Last November, USA Network won a Media Vanguard Award for Most Innovative Broadcast Brand Extension for its "Burn Notice" digital graphic novel. As part of our series of interviews with MVA winners, we spoke with Jesse Redniss, USA Network's senior VP-digital. (The previous Q&A in this series, with GetGlue Founder/CEO Alex Iskold, is right here.)
Simon Dumenco: The first thing I want to ask you is about the newly launched "loyalty program for TV" called Viggle, which of course came out of Robert F.X. Sillerman's new company, Function (x). USA Network was an early adopter -- you've been there since day one. What do you think so far?
Jesse Redniss: You know, so far it's been great. They've set us up with some nice branding for our shows, like "White Collar," on their front [app] page and we're starting to see activity there. Obviously the app is brand new, but they definitely have the backing and the right type of product, I think, to make a go of it.
Mr. Dumenco: Of course, USA Network has had loyalty programs, of sorts, for your various shows for years now. You've been giving viewers who were willing to engage lots of extras -- like additional content -- online.
Mr. Redniss: Yeah. I think overall we're obsessed with user engagement and great, deep content experiences. And I think that the philosophy and the psychology behind gamification and loyalty programs lends itself to rabid fan bases and providing them with a platform to engage more, receive more, and really immerse themselves in the brand.
Mr. Dumenco: So you have a bunch of shows that have rabid fan bases, to use your term. What does that mean for you in terms of compensation from brands and marketers? You've been at the forefront of the "social TV" movement and that 's great and all, but what is it getting you? The portion of your audience that is not just channel-surfing and landing on your shows by chance, but is actually tuning in and checking in on Viggle and engaging with the ancillary websites and the gamification apps for your shows -- how does that transform the conversations your sales team has with brands and agencies?
Mr. Redniss: Obviously we don't want to position our loyal fans as just an area that we want to monetize. Our main goal first and foremost is to entertain as well as to help create brand ambassadors so they spread the word, so we can get more viewership of our shows.
When we approach marketers and brands, we want to find partners that want to create content experiences with us, so that in partnering with a brand such as Ford or Hyundai or Toyota or Verizon Communications, the consumer experience is going to be additive -- having the ad or the brand in there won't just be an ad distraction.
So we really take careful steps to make sure that when we're presenting this with our sales team to possible brands, we really stress the idea of infusing their brand and their brand philosophy into our content experiences organically rather than creating an intrusion on the consumer.
Mr. Dumenco: Talk to me a little bit about scale. Meaning, at what point do the social TV engagement numbers start to matter to you and your sponsors? What's critical mass for you? We know what's meaningful to an advertiser when we talk about Nielson ratings points. How many people need to get involved with one of your social TV initiatives for it to really register?
Mr. Redniss: We're seeing some real scale, like with the "Psych" Hashtag Killer campaign.
We looked at the total uniques that came into the experience and then mapped that against what the average ratings were for the demographic of "Psych." The audience for "Psych" is right around 1.2 to 1.4 million people in the 18-to-34 demo. The Hashtag Killer multiplatform brought in close to 400,000 unique users in that demo -- and about 60% of them came in at least four times, and 15% of them came in every single day of the week over the course of seven weeks.
So we looked at that and we realized that we were literally drawing and engaging about a third of one of the most highly sought-after demographics for a show on our network into a transmedia experience. And they were engaging with the "Psych" brand for an average of 15 minutes per visit. When you add up all the visits that were happening, it's a staggering number.
On TV, the appointment viewing or the DVR viewing that 's going on is 42 minutes plus commercial time. That's now being extended with these amazing multiplatform storytelling initiatives. And as we build them out on social platforms, on Facebook and Twitter, they take off even further.
Mr. Dumenco: What else is in the pipeline for you in terms of social TV initiatives?
Mr. Redniss: We're pulling together our overall summer schedule. We have between now and basically July, upwards of 11 or 12 shows launching [new seasons], including some of our major blockbuster shows, like "White Collar." "Suits" is coming back for its second season, "Psych" just came back.
We've gotten a lot from past experiences like Hashtag Killer and the "Burn Notice" interactive graphic novel, and we're getting a lot more feedback from our writers and producers. So in 2012 for us the big focus is on pushing the digital storytelling aspect of how we're creating these big campaigns, so that the story isn't just about the linear experience. It's multiplatform, its transmedia.
Mr. Dumenco: What you talked about before -- that 42 minutes of engagement with a show while it's on the air -- is really interesting to think about in terms of social TV. Because we can watch the EKG charts of tweets spike when a show is on the air, and that 's fun and meaningful to a point. But beyond that , to me social TV is about giving voice to fans who are thinking about your shows and your characters far beyond air time, and who want to be able to engage with communities of like-minded fans whenever and wherever.
Mr. Redniss: That's one of the interesting issues we face in being a scripted network. When a lot of people talk about social TV, they're focusing on the real-time conversation that 's popping up on Twitter and Facebook right when the show is on. So everyone is so focused on just that . But like you said, that EKG basically only pops for a couple hours right around when the show is airing.
We are really focusing on creating a 24/7 content experience, so that we can enable creative show writers and producers to think about how to engage with the user base and fan base on that 24/7 basis. The digital team here at USA, we're not just supporting digital initiatives -- we're working hand-in-hand with writers and producers to create content and I think that 's going to be the change in strategy that 's going to really help shift the industry forward.
Mr. Dumenco: Yeah, having creative partnerships in social TV content creation -- as opposed to just having a digital department that straps on some 'social' promotional ideas -- I think that 's where the real transformation is happening.
Mr. Redniss: We're starting to see more and more that show writers and producers are the ones that are coming to us with new digital ideas now. They want to be involved in everything we're doing. So Jeff Eastin from "White Collar" and Steve Franks from "Psych" and all their writing teams -- those are just two examples. Our showrunners are the guys that are leading us forward.
Edited and condensed from a longer interview.
Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. You can follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.
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