Television has been “social” for years now, but the rapid embrace of real-time marketing in 2013 (and we’re only two months into it) has shifted social TV into a higher gear.

But the topic of brands reacting to television programming via social channels has been discussed ad nauseam. I’m not sure anyone can write an article lately about social media without mentioning Oreo, and this year’s Oscars apparently invited every brand to the social media party, whether it was relevant or not.

What is largely forgotten in all this is the shows themselves. Social media is fertile ground for television programs to engage audiences not only before, during and after an episode airs, but also during the off-season, making social a year-round commitment. Now that countless brands utilize real-time second-screen tactics, it’s time to investigate which shows and channels are innovating in the social space.

Real-Time Marketing Versus Social TV

Let’s get one thing straight: While real-time marketing by brands most often happens during live television programming, that’s where the similarities end. Brands simply hope to catch lightning in a bottle, as Oreo did (though one can argue that it succeeded only because of the long-term efforts it dedicated to Facebook the previous year), but television channels and programs have to view their audience-engagement activities as a long-term endeavor lasting the entirety of a show’s run. From the lead-up to the premiere to the bridge between seasons and everything in between, there are a wide variety of channels and tactics to use to get audiences talking about and tuning in to shows. Here are a few that are doing it best.

1. The Walking Dead (AMC)

Facebook Fans: 15,657,720 (page)
Twitter Followers: 1,221,962

AMC’s The Walking Dead, now in its third season, is one of the most popular shows on television and a juggernaut in social media. The show’s Facebook page shares quotations, photos, contests, episode quizzes and behind-the scenes content (often from the show’s very in-depth website). Also on Facebook (as an app) is the Walking Dead social game, which allows the fan to create a unique character and kill zombies in environments taken straight from the show. Not too fond of your Facebook profile picture? Their “Dead Yourself” app can fix that, too.

TWD is also very active on Twitter, engaging viewers during the episode as well as encouraging user-generated content via Vine reactions (#TWDvine). TWD also offers a second-screen companion app that viewers can sync with the episode (even if they’re watching on their DVR) for snap polls, trivia and exclusive video and to contribute to the social conversation.

2. Duck Dynasty (A&E)

Facebook Fans: 3,867,151 (page)
Twitter Followers: 411,936 (page)

It’s tough to follow The Walking Dead in this list, but if anyone is up to the task, it’s Duck Dynasty. Though not as well-known, the most watched show on A&E has a passionate fan base. Its real-life characters, the Robertsons, are a walking, quacking quotation machine, particularly because of their colorful Uncle Si (perfect for GIFs and meme photos). The third-season premiere saw the #DuckDynasty hashtag reach trending status on Twitter through active audience outreach and response as well as relevant and near-real-time creative. Fans can also “duck themselves” (put beards on their faces) courtesy of a Facebook app, perfect for sharing. The show even did some outreach, “ducking” influencers who were most likely to share with their audiences (and who almost always did). The show commits 100 percent to its fans and the second-screen experience, and this results in a quick ascent to success. Quack!

3. Girls (HBO)

Facebook Likes: 519,335 (page)
Twitter Followers: 164,934 (page)

Relatively new and seemingly (though not necessarily) geared to a specific demographic, Girls has emerged as one of the most talkable shows on television, which is even more impressive considering that HBO is a subscription channel and not as widely available as cable or network channels. To be heard over all the noise, the show has taken innovative steps, including making a commitment to editorial content on BuzzFeed, unique GetGlue stickers for each new episode (including real-life rewards for checking in, such as cross-stitchings as seen on set), a behind-the-scenes social-media production diary courtesy of Storify and a user-generated (but brand-curated) Tumblr featuring Girls GIFs.

Honorable Mention—How I Met Your Mother (WGNA)

Facebook Likes: 2,003,949 (page)
Twitter Likes: 105,858 (page)

Since WGNA is a Story client, we’ll remain unbiased and keep it off the official list, but the page boasts a PTAT number nearly identical to that of the official HIMYM Facebook page, though the official page is more than seven times larger. Through active engagement, live-show tweeting, contests, games, Meme Monday, anointing of SuperFans and the promotion of user-generated content, Meet at MacLaren’s fosters an engaged community that encourages tune-in to WGN America. Not bad for a channel that syndicates content.

The Brand Takeaway

These shows aren’t necessarily creating completely new or innovative tactics (Mad Men yourself…Dead yourself…Duck yourself…you get the point), but we’re surprisingly still in an age where most shows aren’t making much of an effort. Some shows have no presence. Others have pages but simply promote heavily branded press photos with lines of fine print and completely ignore their audience, even when that audience is pleading for responses and engagement (and most times you can blame their agencies).

Now that the effectiveness of mass media is rapidly decreasing, it’s imperative that shows find a way to reach audiences where they already are with content they’ll enjoy and want to share. The commitment these programs have made towards an always-on relationship with their fans has helped turn their brands into something meaningful to their audiences. They’ve provided a way to go far beyond just the on-air programming. It’s not easy, but it’s obviously rewarding.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. What other shows are doing a great job socially? Let me know in the comments.

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