Lessons Learned from Sharknado

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By: Daniel Hoffmann, Digital Fellow

Sharknado was a perfect storm. But what exactly happened on July 12th to make a campy science fiction movie into a worldwide social media phenomenon?

The Power of a Niche

The conversation started in Syfy’s niche community of viewers. The network retweeted dedicated SyFy fans who were already tweeting about the movie and began sending out tongue-in-cheek warnings of the impending Sharknado hours in advance. This gave fans even more reason to chat about the show. Syfy was smart to engage directly with its viewers, but any smart brand can drum up activity within a niche community. There had to be more to the story.

Influencers From Far and Wide

Influencers started talking about Sharknado early and often in the hours leading up to the movie’s airing. According to Twitter’s Data Editor Simon Rogers, about 15% of the conversation came from only 495 accounts. Lost co-creator Damon Lindelof started tweeting about the movie to more than 250,000 followers. Then, the reach of Sharknado expanded dramatically when actor Will Wheaton, who has more than 2.4 million followers, joined in.

The political media community seemed particularly interested too. CNN’s Jake Tapper, WaPo’s Ezra Klein, and NBC’s Chuck Todd were all in the inner cycle of active Sharknado Twitter participants. The fact that influencers like this were engaged speaks to the wide reaching power of Sharknado. The concept was so ridiculous that anyone—regardless of the communities they would normally circulate in—was able to contribute their take on the event. No one wanted to miss out on what was shaping up to be the cultural phenomenon of the summer.

Because of this, it’s possible that Sharknado was primed for viral success from the start. In the days leading up to the broadcast, the Washington Post explained, “Without even having seen the movie, it looks to be legendary for its awfulness – which probably makes it worth watching. TheBlaze.com exclaimed, “Looks awful, right? Of course it does! And yet, for some strange reason, we’re excited to see it.”

Tweets vs. Viewers

Sharknado dominated the conversation on July 12th. It was the most tweeted about TV event, beating out CBS’ Big Brother and two primetime baseball match ups. Sharknado spun up more than seven times the number of tweets sent about MTV’s Girl Code. At one point, #Sharknado, #Syfy and #TaraReid were all trending at the same time. While it seems improbable that a science fiction movie about sharks and tornadoes could compete with the Yankees or a major network show, social media made it a possibility.

It was the perfect storm of a niche community joining forces with a few key influencers on a topic that was remarkable and strange enough to pique the interest of users. Once #Sharknado started appearing in Twitter feeds around the world, everyone wanted to know what the fuss was about.

The Twitter community was clearly swept up in the Sharknado, but the movie’s performance on television was comparatively lackluster. According to Nielsen, 1.2 million people were watching when the program began. Sharknado’s viewership peaked between 10:45 and 11 p.m., when about 1.6 million were tuned in.

This suggests that many Twitter users were engaging in the conversation without even watching the movie. People read, replied to, and retweeted Sharknado tweets but they could have been accessing Twitter from anywhere. They didn’t need to tune in because the real show was unfolding online.

Brands and Organizations Join the Fun

As the show ended, a window of opportunity opened for brands and organizations to show their social media savvy. The next day, Whataburger let fans know that they’d be open and available anywhere a Sharknado hit:

U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius chimed in, announcing that Obamacare would help those impacted by the storm:

The Red Cross of Oklahoma announced that they were standing ready in case the Sharknado ever became a reality. That account, which averages just a handful of retweets per message, saw more than 1,500 retweets for this one:

Brands recognized the far-reaching appeal of Sharknado and found any way to make a connection between their brand and the absurd weather phenomenon. This further amplified the Twitter frenzy, as huge brands like McDonalds and Taco Bell tweeted out to millions who otherwise might have been excluded from #Sharknado.

What We Can Learn

There’s much to be learned from the Sharknado phenomenon. Syfy reminded all of us that there’s value in engaging directly with passionate fans and brand evangelists. They demonstrated that when you create a fun, organic conversation around your brand, even a small niche group of supporters can cause a domino effect.

The pre-show buzz also proved that while individual users now hold more power than ever to share their message, influencers and celebrities still serve as effective leaders and brand advocates. Without their involvement, it’s possible that the noise around Sharknado online would have been a lot quieter.

Most importantly, Sharknado stands as a testament to the power of the community in deciding what matters. A relatively small number of Twitter users decided that Sharknado was worth talking about. But their enthusiasm turned what would have otherwise been a silly movie into a story worth talking about around the world. Ultimately, the concept of a Sharknado was so absurd that anyone felt comfortable entering the discussion.