“Scandal”: The Show That Twitter Built

Avatar Act-On

Scandal, a phenomenally popular television show on ABC, has much to teach the social media marketer. Scandal stars Kerry Washington as the fearsome and formidable Olivia Pope, a former White House staffer and professional “fixer” who spends her time managing the crises of Washington’s elite, dodging attempts on her life, and thwarting the advances of her former lover (the President of The United States, no less). There are plenty of conspiracies to unravel and backs to stab, so it’s no wonder that critics and viewers were slow to take to the show when it first aired. Yet by the conclusion of its second season this year, the show was a bona fide hit, regularly drawing almost 9 million viewers in its coveted demographic and receiving rave reviews from its most vocal detractors.

The reason for this sea change? The social media savvy of the show’s writers, producers, and cast.

To her credit, the series’ showrunner, Shonda Rhimes, of Grey’s Anatomy fame, did much to re-work the show’s narrative after its dismal first season. She’s mostly succeeded, making even some of the flimsier storylines (e.g., Olivia’s rigging of a national election) more believable. But she’s also engaged directly with the show’s loyal following to thank them nightly for their fandom and nurture them from a devoted few into an army of many.

This is the show that social media saved. This is the show that Twitter built. In honor of the October 3 launch of the third season, here are a few lessons social media marketers might learn from Scandal’s “overnight” success:

Host online fan-centered events where and when possible. Writing for the Social Media Examiner, Mari Smith advises marketers to organize events that put the focus on fans, which can help you “discover new businesses, get more fans, and build tremendous community.” Smith recommends using hashtags and info blasts for promotion, and offers the example of #FacebookFriday, one of her own such gatherings.

  • The writers and actors of Scandal managed this with extensive Twitter promotions in the run-up to every new episode – Rhimes would forewarn her followers of coming twists (“West Coast Gladiators: GET OFF TWITTER RIGHT NOW! #spoilers #752”), and would be careful to mark each batch blast with the hashtags #Scandal and #ScandalABC. Washington would Tweet pictures of the set and stills from the episode itself, letting her own followers know that she was watching with them. This turned every new episode aired into its own online event.

It’s better to be deep than broad. Rich Brooks of Flyte New Media encourages businesses to master just one or two social channels. This focus lets you spend more time in a channel, cultivating a deeper level of engagement and greater loyalty. Scandal’s popularity on Twitter bears this idea out beautifully, demonstrating the brand awareness that can be built by doubling down on a single outlet.

  • Rhimes and her crew identify fans and followers of the show by the search term “#Gladiators,” in reference to the title Olivia Pope bestows on her associates. Those same gladiators return the kindness with unwavering loyalty, and are the first to seize on developments in the show’s narrative and production

Take a multicast approach to content distribution. Paul Cooligan of Instant Customer suggests augmenting a broadcast with a social channel such as a Google hangout or Twitter.

  • Each new episode of Scandal was accompanied by live running commentary from viewers, writers, and cast members. In fact, for the series’ spring premiere, the show’s #Gladiators generated 119,000 live Tweets, beating out longtime Twitter favorite American Idol by almost 80,000.

Embrace one-on-one exchanges with key followers. Stephanie Sholknik, director of social media for Digitaria, says the surest path to gaining customer loyalty is through close, individual dialogues. These create the opportunity for you to learn directly from your customer what they wish to see online, and what they’re looking for in the products they purchase from your company.

  • Rhimes effectively replicated this formula in her appeals to Twitter followers. She extended key professional and personal insights (“Here comes my favorite Olivia Pope line I have ever written ever. #youwantmeearnme”) and often sent notes of appreciation (“Gladiators: Scandal would not have the opportunity to be on magazine covers without all of you watching. Thank you for making it happen!”). All this interaction and sharing made the events of the show and characters like Olivia Pope much larger than any one screen or episode could contain.

As Mary McNamara of The Los Angeles Times observed, Scandal has set an impressive standard for “must-Tweet television,” and has created a new model for television shows on the Big Four networks (CBS, ABC, NBC, and FOX). It has paved the way for future dramas as a “collective multimedia experience,” versus a standalone procedural.

The same lessons could probably be applied to almost any business. If you have customers of any kind, you have potential fans, and the opportunity to use social media to foster community and collaboration. Check out Act-On’s suite of social media products, which can help you manage social publishing, SEO, and more.