Jon Thomas
Jon Thomas
Communications Director

Is Twitter a Gold Mine for Character-Based Brand Storytelling?

This post originally appeared in our December ’12 issue of “Live Report from the Future of Marketing,” our monthly Post-Advertising newsletter. Subscribe for free here.

My wife has never seen the movie Goonies, released in 1985. That’s a shame. So many classic lines, and one of the most well known yet practically silent characters, Lotney Fratelli, better known to the masses as Sloth. 

The strong, silent type, Sloth had only three audible lines, but anyone who has seen the movie can recite his most famous one, “Sloth love Chunk!” 

For the more than two decades since the movie’s release, the only words Sloth muttered were those in his three lines. That is, until he joined Twitter.

In August 2009, Sloth tweeted “Hey you guys!” His handle: @SlothGoonies. His location: In a basement. His run on Twitter lasted only two months and garnered only 20 followers, but they were a glorious two months for those of us who love Goonies.

Twitter gave a voice to all, in 140 or fewer characters. But what may not have been expected was who (or sometimes what) would manifest themselves/itself on Twitter. Characters from our favorite movies, television shows and commercials came to life on the social platform. Some of these were created by forward-thinking brands or media outlets, but most of them, like @SlothGoonies, were created by superfans, who cared about a character and show. When these characters find success on Twitter, it can create a wealth of earned media for the brand.

Mad Men’s Success 

It’s not surprising that with the success of Mad Men, a drama depicting life in advertising in the 1960s, came a number of fan-based Twitter accounts for the show’s characters. Helen Klein Ross, a social storyteller and advertiser, brought @BettyDraper, Don Draper’s ex-wife, to life. A cursory look at @BettyDraper’s “Rolodex” (a Twitter list) reveals 91 Mad Men–related Twitter accounts, including a half dozen Don Drapers and one for Don’s daughter, @sally_draper, a fainting couch and the copy machine. These accounts, often working together, extend the story line beyond just what’s seen on film, including @sally_draper’s live tweeting of the Beatles’ concert at Shea Stadium, which was briefly mentioned on the show (Don called Sally to tell her the good news that they were going to attend).  

Mad Men is the common case study for character-based Twitter success, but just having a Twitter account doesn’t mean that positive earned media will follow. The endeavor, whether created by the brand or by its fans, has the potential to create more questions and anxiety than social-media momentum. 

Does every brand character, like Tony the Tiger, Toucan Sam and the Green Giant, need a Twitter account? What if a fan creates the account first, as in the case of Mad Men? Should a brand seek out and quell these accounts, particularly if there is no brand oversight, or is it more authentic if the account is fan run? 

When Fans Take the Wheel

While Mad Men is an early success story, one popular fan-driven character is the Twitter manifestation of Kenny Powers, the not politically correct protagonist of the short-lived HBO show Eastbound & Down. His handle, @KFUCKINGP (his language, not mine), boasts nearly half a million followers. As there’s a dedicated author behind the account who’s perfectly in tune with the character’s tone of voice and humor, one would imagine that this is a huge win for HBO. I mean, who doesn’t love earned media and free labor?

While the account does offer classic one-liners that are not safe for work and constantly promotes the show’s upcoming episodes and seasons, a closer look finds the author of the account using the audience for his own benefit. In various tweets, he asks vendors for swag, promotes questionable contests and even gets paid to tweet (or at least appears to be being paid, because he uses the #ad hashtag).  

The popularity of the account implies that HBO’s not creating its own Twitter account based on the Kenny Powers character was a missed opportunity for the network. In an age when brand real estate is claimed on a first-come, first-served basis, however, the larger incentive for HBO to support a character-based account would be to avoid the pitfalls that come with an unpoliced, fan-run account. The popularity and exposure are nice, but credibility is paramount ensuring that an accurate brand story is told. 

When Brands Take the Wheel 

Should a brand decide to extend its character’s persona into the social sphere, a unique world in which fans can actually interact with their beloved character awaits. But unlike standard branded Twitter accounts, it’s not a ticket to one-way self-promotionville.

Progressive found success on TV with its bubbly insurance salesperson, Flo. If you can’t get enough of her enthusiasm in Progressive’s commercials, you can hop over to Twitter and read her daily musings. On a social platform designed for short, witty comments, Flo is primed to succeed. But @ItsFlo follows only 43 people, and of her 1,422 tweets, zero of them are @ replies. The tone of voice is spot-on, and the content is split evenly between self-promotion and witty banter, but the lack of fan interaction limits the brand’s ability to endear itself to fans.

On the flip side, it is a slippery slope when a fictional character tries to engage with the real world. What would the character say? How would they interact? Is that really the point of view that character would take? Six characters from Fox’s Glee are on Twitter (Kurt, Quinn, Rachel, Brittany, Sue and Will), but none of them engage with the audience. Homer Simpson, who has nearly a million followers, doesn’t reply either. It’s a clear attempt to avoid any possible fan interaction snafus. 

