Understanding the Sharknado phenomenon

It hit Twitter with the force of, well, a Sharknado. U.S. cable network Syfy’s made-for-TV movie about a tornado filled with man-eating sharks lit up Twitter on Thursday. For several hours, the social media site churned like a Great White feeding ground filled with fresh chum as Twitter users gleefully riffed on the movie. Actress […]

It hit Twitter with the force of, well, a Sharknado.

U.S. cable network Syfy’s made-for-TV movie about a tornado filled with man-eating sharks lit up Twitter on Thursday. For several hours, the social media site churned like a Great White feeding ground filled with fresh chum as Twitter users gleefully riffed on the movie.

Actress Mia Farrow posted a picture of herself watching Sharknado, while comedians, actors, pundits and regular folks all stepped up to try their hand at the definitive Sharknado joke.

Not surprisingly, it also led to countless instances of people combining animals with other weather phenomena, giving us cowquakes, bearnamis, tarantulavalanche and piranhurricanes.

In fairness, the movie did offer a perfect storm of Twitter-ready elements: A ridiculous premise (see also the similar online phenomenon Snakes on a Plane); recognizable D-list actors (Tara Reid, Beverley Hills 90210’s Ian Ziering); a writer with a bitchin’ name (Thunder Levin); a killer poster; and a slew of highly quotable dialogue (the Jaws echoing “We’re gonna need a bigger chopper”).

Sidneyeve Matrix, associate professor of media at Queen’s University in Kingston, theorizes that Syfy executives and Sharknado executives carefully crafted all of these elements with social media in mind. “They were just Tweet-ready takeaways,” she said.

As a result, #Sharknado quickly become the top-trending topic on Twitter, with reports pegging Twitter activity around the movie at 5,000 tweets per minute. In its wake came reports from Forbes, MarketWatch and Britain’s The Telegraph.

According to Matrix, the Tweeting frenzy was largely fueled by what she called the “FOMO” (fear of missing out) phenomenon. “It catches on massively and quickly because nobody wants to be the last person to know what Sharknado is,” she said.

What hasn’t been determined, however, is what kind of impact all of this Twitter activity had on ratings for Sharknado, though Syfy did announce on Friday that it would air an encore version of the movie on July 18.

There is evidence that suggests a strong correlation between Twitter and TV ratings, however. Earlier this year, a study by Nielsen and SocialGuide conducted a study comparing Twitter against other key variables to determine the strength of the relationship between the two.

Evaluating the Fall 2012 premiere and mid-season program ratings of more than 140 broadcast and cable programs, the study concluded that Twitter was one of three variables – alongside prior year rating and advertising spend – to demonstrate what Nielsen called a “statistically significant” relationship to TV ratings.

The study determined that for premiere episodes, an 8.5% increase in Twitter volume produced a 1% increase in ratings among people 18-34. Reflecting the stronger relationship between Twitter and TV for younger audiences, the study noted that it took a 14% increase in Twitter volume to produce a 1% increase in ratings among 35-49 year olds.

But Walter Levitt, a former Canadian TV marketer who is now executive vice-president of marketing at Comedy Central in New York, says it’s almost impossible to create a direct link between heightened Twitter activity and TV ratings. .

“It’s always difficult to draw a one-to-one relationship between any individual marketing tactic and ratings,” said Levitt. “Any number of factors can drive someone to watch a television show, but there’s no question that friend recommendation has always been a huge part of it.”

Jon Taylor, vice-president of digital products and strategy for Bell Media in Toronto, told Marketing there is no “real quantitative data” connecting Twitter with ratings. “There is plenty of speculative data and pseudo studies mostly driven by marketing initiatives, but these do not go far enough to provide concrete connections,” he said.

Bell is “curious” about the link between the two however, and in June announced the creation of a research partnership with Twitter to try and more accurately determine the relationship. “We are just early stages of this partnership, so nothing concrete to share at this time, but it’s an exciting part of our digital future,” he said.

Water-cooler conversation and chatter among friends has always played a key role in driving awareness of entertainment options said Comedy Central’s Levitt. The difference with Twitter is that it enables media brands to join their fans in those conversations.

“We see them talking about it, we can be part of the conversation, we can seed stuff into the conversation and then hopefully use that conversation and buzz to generate [viewers] for that content,” said Levitt.

To promote its new series Drunk History, for example, Comedy Central did a street stunt in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles that was specifically intended to get people to take photos and share them with their social network.

“As media marketers that’s what we do now: You stop and say ‘What can we give fans that they’re going to share?’” said Levitt. “If you’ve got a television program with a great name and a great premise you hope people are going to share it, but I think you have to give things to the fans to share. There’s never one formula, but there’s no doubt that the sharing and social chatter is a key part of any launch.”

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