In Depth

TV Twittering: A Subtle Art

Social Media Isn't a Marketing Panacea

When Fox's "Prison Break" ran its series finale last month, fans of the show were left wondering if the lead character was really dead. Their response was to go online and post a whole lot of "WTF?s" in chat rooms, fan sites and Twitter, using the Internet acronym for "what the f**k?"

For 20th Century Fox, the studio behind the series, a WTF? or two is a good thing. It means fans are curious and engaged.

Fox's efforts to use social media to both gauge and shape buzz for the series finale illustrates one of the ways in which TV programmers can harness social media. In this case, the studio judiciously doled out clues on social forums rather than issuing a blatant promotional message for "Prison Break: The Final Break," an 88-minute DVD releasing July 21 with never-before-seen episodes.

Those efforts also embodied the findings of a study that suggests networks will likely have more success using social networks for brand building, as Fox did, than for driving tune-in.

According to research firm Knowledge Networks, Twitter is best used by TV networks to connect to influential people, such as bloggers, reporters and critics, than it is to encourage viewers to tune in at 8 p.m. Despite Twitter's meteoric rise, the service is still only accessed regularly by a small percentage of the population. A recent Nielsen study found that 60% of people who sign up for the service stop using it after one month.

Twitter Saved 'Chuck'

That doesn't mean the social-networking service hasn't reached a critical mass. NBC was on the receiving end of a fan-driven campaign to save "Chuck" from cancellation that used Twitter to demonstrate audience devotion to the show. The network cited the campaign in its decision to spare "Chuck."

Also, Internet users tend to dismiss more overt sales and tune-in messages on social forums, said David Tice, vice president of the media practice at Knowledge Networks.

"With Twitter, people don't succeed with the hard sell. It needs to be more subtle," he said.

That's why Fox monitored word of mouth on Twitter, Facebook and MySpace communities in the weeks leading up to the "Prison Break" finale, as fans speculated about whether the lead character would marry his longtime love.

The episode itself didn't provide the answer but after the West Coast finale aired, the studio posted a wedding photo of the fictional couple in social forums, said Steven Melnick, senior VP of marketing for 20th Century Fox.

Only then did the studio officially announce that it would release two more episodes in the DVD, which will address the WTFs that fan posted about the character's fate.

"The level of engagement by fans was pretty extraordinary and it's the kind of chatter we track regularly, which is one of the benefits of these social networks," Mr. Melnick said. "It's more effective to give them a piece of content to react to and forward around, than give them a message that the DVD is coming on July 21."

Engagement Key

NBC uses Twitter to share production information, pictures and news on upcoming guest stars for shows, said Jared Goldsmith, director of digital promotion strategy at NBC. "The key is engagement. This lets fans become a part of the process to peek behind the curtain," he said.

He emphasized that Twitter is a communication tool and to use it for anything more is tricky.

"We don't want it to be a spam tool," he said.

Programmers also need to remember Twitter is still not mainstream.

"Social media wasn't a big factor in terms of a reference or a resource for what shows to watch," Mr. Tice said, adding that 32% of social media users said they used social media regularly or sometimes as a reference for information, reviews, or recommendations on TV programs, with most relying more on friends or media reports.

Social media can be a valuable way to garner press attention, Mr. Tice said.

For instance, rather than "tweet" tune-in messages, Discovery Channel uses Twitter to share "insider" content like pictures or updates from a shoot, links to behind-the-scenes videos and alerts to the media regarding breaking news, said Katherine Nelson, VP of communications for the network.

The network has also created talent accounts for stars like "MythBusters'" Adam Savage and "Dirty Jobs'" Mike Rowe.

To be effective for a network, Twitter should be interactive, said Scott Lackey, co-founder and strategic director at advertising agency Jugular. Networks need to be ready to have conversations with fans, share songs and even live "tweet" interviews with talent or stars, he said.