MTV Plays Telephone With Twitter

  |  May 1, 2009   |  Comments

Campaign uses Twitter's popular "retweet" protocol to spur engagement with a new reality show.

The old children's game of Telephone, in which a whispered message is passed -- and inevitably distorted -- among players, has obvious applications on a platform like Twitter. The question is whether those applications can be made to benefit an advertiser.

MTV thinks they can, and the network certainly has the right product to try it with. "The Phone," a new reality show produced by Justin Timberlake, brings together teams of strangers to solve mysteries communicated to them in a single mysterious phone call.

In order to promote the show, MTV has hired Fanscape, a Los Angeles-based marketing firm with experience running Twitter campaigns, to run a Telephone-like game with its Twitter followers.

Several times a week, MTV tweets a message about Justin Timberlake with the instructions to change a single word and retweet it, along with the hash tag "#ThePhone. The idea is to get people talking about the show while having fun with its central concept.

For example, a recent tweet read "When you get a call from Justin Timberlake, answer and listen carefully." Retweets included changing the word "call" to "kiss," and -- presumably less to MTV's amusement -- changing "Justin Timberlake" to "Justin Guarini."

MTV and Fanscape call the effort a game, though like the original, off-line version of Telephone, there is no finish line and no winner -- unless you count MTV, which has seen an increase in its Twitter followers and a rise in people Googling the phrase "Justin Timberlake and The Phone."

"The end game is just having people talk about the show, driving that kind of word of mouth and chatter," according to Terry Dry, co-founder and president of Fanscape, who said the agency had been tracking Google terms related to the show throughout the campaign. "Within two days of the game launching we saw search terms double in volume."

Dry also claims that MTV's Twitter followers have increased by 27 percent since the game was launched April 14, though he concedes there is no way of knowing how much of that is a result of the game.

MTV's most recent Phone-related tweet, which went out Wednesday night, spawned about 50 retweets. By comparison, a not particularly favorable Wednesday night post about the campaign from Mashable has been retweeted about 100 times.

The campaign to promote The Phone goes beyond Twitter, with Fanscape reaching out to bloggers and the Justin Timberlake fan community with promotions and other word of mouth initiatives. MTV has also hired Fanscape to promote its upcoming Nick Lachey-produced reality show, "Taking the Stage," and the third season of "Randy Jackson Presents: America's Best Dance Crew."


Douglas Quenqua is a journalist based in Brooklyn, NY who writes about culture and technology. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Wired, The New York Observer, and Fortune.

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