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A version of this post was originally published in 2010.
One of the most famous broadcasts of all time is Orson Welles’ adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Performed live on October 30, 1938 on the CBS radio program, Mercury Theatre on the Air, the program has become legendary because of the fact that over a million people reportedly “panicked” thinking we were under attack. As Welles unleashed Martians across the state of New Jersey and the country, many Americans got a Halloween scare they never expected.
This broadcast is one I spent a lot of time researching and analyzing, both in grad school as well as during my time as Radio Curator at the Museum of Television & Radio (now the Paley Center for Media) in New York. I think there are a number of valuable social media lessons we can learn from this broadcast and how it was received by the public.
1. The broadcast showed the power of Word of Mouth – Only a small number of people were listening to this relatively unknown program at the time. It had only been on the air a few months, and was up against the very popular Chase & Sanborn Hour with Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy. But as the story unraveled, listeners began to tell their friends and neighbors, no minor feat at a time when telephones still weren’t a major form of communication. As word spread, people tuned in, and a confused segment of the populace began to panic. Never underestimate the power of word of mouth, both negative and positive.
2. Timing is important – The way the program was structured, the “meat” of the story didn’t begin until a few minutes into the program. Many who were listening to Bergen & McCarthy’s opening comedy sketch, took the time to change stations once a musical number came on. By switching at that time, they missed the beginning of the program which announced that it was a drama. They also tuned in just as the action was really getting under way. A cursory listen at that time, might lead one to believe that they were listening to a news report, and not a drama. With social media, you can’t predict everything, but sometimes, a little luck and timing can have a major impact on your success.
3. Context is important – What really made the program hit home was the context…the time period. At the time, radio was still a relatively young medium, and radio news was even younger. Hitler was on the march in Europe. As the drama unfolded in New Jersey, it wasn’t a long stretch for listeners to think back to the numerous visits by German airships like the Hindenburg in 1936 – 37. Interviewed after the fact, many who panicked weren’t worried about martians. Most of them thought that we were under air attack by the Nazis. Without that context, there may not have been any panic at all. Our Social Media efforts will be most effective when we tap into the existing context of the culture.
4. Trust is an important factor – Because the medium was young, and radio news was still relatively new, listeners had no reason not to trust what they were hearing. They had heard Herbert W. Morrison’s report on the explosion of the Hindenburg in 1937. And they had heard the CBS Radio Network practically invent radio news earlier in 1938 during the Munich Crisis. Now, here was CBS again, with a radio drama that was based heavily on recordings of both of those earlier news events. At the time, the news media was perceived as very trustworthy, and because this program sounded like a news report…people trusted it. With Social Media we need to build a level of trust…and then live up to the trust, not abuse it.
5. If you are lucky, the publicity often exceeds the actual event – When War of the Worlds went viral, it was hard to quantify the extent of the panic. Newspapers (who admittedly felt threatened by radio), played up the panic. The panic has become legendary, even though there is quite a bit of evidence to suggest it wasn’t nearly as widespread as reported at the time. But, it put the program on the map, and launched a relatively unknown 23-year old name Orson Welles into the public eye.
6. A great campaign can = $$ – For months, The Mercury Theatre on the Air was a sustaining program, meaning it was on the air without a sponsor, being funded at the pleasure of the network. Obviously, if it didn’t perform, it ran the risk of being canceled, which was highly likely given that it was up against one of the most popular programs of the time. But once word got out, sponsors came knocking, and within weeks, the Campbell Soup company began to sponsor the program as the Campbell Playhouse. The program rose in popularity, and began to attract some of the biggest names in Hollywood as performers. If you execute your Social Media program properly, you too can benefit.
7. Social Media levels the playing field – Despite being the new kid on the block, without ever really having any believable hope of competing against the Bergen & McCarthy juggernaut (yes, a radio ventriloquist was a juggernaut), everything changed. This broadcast suddenly put Mercury Theatre on the map, and in a place where they could compete against the giants. The same is true of Social Media. Even the little guy can excel with the same tools that the big boys have at their disposal. In some ways, Social Media might even play in favor of smaller businesses. But you’ll never know unless you try.
There are a lot of “ifs” here. And the same can be said of Social Media, but that doesn’t mean you can’t plan out a well-run and effective Social Media program. Much of this comes down to understanding the various platforms and networks, and the cultures that surround them. And if you do it well, there’s a better chance you’ll be able to tap into the viral nature of the web. Orson Welles may have wanted to create a scare, but he never could have planned out what did happen. And if nothing had happened, he still would’ve been there the following week, creating quality radio drama. Focus on quality, and perhaps you’ll be surprised at what can happen.