Nets Try Fresh Tactics to Spur Word of Mouth

NEW YORK Twitter’s effectiveness as a marketing tool is still up for debate — but don’t tell that to Homer Simpson or Jay Leno. Along with dozens of other TV characters and personalities on a variety of networks, their shows are being actively promoted on the short-form chat network, part of a drive by the major broadcasters to generate awareness and buzz for their new fall schedules.

According to network execs, word of mouth is the second most-effective driver of program sampling (the first is the on-air promotional spot). So, this year, they’ve stepped up their use of online advertising, grassroots events, and out-of-home venues and stunts.

Michael Benson, co-evp, marketing at ABC Entertainment Group, noted, “The way word of mouth spreads is evolving. … We’re trying to utilize all sorts of digital platforms [to] find the audiences that will watch specific programs. And there’s no cookie-cutter formula; every show is different.”

NBC is using Facebook as the platform to stream a full episode, pre-launch, of its upcoming new comedy Community, about the quirky characters at a community college. The catch: To view it, Facebook users have to send NBC promotional clips to 10 of their friends on the social network.
“Fans have to do a little recruiting for us,” said John Miller, CMO of the NBC Universal Television Group. “This is sort of our own ‘forced’ word-of-mouth activity.”

CBS is tapping nail salons in major markets, among other stunts, to promote Accidentally on Purpose with Jenna Elfman, who plays a film critic who becomes pregnant after a one-night stand. The salons are equipped with nail dryers embedded with video screens playing a clip of the show, and branded nail files.
This is the same network that, a few years back, stamped promo messages on eggs. “My attitude is, everything helps,” said George Schweitzer, president of the CBS Marketing Group. “We’re in a mass business and we try to maximize reach and create word of mouth.”

Three of the four major nets have each chosen one of its fall programs for an exceptionally hefty promotional push. NBC is pulling out all the stops for The Jay Leno Show, Fox is giving a huge push to Glee and ABC is focusing on its new drama, Flash Forward.

Benson said the new ABC sci-fi show was presented last month at Comic-Con, the convention for comic book enthusiasts. While the net won’t stream shows before their broadcast debut for fear of diluting ratings, Benson hinted that there would be selective “community screenings. It’s a balance of reaching the right people with a show that makes them want to go back for more.”
For Leno’s move to prime time on weeknights, the main promotional task, said Miller, is to remind viewers that his new show is at 10 p.m., and that it’s a comedy alternative in a time period dominated by dramas.
While digital and other promotional platforms are growing in importance, network executives noted that their own airtime still accounts for between 85-90 percent of their fall campaign impressions. Each of the networks spends an additional $25-35 million on outside media to round out their campaigns, executives said.

NBC has aired a promotional spot for The Jay Leno Show at 10 p.m. every night since his last The Tonight Show With Jay Leno broadcast in May, Miller noted. Current NBC research shows that around 25 percent of the country intends to sample the new show when it debuts in September. “That’s a big number,” said Miller.

NBC is also doing its share of  stunts. These include sponsorships of aisle 10 in supermarkets nationwide and Interstate Highway 10 in the nation’s Adopt-a-Highway program to reinforce the time period. There’s also an in-cinema campaign.
Fox, meanwhile, executed a groundbreaking promotion for Glee, airing the pilot episode of the fall 2009 series immediately following the finale of American Idol in May.

The move was a big risk, said Joe Earley, evp, marketing and communications at Fox, because if viewers failed to watch, “we would have been dooming a fall show four months in advance of the new season.” As it turned out, almost 11 million viewers tuned in, exceeding network expectations. A day later, a song from the show was the No.1 seller on iTunes, another indication of a highly engaged core audience, said Earley.

Of course, the early debut forced the network to come up with a prolonged summer strategy to keep viewers interested in the show. “We couldn’t just say, ‘Here’s the pilot, now go away,'” Earley said.
The net has created dozens of events around the program, including screenings at summer camps and high schools, as well as a planned 10-market cast tour that will include additional screenings. Regional partnerships have also been forged with music and video game franchises, a hair-salon franchise and fast-food chain Johnny Rockets, which involve giveaways such as posters and other collectibles.

Fox has also produced more ancillary content around the program — e.g., a behind-the-scenes look at the show’s production, cast interviews and other material — than it has for any other program in the network’s history, Earley added. Also, the pilot has been online for most of the summer and a longer “director’s cut” of it will air on Fox a week before it’s fall launch.

Network execs seem to believe, however, that while special events and online promos are worth the effort — why else have Homer and Leno tweeting? — it looks as if they’ll continue to focus on the promotional firepower of the airwaves and other offline channels. “We’re always researching how people find out what’s on TV,” said Schweitzer. “The best sampling always comes from our own promotional spots.”