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'Pretty Little Liars' finds and keeps fans on social media

The ABC Family TV series uses Twitter, Facebook and other tech connections to build its digital-savvy, young audience.

February 09, 2011|By Yvonne Villarreal, Los Angeles Times
  • From left, Troian Bellisario, Lucy Hale, Ashley Benson and Shay Mitchell in "Pretty Little Liars."
From left, Troian Bellisario, Lucy Hale, Ashley Benson and Shay Mitchell… (Gary Friedman, Los Angeles…)

The curt antagonist on "Pretty Little Liars" — known only as "A" — terrorizes victims by way of text messages and the Internet. ABC Family is using the same weapons to lure its audience.

The network is banking on Twitter's 140 characters and Facebook's "like"-ability in an effort to generate buzz and strengthen the fanbase of the freshman series. And it doesn't end with social networking. Whether it's iPhone apps or text alerts,

TV networks are finding that they have to keep up with an ever-changing social media landscape to keep young viewers interested.

It seems to be working for "Pretty Little Liars." The series nabbed 4.2 million total viewers for its mid-season premiere earlier this month. Not gargantuan numbers, but impressive enough for the young cable network.

"We know how influential the dialogue on social networks can be," said Danielle Mullin, vice president of marketing at ABC Family. "That was really key to our strategy. We really tried to use social media as a way for fans to become advocates for us and help get the word out about the premiere."

It also helps that the program, based on the popular young adult novels by Sara Shepard, has a built-in audience ready to help spread the word. Leading up to the series' launch, the network tapped Shepard to participate in an online press call, on which she answered questions submitted on the ABC Family "Pretty Little Liars" Facebook page. To capitalize on the show's premiere and the release of the final book in the series, the network posted Shepard's tweets containing passages from the first chapter on the "Pretty Little Liars" Facebook Fan page.

"We love Twitter; we love Facebook," said series creator Marlene King, who has also taken part in the tactic by participating in a Twitter-based Q and A with fans. "You're talking to people in Brazil, in China. Gosh, if I were 14 years old and I could've tweeted the creator of a TV show while sitting in my bedroom — and they're tweeting me back — I'd be delighted."

On the night of its series premiere last June, "Pretty Little Liars" was a "Breakout!" search term on the Yahoo Buzz index; on Google Trends, which tracks what's popular on the Web, the "Pretty Little Liars" "hotness factor" went from "Spicy" to "On fire" to "Volcanic." They may not be exactly comparable to stellar Nielsen figures, but a program's social media footprint is just as imperative, according to Dan Neely, chief executive of Networked Insights, a data mining and analytics company.

"It allows for instant feedback in a way that arbitrary ratings can't," he said. "People are sharing instantly what they don't like about a particular scene, or they're asking questions like, 'Where can I go buy the thing she's wearing?' … and they don't have to send a letter to do it."

ABC Family is not alone in the push for interactivity. The CW network, which began dabbling with social media as part of its marketing strategy about four years ago, hit its stride with tech-centric "Gossip Girl," according to Rick Haskins, executive vice president of marketing and brand strategy for the network.

"I think in many ways social media is almost more important than our on-air marketing," Haskins said. "I can go out and hit [the CW's] 29 million core base of Facebook fans with my message. That's a lot of people for me on the CW, where we tend to get 3 [million] or 4 million people watching on-air. That is the most efficient, effective media buy you can do. And, by the way, it's free."

Other networks with cult hits have also embraced social media. Cable network AMC scored a social media coup when it spurred a Facebook and Twitter trend in 2009: the MadMenYourself.com site allowed fans of "Mad Men" to re-create themselves as swanky '60s-style avatars. And when it came time to promote zombie drama "The Walking Dead," they sought creative ways to promote their product, said Linda Schupack, the network's senior vice president of marketing.

"We knew social media would be a very powerful force for us in marketing to the younger audience who live in a digital world," she said.

ABC Family is putting many of its eggs in the social media basket with shows such as "Greek" and "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," hoping to follow in the tech-savvy footsteps of "Pretty Little Liars."

To build awareness of the show's mid-season return in January, the network teamed with GetGlue, a mobile application provider that allows consumers to "check-in" with TV shows. Then there's the series' presence on Facebook, where more than 3.5 million fans are treated to sneak peak pictures, clips and interviews. In addition, the network encourages fan participation with show-related online voting polls and surveys there and on Twitter, on which they have more than 70,000 followers.

Although the size of "Pretty Little Liars'" Twitter following may seem small, the drama's fans know how to make a show of strength. The series remains a hot topic in Twittersphere, often trending when a new episode airs. In the wake of its mid-season premiere, the series held three of the top 10 spots on the Twitter U.S. trending chart, and "watching Pretty Little" was also trending at No. 5 worldwide. "Pretty Little Liars" hit No. 2 on "2010 trends in Twitter" in the television category.

"It works for us," King said. "On other shows that have an older demographic, it might not. I mean, my mother doesn't want to follow Betty White on Twitter. With this demographic, it's just so organic to who these people are."

yvonne.villareal@latimes.com

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