of narrative-driven content, you must first master your understanding of story structure. Below are five ways you can ensure that the binge-worthy content you create captivates viewers, as well as examples from shows you’ve probably already binge-watched!

1. Set a clear goal for the hero to achieve

An inciting incident makes or break a story. In one of the funniest episodes of The Office called “Christmas Party,” Michael spends $400 to get Ryan an iPod for Secret Santa. But when it’s his turn to receive a gift, Phyllis disappoints him with a pair of homemade oven mitts. This forces Michael to react absurdly in order to get a better gift — turning Secret Santa into a Yankee Swap. Now, the office can take turns stealing each other’s presents or picking a new gift from the tree, kicking off the episode’s entire storyline and promising us that we’ll witness Michael pull out all the stops to get a gift he actually wants.

When crafting an episode for your branded show, make sure to introduce a pressing problem into the hero’s world that sets a clear goal for them to achieve. After you do that, they’ll be faced with two options: Find a solution or ignore the problem entirely. This choice will spark your episode’s entire storyline and reveal to your audience what they’re about to get into.

Image courtesy of The Office.

2. Block the hero’s path to success as much as possible

The more obstacles that block your hero from achieving their goal, the more challenging their life is. And the more challenging your hero’s life is, the more satisfying it is when they conquer these obstacles and finally achieve their goal.

However, your hero can’t face the same type or magnitude of conflict each time an obstacle crops up. This will make your story drag on and feel repetitive. Instead, you must continually escalate your story’s conflict to keep your audience invested.

For example, in the series premiere of the drama Sorry For Your Loss, Leah, a recent widow, faces the biggest obstacle of all — her grief. As she struggles to put her life back together, she blows up on her sister, grief group leader, and late husband’s brother in the process. While it’s clear that isolating herself from loved ones won’t really help Leah move on, she can’t really ever go back to how things were. Ultimately, she finds some comfort in writing, which is truly what sets her on the path to recovery.

A good way to figure out if you’re escalating your story’s conflict enough is determining whether or not your hero can go back to their regular life after they’ve faced an obstacle. In other words, if they can’t go back to the way things were without suffering any trauma or displeasure, then you’ve escalated your story’s conflict enough.

sorry for your loss
Image courtesy of Sorry For Your Loss.

3. Escalate tension as you approach the climax

The turning point in your story shifts the narrative from one particular emotion to an entirely different one. Usually, it’s a positive transition from your hero failing so much that they feel like giving up, to your hero uncovering a new nugget of information that makes them realize there’s actually a path toward success.

In the critique show called The Profit, Marcus Lemonis tries to turn a fly fishing store called SmithFly into a profitable business. During the episode’s turning point, it seems like Ethan, the owner, is a changed man. He used to be extremely defensive and deflect any criticism directed toward his products, but now he’s actually receptive to the feedback given by a distributor.

However, we quickly see him fall from grace and go back to his old ways during a big pitch. This adds a lot of tension to the climax — while you’re watching it, you can’t help but sit on the edge of your seat and pray that Ethan doesn’t mess things up. When he seals the deal, though, you feel like jumping for joy. If Ethan never showed signs of resistance, which added tension to the story during the turning point, the climax’s payoff would be less satisfying.

Image courtesy of The Profit.

When crafting your story structure, consider escalating the tension at the end of your turning point to heighten your story’s conflict to a memorable level. Since your turning point leads to the crisis (which sparks the climax) intensifying the end of your turning point can ramp up your climax’s conflict, suspense, and payoff.

4. End with a twist

Your climax serves as the moment of truth — this is when your audience learns whether your hero actually has the guts to do what they need to do and has experienced a change in their worldview. It’s a rational and inevitable result of your inciting incident. But whether or not your hero achieves their goal during the climax, it must happen in a surprising way. Otherwise, your story will seem too predictable.

