Channelling the energy online

A rethink of its whole attitude towards online has transformed VIMN’s TV brands, including MTV, into cutting-edge, social-media-savvy exponents of the art of digital marketing.


Five years ago the digital marketing work that went alongside Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN) television assets left much to be desired. At least, that was the view of its then newly appointed senior vice-president of digital, Philip O’Ferrall.

The international arm of the company runs MTV, as well as its VH1, Viva, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon operations outside its native US. Considering the potential of these very well-known TV channels, O’Ferrall says the international part of the business was displaying a lacklustre performance online.

Hence the past five years have been all about building a digital marketing effort which, as he puts it, is a ’360-degree’ strategy in which websites do not simply reflect television shows but are separate entities with unique content. Sites can then help generate and reinvigorate interest in a show, particularly through invitations to ’follow’ or ’like’ a programme and its main characters on Twitter and Facebook.

“Five years ago we knew there was a problem. Like a lot of publishers and broadcasters, our websites pretty much just gave information about shows and so were a mirror of what one might get through the TV channel. There was nothing new or unique, there was no real reason for visiting.”

This problem was related to the fundamental flaw O’Ferrall also identified in VIMN’s digital strategy. While the MTV channel, in particular, would be awash with household names in music and entertainment, when the public searched for those stars, there were no high-ranking links back to MTV. As a result, the company has made a major effort to get its name higher up search rankings.

Five years ago the digital marketing work that went alongside Viacom International Media Networks (VIMN) television assets left much to be desired

“Four or five years ago you couldn’t actually search on all of our sites for your favourite acts or stars,” O’Ferrall recalls. “We hadn’t really thought about search optimisation for external search, either, so we had to build up a lot of link equity through being a little more clever.

“Instead of being a mirror packed with information about what people could see on their television screens, we realised we could use our brands, particularly MTV, to rise with up and coming stars. So we set about a strategy where we would look for young talent on the up and do a deal with them to record some live content and get that concert footage on our sites as well as allowing them to use it. They got the kudos of some MTV-created footage and an interview and we got original content fans would link back to.”

The strategy saw MTV get in early on the rising popularity of the likes of Adele, Estelle and Tinchy Stryder. Such stars in the making were identified by the traditional method of sending out A&R men as well as monitoring the artists’ social media prowess.

“We wouldn’t approach anyone until our A&R people have been out to check someone out because you’ve got to see them live to see if they are a good fit,” O’Ferrall says.

“We’ve been greatly helped out by social media in determining who’s worth checking out. Artists use social media sites to promote themselves and what can be really telling is if people are setting up fan pages on the likes of Facebook to chat about the act. It’s a very good indication to us that an act is soon going to make it and so it’s a good time to get in there quick to record some content. We also have it on our website which, thanks to high volumes of traffic, means we then do really well in search when the general public starts looking for more information and content about the new star.”

Today TV is not only viewed live, but is also watched through personal video recorders and online services, such as Sky Player. This has prompted the company to carry its efforts in search over into social media, so fans of the channels can interact with, discuss and point friends and contacts towards Facebook pages and Twitter feeds for shows and their stars.

This is leading MTV to seek to appeal to the second screen of a laptop or iPad that young adults may have in front of them. The recent launch of ’structured reality’ TV show Geordie Shore (see box) was accompanied by an iPhone app to encourage fans to tweet and post about the show before, during and after each episode.

This strategy of engaging with audiences over a ’second screen’ through social media came to the fore at last year’s MTV European Music Awards (EMA) show. For the first time a digital celebrity host, Justin Bieber, was used to encourage people to go online to watch the show with overlays of his live comments.

Online games such as SpongeBob’s multiplayer one can introduce a younger audience to the mix

In addition, viewers could enter polls and read tweets about the awards from other viewers, as well as log in to Facebook and Twitter to comment on the programme without having to navigate to another window. Bieber was chosen because of his social networking kudos; he has a staggering near-33m ’likes’ on Facebook and close to 11 million ’followers’ on Twitter.

