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#SavetheExpanse Is a Master Class in User-Generated Content

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It’s been a rough year for eccentric TV.

From beloved buddy-cop comedies to devilish procedural dramas, TV fans are starting to wonder when their next favorite show might be up on the chopping block. But perhaps for the first time in entertainment history, it looks like many of these cancelled shows are finding new homes just as quickly as they are losing their contracts.

What’s changed? Fans are now coordinating, producing user-generated content, and even executing makeshift marketing campaigns—including funding a rocket launch—to save their favorite programs.

Fan campaigns themselves aren’t a new phenomenon. Shows like Firefly and Jericho also had earnest viewers taking desperate measures to try and revive their favorite franchises. Usually these efforts were met with silence or perhaps a conciliatory movie. But today, TV fans seem to be saving shows left and right, transferring beloved programs from cable networks to digital streaming platforms.

There are a number of entertainment industry factors that play into these victories: new options for television viewing, media companies willing to try new formats, and the decline of traditional metrics like Nielsen Ratings. But you don’t have to be an eagle-eyed marketer to notice something else is going on—viewers are organizing and communicating in ways and at scales that we’ve never seen before.

One particular show axing caught my eye this past year: Syfy’s cancellation of futuristic detective drama The Expanse back in May. Full disclosure, my interest was also personally motivated. I was following the show weekly . . . after reading the books . . . and dressing up as a character for Halloween. It’s definitely safe to classify me in the fan population for this one. But beyond my personal investment, the show’s cancellation prompted a viewer-driven user-generated content campaign on a scale that absolutely baffled me. How did a show that was struggling to keep a weekly viewership of around half a million become a top trending topic on Twitter at the drop of a hat? And how, after a couple of weeks of non-stop campaigning, were they able to convince Jeff Bezos to pick the show up for renewal?

The answer is simple: Authentic, earnest audience engagement resulted in a likewise authentic and earnest response from a brand.

Three friends watch a video on a cellphone

Image attribution: Brodie Vissers

Anatomy of a Twitter Heist: Stealing Awareness

From day one of the show’s announced cancellation, #SaveTheExpanse became a sort of online rallying call and quiet plea for the show’s cast, crew, and fans. The hashtag would go on to top Twitter’s trending ranks for a number of days, slipping around top-five positions as conversations ebbed and flowed.

But as any freshly minted social media marketer quickly learns, it takes more than a hashtag to drive a successful social media campaign. It takes a highly specialized mix of social media presences to support a well-constructed user content campaign. In the case of #SaveTheExpanse, this included two important archetypes: the Organizer and the Devotee.

The first—and perhaps most key—figure involved in a user-driven campaign is the Organizer. Organizers have three key functions: They serve as a central point of truth for updates and news, they curate and aggregate user-generated content, and they communicate a clear purpose and message to their audience. If this description sounds like a sleepless combination of marketing director, PR specialist, and community manager, than you’re not far off.

For The Expanse, this role was primarily filled by Cas Anvar. Resident producer and actor of the show’s lovable pilot, Alex, Cas was always a playful and personable presence for The Expanse’s social community. With the show’s cancellation, however, he quickly turned into something of a field marshal.

From explaining the goals of their campaign and giving visitors an easy playbook for participation while also sharing some fan-made infographics . . .

. . . to participating in fan-made content like webinars . . .

. . . to sharing and curating user content about the show . . .

. . . Cas’ Twitter presence is a fantastic example of community organization.

For brands, however, this might not be so straightforward a task—perhaps your B2B tech company doesn’t have a large influx of user praise to retweet, or you require multiple people to keep up with your industry news around the clock. While some might suggest you invest in a coffee stipend for your social media team, you might instead take nods from Cas’ tactics at a high level: Make your brand accessible, be as responsive as possible, and—if you ask your audience to do something—give them all of the resources they need to make the action simple and fun.

Following the Organizer is a very similar role: the Devotee. Take a moment and make a short list of some brands you really enjoy or feel loyalty towards. Now, hop on social media and see how many clicks or searches it takes for you to find someone who works at that brand who loves it as much as you do. For brands with a healthy social media presence, it shouldn’t take long.

The tricky part comes with how to make this love feel genuine. Most digitally present consumers today understand at some level that your brand’s presence is manufactored to keep them at an arm’s distance. This means that excited fans don’t always get the inside look they want and that you’ll always have a slight, quiet tension with your audience who knows that everything you say has at least a small marketing bent.

Devotees serve a vital role for your social media community by cutting through this noise to offer an enormous amount of credibility and authenticity for your brand. They are people who work within your brand who are vocal about why they care about the company, how it impacts their life, and what behind-the-scenes goodness excites them from day to day.

For The Expanse, we find the Devotee through the writers room Twitter account. All of The Expanse’s writing team is present on Twitter, live tweeting through episodes with viewers, sharing their brainstorming sessions, and tackling some of the complex critical discussions that viewers bring up about the show—from the proper physics behind artificial gravity to the importance of cultural representation in space. All of these conversations display a genuine excitement from the writers about the cool work their team gets to do.

Is this all to say that two Twitter accounts alone were enough to pull off #SaveTheExpanse? Not at all. Along with the showrunners, people like executive producer Naren Shankar and The Expanse authors James S.A. Corey (a pseudonym for the writing duo) as well as the whole cast and crew served as Organizers and Devotees in their own rights throughout. In the end, what brought it all together was that once the team did the good work of organizing and offering a looking into their world, they stepped back and let their audience do the rest.

Literally Putting the Show into Space

User-generated content was by far the determining factor that lead to Jeff Bezos’ decision to push for the show’s acquisition. But what made it stand out?

Enhanced assets are the first huge distinguisher that comes to mind for #SaveTheExpanse. Tweets and quotes are always appreciated by brands, but when your audience steps up to produce images, animations, or even full-fledged video content, it elevates your audience engagement to a whole other level.

Encouraging the development of these assets isn’t easy though—they take time, effort, and resources that can be hard to pull from visitors. Having highly engaged organizers who promote the content, earnestly thank contributors, and reward them for engaging will always be the best way to organically encourage the creation of enhanced content assets.

Where possible, it also helps to offer resources to your content creators to make the process simpler or more exciting. The Expanse has a big advantage here since its product is long-form video content. For instance, take this trailer that the cast and crew shared with their audience.

Shares and thanks were enough to elevate this freely made content and inspire similar projects to meet smaller niches (like this explainer style video for social media).

Encouragement and curation are a natural way to guide your audience engagement to continue producing and scaling efforts that matter for your campaign. Over time, #SaveTheExpanse developed from Twitter conversations to a dedicated Reddit community with a full-blown marketing plan, an airplane that circled Hollywood for a day, and ultimately even sending a scale model of The Expanse’s iconic ship, the Rocinante, into actual space.

What does this all add up to? Besides a fourth season for me to get excited about, it presents a clear and challenging message for marketers. Authenticity and community interaction aren’t principles you tell your audience you have: They are tactics that require constant engagement, encouragement, and consideration. Seek out ways to be excited about your brand, share that clearly with your audience, and then elevate their excitement when they reciprocate it back to your brand with content.

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Featured image attribution: PIRO4D

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?

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