CHANGING THE WAY PEOPLE WATCH TV

HOW TWITTER HARNESSED CREATIVITY TO BUILD INNOVATION

YOU have to trust your creatives: how we changed the way people watch tv and earned the trust of media execs.

As Head of TV at Twitter, I learned how to harness the power of creatives (talent, showrunners and writers) to innovate entirely new ways of watching TV. Sounds crazy and ambitious, right? Click the video above. You’ll see what I mean. 

Our job was to take what people were doing on “the first screen” and make it exciting on “the second screen.” We helped media companies reach new audiences, energize old ones, and create new revenue on Twitter. 

THE BACKSTORY

I joined Twitter in 2012, 6 years after the platform launched, 5 years after its “Coming Out” party at SXSW, and a little over one year before the IPO. The offices were still in the small/cramped Folsom street, and they worked out of Regus offices in Manhattan. 

Twitter was never designed as a “second screen for tv.” But if they were going to convert a mass audience, they had to be front-and-center in front of TV audiences. Head of Media Chloe Sladden and CEO Dick Costolo believed in TV. They provided unbelievable support. My team — Andrew Adashek, Grace Lee, Liz Myers and Kate Bowen, were incredible partners to media companies.

The Twitter audience watched more live TV than any other digital / social audience. Shows that Live Tweeted saw audiences that watched longer and more often.  Although we all saw how Twitter was driving the conversation around TV, much of the data we had was “correlation, not causation.” (Eventually, Fox proved causation with an experiment we did on Empire, which I’ll outline below.) 

The lack of “causation” didn’t stop Twitter from being the flavor of the month for BOTH broadcasters and the audience. As you can see from the video above, everyone wanted to experiment with Twitter, from show runners and talent to marketers and audiences. 

The TV team existed as part of a larger media team that covered the worlds of News, Sports, Government and Politics, Pro-Social and The Arts. We were a marketing function for Twitter. The theory was that the more people saw little birds, hashtags and actual tweets on TV, the greater the likelihood that they would see some use for the platform and open up the app. Push them far enough down the funnel, and they’d become monthly or daily users. The job of the TV team was to get Twitter mentioned and used on TV. A lot. 

(Letterman once attributed his success to being on the air “For so long that people go ‘fine, I’ll watch your damn show!’”) 

I don’t think it’s overstating the case to say that, in the years I worked as “Head of TV” for Twitter, we succeeded wildly. I want to outline four case studies here, to show how we used social media to build long-term relationships between existing IP (shows and talent) and their audiences. I’m particularly proud of the fact that at least one of the innovations we introduced – The #VoiceSave- is still in use by that show today.

There is one common thread through all of these stories: We had to break through the mistrust of creatives by the execs. Often we’d hear “But they could say anything! What if they become TOO popular.” Both are bad problems to have — and we showed them how to innovate by letting go, a little.

SCANDAL: THE FIRST LIVE TWEETING MEGA-SUCCESS

Some of the marketing executives at ABC were incredibly wary of allowing their stars to live-tweet. Simply, they were worried that the stars would “say anything.” They also worried that Twitter would make their stars big, independent of their role with the network.

We believed that both problems were good problems to have. One of the very first things we did when I started at Twitter was to get the cast and stars of Modern Family to live tweet. They were SO good at it, they had one group tweet during the east coast airing, and another team (including Danny Zucker) tweet the west coast airing.

But it wasn’t until Kerry Washington hatched her plan to make Scandal a hit that live tweeting really became a thing. 

We were first approached by Allison Peters, who managed Kerry Washington’s social media. Scandal had premiered as a mid-season replacement. Between April and May, they’d seen a slight increase in Twitter traffic about Kerry and the show. Could we come up with a plan that would build audience for the show over the summer?

Working with Allison, Kerry and the cast, we came up with a set of best practices for the talent, the show and the network to use during the summer. 

