USA Networks on Twitter is a Case Study in How Big Organizations Should Engage Average Stakeholders

Mark Drapeau (Washington, DC) —

Over the weekend, I watched a USA Networks made-for-TV movie called Over/Under. It was terrible.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the programming on USA. My two favorites right now are probably Suits and White Collar, but I have watched most of what they’ve put on the air in the last few years. It’s a terrific entertainment formula and they just keep cranking out great scenarios and shows.

That’s why I was a little excited to see a two-hour special called Over/Under, about a failed yuppie day trader from Wall Street who meets a decidedly not-hipster ethnic street-smart math-wiz kid from Brooklyn and decides to team up on a high-tech bookie operation.

However, words really can’t describe how terrible this was. It was kinda hard to make it past the first hour, but I watched it to the end, fueled by wine, pizza, and a boring Saturday afternoon.

As I sometimes do, I commented about the show on Twitter. I said, “Hey @USA_Network: Love your shows but Over/Under was a terrible TV movie. Even the “gag reel” was unfunny. Please don’t make it a series.”

What I didn’t actually expect was a reply. After all, I’m no fanatic, but I’ve written about numerous brands and celebrities over the years, always in a respectful way, and sometimes offering positive and sometimes negative feedback, but the reply or retweet rate probably hovers somewhere around 10-15% (not bad, but nothing to brag about, brands).

So I was pleasantly surprised to see a personal reply about an hour and a half later from Ted Linhart, the SVP for Research at USA Network. I was vaguely aware that he existed and I followed him, but had never interacted. He said, “@cheeky_geeky dont worry over under was a busted pilot we already passed” in a quick, personal, un-spell-checked manner.

I sent him a quick reply of “thanks” back, and that was that.

What’s cool about this is not simply that a person representing a brand replied to me on Twitter. That happens a fair amount on social media platforms, whether it’s on Twitter like this, or a hotel GM replying to a negative review on, or any number of other similar occurrences. It’s a few other things, as I discovered as I dug a little deeper into Ted’s behavior on Twitter:

  1. Ted explains what’s happening behind the scenes: In his reply to me, Ted didn’t just say, “sorry” or “it won’t happen again” (and he didn’t simply ignore the criticism). He explained why a lot of people thought it was bad, that USA itself thought it was bad on some level, and that it was, in his words, a “busted pilot.” That makes a lot of sense – they saw a script, invested in a pilot, but after seeing it, they didn’t want more episodes, but it was good enough to air as a special on a Friday night. Fair enough.
  2. Ted doesn’t just reply to “influential” viewers of USA: Lots of consultancies offer huge companies analysis services that purport to crunch numbers and help marketing, customer service, or other departments understand which commenters are “influential” online and thus guide who they should reply to (i.e., care about), and who they should ignore. I find that disgusting, not only because it implies that one shouldn’t care about 99% of your customers/users/viewers, but also because there are highly influential people in real life who often do not come up in such analyses as “influential” (i.e., they have a Twitter account that they use a little and they only have 1,200 followers — because they’re too busy having power lunches and making deals at the Four Seasons. I know a bunch of people like that). Anyway, Ted clearly doesn’t use such filters. While I have over 20,000 Twitter followers and I thought perhaps that was the reason he replied, the person he replied to immediately prior to me has 86 followers, lives in South Dakota, and doesn’t even use her real name on Twitter – but her bio says that she’s a fan of Psych (a USA show); she’s probably a big fan to list it in her bio. She also is apparently an Emmy-winning musician with international distribution of her music. That’s exactly who Ted should be chatting with online, even about topics that don’t make much sense, like whether USA should “save” TNT’s show Leverage that they’ve recently cut (see below). I wonder how many analytics programs would pick her up as “influential” to USA though? As a bit of a “2b” for this section, Ted additionally doesn’t seem to spend much if any time getting into the scrum with TV reporters, critics, or bloggers; just real people who don’t get paid to watch his employers’ programming and have real lives and real concerns and real fan viewer parties in places like South Dakota.
  3. Ted answers the same questions repeatedly: I wasn’t the only person to comment about Over/Under, positively or negatively (mostly negatively, wink). Just as a couple of examples, he earlier replied to @leah_bh (no real full name listed, 96 followers) and @TheNewJoe (168 followers) and explained it was a pilot episode they later passed on and so forth. This isn’t an asked-and-answered strategy, it’s an indefatigable your-way-right-away strategy. For example, I watched the show a day late on my DVR, and I wanted to comment a day late; I wasn’t going to research USA Network’s official commentary or search the television critic blogosphere before voicing my thoughts.
  4. Finally, Ted’s a relatively senior employee who actually knows what’s happening: It’s clear from scrolling through Ted’s last few dozen tweets that he actually has insight into what’s happening at USA. He can break news and have it be picked up by the media. He knows the players, some of the deals, the scripts, he watches the shows, and he has a critical sixth sense about what’s good to reveal and what needs to be kept private. (This is something big companies and government agencies continuously freak out about; when I worked in government one of our sayings was, You trust your military officers with fighter jets, but you don’t trust them to tweet?) This is important. Lots of “directors of social media” come out of no where and have no background in the industry they’re suddenly being “social” in, and aren’t senior enough to really know why things are happening; I know a lot of people who one day are the cool person at the social media conference, and the next day they’re the director of social media for Louis Vuitton (and they don’t even own any Louis Vuitton, for God’s sakes). That’s a made-up example, but you see my point.

All of this reminded me of Evan Williams (the co-founder of Twitter) and his recent blog post about how the term “social media” was overused. He defines it as, “Media for which the consumer’s relationship with the creator is relevant for understanding or value.” He goes on to write, “What’s more, when companies use social media…well, they’re not. They may be using platforms that are primarily used for social media (like Facebook) or platforms that are used for social media, among other things (like Twitter), but that doesn’t make the companies—or their media—social.”

USA Network and Ted Linhart are doing so many things right on so many levels. Hats off to them. Government agencies, large nonprofits, and many large corporations could learn a lot from their example.

Update 1: Ted Linhart retweeted this post less than five minutes after I posted it on Twitter.

Dr. Mark Drapeau is the Director of Innovative Engagment (Public Sector) at Microsoft.

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