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How a Content Formula Helps You Create Bingeable Series (Proven by Hallmark)

Hallmark Media knows you don’t look a content gift horse in the mouth.

That’s why The Hallmark Channel and its sister networks will debut 33 movies this holiday season. (And for Hallmark, the Christmas holiday season started Oct. 21.)

Audiences tune in by the millions – 80 million watched at least part of one in 2021. And the movies don’t require big budgets.

And yet, no Hallmark holiday movie is all that original. They share similar plots. Some even share the same lead actor (with a different character name and job). Cast members pop up in supporting roles across the lineup.

The formulaic content works so well that Lifetime, Netflix, HBO Max, GAF, Hulu, Discover+, Peacock, and others have created their own “original” cavalcade of this holiday movie genre.

It all combines to give a gift to content marketers – reconsider the idea that you must create innovative or completely original content to attract and keep audiences.

#Content must be innovative to attract audiences, right? The success of @HallmarkChannel formula might make you rethink this in #ContentMarketing, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Share on X

The Hallmark movie formula

Love them, hate them, or don’t care, you’re probably somewhat familiar with a Hallmark movie plot:

  • A woman experiences a life change and travels to a new destination that’s supposed to be temporary. It’s often a trip to visit family or a short-term relocation for a work project.
  • While there, she encounters a challenge – the family business is failing, or the owner of a property her employer wants to acquire doesn’t want to sell.
  • She also encounters a man with whom she has a conflict – a childhood classmate who wasn’t nice to her, a person who works for her employer’s competitor.
  • As she works to resolve her challenge, she discovers the man is helpful or is not the bad guy she thought he was.
  • The couple realizes they like each other.
  • She decides to stay, and the movie ends with a kiss.

(Yes, almost all these movies feature a man and a woman in the lead roles, with Christmas as the central holiday. This year, The Holiday Sitter became the first Hallmark movie featuring a same-sex couple in the lead roles. And Hannukah has been the featured holiday in only a handful of the flicks.)

Why does it work to tell variations of the same theme every day for months or even all year (Hallmark has expanded that storytelling model from Christmas to all four seasons)?

Let’s explore how you can adopt a Hallmark approach in your content marketing.

1. Original content isn’t (always) required

Take a page from Hallmark’s script and spend less time trying to come up with original ideas and unique content. Familiar content remixed into new packages works just as well or even better to attract and grow audiences. Recognizable content signals make consuming content easier and set expectations for easy-to-understand and rewarding outcomes. (Hallmark movies lend themselves to multitasking – you can easily catch up even if you don’t pay attention for a few minutes.)

I’m not suggesting that none of your content assets should be original or thought-provoking. You still need to add your brand’s unique spin and a new angle to the familiar elements in your content. Sprinkle in a few original ideas that will attract audience members who always want something different while retaining those who rely on the familiar to help them warm up to fresh ideas and approaches.

Sprinkle original thoughts into your #ContentMarketing, but repeat familiar elements, too. You'll help audiences warm up to the fresh ideas, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Share on X

2. One story is not necessarily worthy of a marathon

Repeating a familiar tone, style, and story arc won’t guarantee content success immediately. Hallmark aired only nine movies in 2009 and added a few more each year until it went into a Countdown to Christmas movie marathon stretched over two months.

After you publish or air a few pieces of content based on familiar elements, stand back and look at your audience’s reaction. Check your analytics: How many impressions or views does the content get during the first week or month? How much time do readers or viewers spend consuming it? How frequently do they click on the call to action?

Your analytics questions should connect directly with the goals of your content marketing strategy. Once you find which content type, theme, or story arc resonates best, double down on that formula.

3. No spoiler alerts needed ­– it’s OK for the audience to know how the story ends

All Hallmark movies have happy endings. If they didn’t, they might not be as popular. Audiences enjoy the comfort of knowing how things will turn out. They don’t have to worry too much that things will turn out badly for the characters.

In marketing, case studies play a similar role. A brand wouldn’t publish a customer story that goes awry and remains unsolved. Audiences consume them even though they know the outcome will be positive. They want to know the story that brought a successful outcome to the customer. What problem did they need to solve? How did they search for a solution? Why did they choose yours? What benefits did they experience from the solution? That’s the plot of a case study.

