Like most red-blooded American males, I grew up spending my Saturday mornings in the 80s watching the cartoonish gladiators of the WWE – it was WWF back in my day – battle in the name of good vs. evil. If you talk to your generational counterparts, they likely remember more than they’d care to admit about the wrestling from their childhood, from Jake the Snake Roberts to Ravishing Rick Rude.
These days, however, by leveraging the power of social media and specifically Twitter, WWE is revolutionizing the social TV experience. It’s worth keeping an eye on, even if you’re too cool to watch wrestling – or admit to watching it.
Wrestling’s popularity seems to be cyclical not unlike the global economy, getting a boost every few years when a new personality breaks into mainstream media. Hulk Hogan and The Rock became household names thanks to their superstar status in the ring, and moved on to bigger and better things when ratings tapered off or storylines grew stale. Still, despite fluctuations in both popularity and mainstream exposure, wrestling’s been a consistent ratings generator for cable TV networks since the inception of the platform.
TV’s biggest evolution in recent years has been the proliferation of HDTV, but over the past 12 months, social media integration has really gained a foothold in the broadcast industry. Currently, WWE is perhaps the biggest TV brand that’s putting a headlock on hashtags and making their broadcast experience truly interactive, in the process becoming the undisputed champion of social TV.
WWE’s flagship broadcast Raw airs live on USA Network every Monday night, and claims to be the longest running episodic TV program in history. While you can classify it as wrestling, the matches seem to be few and far between, and the show’s content pinballs between sports, comedy, drama and reality TV. Raw is consistently the top-rated cable program in its timeslot from 9-11 PM, and that’s impressive, considering that the show competes head-to-head with Monday Night Football for nearly half the year.
While I’ve watched more than my share of wrestling over the years, I’ve recently been drawn back in by WWE’s impressive efforts in the social media arena, and their overt efforts to socialize their programming. I expect sports broadcasting to follow suit sooner rather than later.
The company has already established a huge footprint across Facebook and Twitter, with nearly seven million likes for WWE’s Facebook page alone. Still, that doesn’t count the audience that each of their wrestlers have accumulated. John Cena, wrestling’s biggest active star, has nearly nine million Facebook likes, while characters like Triple H (2.6 MM Likes), and CM Punk (~500k Likes) have large followings controlled by the company’s headquarters in Stamford, CT.
Most of the wrestlers have their own Twitter accounts, and they seemingly operate them with a great degree of autonomy. They also enjoy impressive followings on the platform; Cena has nearly one million followers, while CM Punk, a star who recently gained notoriety, enjoys an audience of nearly 385,000 on Twitter. It’s not uncommon for the wrestlers to extend their in-ring storylines to the digital media arena, tweeting at their opponents to keep the rivalries going throughout the rest of the week. It’s a clever way for WWE to blur the lines between the wrestlers’ real lives and characters, and it keeps fans interested even when WWE programming is off the air.
On the air, however, WWE is taking it a step further, deeply integrated Twitter into their weekly Raw broadcast. Moments after the show opens with a shower of pyrotechnics and blistering music, commentators instruct fans to tweet about the show with the hashtag #Raw. Lower thirds and theme songs trumpet wrestlers’ arrival on stage, but Raw recently added a new wrinkle. Almost every lower third features the wrestler’s name and his Twitter handle. It’s a nice touch.
Ironically, despite a significant effort to choreograph the conversation around the show, with such a massive social audience tuning in, WWE generates an enormous volume of organic chatter each Monday night. Characters, as well as their dialogue, regularly trend worldwide within moments after appearing on the show. This Monday night, 30 minutes into the program, “Kevin Nash”, “Teddy Long” and “Christian and Cody Rhodes” were all trending topics on Twitter.
For example, Kevin Nash is a longtime wrestling personality who recently resurfaced on WWE programming. Apparently, if you want to make an impact on Raw, the easiest way is to ambush your old friend Triple H from behind with a sledgehammer! Seems excessive, but it was certainly effective, as Nash killed two birds with one stone. He sent Triple H to the hospital, and instantly became a worldwide trending topic on Twitter. Charlie Sheen would call that “#WINNING.”
Minutes later, the show did something unique, displaying “Kevin Nash” in an on-screen graphic, declaring him as a worldwide trending topic as play-by-play commentators informed the audience of the accomplishment. (They also noted their concern for Triple H as he convalesced from the sledgehammer attack.)
Despite the violent nature of this Monday’s opening segment, Raw typically features more dialogue between the combatants than brutal attacks and proper wrestling matches. Semi-scripted diatribes from wrestlers directed at opponents or the crowd are called “promos” in the wrestling industry, and they convey much of the inherent storytelling of the program. It’s not uncommon for a character to make an obscure reference during a promo to get the audience’s attention, and typically, those references will trend in minutes as fans tweet about what their favorite hero or anti-hero is discussing.
Cena took it a step further on Monday by promoting his relatively unknown tag-team partner Zack Ryder in his backstage promo, telling his boss – and the audience, for that matter – to follow his Twitter handle (@ZackRyder). It was blatantly shoehorned into Cena’s segment, but it was another clever way to encourage audience participation.
Honestly, there was so much Twitter talk that it bordered on overkill; repeated mentions of Twitter throughout the two-hour live broadcast began to grow stale. WWE may want to dial it back slightly, because it threatened to become obnoxious. Still, they’re experimenting to find the proper mix of social integration to compliment their wildly successful show, and they’ve made a commitment to make Monday nights a social experience for wrestling fans and Twitter junkies alike. It’s groundbreaking stuff, and you can expect more of your favorite TV shows to follow their lead.