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How HBO’s ‘Girls’ Missed the Social Media Marketing Boat

This post was originally published on Huffington Post TV on May 7, 2012. It caused quite a bit of discussion amongst ‘Girls’ fans.

Despite all the hype about social media, apps, and other technologies that are changing the world around us, the media and entertainment industries are still fairly traditional.

Take HBO’s new and controversial show Girls. Yes, I watch it. I’ll leave it to others to decide if it’s “good” or “biased” or “realistic” — but I think it’s significant.

For background, the show follows four young 20-something girls as they struggle with their lives in New York City. They deal with jobs, boys, their weight, and other issues in a very frank manner.

In the show, the lead character Hannah Horvath (played by the show’s creator, Lena Dunham) tweets raw thoughts about what’s happening in her life and what she’s feeling. On screen, you can see her previous tweets — they’re intriguing. She’s baring her soul.

Those tweets appear to be confined to the 30 minutes of camera time the show gets every week. The first thing I did when I saw her “Twitter account” on the show was look up the character on Twitter. Unfortunately, she doesn’t exist.

There is a dormant Hannah Horvath account. (If HBO is smart, they control it.) There’s also a nonaffiliated Hannah account, which mainly repeats stuff from the show; most likely it’s controlled by a fan.

When there are so many young women talking about how realistically Girls depicts their lives (Emily Note has a wonderful blog about this here), what a shame that HBO and Lena Dunham — with her apparent insight into young women’s lives — didn’t take advantage of this and expand the Girls universe beyond the show and into the digital space.

Here’s what I would have done if I was planning marketing for Girls. I would have had an official Hannah Horvath account, tweeting in character. First, her tweets would appear in real time with any tweets in the show — In other words, during the show, the character would tweet about what’s happening to her. This extends the experience of watching the show live with friends. Fans could even tweet back to the character with support, criticism, or other comments.

Then, in the 10,050 minutes per week that Girls is not on television, Hannah would continue to tweet in character. Not as a marketing campaign (”Are you ready to tune into Girls tonight? Live tweet us your thoughts at @GirlsHBO!”), but as the character. Is she having a good day today? Did she have another bad job interview? What does she think of a fellow character, like her repugnant mother who cut off her financial support? Did she finish a chapter in the book she’s writing? This would extend the character beyond the actual show.

Sound weird? Not really. Star Wars, for example, has done this for years with innumerable paperback books which are all controlled and internally consistent, but which extend the universe far beyond the six films that were made. For example, someone might write an entire book about how the Millennium Falcon was constructed; another book might be about Princess Leia’s home and what she’s doing post-Return of the Jedi.

But we can take this further still. There surely are millions of 20-something girls who have questions about their lives. This includes girls who don’t even watch the show. Why can’t Hannah, in character on Twitter, have a hashtag like #BrooklynGirlProbs and reply to girls with their questions? Why couldn’t HBO build a private discussion board or social network to convene girls around the issues on the show and allow them to support each other?

Finally, in the offseason (Girls will be renewed, so there will be time between seasons one and two), the character could still be active. Everything’s controlled by the show, so nothing that shouldn’t be given away would be, but why couldn’t Lena Dunham and her team write light material which keeps you engaged in the Hannah character while you anticipate the next season? The answer is, they easily could.

This isn’t just true of Hannah of course — I’d love to see something similar with, say, Barney from How I Met Your Mother. But this really works well for Girls because of its realism; young people probably identify more with Hannah and her friends and their problems than say, Blair Waldorf and hers or Barney and his.

There are of course other ways for HBO and Lena Dunham to leverage social media to expand the Girls universe. I’m curious to know what kind of phones the characters use. If they all have iPhones for example, why couldn’t the girls have a private Path network among just the four of them (which only 146 fans can also join at any one time)? Do you realize what a FRENZY that would create? What a great contest to run through their Facebook page.

I’d also love to see a Pinterest account for each of the girls, reflecting what they’re thinking about, fantasizing about, and so forth. Maybe Allison Williams’ character is fantasizing about that sexy older artist she met, for example. Would she pin photos of him, or examples of his art, or quotes about how he makes her feel inside? I don’t know, but I have to admit I’m curious, and I’m just some 30-something guy drinking a cup of coffee and blogging in my pajamas.

Presently, there’s a gigantic gap between the cutting edge possibilities for leveraging social media for storytelling and the professionals actually in charge of telling the bulk of mainstream stories — Hollywood and the entertainment industry. It’s a conservative place. But I see great opportunity for those who want to disrupt their status quo.

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Will New Media Save Television Ads?

This post was originally published on Mashable on September 8, 2008.

People often speak of old and new media as a dichotomy, with stodgy network television channels and traditional newspapers on the one hand, and hip, technologically sophisticated youth on the other. But recently, old media –- in particular, large television outlets -– have been catching on. A recent post on Mashable noted that CNN is using Twitter to interact with viewers. I commented that Fox News Channel is also using Twitter and Facebook. Many traditional newspapers, national and local, are also using Twitter and other social software to various degrees.

Because I use my Comcast Cable DVR to watch shows on delay about 75% of the time, I found myself this morning viewing a national news show and realizing that I couldn’t interact with the hosts via Twitter, because I was an hour too late. Show hosts asking viewers to “Twitter your comments” is clearly the modern version of “calling in with your questions for our guest.” The key question I asked myself was, as more television media master their new media brands, will we find ourselves more likely to tune into their shows in real time?

The financial consequence of not using DVRs, or downloading the shows from a third-party website, or other new options, is that more people watching the real-time version means more viewer share, which in turn means more advertising revenue. People are more likely to engage the show in real time and therefore more likely to see traditional commercials. I don’t know if the gurus at television networks or advertising firms they work with are thinking about it this way yet, but it seems like a truism to me.

So what might be a strategy going forward? As an avid watcher of television, particularly political news, complex dramas, and reality shows, I could imagine many scenarios in which incentives are created to watch shows in real time – viewers pose questions for the guest, guide alternative dramatic scenes, or decide what challenge the players have to perform. How cool would it be to watch Donald Trump, Sr. using Twitter on a BlackBerry in the middle of the live Apprentice finale? And the advertising underbelly is that you are statistically more likely to purchase paper towels, basketball sneakers, or a dream vacation cruise.

With the increasingly “long tail” of niche television channels, magazines, and similar outlets only becoming more prevalent, it might behoove the “blockbuster” organizations like NBC to become the leaders in “old new media” to win some of that viewer share back. This summer, the startup social network and search site Searchles inked a deal with the venerable Washington Post to create social networks among people with common reading interests. Why not similarly network all the people who voted for Clay Aiken, are fans of Gossip Girl, or hate The View?

Mark Drapeau is an Associate Research Fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy in Washington, DC. These views are his own and not the official policy or position of any part of the U.S. Federal Government.

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