Out on a Ledge

There’s no question that Twitter offers a unique opportunity for brands to engage audiences through their characters, but it seems that it’s difficult to protect a character’s authenticity while engaging with a real-world audience. Character accounts started by superfans seem to drive the most engagement and get all the press, as in the cases of Mad Men and Eastbound & Down, but come with risks (what if the fan uses the audience for self-serving purposes? What if the fan simply quits or writes something that’s completely out of character?). Character accounts started by brands maintain the character’s authentic persona and tone of voice and even garner considerable audiences (as measured by number of followers) but rarely create far-reaching earned media, since there’s little to no two-way engagement with the audience.

For a brand, whether it’s a television show or a buttery spread, to find success in this space, it is going to have to extend itself beyond its comfort zone.

Here are a few things to keep in mind: 

1. Keep to a regular content-publishing schedule
It doesn’t have to be every day, but manage the audience’s expectations and adhere to what you promised.

2. Content matters
The character can promote, but most of the content should be shareable and/or engaging.

3. Keep brand and character separate
Don’t mix up roles and responsibilities. In the case of Progressive, @ItsFlo should be engaging but direct all customer complaints to the appropriate Twitter handle.

4. Model best practices
There’s no broadcaster or agency that could create a Twitter handle for every single character and inanimate object on a show. Instead, work together with fan-created accounts to be a best-practice example.

5. Attract audiences with exclusive content
Use Twitter as a place to extend the story, playing out storylines that simply couldn’t be expanded during the show. This can be especially useful for 30-second advertisements as well. 

There’s no clear blueprint for how brands should proceed, and there’s always a risk that fans will taking the wheel when brands hesitate. But there’s enough potential for earned media that brands should take a very serious look at bringing their characters to life.

What characters do you follow? 

Image via IMDB

  • TStoryteller

    There is a huge opportunity for consumer engagement with Twitter characters but the core problem with what we see today is a lack of story. These characters need real lives with drama. Without story there’s no engagement.

    If we look at @itsFlo – she’s talking jibberish and holding a handbag that says I heart Insurance?! No wonder so few people follow – it’s pointless. The character has lots of potential but someone needs to write episodic content for her – vignettes of her life, her loves, her woes. Something with an arc… ie. real content with value that communicates the brand values through her actions or her virtual friends.
    Why not use Twitter to tell the full story behind the 30sec ad break?

    In between ad breaks keep Flo alive with other stories that build to future advertising slots. Now we have ads that people want to see to resolve Flo’s journey.

    Our technology does exactly this – bring stories to life on social media. And we allow fans to interact with characters on Twitter, Facebook etc. and the characters respond automatically with scripted replies – sending them personal DM’s or public @replies. Characters can ask fans for advice on dating, hairstyles or whether to purchase or lease – maybe triggering a branching narrative.

    Too many brands have nothing to say on Twitter so they talk about themselves to try to start disingenuous conversations that few care about. Now is the time for brands to create interactive characters who tell mini-Twitter novellas and make the brand relevant, resonate and worth following.

  • Jon Thomas

    Wonderful ideas! The opportunities are truly endless, especially when 30-second ad spots are so limiting (and expensive).

  • Matt Haze

    I’ve written @30RockTree, an account as the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, for three years now. I’ve developed it as a real character with personality that stands out. A few weeks after I started doing it, someone who follows the account took a photo of them hugging the tree and sent it to the account. I realized that I created a real personification of a tree. Since then, the account has opened doors to professional opportunities and connections that would take years to crack. It’s all about being creative. It CAN work. You just have to be willing to make it work and take it to a whole new level.

  • Jon Thomas

    Great insight Matt. Thank you!

    PS. Your secret identity is safe with us.

  • Meagan Dahl

    Absolutely love these examples! I think this is an important note all marketers should take, that Twitter allows the opportunity for quick, to-the-point transmedia storytelling opportunities for both individuals and brands. A group of friends and I put on the persona of “ladies who lunch” on twitter to poke fun at ourselves. We devised our own hashtag and post photos of our fancy outfits and imaginary drama at the country club. It’s all for a laugh but it taught me valuable insights into how characters can be created in limited time and space, and could be easily applied to a brand’s persona. Again, thanks for sharing your insights!

  • Jon Thomas

    Thanks for the comment!

  • Paul Sanders

    I agree totally about character-driven content. You’re tapping into an existing fanbase that is already in on the joke. Perhaps that’s why I follow so many comedians on Twitter; it’s the perfect medium for snark. But I think you can build narrative around any type of content you’re creating if you find out what the narrative your audience is following might be. That’s where marketing personas come in handy.