Customer relations in film and media: How close is too close?

Given the extremely direct, two-way communication with customers afforded to companies through e-marketing, is it conceivable that this personalized service can become an out-of-control monster, taxing the resources of a firm’s public relations department?

It is indeed possible, particularly in regards to film* and television production companies, both of which receive immense public attention as it is. Granted, outside of the inner discussions of these firms (and perhaps a few highly publicized disasters), few will admit to any such failure, but a simple perusal of some existing campaigns serve as good evidence of poor e-marketing decisions:

Case in point, virtually anything marketed to the male teenage crowd – and here I speak mainly from experience with YouTube, having been successful in creating one all-original video to have surpassed the million-view mark – will be met with an onslaught of social media and email communication demanding instant gratification over one’s latest film or video in progress, if previously released in a teaser format.

For a small developer (such as myself), crank messages such as I describe above may be manageable; yet, the same situation can multiply into a customer relations bottleneck with any project of far greater visibility to the general public – the marketing of a popular television show or motion picture, for instance – and possibly work against the company’s image if these overeager, impatient consumers are handled without due care.

In the case of YouTube, the choices are difficult – blocking comments defeats the purpose of online buzz, allowing all comments yields trash commentary with no redeeming excuse for their existence (amongst the good), and a single person can spend an entire workday moderating comments on just a view viral videos (and a robot may not do the job adequately).

What’s more, it is also quite likely that these individuals will remain impossible to please in any practical manner through online channels – until they get what they want. Yet, these two-way interactions are often the best form of damage control and will keep internet pests at bay until the content they want is available to them. Despite their previous criticism, a good portion of these same people will follow through and make a purchase.

On the other hand, these social media venues can result in excellent consumer feedback – if used properly. Too frequently, this is not the case. Consider Starz Entertainment, a PPV cable company with 134,000 Facebook followers, who recently posted a poll to their followers (“What’s Your Favorite Starz Original Series?”), but did so by phrasing their poll question as the headline to one of their photo albums. A poll format was not used, and users were expected to reply to the comments section. Of Starz’ 134,000 Facebook followers, all of 46 used the comments section to voice their opinions – not quite the response rate needed for a meaningful survey of their social media followers (and not quite the easiest method to calculate metrics either).

Why was the response rate so low? Just like visitors to any other website, users of social media expect consistency and simplicity in website navigation and will not spend time to find something that is needlessly obscure. As the Starz example demonstrates, Facebook users are not looking to vote for their favorite Starz shows in photo albums that are comprised of the usual comments section and nothing else (even I was looking for checkboxes and/or a Likert scale), and they won’t spend time to give their input if they feel it will take more effort than a few clicks on a radio button in an intuitive area of the website. Any of the popular Facebook application/plug-in polls – simply by virtue of simplicity – would have been far more likely to garner a healthier response rate.

Quite ironically, these “polls” were posted shortly following the cancellation of two very well-received Starz programs, Boss and Spartacus. Both of these shows are quite notable in that they have spurred the same exact debate in multiple internet discussion forums: Which of the two shows is the best?

While I cannot speak for the reasoning or logistics which resulted in the cancellation of either show, an online ethnographer would undoubtedly argue that the cancellation of these shows resulted in a poll that was not only poorly executed, but poorly timed (indeed, many of the 46 comments relating to the poll are Starz subscribers expressing their disapproval of the cancellations).

It is worth noting that, at this time, Starz has been drawing attention towards its new (and locally-produced, I might add) series, Magic City, which is nearing the release of its second season. However, Magic City has a mediocre track record with Starz subscribers – easily observable through multiple internet forum discussions. If the point of these efforts are to shift subscribers towards Magic City and their other current offerings, Starz’ e-marketing efforts have fallen short.

On a side note: At the initial release of Magic City in mid-2012, Starz’ introductory website for the show (http://www.magiccitysweeps.starz.com, since replaced with a standard landing page on the Starz website) boasted a raffle for a restored 1958 Cadillac, links to visit the Starz Facebook page, and allowed users to forward an “internet postcard” from the fictional Miramar Playa hotel that serves as the center of the show’s plot. Not quite the pinnacle of interactive online marketing, nor particularly effective (after a few visits to the site, I found myself questioning why I would send anyone a postcard from a hotel that does not exist while I am not on vacation). I was not surprised to see that the site counter and the view count of Starz’ YouTube promotional video for the Cadillac raffle remained roughly equal.

That’s not to say that there aren’t any positives to be derived from close contact with the viewing public, as fan feedback gave MGM the direction to improve the James Bond franchise with the release of Skyfall last year. Skyfall – though modern – is laden with classic Bond elements, which was sorely lacking in the film’s heavily criticized (both by fans online and by critics in print) predecessor, Quantum of Solace. In part, appeasing these fan complaints have resulted in Skyfall being heralded as one of the best entries yet in the Bond franchise – though it could be argued that viewer input over Skyfall has been partially influenced by an intense campaign of propagandistic press releases. Either way, observation of online communities show acceptance and favor for Skyfall; in short, MGM’s homework paid off.

-Kurt Kaminer

*I use the term “video” to refer to both 35mm content and that shot on viral video, for the boundaries between the equipment used for movies, television, and YouTube viral sensations are beginning to blur.

For an additional insight on the pros and cons of e-marketing, see the following:

Sensible Marketing: How much interactivity does online marketing need? 

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