How Hollywood Engages Audiences Socially

varietyVariety’s Hollywood Creative Masters SuperSession at CES featured five top producers sharing insights on how they are embracing digital platforms to engage consumer audiences and build fan bases for their TV shows and movies. While the methods and reasons for using social media vary from movies to television, and whether content is live or scripted, there was a clear consensus about its value for both engaging existing audiences and mobilizing new ones. 

Here are a few of my key takeaways from the session:

1) Embrace the Digital Natives

Tailor your social strategy to the audience you want to reach. Gale Anne Hurd, executive producer of The Walking Dead, referred to herself and the panelists as “digital immigrants,” whereas the social audience is comprised mainly of “digital natives.” By embracing the audience in the language they speak and thinking of story telling in a more three-dimensional way, audiences will engage the franchise wholly too.

Ms. Hurd went on to explain how the primary use of social for The Walking Dead had the advantage of tapping into an existing audience of online fans of the popular Robert Kirman comic series. Whereas Conrad Green, executive producer of Dancing with the Stars, called social media important, but not a major marketing driver since his audience is primarily 50+. Instead, referring to DWTS as a temporal experience, social is used more effectively as a trigger to spark dialogue among younger audiences around controversial contestants like Bristol Palin.

2) Tailor Digital Media Assets to the Experience

One way to make entertainment franchises less temporal is to extend them across media and over time. Tim Kring, executive producer of Heroes and creator of Conspiracy for Good, encouraged embracing fans across multiple digital points of entry, citing that 73 percent of viewers are also on a connected device while watching television. Green elaborated with an example of a contest they are working on that will allow viewers to predict how the judges will vote and to win prizes accordingly. He also pointed out the unrealized potential of how audiences can have more involvement through more innovative use of mobile devices, especially live streaming from audiences’ cameras.

3) Involve the Audience in the Story

Audiences are no longer just consumers of content, they are also creators and promoters of entertainment media. By providing tools and assets for the community to use and interact with, there becomes the opportunity to create more audience engagement.  Bonnie Arnold, producer of How to Train Your Dragon, also spoke of the need for continuity between releases, and in her case spoke of the nine books, a DVD release a Cartoon Network deal and a Christmas television special as ways to keep audiences sated until the sequel in 2013.

Mr. Kring spoke of extending the mythology beyond the core television or movie asset by allowing the story to take on a life of its own online and elsewhere. For example, the back-story about a sword seen on the show could only be found on the packaging of a retail product. By doing things like this, the story ran so deep that the producers had to refer to the fan wiki in order to learn whether one of their own characters was still alive!

4) Keep it Authentic

As with all social media endeavors, having authenticity with audiences is paramount. Advertising and sponsorship are critical, but they can also be a program’s biggest threat when engaging consumers. By involving the creators and allowing them to vet everything used for marketing, promotion and authenticity don’t have to be an oxymoron. 

5) Rely on Instinct

From the real-time nature of feedback from Twitter to television rating reports, the poential exists to react too soon to the whims of an audience. After all,  as Ms. Hurd stated, the audience isn’t supposed to “like” the villans. Whether it’s in real-time or not, the audience will provide feedback, and often it mirrors the opinions of the producers had in the first place. Both Kring and Jeff Ross, executive poducer of Conan, cited the symbiotic relationship with audiences, but also the need for producers to rely on their instinct when it comes to programming according to what audiences want.

6) Protect (and yes, promote) Your Assets

Not entirely off-topic, but certainly top of mind was the issue of piracy. While Kring suggested even those who pirate movies could be your biggest fans, and therefor advocates for viral promotion, others held a more protective view. Ms. Hurd spoke of the need to make a good first impression with audiences, citing an unauthorized leak of a trailer that could have been interpreted as the movie having technical flaws when really it was just an early view of the technology. More to the point of piracy, she called for an industry campaign to show consumers how piracy could prevent the creation of quality content and gave an example of how a unified release of properties globally could reduce the need for international audiences to steal content the would otherwise have paid for.

7) Create a Great Product

Perhaps it goes without saying, but when you take a point of view, tailor content to the desires of your audience and produce a high quality product, social media, and more importantly box office and ratings, success is sure to follow.