From Madonna falling backward down a flight of stairs during her 2015 performance to singer Jarvis Cocker baring his bum at Michael Jackson live onstage in 1996, the Brit Awards have always sparked cultural conversation.
Run by the British Phonographic Industry, the awards are the U.K.'s more anarchic equivalent of the Grammys, attracting international talent to an event that was originally set up as a marketing tool to boost record sales in the post-Christmas lull.
The social media potential of the U.K. event, coming up on Feb. 22, is huge, but was ignored for years until a wake-up call in 2011, when Adele sang her hit "Someone Like You" accompanied by only a piano.
The breakup ballad had Adele and the audience in tears. But the BPI was unable to capitalize on a moment that brought the nation together because it didn't own the rights to the performance, and it was three days before the group had cleared permission to share any part of it.
Somethin' Else, the content company that works with the BPI, had been urging the industry body to step up its game for years, and the Adele moment proved it was right. For too long, its team was placed at the back of the line on the red carpet, which meant that pictures of arriving celebrities were on newspaper websites before the stars had even reached the official photographer.
"There's a conversation taking place and we need to be at the heart of it," said Steve Ackerman, managing director of Somethin' Else.
Cut to 2017 and the Brits' social media operation is always on. For 365 days a year, Somethin' Else is connecting with the British audience on every platform, negotiating with artists and record labels to pump out content that engages music fans and creates excitement around the awards that keeps TV audiences watching.
A core team of five people work on the Brits account, staffing up to 100 on awards night, when they work in shifts right through lunchtime the following day.
Somethin' Else claims the Brit Awards is the most tweeted-about nonsport event in U.K. TV history. In 2016, Twitter impressions more than doubled to 602.3 million on show day from the previous year, while the awards claimed 12 of 14 Facebook trends overnight, and won 12 million unique views for the red carpet live stream.
The show airs live on ITV, the U.K.'s biggest commercial TV channel, and 6.6 million people watched last year, about 28% of the viewing audience in that time slot, and 42% of 16-to-34-year-olds.
Crucial to the success of the social media operation is a quick sign-off from the client, so that Somethin' Else can respond to the moment.
"When you understand the audience and can be authentic, there's less requirement for rigid checks and balances. That authority and consistency is important for getting the audience to respond, follow and engage," said Mr. Ackerman.
The team goes to rehearsals so members can anticipate what will happen on the night, but they can never predict events. In 2015, no one expected the wardrobe malfunction that led to Madonna's fall (a dancer was supposed to pull off the singer's cape, but the tie around her neck did not come loose and she was dragged backward down a set of stairs).
In keeping with the Brits' tone, which takes the position of being as much a fan as the audience, the tweeted reaction championed Madonna's speedy recovery: "The Queen of Pop shows us how the show ALWAYS goes on!"
During a nine-minute David Bowie tribute last year, that tone changed. "We killed the pace of the operation. It didn't need commentary. We probably put out one or two tweets—a simple message of thanks—instead of two or three a minute during the rest of the show," said Somethin' Else Executive Producer-Social Tom Young.
Somethin' Else also brings BPI sponsor brands into the social media mix. This year, returning sponsor MasterCard will focus on taking the Brits to a more international audience, creating content that brings in presenters from other countries and subtitling selected content in different languages.
A new sponsor, fashion retailer River Island, has recruited artists, bloggers and celebrities as red carpet fashion police, in addition to assembling an in-store activation and ticket giveaways.
New content is pumped out according to a tight release schedule, ready to peak on awards day. Featured artists, including Bruno Mars and Ed Sheeran this year, get bespoke content and their own Twitter emojis.
Trends for Facebook and Instagram this year include vertical video and running videos in a smaller format. "It's the ultimate sign of being platform-appropriate," Mr. Young said. "Our audience won't move their phones to view content."
What changes is the best way to present information to the audience, said Senior Producer Kate Cooper-Owen.
"Facebook Live had only just started last year, and we're building on that this year. We've added Tumblr, built an Apple Music playlist, and done a Facebook Live gig."