Opinion / The Real-Time Revolution
Dana Kelly, strategy manager at Fullscreen Brandworks, the agency behind the series, on how YouTube’s @SummerBreak is changing branded storytelling
If you haven’t gone indoor skydiving, gotten a tattoo, had your heart broken, learned how to surf, performed in a poetry slam, been “subtweeted by a homie,” called a girl on a dare, or spent 80 percent of your days at the beach, you’d have little in common with the cast of @SummerBreak. But you’ll watch it anyway. The YouTube series, now in its fourth season, has amassed a cult following of tweens and young adults who have watched an evolving cast live out what many would deem a quintessential summer in Los Angeles since 2013. Each season brings a different squad, but the audience’s binging behaviour remains the same. The audience follows the entire cast on social media, tracking their every move, subtweet, hashtag, and, three times a week, their reaction to the latest episode. The show happens in near real-time, but the show and cast’s social is nothing but real-time.
The one true consistency across each season is AT&T’s sponsorship. The fact that this is branded entertainment hasn’t gotten in the way of the series accruing upwards of 458 million views and 3 billion impressions since its inaugural episode, rivaling tune-in and viewership for top teen TV shows. The show even took home a Shorty Award this year for Best Online Community, surpassing traditional entertainment franchises like American Horror Story: Hotel and Furious 7. Millions of Gen Z fans are engaging with AT&T as a result because @SummerBreak and its cast speak their digital language, and on their native platforms nonetheless.
The show’s social media ecosystem changes each season based on the demographics’ consumption trends and evolving user behaviours, which is exactly why @SummerBreak’s fandom continues to grow. Brands are now competing for the same audiences as TV networks and movie theatres, and in order to stand out, they need to optimise for the audience first. If executed well, brand affinity will follow as a close second.
As brands like AT&T take on entertainment franchises of their own, it’s imperative to consider how audiences’ social communication trends create opportunities for content engagement. The mindset that the audience comes first and the brand comes second is not easy for marketers to wrap their head around, but this is the whitespace in which @SummerBreak’s approach to “friendertainment” was born. The show behaves like a friend online in real-time, and fuels further dialogue between its digital fans and friendships. @SummerBreak handles reward fans with merch and exclusive content; while the casts’ handles supply more coveted one-to-one fan engagements. To further drive fan conversation around the show, and subsequently, AT&T, there’s a need to understand real-time needs as they relate to entertainment. It’s important to create content and stories at the speed of youth and adapt quickly to change. That’s where the show really takes the marketer’s toolkit and flips it on its head for great storytelling. But it’s not about reinventing the wheel; it’s leveraging trends and a native teen-owned dialect to communicate to them by proxy.
Noting the growing importance of real-time content, @SummerBreak has made shifts in its season for social strategy, ramping up daily content on Snapchat (@SummerBreakSnap) and adding the likes of new messaging app Public, among other teen favorites Wishbone (@SummerBreak) and Giphy. These new platforms complement the show’s presence on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, and of course, YouTube. The strategy is to fully immerse the audience into the cast’s lives and arm them with the tools to communicate in their native digital language. Just as Snapchat surpasses Instagram’s popularity and has become the preferred social platform for teens, messaging apps have been a dark horse vying for teen attention. Fullscreen and AT&T have taken note. According to eMarketer, 65 percent of smartphone users will engage with messaging apps by 2017, with that number increasing to 70 percent in 2018 and 74 percent in 2019. Pew Research Center found that teens are sending a median number of 30 texts a day, suggesting that adding real-time Snapchat content and a messaging component to SB4 is a natural opportunity for deeper show engagement. And it separates @SummerBreak from the pack. While network shows are able to drum up fan engagement and excitement during weekly episodes, social is primarily used as a tool to drive conversation around tune-in, episode recaps, and cast Q+As months after the season has been shot. Publishing daily and real-time content for @SummerBreak allows unprecedented access for fans to become advocates of the show, which also means they co-sign and spread AT&T’s brand message by sharing thousands of attributed social assets per season.
Keeping in the spirit of innovation for every season, @SummerBreak has made use of Public, which allows the cast’s group text conversation to be public for fans to view as voyeurs. Fans can comment on the conversation, leave emoji reactions to individual messages, and the cast is able to respond to fans messages directly. Allowing fans to see the cast’s interactions in real time as they film the season not only fuels a deeper fan experience, but showcases the cast acting as they normally do in the context of the teen text dialect. There are “ship names” being thrown around, GIFs pulled in from the @SummerBreak Giphy, and conversational recaps about each episode. The messaging hub truly reflects audience communication trends and allows fans to have 24/7 access to their favorite teenage squad.
Initial results suggest that the shift to real-time coverage on social resonates with the show’s predominant teen girl audience. Daily Snapchat content from the cast’s POV spiked a 10% increase in followers on the pre-existing handle just half-way through the season, while the cast’s group text thread (public.chat/summerbreak) has been viewed by new and returning users upwards of 324,000+ times. Within three days of the new season launching, @SummerBreak GIFs on Giphy had accrued nearly 7 million impressions. By season’s end that number skyrocketed to 38 million impressions. While success is hard to determine on emerging platforms, the numbers suggest fans crave closeness to their “friendertainment” communities and that communicating to audiences in their digital language brings fans closer to the content they love. This is why brands need to pay attention to trends. If they can communicate natively without sticking out like a sore thumb, they can become, or stay, relevant with their audience. Marketers can utilise AT&T’s @SummerBreak as a use case for connecting 1:1 with Millennials and Gen Z. The franchise’s commitment to optimising its social strategy based on audience trends and testing new platforms has helped contribute to its mass popularity and thriving digital community. The combination of content quality and social innovation has allowed for fans to view AT&T as an intrinsic part of the @SummerBreak experience rather than fight the brand’s presence.