The cast regularly hosted parties in their homes when the show was airing, and tweeted pictures from the parties. They shared behind the scenes photos, even photos of the front pages of scripts that teased what was happening in next weeks’ episode. 

MOST OF ALL – they talked back to their fans! When someone commented or retweeted, the Scandal talent replied! They even gave their fans a hashtag: #Gladiators. 

When Scandal premiered at the beginning of its second season, its ratings were well above anything else they’d seen last spring. Alongside Grey’s Anatomy (whose cast saw what Scandal was doing and began to repeat the formula), ABC suddenly had a sensation on Thursday nights… and a lot of that sensation was happening on Twitter. 

And we finally had a great argument for why you should just let the talent go! 

EMPIRE: PROOF THAT TWITTER DRIVES AUDIENCES 

What does a Twitter conversation look like? Deb Roy, Chief Media Scientist at Twitter and Associate Professor at MIT, visualized it this way. (It’s a conversation around Walking Dead, but you’ll get the idea.) The conversation during the live show might look small, but the echo effect is amazing. 

A few years after our Scandal success, Fox called to ask for help with the premiere of a new series, EMPIRE. The Fox Network had been having their own troubles (American Idol was having a couple of bad years in a row), and they had a new show they were calling “The Black Dynasty.” Could we coach the talent and show runners in the “Scandal” playbook?

We did, they did, and the show was a hit. Now — IN NO WAY CAN TWITTER CLAIM THAT WE MADE EITHER OF THESE SHOWS A HIT. These are terrific shows. BUT… we can claim that we brought audiences back, week after week, on the day and time that the shows premiered. That’s a lot, because delivering an audience on a specific day and time is what broadcast TV is still all about.

Thanks to a very diligent, disciplined effort by the Fox marketing and research team, Empire became real evidence supporting our claim that Twitter traffic builds ratings. Here’s what they did:

  • The cast live tweeted, building the conversation during the show.
  • The morning after the show, Fox promoted a tweet with a “What you missed last night” video to everyone who had seen tweets about Empire in the past 24 hours. (The video linked to the full episode on Fox.com.)
  • Mid-week, Fox promoted another tweet to everyone who had seen a tweet about Empire, containing a “Here’s what’s coming next week” video, and a link to catch up on Fox.com.
  • Day of the show, Fox promoted a tweet with “Here’s what’s happening tonight.”

This being an experiment… we tested to see the effect of the combination of live tweeting and promoted tweets on people who had not seen ANY conversation about Empire, on users who had seen conversations, and on users who had seen conversations AND promoted tweets with a tune-in message. 

Empire was, hands down, the most social series of the first quarter of this year. Almost 7M live tweets were seen by over 32 million people, and generated over 640M impressions. The combined live + promoted tweets resulted in a 24% increase in familiarity with Empire, and a 22% increase in people tweeting about Empire.  

We saw a 21% increase in the intent to watch live and a 16% increase in the intent to watch time-shifted.  

So… how many people tuned in due to Twitter? Remember — these are FOX’S numbers and studies… not ours… 

Fox estimates that 1 in 7 people tuning in to the finale had been driven there by Twitter. The mix of earned and earned plus paid media on Twitter delivered over 6M viewers… that’s 10% of the total audience.

#VOICE SAVE

Oh… we won an Emmy. 

The success of the Voice Save is the result of yeoman work from Andrew Adashek, the team at what was formerly known as Mass Relevance, and the technical people at Telescope. We shared a technical Emmy with Mass Relevance for creating live Twitter voting on the Voice. 

The challenge here was to create a “moment” on the Voice that would resonate for days after, driving more viewership of the show. We had to capture something as exciting as the show itself, without actually interfering with the precise mechanism that catapulted a singer to the top. 

In hindsight, live voting on Twitter doesn’t seem like a big deal. But it was at the time. We had to surmount difficult legal problems (thank you, Telescope!) and technical issues (thank you, Mass Relevance!) And when it was decided that the vote would play out live during a commercial break, the NBC ad sales team really stepped up and made this happen. And again — Adashek was the captain. 

