Viral marketing-particularly for magazines-is, by definition, trial and error. (Remember Time’s graffiti billboard stunt a few years ago?) But experimentation can lead to new audiences-just ask TV Guide.
"Everything we’re doing is a little experimental," says Christy Tanner, vice president, marketing and online network development, TV Guide Online. "I don’t know if there are best practices yet. But we recognized that the community is incredibly powerful in getting the word out about great content-why not instead of being passive, let’s be aggressive?"
Tanner, who’s been overseeing a cross-platform viral campaign for TV Guide, says the best case study of this strategy for the magazine happened in August, when TV Guide secured an exclusive deal for High School Musical II content-CD-Rom, 30-second song clips, and exclusive shots from the photo shoot-before the made-for-TV movie hit the small screen. For Tanner, it was an opportunity to test a number of viral marketing techniques, and to try and capture some of the film’s insatiable teen audience.
First, Tanner created a High School Musical II page on TVGuide.com‘s Web site, uploaded all the content it could and went out to the movie’s fan sites to alert them of TV Guide’s pre-release bounty.
"We hired a staffer to do this," says Tanner of the strategic marketing-department hire. "Her job is to go out to all the fan sites and identify herself in a very open way. She goes on MySpace, on Facebook-she’s a member of all those High School Musical Facebook groups." And transparency is key. "We have to be careful and clear about who we are, what we’re doing, and try not to pepper them with minutiae," says Tanner, adding: "You can’t send a press release to a Zac Efron site. It just doesn’t work that way."
On TV Guide’s site, Tanner says they "roadblocked" the fan page with house ads to promote the magazine at the newsstand. The result: A lift in newsstand sales (290,000 copies, up 62 percent over the previous five-week average); a large increase in page views (the HSMII minisite saw four times the traffic of TVGuide.com’s Grey’s Anatomy minisite during the week leading up its season premiere); and, more importantly for Tanner, the move introduced a new generation of television fans to the TV Guide brand.
The effort dovetailed nicely with TV Guide’s multimillion-dollar rebranding campaign that launched in September and is part of a broader digital strategy. Tanner points out that the TV Guide mobile alert scheduling application is "one of the most downloaded mobile apps out there." And the magazine is frequently signing syndicated deals to serve TV Guide content up to new potential audiences.
Oh, and like many publishers, TV Guide is working on a Facebook application, too.
"This isn’t splashy, flashy viral," says Tanner. "We don’t want our site to be a closed environment. I like to say, ‘We’re of the Web, not on the Web.’"
While High School Musical II was, in terms of viral marketing potential, a massive target (17.2 million viewers make it the most-watched basic cable program ever, according to Nielsen Media Research), Tanner says TV Guide has been making similarly important viral strides, albeit on a smaller scale. The magazine’s recent Bionic Woman cover, for instance, was enough fodder for the magazine’s viral marketing staffer to go on. "We gave fans a day’s notice," says Tanner of alerting fans to the cover, "but that’s news in their world."
Adds Tanner: "We try lots of little things that we hope will lead to bigger success."