Recap of the Lost Remote Show keynote with MTV President Stephen Friedman

By Natan Edelsburg 

In Late April Lost Remote hosted its first ever NYC event. The day begin with a fireside chat I led with our main keynote speaker, MTV President Stephen Friedman. Friedman captivated the room in a discussion that drove into the fascinating details of how MTV treats social. We’re excited to share the full transcript from the keynote that includes Friedman discussing the value of Instagram, Tumblr and trusting the young generations both within the company and the audience to guide where their brands thrive and tell stories.

Lost Remote: With advent of social media and all these different platforms like Twitter and Facebook how does that enhance or detract from the quality of overall viewing? Is it a good thing and how do you essentially turn the fact that the audience is using so many screens into a positive?
Stephen Friedman: You know it’s a good question. In the beginning it wasn’t obvious.  I think the answers turned out to be very counterintuitive to us. It has turned out to be for content creators like us a golden age in part because storytelling, which is really at the heart of what we do everyday, is able to be amplified on these different platforms and our audience sort of expects a kind of constant barrage of interesting storytelling and wants it across multiple platforms. So an example, which has worked really well, is “Catfish.” So it’s a show that is uniquely relevant to our audience given the way they live and from the beginning the creators Max and Nev wanted to engage the audience during the shows. It used to be you would want to do a lead up, you would go quiet during the show, you didn’t want anyone detracting…for the Catfish audience it’s the exact opposite and they are on Skype, they’re on Ustream, they’re on Twitter engaging with our audience throughout the entire show and for them they get insight into what these episodes could be. Our audience on their second screen, any number of them, are getting a much more  visceral connection to the audience and the result is this show that we did no off channel marketing for this is a show we launched at 11, it was our number one show in our 30 year history at 11. But the other thing is that every time it runs it’s the most social show so it has added to the ratings and increased the kind of relevance so I think it’s just another example of the idea that storytelling is amplified by multiple platforms.

LR: Social media has provided television viewers, MTV’s viewers, with this unprecedented forum to voice how they feel, what they think, so how is MTV harnessing all this buzz?
Friedman: You know, I’d say the answer started with the junior staff. I mean it was the youngest people on our team that understood intuitively how to speak uniquely to the different audiences. We thought we could figure out a way,, it was a top down approach in the beginning, it failed. And in 2008, 2009, we a little bit had to let go of the reigns in terms of the interaction on different platforms, let the junior staff really lead and its been staggering. I mean the fact that we have over 150 million fans across multiple shows and coming up number one on Instagram and 7 million followers on Twitter, it really was the result of the consistency of message but I think the important thing is it wasn’t just about speaking to the audience it was interacting. Responding to their needs, providing content. It was always, “What is going to amplify or take the story further and what’s the unique message that’s going to do it?” So that has really been, I think, the way we harnessed it but we always work with an authentic message what makes sense on Tumblr vs. Facebook and how do we slice it differently. We can’t think that one works for all of them and our millenniums on our staff really helped figure out how to parse that out depending on the content.

LR: Can you maybe give an example of how MTV’s using social to do this and if you see any value coming with second screen advertising dollars?
Friedman: I think one of the best examples, you know, is any of us.. there’s a show we love… and you don’t want to wait six months you want to continue but you don’t always have the TV to do it and what we found with many of our shows, when you stopped the TV, you know the season ended, our audience is saying, “We want more, we wanna continue the conversation.” And so what we’ve done is create a bridge strategy for just about all of our shows which continues the conversation… all of it social media…, when you have the delays between the season. So I’ll give you one specific example. We have a show ‘Awkward’ which came back last week to record high ratings in our history and typically had launched after big shows. This is the first time we did it at 10 on its own. No big lead in. It had its highest ratings ever and I do think a reason for that was when ending in September our marking, programming and social team and digital team all worked together to figure out how do we bridge the gap and continue the dialogue of where the fans were interacting with the cast, the show producer, so we continued whether it was from on-set to engage with them and hinted certain storylines, they thought that they were getting something substantial. The interesting thing is without any TV in that 7 month period the fan base increase 50% and that’s no TV. So for us that becomes an incredible way to continue a conversation and bring sponsors along who are supporting that and sponsors, as we all know, advertisers, they want a consistency plan. This gives an opportunity for, actually a year long, connection to a franchise they care about.