4. Familiar faces help

Hallmark movies usually include a familiar face (or two). Many of the actors started their careers as children ­ – Lacey Chabert (Party of Five), Tamera Mowry-Housley (Sister, Sister), and Alison Sweeney (Days of Our Lives).

Hallmark also uses the same lead actors – men and women – in multiple movies in a single season. They simply switch out the pairings so the same actress and the same actor don’t play against each other in the same season. For example, this year, Andrew Walker did double duty, starring in A Maple Valley Christmas on Nov. 5 and Three Wise Men and a Baby on Nov. 19.

Audiences appreciate seeing faces they know. Think about featuring familiar faces – sources or storytellers – throughout your brand communications.

If you do a photo shoot for a customer profile that runs in a digital publication, for example, make sure that the customer becomes one of the faces on your corporate website. That approach lets your audience see someone they may recognize from your other content and communicates an authenticity that stock imagery can’t.

Or create a video series with one specific thought leader as host or presenter in every episode.

TIP: Improve upon Hallmark’s formula for diversity. Here’s where I don’t recommend copying Hallmark. The channel’s lack of diversity in casting  ­– especially for lead roles – came under criticism a couple of years ago and even led to this 2019 Saturday Night Live skit. Since then, Hallmark has made some strides (though it still has a long way to go.)

5. Consider producing sequels to popular stories

Some Hallmark movies prove so popular that the channel creates annual sequels. Does any of your content call out for sequels or even a spinoff series?

If you’ve profiled people or businesses, you could do a follow-up content piece to see what has and hasn’t changed since you last told their story. Likewise, if a podcast episode spikes your download or listening numbers, think about “what’s next” topics and add them to the editorial calendar.

Or, if you find someone who shines in front of an audience, consider giving that person a video or podcast show.

6. A bigger audience doesn’t require a bigger budget

Hallmark holiday movies attract about 80 million viewers for one holiday season, slightly more than Netflix series like The Crown or The Witcher, which cost much more to produce.

Hallmark productions reuse shooting locations (just as they reuse plot points) and whatever else they can. They may get a package-deal discount when actors’ contracts include multiple movies, too.

Keep this approach in mind as you contemplate how to do the most with your content marketing budget. Explore the set of content you’re planning and identify the resources you’ll need to create it. Then, look for ways to save by packaging production. For example, if you’re planning to publish a monthly video, could you save time and money by writing all the scripts and shooting them in one batch? (You’ll need to consider whether your on-camera talent should wear the same clothes or vary their outfits.)

Or, if you know you’ll need to hire freelancers to write multiple stories over the next six months, you might save time by finding one qualified writer and creating a single contract that covers all the pieces. You could even ask for a bulk discount.

7. Expect copycats

The considerable success of Hallmark movies prompted multiple copycats. This year, Lifetime, Netflix, Peacock, Hulu, HBO Max, and others have dozens of these movies. The rebranded Great American Family network brought in a former Hallmark executive and some of the Hallmark stars (including Candace Cameron-Bure) to create a new lineup of movies. Discovery+ took the movies to a new level, featuring two movies with stars from The Food Network property in minor roles. Heck, even QVC got into the holiday movie business with Holly & the Hot Chocolate streaming on QVC+.

Be flattered when other brands recreate what you’re doing, but don’t rest on your (not-so) original storytelling laurels. Even if your formula still works for your audience, reflect on what tweaks you could make to keep your content current, relevant, and yet reasonably familiar to your audience.

Don't rest on your storytelling laurels. Reflect on small tweaks to your formula to keep #content feeling current, relevant, and (yet) still familiar, says @AnnGynn via @CMIContent. Share on X

Watch out

I will end this article following the Hallmark model and deliver what you probably expected – an unambiguous resolution. Fans, non-fans, and even haters of the Hallmark model can learn a lot about what to do – and what not to do – by studying its success.

The moral of the story: Audiences like to consume something familiar. With a bit of forward thinking, you can create cozy content that works for them and your brand.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

This article is an update of the Dec. 19, 2021, version.