For instance, in the season premiere of the documentary Tom vs. Time, sports analysts keep berating Tom Brady with criticisms of his age. However, his mentality, training, and diet convince you that all that stuff is just noise. Tom Brady seems ageless (albeit in a somewhat robotic, creepy way). When you shockingly find out he lost the home opener, however, you can’t help but think his age is catching up to him. This adds drama to the overall narrative and compels you to watch the next episode.

Image courtesy of Tom vs. Time.

When crafting narrative-driven binge-worthy content, especially documentaries, twist endings are the best way to shock your audience and, in turn, retain their attention. Humans are wired to predict things, so if you can shatter their forecast of your show’s plot, they’ll pay more attention to your show and engage more deeply with it.

5. Highlight how much your hero has changed

During Anthony Bourdain’s review of Montana’s culture and food in his show, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, the late, great Bourdain identifies as a liberal and never considers himself a hunter. But after spending an entire day with a hunter who is surprisingly also a conservationist, he realizes that you can strike a balance between the two. In fact, it dawns on him that hunting and conservation actually rely on each other. Bourdain ends the evening by marveling at the stars scattered across the big Montana sky and reflecting on his newfound insight of hunting and conservation being intertwined.

The point of your resolution is to complete the story and teach your audience a life lesson. So instead of summarizing what happened during the climax, rip a page out of Anthony Bourdain’s storytelling playbook and spotlight how much your hero’s worldview has changed since the beginning of your story.

Image courtesy of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.

Even though each of these shows belongs to completely different styles and genres, they all follow the same or similar structure. Because the structure of a story is like scaffolding to a house, without it, your story will crumble. So the next time you set out to script a long-form video or series, make sure you incorporate these Hollywood story elements so you can keep your story moving along nicely.

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Video Marketing

Start Identifying Your Brand Values by Answering These 6 Questions



“Salad is food, and a lion might be hungry,” writes Jay Acunzo, founder of Marketing Showrunners, in a blog post about collecting audience intel before launching a new show. “But you should never feed salad to a lion.” What’s Jay getting at here? Admittedly, without reading the whole article you may have no idea. To put it simply, he’s pointing out the fact that marketers need to create the right kind of content to succeed in the video series and podcast space — not just Any Old Show™️.

Deciding what kind of concept to run with can feel like an uphill battle, and without a crystal ball or omnipotent powers, it’s hard to know if your audience will enjoy watching or listening to the content you worked so hard to create. One strategy to consider when trying to land on the right concept is rooting the premise of your show in your brand values. Simon Sinek, an author, motivational speaker, and organizational consultant, once said people buy the “why” behind your organization, not the “how” or “what.” So, using your brand’s purpose to drive the creative direction of your show is one of the most effective ways to build a loyal, passionate audience.

But your audience also identifies with some of your brand values more than others. As a result, to create a show that resonates with your audience, you need to understand which of your brand values they care the most about. That’s why we’ve compiled a list of six, research-backed questions you can ask your customers, founders, and colleagues so you can truly understand which values resonate most.

Why did you choose us?

The overwhelming majority of your customers agreed to do business with you because they connected with you in a meaningful way. In fact, psychology has proven that emotions drive purchasing decisions while logic rationalizes them.

When you interview your customers, be sure to uncover the main reason why they resonated with your brand in the first place, and in turn, chose to do business with your brand. Their answers will reveal some of your most important brand values — the ones that ultimately convinced them that you were the right brand for them — so take note!

How would you describe our brand if it were a person?

In Jay Acunzo’s podcast with Drift, called Exceptions, he features an exceptionally creative B2B brand that’s relied on brand marketing to succeed in their industry. At the beginning of each episode, he asks one of the brand’s customers to describe the brand like a person in their life, which paints a vivid picture of what their customers truly admire about them.

For example, in an episode featuring ProfitWell, a subscription software service, the CEO of Tettra, Andy Cook, compares ProfitWell to his mother, who is the voice of truth in his life. When Andy started his first business, she steered his focus toward generating revenue instead of boosting secondary metrics. In other words, she helped him focus on the things that truly mattered while filtering out the fluff. As it turns out, this is exactly tied to ProfitWell’s mission: To help people find the truth using the power of data.

