Dressed in camouflage and headbands, a crew of 25 social-media managers, strategists, graphic designers and copywriters, were glued to their computers Wednesday night with one goal in mind: get A&E Network's "Duck Dynasty" trending.
Season three of the reality series, which follows the wealthy Robertson family, a gang of Louisiana duck-call makers, premiered last night. A&E was ready to capitalize on the massive growth of the series, which brought in 6.5 million viewers during its season-two finale.
The momentum is nothing to dismiss. With consumers bombarded by a dizzying array of video-entertainment options in these days of Netflix, VOD and iPads, communicating with die-hard aficionados of specific programs and getting them to spread buzz about their favorite is of critical importance to TV networks and production studios. To make these connections stick, more marketers and media outlets are experimenting with so-called "real-time marketing."
Brands like Oreo and JC Penney have piggybacked off tent-pole events like the Super Bowl and Oscars to reach a wide breadth of viewers who are utilizing second-screen devices while watching TV. During the Oscars, marketers used the Twitter hashtag #oscarrtm as a means of discussing memes and graphics marketers deployed.
A&E clearly wants to engage fans and, perhaps even more important, get "Duck Dynasty" on to the radar of those who have never heard of it, said Guy Slattery, exec VP-marketing at A&E. Throughout the night, he pulled up tweets of people asking about the program after they saw it trending on their feed. A&E partnered with Interpublic Group interactive agency R/GA for the social-response effort.
While A&E utilized Facebook and second-screen apps like GetGlue as part of its promotional strategy ahead of the season premiere of "Duck Dynasty," last night of was all about Twitter.
"This is where the in-the-moment conversations are taking place," said Mr. Slattery.
The operation began a few hours before showtime, at 4 p.m., with the social-media team identifying influential fans with whom they could later connect. At the same time, copywriters, art directors and videographers are developing custom content that can later be deployed. The art team pulls photos of fans from their Twitter profile and integrating beards, headbands and other "Duck Dynasty" imagery. (This reporter even got her own meme.)
At 5 p.m., the team started retweeting comments from vocal fans who were already discussing the premiere. By 6 p.m., some of the custom content was distributed to fans and the Robertson family even joined the conversation. It didn't take long for #DuckDynasty to start trending, albeit briefly, even with more than three hours until the new episode aired.
At 9:40, 20 minutes before the premiere, "Duck Dynasty" tripled the social mentions of "American Idol," which was airing live.
When the first ducks quacked, it was go time.
A&E tried to "gamify" Twitter during the show. For example, whenever Si, one of the main characters, made a "Hey" sign -- a phrase for which he is known by fans -- the first person to tweet #Jack was to win a prize.
Getting celebrities involved was a big part of the community managers' night, so when actor James Franco and "American Idol" winner Philip Phillips began tweeting about the show, they too got their own memes.
The video team had props on hand, including fake ducks, and also created Vine videos on the spot -- the first time A&E has made use of the nascent social-media technology as part of a push during a show.
Applause broke out at 10:19 p.m. when #DuckDynasty began trending, and a few minutes later #Jack and #MissKay also became trending topics.
One meme received 57,000 likes on Facebook in just 11 minutes.
Outside of the response lab, independent shop Horizon Media -- which works for A&E -- was also on deck, bidding on keywords throughout the night. Horizon pre-identified more than 200 keywords in advance of the premiere and then identified other key trends to buy on the fly during the the night, Mr. Slattery said. These included #Jack #quackpackisback #ionlygetmadwhen #backinjuniorhigh.
"All brands are trying to predict key words," Mr. Slattery said. "Trying to buy predictable keywords is getting expensive."
It's hard to quantify what makes a successful social-media campaign, but the initial evidence is favorable. "Duck Dynasty" brought in a total of 8.6 million viewers for the premiere, making it A&E's most watched telecast of all time.
"Duck Dynasty" was the No. 1 most-social TV show for the night, according to Trendrr, surpassing "American Idol" in total volume. The "Duck Dynasty" Twitter handle had nearly 30,000 new followers from 9 p.m. last night until this morning. At one point during the night @DuckDynastyAE was getting 300 new followers per minute, according to the social-response lab team.
"Brands try to get themselves in the middle of an event, but if you don't really know the event you are getting in the middle of well, it can come across as unnatural, unauthentic and intrusive," said John Mullin, executive producer, RGA.