It's no big surprise that ABC Family's hit series Pretty Little Liars is one of the top shows on social media. The teen mystery drama has dominated social since its debut in June 2010, getting more than 100 million related tweets to date.
"I think it's the perfect storm of elements coming together," Pretty Little Liars showrunner I. Marlene King said. "We're a show that reaches out to an audience that is actively engaged in social media, but also, our stars are actively engaged in social media."
In fact, ABC Family has had massive success online in general. According to the network, it has the most socially engaged audience, with more than 8.5 million engagements per series across Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr.
But Pretty Little Liars is its crown jewel. It has the No. 1 most-tweeted-about telecast of all time—Now You See Me, Now You Don't (Aug. 27, 2013) amassed almost 1.9 million tweets during its broadcast—and is cable TV's second most-tweeted-about series. It's also the most followed scripted series on Instagram and Pinterest and has a growing Snapchat audience projected to hit 1 million followers—to go along with a not-too-shabby 13.4 million Facebook fans—by the time Season 6 airs on June 2.
King said the show's success on social media is part good timing and part organic strategy. When the show debuted in 2010, Twitter was a little less than 4 years old. The executive producer remembers debating whether to drop in a Twitter reference where Hanna (played by actress Ashley Benson) asks Spencer (Troian Bellisario) if she follows her on Twitter.
"We talked at length about 'Is this going to be passé in five years?'" she recalled. "It's not. It's become so much what this show is."
Since then, the plan to promote the show is to put fans at the center of campaigns, ABC Family vp of marketing Danielle Mullin said. The network spends a lot of time observing organic fan conversations, taking its cue from behaviors on how to develop marketing content. For example, it's doing a crowdsourced campaign called Pretty Little Campaign to help maintain fans' interest between seasons. Fans are submitting their own artwork, which can be used for print or social media. They're also giving input online about where Pretty Little Liars should advertise.
"We think of these platforms as modern-day fan clubs," Mullin said. "When you join a fan club, you want something in return for your fandom. Thanking them when your show does well, giving them behind-the-scenes tidbits, giving them exclusive photos, having the talent do shout-outs—all of these things create lasting loyalty that you can't do with straight advertising."
Then, there's the fact that the actors and actresses are themselves heavy users of social media. For example, when King traveled with the stars of the show to the ABC Family upfronts, which were held on April 14 in New York, they came across 10 people who were waiting for the team to check into their hotel. The main actresses knew half the diehard fans' names because of social media.
"We have this outreach to the fans," she said. "We have this dialogue with them on social media, whether it's Twitter or Instagram or Facebook. They feel like they know us, and we feel like we know them."
Bellisario said she didn't have a Twitter handle when she joined the show, but that she quickly got up to speed on social media and now understands it's a necessary part of being an actress today. She said she thinks the show's success online has a lot to do with how shock-based it is.
"Social media has really become the water cooler," she said. "It's become the forum for people to talk about what they've seen to how excited they are about the episode."