Why Disney channel Freeform is betting on social apps

As TV ratings continue to slide, networks have been throwing everything at the wall in the hopes of getting viewers to tune into programming live. For Disney’s teen-skewing cable channel Freeform (formerly ABC Family), that means spending a lot more time and money on social platforms.

This month, Freeform launched a campaign on mobile app Wishbone, an app that allows its predominantly teen users to weigh in on various polls related to pop culture. In the app, Freeform is allowing fans to vote on various elements related to five of its TV series. For “Guilt,” a new series about an American student in London whose roommate gets murdered, the network is creating polls asking fans to vote on various plot elements. For its flagship show, “Pretty Little Liars,” which premieres next week, fans will be asked to vote on plot decisions, characters’ wardrobes and other things as they happen during the broadcast.

Freeform noticed fans of its programming were already posting content on the app organically. When the network experimented with a few polls tied to programming stunts like “Man-Crush Movie Week” and “‘Frozen’ Weekend,” it saw 4 million and 5 million total votes, respectively.

“Social media has become a critical part of Freeform’s [marketing] strategy,” said Dalia Ganz, director of digital and partnership marketing for Freeform. “We would like to think we’re ahead of what our fans are doing. It’s why we’re on Wishbone. Fans were already creating polls.”

Wishbone is just the latest social marketing campaign for Freeform. In the past year, the network has been publishing on Snapchat and Pinterest, among other social platforms, in an effort to engage fans and drive tune-in. For instance, on Snapchat, where it has 2 million followers across six accounts, the network works with artist Mike Platco to create content and provide live reactions during each episode of “Pretty Little Liars.” It also regularly has series stars takeover the account for a day. On Pinterest, where it has 180,000 followers, Freeform will post fan art, images of characters in different outfits and photos from the set.

They’d be foolish not to: Freeform’s target audience of 14-to 34-year-olds are already heavy users of these social platforms. A majority of Wishbone’s 4 million monthly users are girls between the ages of 13 and 18, the company said. On any given day, Snapchat reaches 41 percent of all 18-to 34-year-olds in the United States, according to a Nielsen study from last year.

By giving social users a reason to engage with show content before, during and after a TV broadcast, the hope is that Freeform can create a sense of appointment viewing around its original series.

“One of the top reasons people don’t watch is because they forgot that [a show] was on,” said Ganz. And so, Freeform adds tune-in information or provides links to where viewers can watch its series online.

“There isn’t a single TV network or programmer that’s not experimenting with these new social platforms to try and drive tune-in,” said Bernard Gershon, president of GershonMedia. “But once you decide to do something on Snapchat, the content has to be customized to that platform.”

Ganz said Freeform approaches each platform differently. Even at a basic level, the network’s in-house creative team is skilled at cutting different scenes in a vertical format, which it can then use for Snapchat and Wishbone.

And yet, it remains unclear whether social media is driving people to watch TV. “Pretty Little Liars,” while certainly a hit for Freeform, averaged 3.9 million live and time-shifted viewers during its fourth season, according to Nielsen. Its sixth season episode average dipped to nearly 2.9 million viewers. It’s hard to tell how much of the drop was affected by the overall decline in TV viewership and how much was offset by social marketing initiatives Freeform has undertaken in the past year.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” said Ganz. “Nobody has quite been able to crack the nut and actually show a closed-loop between social media and tune-in. But we know we’re engaging with fans on every platform during an episode, and we know they’re watching with us. We really make a point of ‘event-izing’ episodes.”


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