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Why the networks are blowing the social scene

Why the networks are blowing the social scene Scott Meldrum

I remember my first social media experience with digital content for a television show. It was an early form of an application that I could download that allowed me to view, mashup and share video content. The technology was crude, and the video definition was atrocious. It took 10 minutes to stream a two-minute video clip. That was in 1999, and the show was "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." I wasn't necessarily a fan of the show, but I was a very big fan of the application.

We've come a long way.      

Now, I can get that same app on my phone with 10-times the features and functionality, and with audio and visual content that is strikingly crisp and clear. Additionally, social media websites like YouTube, MySpace and Facebook allow me to not only view and share content, but to create content, and even create applications that drive interaction with that content.  

As I said, we've come a long way.

Unlike traditional media, such as newspapers, radio and television social media depend on interactions between people. This interaction builds shared-meaning, using technology as the conduit. This puts the audience in control of the method, and the message.

More and more, we are the authors of the media we consume. The audience -- cum authors -- can participate in social media by adding comments or even editing the content themselves. Content in social media can take the form of text, graphics, audio or video. Several formats can be mixed.

We've seen social media marketing campaigns go awry. Big brands like Chevrolet and Wal-Mart have made critical missteps in their attempts to leverage social media. So how does a television network promote its shows harnessing the method of social media without losing control of the message or feigning authenticity?

Let's examine how two of the most anticipated fall TV show premieres -- "Fringe" on Fox and "Heroes" on NBC -- are leveraging social media, and particularly social networking websites and applications, to drive awareness and tune-in. We will focus on Facebook and MySpace as they represent the majority of the social networking and social web application audience.    

"Heroes" on NBC
This show suffered the sophomore blues last season. There was a downturn in ratings and NBC is looking to this third season to re-ignite the fan base with faster-paced action, deeper character storylines and, something we all seem to be craving from our favorite suspense-tinged TV shows these days -- answers. Unlike the rest of the shows I researched for this article, "Heroes" has the largest assortment of social media and applications out there. 

  • The show's fans run a number of Facebook Groups. MySpace features a highly immersive branded profile page. Each of these outlets offers up dozens, if not hundreds of pieces of content, most of which are embeddable and/or viral.   

  • What Heroes Character are you? is a Facebook application that lets fans step into the shoes of their favorite character by answering a survey. The application assigns a character to you based on your answers. You can then display the result on your profile page as well as share the app with your friends. 

  • The Heroes Countdown application is available on most social networks and has a timer, ticking away the seconds, minutes, hours and days to the season premiere as well as embedded photos and other content. The countdown is displayed on your social network profile page for all to see and share.

  • Heroes VS is a MySpace application served up directly from NBC/Universal and has a very rich interface, loaded with content. You can create your own Heroes VS in just a few simple steps! Choose a category and select an item from the 2 dropdown menus for each side of your VS. Then, type a question for the VS (for example, "Who is stronger?") and choose media from the library below to represent each side. Once you're satisfied, click "create" -- you'll then be able to take a side on the VS you've just made, and campaign to get your friends on your side as well! 

These are some pretty solid examples of how to leverage social media to promote a TV show. I would like to have seen more customization, which I will delve into below, but all things considered, these examples represent a very sound strategy to leverage social media tactics.

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"Fringe" on Fox
The series debut faired a little better than “just okay” with 9 million viewers. Many industry pundits were ready to throw in the towel after this much hyped and critically acclaimed debut landed with a bit of a whimper. That whimper turned into a roar with the second episode garnering over 13 million viewers, a 45 percent increase, which is very rare for a new series and practically unheard of between the series debut and second episode. A lead-in from the season premiere of Fox's popular dramedy “House” played a role in the increase from week one to week two; however, many are noting that the fans of the show had a tangible impact in the increase.

Social media and word-of-mouth go hand-in-hand these days. But in examining "Fringe"-related social media at MySpace and Facebook, the word-of-mouth reasoning behind the ratings increase doesn't necessary measure up. The tactics to promote this series at MySpace and Facebook were rather limited:

  • MySpace featured a branded profile page that looks good but is fairly shallow on content and features.

  • Tried as I did -- and I did -- I couldn't find an official "Fringe" branded profile page at Facebook. Just half-a-dozen Facebook Groups that had less than 1000 members combined. 

  • MySpaceTV has a "Fringe" Video Channel that has lots of video content to watch, embed and share. The missing link here was the actual link from the profile page to the video channel. The video channel features 20-30 minutes of video content, most of which isn't available on TV. I suspect that the "Fringe" profile page received a ton of traffic and it would have been wise of Fox to steer some of that traffic to the video channel to immerse viewers into the storylines and characters.

  • There were no Facebook or MySpace applications, which in my mind was a real misstep. The show's creator, J.J. Abrams, is embraced by geeks across the globe. His show “Lost”, a ratings and critical juggernaut, is adored by the technorati. Facebook alone boasts some 40+ "Lost" applications, almost all of them created by fans of the show. The "Lost" audience is surely being leveraged by Fox to drive tune-in for "Fringe," and yet, there is a disconnection here when it comes to leveraging social apps.

I think Fox could have done a better job in delivering more creative and certainly more cohesive ways for social network users to engage with the show's content. Given the audience demographic and nature of the show, I expected the network to really bend the envelope here.

What's missing?
In all of the examples I ran across, a fundamental anchor of social media was missing: customization. Customization that is inherent in social media is a key driver in the psychology of why we share. The more personalized we can make the content, the more likely we are to share it with our friends and connections. YouTube was founded on the idea that you would rather “Broadcast Yourself” than anyone, or anything else. I would have liked to have seen an application that allowed me to either mash-up or create my own derivative content using the official content from these shows.

One final note here is how surprised I was at the lack of creativity in the applications that were available. Both of these show's storylines are steeped in mystery and suspense. We “join the search” to uncover these mysteries every time we tune-in. Creatively speaking, I wanted to see an application or even a branded profile page that drew me into a mystery -- something more immersive than “click, watch and share”.

I think these two networks did a decent job of leveraging social media. NBC wins out by a decent margin, but "Heroes" has had a couple of seasons and a few more million fans to help them. Fox needs to catch up and borrow from the social media success of "Lost" to deliver a long-term hit in "Fringe". Regardless, I'll be tuning in online and offline to see how these stories unfold. And I'll be thankful that I don't have to wait 10 minutes to watch a 2-minute online preview of an upcoming episode. 

Have I mentioned that we've come a long way?

Scott Meldrum is a digital marketing strategist and consultant.

As a veteran of Interactive Marketing and Social Media, Scott Meldrum provides digital strategy, creative and media solutions for leading brands. Leveraging 20 years of interactive experience, he has delivered award-wining digital advertising and...

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