Humans evaluate brands based on the same personality traits they use to evaluate people, so asking your customers to describe your brand like a person in their life will clarify your brand’s attributes that resonate with them the most.

Why did you start this company?

There’s a compelling reason why your founders started the company you work at today, and more often than not, it definitely wasn’t just to make tons of money. Chances are there was a huge problem in your industry that ruffled their feathers, and your company’s founders set out to solve it. Sure, they saw a market opportunity, but their passion for solving the problem vastly outweighed their desire to cash-in on it.

Asking your founders why they started your company will reveal your company’s true purpose and, in turn, a brand value that will resonate with an audience. For instance, Yvon Chouinard started Patagonia to make environmentally friendly climbing tools that could replace pitons in the 1950s, which were metal spikes that mangled mountainsides. Ultimately, his unwavering passion for helping people explore the outdoors while preserving it is what prompted him to start the company. And it’s also a huge reason why Patagonia is a billion-dollar company today.

What do you value the most, personally?

Your founders’ own personal values tend to drive the direction of your company, but before you designate their personal values as your company’s brand values, get some feedback from your peers. It’s crucial that these personal values align with the business’ values as a whole, not just your founders.

Back when we first wrote (and rewrote) our company values at Wistia in 2015, we did an exercise to create values that reflected what our entire company stands for. Our new values pushed us to do something we never would’ve considered before: running a funny, creative mobile billboard during conference season in Boston.

Our billboard’s main purpose wasn’t to peddle our product — it was to take a creative risk that would connect with our customers, put a smile on their face, and teach us a lesson about marketing. This risky ad ended up being a hit with our customers, prompting them to tweet a ton of pictures of the billboard (featuring our office dog, Lenny, didn’t hurt either). Chances are, we wouldn’t have felt comfortable taking this risk had we not gotten super clear about our values and what risks we were and were not willing to take.

Why did you join our organization?

According to Jim Schleckser of the Inc. CEO Project, the majority of your employees joined your company because they believed in what you stand for, what you do, and the work they get to do. Like we mentioned before, your customers also likely do business with you because they support what you stand for and what you do, so tapping into what attracted your employees to your organization can uncover some brand values that will also resonate with customers.

For example, if most of your employees mention that they joined your company because of your commitment to creativity, then it’s worth figuring out if your founders and customers also agree with and resonate with this sentiment.

Why have you stayed here?

According to Harvard Business Review, the more aligned your employees’ and company’s values are, the more satisfied your employees will be, the more comfortable they’ll feel at work, the harder they’ll work, and, in turn, the longer they’ll stay. So, if you can uncover the genuine reasons why your most loyal employees still work at your organization, you could potentially uncover even more of your brand values that your customers will also passionately support.

For instance, if most of your employees praise your company’s dedication to a long-term strategy, then it could be one of your most important brand values, especially if your founders and customers also appreciate it.

After identifying the shared values that your customers, founders, and colleagues all say your company possesses, you can create a show concept that reflects them by creating a Show Positioning Statement. A Show Positioning Statement describes who you’re creating binge-worthy content for, what message you’re communicating, and why your audience should care.

Your Show Positioning Statement will have three elements: Audience, Insight, and Theme. Your audience is the niche audience you’re targeting, your insight is the problem your audience faces, and your theme, which is driven by your brand values, is the solution to that problem. Altogether, your Show Positioning Statement will look like this: “We connect with people who [audience] but [insight] by [theme].

Want to learn more about nailing the concept for your next binge-worthy series? Be sure to check out our Brand Affinity Marketing Playbook for more examples and exercises.

These days, people buy more than your product — they buy what you stand for. And if you want to create binge-worthy content like video series and podcasts that will build a loyal audience, infusing the brand values that resonate most with your audience is the first step toward success.

Once you distill the values expressed from each group, you can paint a clearer picture of the brand values that should guide the direction your show ultimately takes. So, get out there, ask the tough questions, and get introspective on what makes your brand tick!

