Manage Your Content Budgets With ‘Bottle’ Episodes

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When marketing budgets get tighter, an easy trap to fall into is failing to create long-term content plans. I’ve seen it: The budget gods come down early in the year and proclaim that X amount will just have to do.

Now, the “X” is often well short of what the team requested. But that number isn’t going to change. Well, until it does change, and that number goes lower.

In my experience, many teams look at their plans and slice and dice wholesale cuts. Or they take a hatchet to their plans because of the way that budgets are allocated. In many cases, marketers give up creating an extraordinary experience because they can’t think about applying the right amount of budget to the right amount of creativity. You think you can “wing it.”

Equal cuts aren’t always equal

I recently worked with a global healthcare company. They planned a new digital magazine to create brand awareness and affinity and focus on great content about healthcare. They planned 12 issues, including the featured articles. But budget cuts came along, and they opted for bimonthly instead of monthly and cut six issues. Was that the best way forward? Probably not.

Last week’s Academy Awards underlined this approach to planning. In Cord Jefferson’s acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay for American Fiction, he pleaded with the studios for more, smaller films. “Instead of making one $200 million movie, try making 20 $10 million movies or 50 $4 million movies,” he said.

But I think you can adopt a different way to budget your overall content plan, which takes a page from how a television series managed it.

Showrunner lessons from Friends

The sitcom Friends, which turns 30 this September, is still popular today. In 2023, viewers streamed 25 billion minutes of the show, almost double the 14 billion minutes streamed in 2022.

The show has found new fans in Gen Z audiences who see themselves in these characters and their situations, even though the show premiered before most of them were born.

The more relevant point to the budget conversation is that Friends was one of the most expensive television shows. In the first season, each of the six actors earned approximately $22,500 per episode. By the last two seasons, they received more than $1 million for each episode.

At the 2021 reunion, co-creator Marta Kauffman told a fascinating story about how they planned “bottle episodes” every single season to better manage their budget for the stories they wanted to tell.

Now, the term “bottle episode” comes from early television production, specifically Leslie Stevens, creator of the 1960s TV series The Outer Limits. In a bottle episode, everything is shot on one stage or location. It contains no guest stars or any added thing that would increase the budget. In other words, they purposely design the episode to save the budget for more extravagant episodes during the rest of the season.

Make a ‘bottle’ content plan

It seems like that would be an intuitive approach in marketing, but it’s not. Too often, marketing silos, internal politics, or no time for strategic planning leads the budget knife to cut in equal chunks.

Many companies still operate their marketing budgets based on an annual or quarterly budget divided equally into each month. That math continues to the asset-creation level.

For example, I recently spoke with a content marketing director at a technology company. As you might expect, they were planning a thought leadership series that would include research papers from influencers/subject matter experts in their space.  They had budgeted for a total of six independent projects and divided the costs equally.  However, the cost was wildly divergent when they went to source the subject matter experts. So, they planned on using only SMEs that fit within the budgets of each of the projects.

Instead, we talked about an alternative plan. What if we connected the leadership series into two “seasons” of content with three episodes each? The first two papers would be where the lion’s share of the budget would be with the influencer subject matter experts. The third would be a roundup of the best findings — and some extra material from the first two — and would not need an influencer.  Thus, you would have six connected episodes of thought leadership, and two of them would be “bottle episodes” so they could afford the first-tier influencers.

Coming back to the healthcare company I mentioned earlier. We discussed how they could keep the original plan for a monthly magazine by planning a few “bottle” editions to optimize the budget. You would have thought the response would be, “Well, duh, that sounds great.”

It wasn’t.

Instead, this company said it couldn’t allocate the budget that way. The business processes couldn’t support spending more in one month and less in another. In other words, it must divide the budget equally.

In another example, a marketer was charged with creating six thought leadership papers over two quarters. He did the math and divided each paper’s budget equally. When I asked why, he said he wasn’t sure of the papers’ topics. So, he planned to get the first one done as inexpensively as possible and save money in case he needed to “overpay” for a subsequent paper.

No. That’s not the way this works.

It’s simply more difficult to create extraordinary content if you let the budget dictate (more or less) what stories you can tell than if you plan your stories first and then figure out which deserve bigger (or smaller) budgets.

Imagine you plan a new TV series — 10 episodes for a budget of $10 million. You can’t say what will be created or in what order. So, with no information, you decree that each episode will average $1 million. It gets approved, but then they come back and say, “You know what? The budget is going to be half that.”

Would you reduce the episode number to five? No, of course not.

In most businesses, budgeting is a quarterly or yearly exercise where managers make a case for their needs. Then, in many cases, you get something less than the request. But once you know the budget, you can turn your eyes toward planning your content and marketing platforms like a TV showrunner does.

Find the right budget for creativity

Which are your “tent-pole” episodes? Is the premier? The season finale? In these super-expensive pieces, you gather a famous analyst or influencer to write something. Then, which episodes will be your “bottle” episodes? In these pieces, you interview the CEO or a customer and don’t feature any video.

In the Friends reunion show, Marta Kauffman’s point about bottle episodes wasn’t just about being budget-conscious. She pointed out that some of those bottle episodes were some of the best in the series.

In other words, don’t view your bottle content as a way to skimp and do less. Rather, look at these episodes as a prompt to think creatively about presenting your content in a way that makes the most of its smaller budget.

You don’t need a big budget to create a consistent set of extraordinary content. But sometimes, to be extraordinary, you do. Knowing which stories should get it and having the flexibility to create a content plan that optimizes against it are key components of the modern content and marketing process.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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