We’re also doing it with our sponsors and I think one of the great examples is what we did with Pepsi where Pepsi’s got a ‘Live For Now’ campaign. They came to us last summer and we partnered to figure out “how do we engage our audience on a campaign that feels uniquely millennial, the moment of now, YOLO”, you know living for the moment, was something they cared about, we knew our audience did and so we created an organic campaign where it was about MTV Now where we were going to use Twitter and Instagram to show these messages. And we put it on air, across social, the audience really engaged, the result was hundreds of thousands of responses where the audience was saying how much, one we get prizes for it so there’s an incentive, but the hundreds of thousands retweets of these messages and images all shouted out either MTV or Pepsi thanking them for the opportunity to do something that they would be doing anyway, so I think capturing an organic thing that the audience cares about is really important and more and more of our partners, our advertisers, are eager to figure out what is something unique that is unique to say Instagram vs. Tumblr and we’re partnering to figure it out with them together.

One other example and it came for us and blew us away when we did the VMAs last year. We partnered up with Bing and we created the Most Share Worthy Video and we thought that this was a different way, again, we are eager for as many people to watch as possible. So the audience voted exclusively on Twitter. There were 55 million tweets. That was exponentially more than any other categories but the audience was revved up and we feel like that social engagement really helped with tune in.

LR: So Facebook and Twitter have obviously become so intertwined with the TV viewing experience, what are some other platforms like Instagram and how have you been invested in those and how do you see them as different?
Friedman: That’s a good question. I think we’ve seen both Instagram and Tumblr as powerful agents for co-creation and co-curation with the audience and our audience is asking for that. They want to put a creative spin on whatever they are doing so we are happy. We just announced that we are bringing the VMAs back to New York… to Brooklyn, and we decided as we were going to do it that we could just announce the time, the date, we thought that it would get some pick  up . Our press team partnered up with our social team to figure out… do it a little differently… let the fans know first and so they did an Instagram campaign where they started with photos of the moon man in LA at LAX, they brought him to JFK they went around the city, so really it was a little bit of a detective game, where is, you know, are we going to be at Madison Square Garden or, and then we ended up at Barclay’s. But I think that created a very different engagement where the fans felt like they were first versus reading about it separately… Another one we just did with the Movie Awards was a Best Hero so it was another category where we asked the audience to do it and we decided voting would both be on Twitter and on Instagram. The audience customized their voting so if they were voting for Frodo they would do pictures of them looking like Frodo. It became stuff that we could put on air, on our website. It was probably our most engaged category so I think those, both Instagram and Tumblr are a remarkable way to harness the creative power of the audience and really push the creative expression of what we are doing a lot further than we could necessarily do. And so I think we really rely on our team to figure out what are the new opportunities and the more we engage the audience I think the deeper connection they have to our brand and our advertisers.

LR: MTV constantly prides itself on how its able to evolve with each new generation which isn’t very easy. How do you continue to provide programming that will be relevant to each new generation?
Friedman: Listen, I think what doesn’t change is storytelling, but I think we’re really relying on our audience to figure out what are new narrative forms because we do see all of these different social platforms as new storytelling opportunities and I think our audience intuitively understands how to do it a lot better than we do. So it’s about letting go of kind of our assumptions of how to use it and trust the younger end of our staff and our audience to figure out what are we, what are we learning. And I think that the other piece as much as we use it, different kinds of platforms, the listening and the research that we get out of it is critical because it really will give us a sense of “oh wow that show with this audience is doing a lot better. Maybe we should program on a different night.” Or there’s a character, you know, in ‘Awkward,’ we understood Sadie now because Sadie was a character that really through social media… was a fan favorite and that helped shaped kind of our understanding of where do you go with this storyline because I think the audience wants that engagement but I think for us it’s really about listening to these different sites and figuring out where is the opportunity to grow with them and co-create with them.

LR: One thing we’ve always been super impressed by at Lost Remote is how important it is for MTV to announce big milestones like millions of Facebook likes, so why are those milestones important to MTV? We’re so used to just seeing TV networks talk about things like ratings numbers, but I know we previously chatted about it, why are those things important now to MTV?
Friedman: You know, I think the key reason is that they’re important to our audience and I think it is another signal to our audience that we’re listening to them. I mean this morning my team was thrilled to tell me that last night we had 11 global trending topics for ‘Awkward’ and we just launched a new show ‘Girl Code’ and ‘Ke$ha’ so 11 worldwide in the span of an hour and a half you know is a point of pride and I think it’s because it is our audience stamping something and saying I care about this and I’m interested or I’m not interested depending, we don’t always get the positive feedback, but that immediate visceral response is an engagement with the audience that we didn’t have just a few years ago. So I think for us it is a marker of a deeper connection to the brand, our audience’s deeper connection, and it is only going to be a more important element as we move forward.