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The Revolution Is Being Televised

  |  April 7, 2006   |  Comments

How ABC's "Lost" and HGTV are putting online word-of-mouth to use offline.

There's a bit of a delay in the interactivity, but TV isn't solely a one-way medium anymore. Just as creators of offline marketing have learned to use the Web as a test bed for messages by testing copy and concepts, TV programmers and marketers are mining the Internet for nuggets that can be melted down and forged into offline gold. (Some of which is later deployed online, of course, but that's another column.)

I got to thinking about this phenomenon while indulging my interest in all things "Lost"-related. My obsession began when I got a video iPod and immersed myself in the first season of the hit TV program. Then our associate editor, Erin Brenner, turned me on to LostCasts, a podcast dedicated to the show co-hosted by John Keehler, strategist at interactive shop Click Here. Message board madness was sure to follow. What I discovered was the actors and creators of the series are surprisingly involved in the fan discussions that occur online.

Lost producer J.J. Abrams has gone so far as to set up a special discussion forum, The Fuselage, separate from the official ABC board, where writers and actors often answer queries posted by "Lost" aficionados. Even on the ABC board, there's a section where people can pose questions to the bigwigs that appear on the official "Lost" podcast. Why? Surely it's in part about fueling interest in the show. But an added benefit would be gathering and harnessing insights about what's working and what's not working, both with the programming and the marketing. Once you know those things, you can tweak.

Indeed, Creator/Executive Producer Damon Lindeloff, in an IM interview posted on lost-tv.com said, "The fan reaction has a LOT of influence…. The biggest example is that we began to sense a real frustration from the fans that we weren't answering any questions and just asking new ones… So we advanced some of our 'mythological wheels' and gave the audience MORE answers than we were originally planning to give as we came down the stretch."

Click Here's Keehler doesn't have proof, but he believes certain content elements, such as when tough-guy character Sawyer is reading Judy Blume's pre-teen girl classic "Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret," are meant to be humorous nods to online fans' overzealous analysis of every little detail.

How does online get translated to offline in "Lost"? A USA Today article says a subset of "Lost" writers scan the message boards to discern the desires of online fans, then relay the themes to the rest of the team. I don't know for certain, but I'd imagine the marketing teams that produce the teasers for upcoming episodes also use the information to highlight aspects they expect the online audiences will be likely to seize upon.

"Lost" is by no means the only show on TV with programming and a plot influenced by online word-of-mouth. E.W. Scripps' networks HGTV and DIY are taking cues from their online audiences as well, Jim Sexton, senior vice president HGTV.com, DIYnetwork.com, HGTVPro.com, tells ClickZ.

The concept for one series, "Bad Bad Bath," which begins airing next month, arose from an article that appeared in HGTV.com's email newsletter. The piece, titled "Turning Around The World's Ugliest Bathroom," contained (as part of a picture caption) a suggestion readers email in photos and stories of their own ugly bathrooms. Of that newsletter's 2.5 million readers, around 400 responded with pictures and tales of bathroom woe.

"We talk regularly with our television counterparts on HGTV, and told them this story, really more or less as an update of what was going on with the Web site," Jim says. "We weren't pitching it or anything, but they immediately grasped it and went, 'Wow, this could be good TV.'"

The beauty of monitoring word-of-mouth online is the unexpected results it can yield. Because consumers are making unsolicited comments, they have the freedom to discuss whatever interests them, rather than simply reply to a question posed by a researcher.

Nielsen BuzzMetrics' Michael Kaplan says the word-of-mouth research firm is working with 12 different TV networks to help them measure and take advantage of online discussion.

Though Michael can't divulge current client engagements, he says BuzzMetrics could do pre-launch analysis of show buzz, then episode-by-episode tracking of a series' momentum.

"We can see what's driving discussion and [help] recreate that magic moving forward," he says. Both marketing and future programming can be developed based on what characters and storylines are resonating with viewers, Michael suggests.

"If the secondary character is starting to pop with popularity with audiences, you can take advantage of that emerging character," he says. That character could either be played up within the program itself, or, in a more likely scenario, the character could get bigger play in promotional video.

Here are a few tips on taking online offline:

  • Implement a system. Note how in the HGTV example, the online folks didn't recognize the potential for a show, while the TV people seized upon it immediately. Jim Sexton says the online and offline teams now make a point of working together early in a project's life cycle.
  • Facilitate discussion. While fans are certainly going to set up their own Web sites to discuss programming, it doesn't hurt to have an "official" or "authorized" forum. Encourage participation by getting the "big shots" -- actors, writers, hosts -- to appear occasionally.
  • Participate online. "Lost" stood out, and fostered its online audience, by embracing cutting-edge media like podcasting. Tellingly, it isn't just some young intern, but some of the show's top creative talent, appearing on the podcast.
  • Don't let them call the shots. Finally, while you should listen, don't become a slave to the whims of the online masses. The "Lost" writers made a good call when they elected only certain staffers troll the discussion board for fear full-on direct contact could distract from the creative vision.

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Pamela Parker

Pamela Parker is a former managing editor of ClickZ News, Features, and Experts. She's been covering interactive advertising and marketing since the boom days of 1999, chronicling the dot-com crash and the subsequent rise of the medium. Before working at ClickZ, Parker was associate editor at @NY, a pioneering Web site and e-mail newsletter covering New York new media start-ups. Parker received a master's degree in journalism, with a concentration in new media, from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

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