ABC’s “Scandal” got off to a rocky start when the primetime drama about a former White House Communications Director-turned crisis PR guru debuted as a midseason entry on the network in 2012.
Critics weren’t wowed by the Shonda Rhimes-helmed show, and the ratings showed that viewers weren’t flocking to their televisions to watch star Kerry Washington and crew either. “Scandal” could have easily become another middling TV drama that got cancelled after a lukewarm first season.
But then Twitter took over.
“Scandal”’s third-season premiere on October 3 is one of most anticipated events of ABC’s fall season, with millions of fans demonstrating in season two that they were willing to forego the DVR and watch the show in real-time, tweeting up a weekly storm.
So how did ABC do it?
Step one: get full buy-in from the cast to embrace social media. Step two: treat the fans as equal partners in the show’s marketing message. Step three: break down internal walls between departments inside ABC.
That was the message delivered by four of the principals behind “Scandal”’s marketing strategy during a panel discussion at the USC Marketing Institute sponsored by PromaxBDA.
“Every single cast member tweeting every single week—that’s not normal,” said Ben Blatt, ABC Entertainment’s director of digital strategy. “To be able to get this sort of time commitment is something that is above and beyond, because at the end of the day they are on the set, acting, 16 hours a day sometimes, so to get them to participate in our overall marketing strategy is a lot of hard work done by [the publicity team].”
Kristen Anderson, director of publicity for the ABC Television Group, said while it can be tough to get talent to embrace social media, the “Scandal” cast has been different.
“One of the biggest assets we have with “Scandal”—and we don’t have with other shows—is the cast,” Anderson told the panel. “Not only is it a struggle to get talent to tweet sometimes, they aren’t always the best at interacting with their fans.”
This cast, however, comes up with their own suggestions for hashtags as well as other ways to get the digital team and fans involved, and even leaves events early so they don’t miss interacting with their fans during a broadcast. Anderson says the “Scandal” crew has been found huddled together over kitchen counters live-tweeting with fans during red carpet events.
“We voluntarily show up with great enthusiasm and maybe obsession. We read the script and we see a crazy plot twist and we’re all like ‘oh man! Twitter’s gonna blow up right now!’” said Kerry Washington in a video played during the panel.
And when Twitter seemed to come up with better ideas than the marketing department themselves, ABC wasn’t too proud to embrace those ideas.
“With the marketing department in a media company, all you can hope to do in this space is actually guide the conversation,” said Blatt. “In order for it to actually be successful nationwide we can’t control it all”
In the very first episode of the show, the characters caught up in the over-the-top Beltway intrigue are referred to as ‘gladiators in suits.’ All of a sudden on Twitter, fans started to refer to themselves as “Gladiators,” much like Lady Gaga fans call themselves “Little Monsters” and Justin Bieber fans are dubbed “Beliebers.”
ABC saw that they didn’t just have a nascent fan base, but a budding community, and they whole-heartedly embraced the term, even though the marketing department didn’t coin it themselves. Now, “Gladiators” is even being used in on-air spots and other official promos.
“So the talent calls them ‘gladiators,’ the fans call themselves ‘gladiators,’ we call them ‘gladiators.’ And suddenly out of nowhere you have millions of people watching the show and this huge base, all with their own nickname that’s organic. It wasn’t manufactured. We tried to do that and it doesn’t work,” Blatt said. “People call bullshit on that. They don’t respond well to it. And I think this show has been about authenticity across the board.”
The key was to treat the audience as equals, Blatt added, rather than dictate to them.
“If we speak their language, we can use this audience to help get our message out there on Twitter,” said Melissa King, ABC Entertainment Marketing’s creative director of drama, movies and specials.
The marketing department now embraces the superfans and highly influential Twitter tastemakers who follow the show, treating many of them to the same sneak previews, screeners, and other tidbits that used to be reserved solely for press.
Perhaps most importantly, the panel added, their teams at ABC have learned to work together in ways that had been unheard of before at a large media company.
Blatt pointed out that the digital team was not treated as some sort of ugly stepchild on Scandal but rather as an integral part of the marketing strategy. The digital, marketing and publicity teams talk on a daily basis about how to create buzz and conversation about an upcoming episode. And perhaps most surprisingly, the producers aren’t afraid to ask the marketing and digital teams which potential plot twists they think would perform best on social media.
“I’ve been at the network a long time and this is the most coordinated effort I’ve seen by far,” said Rebecca Daugherty, ABC Marketing Entertainment’s VP of dramas, movies and specials.