5 Content Strategy Lessons I Learned from Watching All of Grey’s Anatomy
Be honest with yourself: how many shows have you watched in their entirety since March 2020 that you never would have found time for outside of lockdown conditions?
For me, the answer is (sheepishly) several, but no content journey has been as harrowing as watching all of Grey’s Anatomy to date.
When the show first aired in 2005, I was a high school sophomore. Since then, much has changed in my life and the world, but the cornerstone on which Shondaland was built remains a source of comfort, entertainment, consternation, and light body horror.
If you enjoy watching Grey’s Anatomy, it’s probably because you enjoy soap operas or telenovelas or any genre that promises to deliver emotional catharsis. But how has this show endured through four presidential election cycles?
The answers to this question are not dissimilar to what makes great content endure in other contexts, including the world of content marketing, where I spend my time (when I’m not watching Netflix from my stationary bike). Here are five approaches to content strategy that you can crib from Grey’s to ensure your content program will support your brand over time.
1. Variations on a Theme
I love medical dramas because when I tune in, I can reasonably expect to see a certain proportion of personal drama, medical oddities, and heart-wrenching side plots that are too heavy to actually sustain. Perhaps best, no main character who dies is ever truly gone from the story.
Within a fictional world with infinite possibilities, the Grey’s brand delivers a rather reasonable set of variations on a theme.
Similarly, whether you work for a company that sells hardtech or software, B2B or B2C, your blog is likely the place where your target audience goes to get updates on a limited number of topics.
At Propllr, we write a lot about content marketing and startup PR, and we aim to deliver DIY PR and content advice for founders and early-stage companies.
And that’s pretty much all you’ll find in our archive.
Even though we don’t have the litany of medical cases Shonda Rhimes and her writing team draw from, we never run out of content ideas because we’re not afraid to keep brainstorming and publishing fresh content on the themes we know best to help solve real problems our clients see every day.
We know startups' content marketing and PR needs are always evolving, and we’ve seen how powerful content can be when a new variation on a theme resonates with the right person.
2. Incorporate Timely Topics
One way to deliver a variation on a theme is to make it timely. This is why every television series plans its season’s narrative arc around the calendar: characters experience seasonal change, deal with holiday stress, and set goals for the new year, just like us.
Meredith Grey and her ethically dubious peers confront issues like gun control, access to affordable medical care, and even the pandemic (more on this in a minute).
While this show has been on the air for 17 seasons, the world of the characters has changed along with the world its viewers are living in – great content marketing must do the same.
If your content strategy does not include opportunities to provide timely, relevant information and advice for your readers, you’re missing out on countless opportunities to demonstrate that you’re engaged with what they care about and the unique challenges of today.
3. Big Issues
Grey’s Anatomy made headlines last year for shutting down mid production without completing Season 16 due to the arrival of COVID-19. Then, Season 17 started with an approach to pandemic-era storytelling few other shows could have pulled off: Grey’s threw its characters right into the worst of the pandemic and filmed in full PPE.
It certainly helped the show’s writers avoid retreading old territory and pushed them to explore their characters' worst inclinations under a new kind of stress. Whether it was Dr. Link’s struggle to manage his relationship with alcohol while parenting in quarantine or Richard’s inability to forgive (this time, Debbie Allen), the pandemic gave the show a chance to grow in a new direction.
As a marketer, finding the relatable angles sometimes means taking on the biggest questions your audience is facing to show them how your brand can help them navigate whatever it is, now more than ever.
4. Know Your Audience
When Grey’s Anatomy hit the airwaves, Meredith and her friends were interns. They were learning the lingo of the operating theater and clinics, and they educated their viewers alongside them. (I mean, a little.)
The show doesn’t avoid jargon, but it’s easy to follow as the characters breeze their way through procedures as attending physicians in the halls of, well, whatever they’re calling the hospital that season.
I’d also hazard a guess that their writers take less time explaining what they’re doing as the seasons grow in numbers. Content marketers can do this too.
Once you’ve established a base of educational content around your core topics, build off of it.
To take an example from the Propllr blog, think of it this way: we know we don’t have to explain our content marketing philosophy (or for the Grey’s crowd, how to do a tracheotomy) every time it comes up because we know we’ve already covered that material.
As your audience grows and matures, so do you and so should your content.
5. Compelling Thought Leadership
It’s easy to see the mark of Chicago native Shonda Rhimes on every episode of her flagship series, even as the Shondaverse has expanded (greetings, Private Practice and Scandal fans).
In fact, Shonda’s first name has become synonymous with strength and sharp social commentary that’s packaged for prime-time viewing.
One of the things that Shonda Rhimes does well (arguably on all her shows) is promote diversity, equity, and inclusion. With storylines about sexual assault, discrimination in the workplace, and the challenges that come with providing medical care to undocumented immigrants, Grey’s tackles challenging topics head on.
How does the show make it work?
Its writers have spent more than a dozen seasons laying a strong foundation of content demonstrating that its characters and universe can handle the tough conversations. And the show’s writers’ room runs deep with smart, credible folks who know exactly what they’re doing.
It’s worth your team’s time and investment to develop strong thought leadership to share on your blog, in guest blogs, on podcasts, and with any reporter who has questions about the work you’re doing.
By developing a thought leadership-driven voice, you’ll be better positioned to share your brand’s message with the people who need to hear from you. Your blog is a great place to lay the foundation.
Strong Content Is Backed Up By Strong Voices
Grey’s has become a revolving door for talented cast members, many of whom were central voices during their tenure. The Shondaverse does a brilliant job of weaving their legacy into the show’s DNA, which helps keep viewers engaged long after Sandra Oh moved onto other projects.
While Meredith Grey is the titular character, she’s not the only leader at Seattle Grace / Grey Sloan Memorial, but it’s the strength of each main character’s perspective that makes them resonate with viewers.
The first episode of Season 18 just aired on September 30, and I’m not sure I have it in me to keep watching. But I am determined to make something of the hours I spent following the life of Meredith Grey in the past year.
Want to build your brand a content universe as rich and self-sustaining as Grey’s? Reach out to start a conversation about how Propllr can help.