“Second-screen viewing is a huge trend we want to tap in to more and so the EMAs were a great way of showing how that could be done,” says O’Ferrall.

“Our youth audience will typically have an iPhone or laptop at their side and so it makes sense for us to engage with them through that device during a programme and, of course, celebrities in social media don’t get bigger than Justin Bieber.

“It also opens up opportunities to work with sponsorship partners in new way. The second screen activity for the EMAs was sponsored by Calvin Klein and Habbo Hotel was the official voting partner.”

Ultimately, the point in making VIMN’s sites easier to discover through search and social media is not just so its TV show’s ratings are maximised, important though that is. More traffic to the sites means more advertising revenue, improved sponsorship deals and more people potentially exposed to the company’s on-demand service.

Aside from its Freeview music channel, Viva, O’Ferrall points out that the company is focused on the pay TV model and so, in addition to being on Sky Player, has developed its own on-demand streaming service as well as a download-to-own (DTO) channel through iTunes.

“We’re a pay-TV company, so we belong in an environment where people are paying to watch our content live or stream it online or own it in their iTunes library,” he says.

“We obviously have a presence on Sky Player and we’ve supplemented that with a DTO service through which we point people to episodes of shows, or the whole season, on iTunes so they can watch wherever they are, whether they’re online or not. That’s proving really popular with our target youth audience who want to watch their favourite programmes when they’re out and about, rather than needing to be on a laptop at home.

“We’ve also recently launched our own on-demand streaming service through which viewers can choose 24 hours access for £2 or a week for £3. A subscription gives access to full-length shows while each show’s page will normally have short clips available for free.

“Our youth market is always on the go and never stuck just in front of a television or a PC, so it’s important we’re available, in the pay space, in formats that offer a choice between streaming and download to own,” says O’Ferrall.

Certainly, the fact that Geordie Shore and South Park have both been number one in their sectors within iTunes, shows that the strategy is working, O’Ferrall suggests.

The real opportunity looking ahead has to be social media

Digital marketing is now so central to VIMN that a digital marketer, as well as a traditional marketing person, is a part of every show’s team and is involved in morning meetings that discuss the show’s progress on air as well as online.

In fact, digital marketing has now become so important that it is seen as the way to sow the seed for a new show, or a new season of an existing programme, before traditional marketing channels are deployed.

“The digital marketing person on each show’s team will primarily be responsible for running and maintaining a loyal audience for the show in social media,” says O’Ferrall.

“It’s now a truly integral part of every show’s success that we get a groundswell of interest around a launch or new season. So we use Facebook and Twitter, in particular, to introduce a show and we have individual pages for the main characters of the show. It means we can get a lot of interest about their back story online so the audience is excited about a new show.

“We then get the wider marketing department involved, who will use the traditional channels to raise awareness. They’ll run television and press adverts as well as outdoor posters that build on the excitement digital has created and feed back in to it.

“But everything now starts for us with digital. You obviously need a really good format, script and cast and then with digital you can build an interactive relationship between the audience and the show and its main characters before it even airs,” says O’Ferrall.

While age constraints for VIMN’s school and pre-school channels, Nickelodeon and Nick Jr, make direct social media marketing impossible, the company is set to launch multiplayer online games MonkeyQuest and SpongeBob in Europe (the former has already launched in the US).

As O’Ferrall points out, players posting about their performance in these multiplayer online games through social media is a great way of getting a youth market to promote them.

“It’s going to be a great opportunity for us to get players to post on Facebook and Twitter when they get a high score, earn a badge or get on a leader board,” he explains. “This is very similar in the way we encourage people to like and comment on our content, it’s a great way for making your content more discoverable.”

As such it underlines how far VIMN has moved away from email. Although the company does still use the channel, O’Ferrall is very clear that social media is the way forward.

“I don’t really think any broadcaster has got email marketing perfected,” he says.

