The Secrets to ABC Family’s Success: How ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and Siblings Played Social Media and Won

“To be a network at this moment in time, it is part television and part social,” Network president Tom Ascheim tells The Wrap

Last Updated: July 21, 2015 @ 9:17 AM

ABC Family is in a symbiotic relationship with its fans, and that may be the reason why the youth-skewing network is making strides in social-media engagement that leave every other network — broadcast, cable or even streaming — struggling to emulate.

A small network with only eight original scripted shows currently on the air, ABC Family’s marquee show is “Pretty Little Liars,” the adaptation of a popular YA book series that is now in its sixth season. Consistently drawing nearly 2 million viewers every week and by far the network’s most successful show, it has already been renewed for a seventh.

“Pretty Little Liars” is even more impressive online, consistently rating in the top five of the most talked-about properties on Twitter on a weekly basis — thanks in no small part to the social media outreach efforts of the network itself.

At the core of ABC Family’s messaging is relating to its audience and serving their needs.

“We try really hard to know our audience,” network president Tom Ascheim told TheWrap. “We spent a lot of last year focusing deeply on who do we serve and what do they care about and how do we best find a role in their lives that’s not filled.”

The attention to detail has paid off, and the network is smoking the competition in terms of social media engagement and, in turn, leveraging that social media engagement to grow their audience.

pretty-little-liars

Pretty Little Liars

“Our purpose on social is to be responsive to the fans,” said Nigel Cox-Hagen, ABC Family senior vice president of marketing, creative and branding. “Our approach is responsive marketing. When we see interest in our show or around a particular cast member, we know to pick up on it and to feed that interest.”

They’re aided by mostly young and social-savvy cast members who are more than willing to contribute to the shows’ social media presence and in return boost their own.

The stars have help from people like Richard Janes, the founder of GoGoGab, a tool that helps actors like “Pretty Little Liars” star Shay Mitchel maximize their live-chatting experience during the airings of new episodes.

“ABC Family are one of the shining lights for a network that is doing social media right, across multiple platforms and multiple shows,” Janes said. “There are networks that are doing really good on one of their shows, but that’s where they’re putting all their energy. ABC Family tends to do really well across a large number of their shows.”

That may be because, as a niche network, all of ABC Family’s shows are designed to appeal to its youth-skewing target audience. ABC Family programming tends to have similar threads running through them. Family is a major theme, as most of the dramas center around teenage girls. With an audience median age of 27, the network is on the cutting edge of what young women are interested in, and what they want to see on TV.

The shows also manage to stay topical, slightly ahead of the curve when it comes to tackling social issues like LGBT rights and representation. Before Caitlyn Jenner became a touchstone for the discussion on transgender representation in media, the network had given the greenlight to “Becoming Us,” a docuseries about intertwining families in Ohio in which both fathers are transitioning into women.

the-fosters

The Fosters

“The Fosters,” a scripted hit for the network since it premiered in 2013, follows an interracial lesbian couple (played by Teri Polo and Sherri Saum) and their thoroughly modern family consisting of biological, adopted and foster children.

The series is a consistent ratings performer and has won awards for its embrace of diversity.

Like the network’s other shows, “The Fosters” caught on through conversation and built an audience through word of mouth — much of it via social media.

“During the first season, we had a pretty respectable premiere. It was solid. But then it started building and every week we went up almost through the entirety of the first season,” said Peter Paige, an executive producer. “There was a moment around episode 14 or 15 when we all looked at each other and said, ‘Holy shit! This is catching fire. People are coming and they’re staying.'”

Janes believes ABC Family gambled correctly when they put money and effort into growing their social media audience via third-party platforms like Twitter and Facebook, rather than creating their own platforms, which many other networks did.

Because they’re already ahead on that front, ABC Family is also a trailblazer in monetizing its social media presence instead of just using it as a marketing tool to lure more broadcast viewers.

For this season of “Pretty Little Liars,” Johnson & Johnson’s Neutrogena signed a deal to provide video ads for tweets featuring short clips from the show — the first time a brand has bought ad placement via Twitter’s Amplify program for an entire season.

But the monetization of social media is still in its infancy, Janes noted. “The only drawback in the industry, and I don’t think we’re there yet, is the data mining around those fans,” he said. “That’s something I don’t think is happening enough yet. That’s a ways away.”

But ABC Family is leading the charge on multiple fronts, from the challenge of keeping up with technology to changing barometers of network success to shifting definitions of “family.”

“ABC Family in a relatively short time carved a name for itself as a really important cable network,” Paige said. “They’ve succeeded where a lot of others have failed.”

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