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A Whale of a Tweet: Six Takeaways from the Twitter Success of CNN’s Broadcast of ‘Blackfish’

A Whale of a Tweet: Six Takeaways from the Twitter Success of CNN's Broadcast of 'Blackfish'

As the world of television, including research leader Nielsen, begins to investigate more and more the use of Twitter to discuss TV programming with other fans, several shows have become well known for developing a robust social media fanbase.

“Scandal,” ABC’s Kerry Washington-starring political drama, is a standout amongst the tweeting crowd, and it has been among the many Twitter successes that Nielsen and others have looked at to see if social media success matches a more obvious albeit lackluster metric: viewership. (Sample Variety headline: Nielsen and Twitter Unveil Social TV Metrics, Showing How Little Tweets Line Up with Ratings)

On Thursday, October 24, on a night when “Scandal” was, indeed, the most tweeted-about show, CNN earned its most tweeted-about program of the year — the broadcast of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s Sea World exposé “Blackfish.”  This is according to a blog post on Twitter’s data blog, which dissects the social media success of the documentary.  In this case, it seems, there was a correlation between the Twitter and broadcast popularity of the film. It’s airing beat its cable news competitors, with more than 400,000 viewers in the 25-54 age demographic.

As the outreach and impact of issue documentaries begins to be measured by social media engagement more, here are the six things to takeaway from the Twitter and broadcast success of “Blackfish”:

1. CNN got together a group of must-follow people to help make the back-channel engagement of the film more exciting.

Says CNN’s Senior Director for Social News Lila King, “Our approach was to create a back channel to the broadcast, featuring live Tweets from experts such as filmmaker Gabriela Cowperthwaite (@GabCowperthwait), CNN reporter Martin Savidge (@MartinSavidge), marine biologist David Shiffman (@WhySharksMatter), film producer Manny Oteyza (@mannyoprods) and many others.”

2. Media companies that acquire films are using conventional synergy tactics to get buzz all around.

As news networks are outsourcing some of their investigative journalism work to independent filmmakers like Cowperthwaite, they use the films they acquire to provide conversation fodder for their news programs.  CNN cross-promoted “Blackfish” on television and on Twitter with its shows “Crossfire” and “AC360.”

3. Celebrity accounts are still going to spread word the best.  

The most engaged-with #blackfish tweet of the night was from singer Ariana Grande, while tweets from British comedian Stephen Fry, Zach Braff and Michelle Rodriguez also spread the word.

4. News outlets are nervous about engaging with certain “biased” organizations on Twitter.

This one’s weird:  Even as the very brand-friendly hashtag #BlackfishonCNN was trending on Twitter, CNN refused to engage with it.  The reason?  It was first used by animal rights group PETA, in an endorsement of the film that was supposedly unexpected by CNN.  Social news director King explained the lack of engagement with that hashtag with an oddly paranoid explanation, “We were of course delighted to see so much interest in watching CNN, but ultimately decided not to jump on that hashtag with our own Tweets since the initiative came from a group with a very one-sided view of the issues. Obviously as a news organization, it’s important to us to remain neutral in our reporting.”

Which begs the question:  If a hashtag is good at promoting what you’ve got, does anyone care where it comes from?  

5. The “Blackfish” excitement helped double followers of the Twitter account for newly launched CNN Films.

Before October 23, @CNNFilms had about 1000 followers; following the screening, the account had over 2,000.

6. The most-mentioned Twitter accounts in #Blackfish tweets were perhaps unexpected.  

@SeaWorld got the most mentions (as many Tweets were calling out the water park).  @PETA and then @CNN got the next most amount of mentions, showing that people were mentioning an advocacy group involved with the issue and the network the film was on at high rates.

Here’s a look at how the social network for the Twitter engagements panned out in a data visualization posted to the Twitter blog (see an interactive version of it here):

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