Call me Ishmael.
— Moby Dick (@MobyDickatSea) December 31, 2015
I work on specific social media accounts for Broadway shows within the agency. This affords the opportunity to use the voice of characters to bring a brand to life online. Often, I will be in client meetings, especially for new shows, and producers will have the idea to take a character in the show and put them on social media to engage fans. It certainly helps when a show has the writer available to guide the tone and voice of the people that they’ve created.
But what about a fictional character in a story? Or ones in a story where the author or playwright is no longer alive? Let’s use Moby Dick as an example. Does Captain Ahab have a space in the social sphere, on Twitter or Facebook? Moby Dick is in the public domain, but what would Herman Melville think about this?
Pretty much. pic.twitter.com/IC1LE7DBgD
— Captain Ahab (@ahab_captain) January 8, 2016
He’d probably love it. Maybe. At least I think so. But is that our call to make?
If social media is a place to share our thoughts, musings, emotions, news and life, what gives me the the power to tweet Captain Ahab’s thoughts on the GOP debate? When is it okay to take on this role? With a sea of fictional characters already dominating the space, where is this all going?
I interviewed two people that are uniquely positioned to weigh in on this topic: Michael Bellavia is the owner of HelpsGood and is the voice of Smokey the Bear whose clients include non-profits like the Ad Council. Mikhael Tara Garver, is a leader in the immersive theatre space.
Why should characters be on social media?
BELLAVIA: Social media is all about authenticity and intimacy. The personification of a character allows a show’s meta narrative to live on and take a life of its own that can either exist within or in parallel to source storyworld. And if the source material’s producers don’t personify a character within social often the fans will. For example take a look at Snape on Twitter and how the recent death of Alan Rickman has resulted in the character account breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge its own mortality. There’s a degree of post-modernist artful storytelling at play as well as a good deal of tomfoolery that draws you in closer to the character making him feel even more authentic even though he doesn’t exist and isn’t even being controlled by the original author.
RIP Alan Rickman pic.twitter.com/6FNkooM6pN
— Professor Snape (@_Snape_) January 14, 2016
GARVER: Theater is our cultural expression of what it is to be human… And being human today means that we are represented on all sorts of stages. So a character that extends onto social media potentially connects the audience even more immediately to them. Character performance online incorporates marketing more organically into the journey of the show.
How do you determine the voice and content for a character?
BELLAVIA: In some cases the social media voice of a character should be exactly the same voice as the character from its source material. In other cases, the character voice in its origins may be relatively neutered, relegated to spouting a catchphrase or a slogan “They’re Great,” “Aflac!,” or “Only You Can Prevent Wildfires!” On the Smokey Bear campaign working with the Ad Council, the US Forest Service and the National Association of State Foresters, HelpsGood spent a lot of time digging deep into who Smokey was and who he aspires to continue to be. As the longest running PSA icon in American history we wanted to honor his heritage while making him relevant to Generation LOL. We worked at crafting a character bible of sorts to convey this avuncular bear’s wildfire prevention message across a vast array of social channels.
GARVER: I approach it like a playwright. Who is this character? What platforms do they use? Does their age impact how they are more or less comfortable? Are they more comfortable speaking in images or words? Who do they think they are speaking to when they use social? How much does the show want to reveal prior to the live experience? How does the show want to transition audience from their social relationships with character to their live experience? All of these things impact the content and voice in small and massive ways.
Do you think there is a time where it’s not appropriate for a character to have its own social media account?
BELLAVIA: If a character’s personification and posts somehow undermine the impact of the underlying source narrative material you might want to reconsider the approach. Ultimately it boils down to a cost benefit analysis — is the invested effort in creating the account for a tertiary character in a narrative justified to help sustain the property overall?
GARVER: Yes. I think there are some characters who do NOT speak this way and it tells more of their character by their lack of communication. However, that has to be a choice now. I also think that if there is not a way to be thoughtful about their voice in social and they are a character who deals with hateful or evil content — it is not the best choice.
Where do you see this going in the next few years?
BELLAVIA: There are an increasing number of character driven accounts with many of them becoming purposefully disposable based on a short-lived narrative arc. As opposed to say God, who likely will be around forever, character accounts like Pharrell’s Hat may have cultural impact for a brief period of time or be able to reemerge based on some recalled zeitgeist like the woman who used to sit next to Kim Davis and when Kim Davis showed up at the State of the Union speech. Now that the tail for all content is infinite, social can help capitalize on or propel new opportunities for re-engagement.
#KimDavis at the SOTU tonight. Keep an eye on those official US Congress staplers, folks!
— Sitnexto Kim Davis (@nexttokimdavis) January 12, 2016
GARVER: I think that the world of the show will more specifically and uniquely begin with social. I think that as more and more shows use social for character performance it will mean that those that don’t are doing that as a more specific choice. But I hope that we can continue to develop our care in thinking about the extension of live into the world of social. The unique platforms and the craft of thoughtful language that can extend the world of the show instead of just using the imprint of a character for promotion. I work in immersive as well as non-immersive theater. But the innate immersive performance we all live in is on social and so I see that social is going to be an exciting extension of the world where marketing and theater can collide!
“Consider the subtleness of the sea; how its most dreaded creatures glide under water, unapparent for the most part, & treacherously hidden”
— Herman Melville (@MelvilleQuotes) September 16, 2015
If you decide to tackle the great whale, here are some things to consider before you embark on your voyage.
What’s the social strategy for the Brand?
The voice of the character online may not be right. Make a list of the pros and cons of bringing the character to social and vet it against the guiding principles of the brand. It’s not for everyone.
Get permission from author(s) or the estate.
Do your homework first. When necessary, get written permission to bring the characters to life online.
Public Domain material is easier.
Is it in Public Domain? That makes taking the social voice online a bit easier.
Parody accounts make it fun.
When clearly marked as so, parody can give a marketer the opportunity to extend a message and still be within the law. There are thousands of parody accounts online and sometimes they work for the brand.
Research, build, collaborate and commit.
Do the research and make it right, and commit fully. Build a tone and voice strategy around your character — find out everything about them; what do they eat, where do they travel? Dig deep into their likes, dislikes and fears. Think about the long-term strategy. Is there even enough content there? Do you have enough to work with? Interview authors, researchers and experts in the area to give you a deeper dive into the thinking around the character.
Be prepared to be social.
Even if your character is online, you will need to remember the social part of social media. How will you respond? How will you engage? What’s the message you want to relay? Create guidelines and be prepared to react and respond in the proper tone and voice of your character.
Enjoy potential reach.
If you have found that it’s right for the brand, you will gain earned media — something marketers always strive for. Using effective storytelling can expand your brands reach and expose you to audiences you may not have thought you could touch. Stay authentic to the character and watch audiences enjoy the online persona of one of the greatest fictional characters of our time.
I know not all that may be coming, but be it what it will, I’ll go to it laughing.
— Moby Dick (@MobyDickatSea) November 9, 2014