“We send out newsletters for channels and shows with competitions, like everyone else does. The real opportunity looking ahead has to be social media, though. Email is very much a one-on-one medium and you get someone’s attention for a short amount of time and they might chose to interact with you.

“Social media is totally different as most of the time it’s coming through your friends. It’s not at a specific time of day or around an event, such as when a newsletter is published. It’s all the time and it’s so easily shared with your friends, that it then becomes viral very quickly. People don’t forward on your emails to pals but they will share a show or cast member’s posts and tweets.”

This increasing use of social media to seed interest in programmes as well as, soon, to point friends and contacts towards online games will be underlined by the two multiplayer gaming launches planned for later this year.

The autumn is also expected to see more MTV award shows which combine social media and TV viewing with the second screen. Clearly the company is intent on using the second screen, as an extension of its social media strategy, to improve engagement with shows but also to offer an additional sponsorship opportunity and increase the amount of impressions it has to sell to advertisers against both TV and, soon, gaming content.


Baking the ingredients for a ’propa’ Geordie story

The recent launch of Geordie Shore illustrates MTV’s use of digital media to seed interest in a show and then seek to maintain it. The show is based on the popular US Jersey Shore format and tracks the lives of a young cast in and around Newcastle (and soon Ibiza).

As with all new commissions, a digital marketing executive was part of the production team and suggested ideas for how the show could be pre-launched online through a dedicated Facebook page.

Features included show-related competitions, a ’Geordie of the Week’ video profile, user-generated videos from Geordies who felt they should be in the show and a Geordie phrase book (with such gems as ’on it like a car bonnet’ and ’in there, like swimwear’). In keeping with MTV’s desire to have a social media sponsor, in this case self-tanning brand Fake Bake, there’s also a link to the sponsor’s Facebook page and a section on achieving good fake tan results.

The page was opened a month before the show aired, receiving 66,000 ’likes’ from what MTV claims was an active user base of 114,000 Facebook users who created more than 3.3 million post impressions. Interestingly, during the first one-hour show, the Facebook ’like’ count rose by 4,000. At the end of its first series the page had risen to nearly a quarter of a million likes.

Twitter was also used for the show’s leading eight characters, who each achieved between 2,500 and 3,500 followers before the show aired. This has since climbed to between 40,000 and 68,000 each, with a total of more than 340,000 when cast and show pages followers are combined. This social media activity is not only useful for attracting an audience to the show and maintaining that ’appointment to view’ with each episode, it can also help show marketing partners that a show is going to be a hit within its target young-adult demographic.

“Geordie Shore has been a real success for us in the way we lay down a digital ’footprint’ before we hand over to mainstream marketing,” says VIMN senior vice-president of digital, Philip O’Ferrall.

“Building up a background of the show and a profile for the people in it, works especially well in reality television. It means that by the time we’re passing the show over to marketing we’ve already been able to demonstrate its appeal in a specific demographic so we can then go out and start talking to potential sponsor brands.

“We don’t do anything that gets in the way of the show and its content, but there’s co-branding on the Facebook page with content that fits in well with the sponsor. And the sponsor has a resonance with the show itself – we wouldn’t get one that wasn’t a good fit for a series and we certainly wouldn’t want the it to come between the viewer and the show. It’s a fine balance we always have to tread.”

Key Points

  • Digital marketing is now so central to VIMN that the major MTV shows have a digital marketing executive as part of the team.
  • Shows are seeded through the MTV website as well as social media to build up interest before the first episode (or return of a series).
  • This improves viewer figures but also demonstrates interest to potential sponsors.
  • Once seeding is complete, the main marketing team will launch its TV, print and poster campaigns. A sponsor will also be sought, using figures from the social media following encourage in the run-up to the show’s launch.
  • MTV is using social networking as well as live awards, blogging and voting to open up the ’second screen’ of the laptop or smartphone that viewers often have at their side while viewing.
  • VIMN is hoping multiplayer online gaming will provide additional social networking features (such as posts about badges won and top scores) when MonkeyQuest and SpongeBob Square Pants are launched in Europe later this year.



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