Here he is with Head of Twitter Media Chloe Sladden and Head of Gov / Politics Adam Sharp, getting an Emmy tattoo on the night we won.

The results were kind of astounding. 1.5M tweets in 5 minutes. Over 500M impressions created in 12 hours. And the 4 highest-rated episodes that season incorporated #VoiceSave. (Most recently, they used it in April of this year.) 

BRANDS: SAMSUNG AND THE ELLEN SELFIE 

Not only was the Ellen Selfie one of the most retweeted images in the history of Twitter, in the end it provided amazing promotion and branding for Samsung, the phone used in the Selfie. It was a perfect marriage of moment and message for Samsung… but it almost didn’t happen. 

The TV team at Twitter (Andrew Adashek, Grace Lee, Kate Bowen, Liz Myers, and myself) had an excellent relationship with Ellen DeGeneres and her team, some of which grew out of my old Letterman connection to Mary Connelly, Ellen’s EP. We also had a great relationship with Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who were producing the Oscars. (The beginning of that relationship happened in a meeting where Neil showed us his Twitter account, with about 6 followers. He’d had the account for a year, but had never tweeted. We showed him how to do it, tweeted “Stay Tuned!” All of the people in the room retweeted him. He left the room with over 100 followers, and “got it” immediately.)

In the months leading up to the Oscars, we tossed out dozens of ideas for Ellen to try out. The one she liked had her simply tweeting a selfie from the stage, with the audience behind her. On an impulse, during the rehearsals for the show on Saturday afternoon, she spotted the seating card for Meryl Streep, who would be on the aisle in the third row. Ellen rehearsed going down and taking a selfie with Meryl, just as an option.

As it happens, Samsung had paid a lot of money that year to be a sponsor of the Oscars… a LOT of money. Some representatives of Samsung were at the rehearsal, watching Ellen practice this great moment… with her iPhone. They were a little… concerned.

Here’s where the partnerships and professionalism come in. Since it was clear that Twitter was “behind” this moment, Samsung contacted our ad sales person, Matt Derella. They weren’t saying “Kill it,” but they were saying “Isn’t there another way?” Matt called Andrew and myself, and we went back to Ellen’s team. Would she, we asked, be willing to look at a Samsung phone for the selfie? We were told that Ellen loved her iPhone, but would be willing to look at a Samsung.

On Sunday morning, Ellen was presented with a tray of different Samsung phones. Each of them was pre-set for a selfie, all she’d have to do was press the button. She practiced in her dressing room, rehearsed the selfie from the stage, and agreed to use the Samsung phone. She was still unsure whether or not she was going to do the Meryl Streep selfie.

When Ellen did the first selfie, it instantly got thousands of retweets. Ellen, the show’s producers, the Academy and ABC were all happy. Ellen decided to go down and do a selfie with La Streep.

And here is where it gets really fun. If you ever have a chance to watch a tape of Ellen going down to Streep, you’ll see the look of panic quickly fly across her face as her selfie with Meryl suddenly becomes a selfie with Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o, Julia Roberts, Jared Leto, Kevin Spacey and — holding the camera — Bradley Cooper. When Bradley grabs the camera, you can see this kind of shocked look break on Ellen’s face. Would he know what to do?

Obviously, he did. The selfie was retweeted 750,000 times in 45 minutes, and in the end actually “broke Twitter” for a few minutes. I was in the green room and got to tell a delighted Ellen that she had LITERALLY broken Twitter.

So, that’s the story. Everyone behaved well. Everyone was a professional. OH… and Samsung donated a considerable chunk of money to Ellen’s charities after it all.

Overall, translating the intentions, mission and business goals of our partners to TV earned Twitter a real place as “the second screen” for quite some time. Most of all, we lived up to the promise that I made to every executive when we met: “I won’t f**k up your show.”

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