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Video Marketing

The Story Behind Cladwell’s Video Series Strategy



Cladwell is a personal styling app that makes getting dressed easy. What’s typically an expensive endeavor for clearing out overwhelming clutter and perfecting your wardrobe, Cladwell has made an affordable and accessible process for many. But the company’s values go far beyond only helping people enhance their personal style. For Cladwell, it’s also all about transforming the fashion industry into a force for good.

So, how are they showing people exactly what they stand for? Cladwell is creating binge-worthy content like The Making of Cladwell and using Wistia Channels to build their brand and grow their audience. Read on to learn more about their series and why they’re bought-in on producing episodic video content.


Cladwell’s Founder, Erin Flynn, comes from a content creation background, so she knows how powerful video can be for establishing a connection with potential customers. When she and her husband and co-owner, Colin, purchased the company this past year, she started carving out a video strategy to introduce Cladwell to the world and communicate their values.

To produce their video content, Erin and Colin worked with external contractors and their longtime collaborator and videographer-friend Levi Bethune of Le Video. With a self-proclaimed “scrappy” production strategy, Cladwell is a great example for many small businesses out there that you can get a lot done with some elbow grease, resourcefulness, and careful planning. It’s really inspiring to see it’s possible to create quality video content with very limited resources. Check it out!

From showing how Cladwell can help you simplify your lifestyle by creating a capsule wardrobe to explaining the major problems with fast fashion, each episode shares what they do and what they believe in. Although it looks like they produced each video as part of a series, these were one-off videos made entirely separately.

In order to keep people engaged and spend more time with their brand, Erin set out to find a way to group these videos together on Cladwell’s website, and that’s where we came in. With Wistia Channels, she was able to easily embed her videos right into a sleek-looking display that encouraged visitors to binge-watch each episode like they would a Netflix series. The final product is pretty neat if we do say so ourselves!

Here’s what the Channel looks like on their website:cladwell

The Making of Cladwell isn’t the only episodic series Erin is excited to feature on their site. Cladwell has also created four other additional series from repurposed content she’s produced over the past two years:

With all of these shows and more on the horizon, it’s clear that video is one of Cladwell’s primary marketing vehicles for building brand affinity with new and returning members of their audience. So, how do they come up with all of their ideas for the content they create? Well, Erin has a pulse on her niche audience’s interests because she is actually Cladwell’s ideal customer. Brainstorming creative ideas may seem like one of the biggest roadblocks to getting started with show creation, but if you’re like Erin, relating to and understanding what makes your customer tick is one of the best places to start.


Are you interested in creating episodic content just like Cladwell? After watching some of their videos, you may be inspired to pick up a camera and get going yourself (which is great!). But don’t forget, chances are you’ll still encounter some challenges along the way if you’re new to the world of video production. Erin wasn’t afraid to share with us that producing these videos without a game-plan would have been pretty tricky. She explained how it takes time, effort, and resources to create quality content you’re truly proud to share, so make the right investment up front and put your best foot forward.

And while the production process can be a taxing endeavor, that’s not where all of the hard work ends! Erin noted that once production is wrapped up, she still needs to think through how she wants to distribute all of that awesome content — which is just as important as creating it, and equally as challenging. In today’s marketing landscape, learning how to market your content like a media company is the key to social media success across multiple channels when the goal is audience acquisition for your brand with episodic content.

As a parting piece of advice for businesses ambivalent about getting started, Erin said you should believe in the story you have to tell and forget about producing your videos to perfection. For those of you who are thinking about embarking on a video series of your own or repurposing your content, look to Cladwell as an example. Despite having limited resources for production, their video strategy is super impressive and just goes to show how episodic content paired with the right creative strategy can really help your brand stand out.

