All it took was an enthusiastic tweet last year by Michael Phelps to create an all-out casting blitz from USA Network executives to land the former Olympic swimming champion on the show when it makes its midseason return on March 6.
— Michael Phelps (@MichaelPhelps) January 18, 2013
The Hollywood Reporter reports that Phelp’s fandom stood out as a potential boost to the show.
But Phelps was the cream of the crop. “In terms of a singular fan, it was very notable. Phelps stood out,” USA’s executive vp marketing and digital Alexandra Shapiro tells The Hollywood Reporter. The NBCUniversal-owned cabler immediately capitalized via retweets and a custom-made Suits visual (with Phelps’ quote prominently featured), generating significant social media impressions. The road could have ended there, but it didn’t. The benefit of “real-time response marketing in social is it’s not just about what happens in the short term and in that moment, but it’s also how you leverage it and create a long-tail with it,” Shapiro says.
After the social back and forth, USA unleashed the cast of the show to woo Phelps: they put life-size cutouts of Phelps on their Toronto self, with cast members taking selfies in front of them and posting them on their Instagrams.
About six months passed between the first Phelps tweet, and “Suits” social courting of him before he agreed to appear in season three—coincidentally appearing during the show’s midseason return right after the Sochi Olympics.
The show also leveraged another former Olympian to promote the show’s return: Apolo Ohno. Ohno appears in a promo commercial where is courted to become a client by Louis Litt and Donna Paulsen.