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Lessons From Shark Week

  |  August 8, 2013   |  Comments

The Discovery Channel's pop culture phenomenon churns up marketing opportunities for brands.

It's the "longest-running cable television programming event in history," now in its 26th year. It's broadcast in more than 72 countries, luring more than 21 million viewers last year alone. Discovery Channel's "Shark Week" - a series of shark-themed shows and documentaries packed into a single week - is nothing short of a pop culture phenomenon.

Not every event is so well received, but Discovery and its advertising partners aren't resting on their laurels. This year more than ever they're relying on digital and social media to make Shark Week a success - and there are lessons to be learned from their approach.

To generate buzz for the week of specialized programming, Discovery created several original videos that it posted to its YouTube channel. All of them revolved around this year's tag line - "It's a bad week to be a seal" / "For the rest of us it's pretty awesome" - and feature Snuffy the Seal, a fictional rescued marine mammal. Even if you haven't seen the videos, you're bound to know where this is going: seals are preferred shark fare, and Snuffy doesn't fare well upon his return to the sea.


The online videos generated millions of views online, but instead of letting them do all the work, Discovery continued to drum up buzz and online shares by tweeting on behalf of the "missing" seal. In this way Discovery can further promote programming while also interacting with its fans. Snuffy's tweets are a combination of funny replies to fans and references to upcoming Shark Week shows.

Lesson 1: Support your creative assets with social media by putting Twitter to work driving traffic to both your promotions and your event. When you actively engage with Internet users, you prolong the life of your ads and keep your message alive.

New to Shark Week this year is "Shark After Dark," a late-night talk show geared toward a young crowd that will be airing all week. Guests share the stage with one of Discovery's social media managers, who provides updates on Twitter activity throughout the show (the network recorded some 650,000 Shark Week-related tweets on the first day). She also passes along tweeted questions from fans, and encourages viewers to tweet their thoughts using the hashtag #sharkafterdark with the ultimate objective of airing them on the show.

Lesson 2: In spite of status quo past success, continue to enhance your offerings. Bring something new to your audience every time - just be absolutely sure it doesn't disrupt the integrity of what they've come to see.

Brands are forever hitching their wagons to popular television events, and this year Volkswagen is getting a Megalodon-sized share of Shark Week voice. As the event's main sponsor for the second year in a row, the automaker worked with Discovery to create an underwater car and shark observation cage that looks like the VW Beetle and sent it on a trip across the ocean floor. Viewers can follow its "Subaquatic Road Trip" progress at sharkweek.com/vw, which features a virtual shark dive and 360-degree view of the Shark Superhighway.


As an extension of its aquatic car gimmick and overall involvement in Shark Week, Volkswagen has temporarily redesigned a section of its own site. There, potential customers can use an online car configurator tool to create their ideal Beetle Convertible (color options include "Reef Blue Metallic").

Lesson 3: Extend paid sponsorships to owned media. By repeating the theme on its brand site, Volkswagen adds impact and can expand the reach of its role in Shark Week to potential customers.

A television event like this provides an opportunity for brands to underscore their support of environmental issues such as marine species conservation (which, when all is said and done, is what Shark Week is about). Through this year's Shark Week, shoe manufacturer TOMS is extending its One for One business model to raise money for non-profit ocean conservation group Oceana (another Discovery partner).


Typically, TOMS donates a pair of new shoes to a child in need each time a pair is purchased by a paying customer. In honor of Shark Week, and with the help of messaging in Discovery's "Save the Sharks" site section, the company will also be donating $5 to Oceana when a consumer buys its special edition Shark Week design.

Lesson 4: Be benevolent in a way that makes sense for your brand. TOMS has established a legacy of social good, so supporting an environmental cause feels like a natural fit. Even though everyone loves a good deed, consumers can see straight through those that feel contrived and unauthentic. Choose an event and a cause that matters, but also that matters to the image you've established for your brand.

Discovery Channel and its advertising partners are taking a deep dive into digital media with this year's promotions. Though they're specific to Shark Week, these lessons can be applied to any online campaign. It may be a bad week to be a seal - but it's a good week to be a digital marketer.


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Tessa Wegert

Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.

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