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Video Marketing

Why Ads Alone Can’t Buy Your Brand Love



We like to believe in love at first sight, right? But real love takes time. If we think about the nature of ads, one impression might not be enough to grab someone’s attention — let alone make them fall in love with your brand in the blink of an eye. So, as marketers, we need a better way besides traditional advertising campaigns to get people to spend more time with our business and keep them coming back for more.

In this post, we’ll get real with you about the results of a $2M ad campaign we ran at Wistia and what we learned from our mistakes. To grow your audience and create true fans for your brand, here’s why your business should stop chasing after awareness and focus your marketing efforts on building affinity instead.


Don’t count your chickens before they hatch. Don’t bite off more than you can chew. Idioms aside, hopefully you’re starting to get the the picture. We went all-in on this one campagin and learned a ton along the way. At our live-streamed event, Change the Channel, our co-founders Chris Savage and Brendan Schwartz took a trip down memory lane and dug into just what happened after we saw the results from this blunder of an ad campaign (er, learning experience?).

A few years ago, we invested in a $2M ad campaign where we ran digital ads, plastered ourselves across highway billboards, produced NPR spots — the whole shebang. Here’s a look at one of the ads we made. We still stand by its cuteness, for the record:

Our goal was to create more brand awareness with this campaign. We originally thought that if we could just increase awareness, more people would care about us, which would move the needle and help grow the business.

“We originally thought that if we could just increase awareness, more people would care about us, which would move the needle and help grow the business.”

After analyzing the results, the campaign got 43 million impressions, which was a pretty impressive number by itself. However, traffic back to our site was actually lower than a reasonably successful blog post we distributed around the same time. When we asked ourselves, “Did more people really care about Wistia or find our products?” The answer was a humbling and resounding, no.

When it comes to ads, we all like to think we’ll be the exception to the rule. But the truth is that although advertising is great for building awareness — always has been, and always will be — it’s not great for building affinity. Awareness alone is not enough to grow your business, which is what we realized after that cool $2M went down the drain. Luckily, this loss wasn’t a major setback to our business, but we know that’s not the case for many other businesses out there. That’s why we want to help you learn from our mistakes.

What is brand affinity?

It’s the most enduring and valuable level of a relationship between a business and consumer based on the mutual belief that they share common values.

Making people aware of your business doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be motivated to care about you, sign up to learn more about your product, or tell other folks about you. Someone needs to have a connection to you. They need to know that they share your values, and they need to spend time with you to become a brand advocate. Brand love is built on affinity, and this is something great brands have already figured out. Now it’s time for small and medium-sized businesses to also re-focus their efforts on building brand affinity in today’s marketing landscape.

Looking back at those 43 million impressions from our ad campaign, we learned a tough lesson, which is that impressions don’t necessarily equal the number of people impressed. As we explain in our Brand Affinity Marketing Playbook, consumers have become adept at mentally ignoring things they don’t want to see across the web. It’s no longer the case that by exposing them to a compelling tagline or 10-second video upwards of seven times, customers will come to know and trust your company name.


Of course, there is the exception that proves the rule. Occasionally, a campaign will hugely impact a company’s reputation by going viral and achieving PR success, but these cost a fortune and are one in a million.

What small and medium-sized businesses should know is the vast majority of advertising campaigns have little genuine impact on the trust and affection people have for a brand. To mask this problem, distribution platforms measure success with metrics like impressions, clicks, and views, giving trivial passing interactions the same weight as meaningful engagements. So, although 43 million impressions sounded like we gained millions of new brand fans for Wistia, it simply wasn’t the case.

“What small and medium-sized businesses should know is the vast majority of advertising campaigns have little genuine impact on the trust and affection people have for a brand.”

How are we seeing some of the greatest brands doing Brand Affinity Marketing? They’re creating entertaining, binge-worthy content that aligns with their brand values without asking for anything in return. The result? More brand advocates for their businesses. With Brand Affinity Marketing, you can gain more loyal fans for your brand that can help drive your business forward. Now that you understand the mistakes we made trying to build our brand by focusing our efforts on gaining awareness, you can re-evaluate your strategy, and hopefully, start growing your brand affinity.

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