Gimme, Maybe? How 'Sesame Street' Mastered Social Media, A Model For Brand Survival In The 21st Century

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on July 21 2012 2:21 PM

Jim Henson would be proud.

Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Grover and all their friends on Sesame Street have won the hearts of tens of millions of TV watchers in the 43 years since Henson helped create the PBS television show. But with the rise of the Internet and the diminishing importance of television, it would have been perfectly natural for Henson's creations to go quietly into the history books.

But historians will have to wait. Sesame Street gives every indication that its best days are ahead of it, not behind it. Unlike some 20th century children's programs that have languished in the Internet age -- think Barney and Nickelodeon’s Blues Clues -- Sesame Street has mastered social media, and as a result, it's more popular than ever.

They have a talent in that they understand their audience and they know what works, said Peter Shankman, a social media expert and founder of HelpAReporterOut.com. Companies that are good at social [media] don't work on making things viral; they make things good. If you make something really good, it will go viral, and that's what 'Sesame Street' is fantastic at doing.

Just this month the show's staff put on a virtual clinic for any organization that wants to capitalize on social media. On July 10, Sesame Street posted a video on YouTube featuring Cookie Monster singing a song entitled Share It Maybe that went viral: It has had roughly seven million views and has been featured on major news websites, radio stations and TV programs.

The video is basically a parody of Carly Rae Jespen's smash hit, Call Me Maybe. The video features the big blue star with googly eyes singing about how he hopes you'll be kind enough to share some of your cookies with him. It's cute and witty, and it capitalizes on a song that people of all ages can at least hum a few bars to.

Timing was one key to the video's success. By July, enthusiasm for Jespen's hit, which was released March 1, was ebbing. A number of groups had attempted parodies of the tune. But while a few videos found a way to be original, most notably Jimmy Fallon's version with The Roots, the number of parodies was declining. So when Share It Maybe hit YouTube, there was little in the way of competition.

But the video would never have been made had Sesame Street not had in its DNA a sixth sense about the importance of understanding popular culture. Indeed, the idea for the parody came from a tweet on Sesame Street's popular Twitter account -- a joke at the expense of “Call Me Maybe.”

It went like this -- Cookie Monster: Me just met you. Dis is crazy. But me love cookies! Gimme, maybe?

(For those who have somehow missed this moment in pop music history, the original lyrics were: Hey, I just met you. And this is crazy. But here's my number. So call me, maybe?”)

Whenever you have something that is already viral, like Call Me Maybe, there is an opportunity to engage with (our) audience, said Dan Lewis, Sesame Workshop's Director of New Media Communications. So the tweet was a one-off -- a pretty easy joke to write -- and it did much better than any of us expected.”

In fact, Sesame Street’s Twitter followers liked it so much, they responded with requests for an accompanying video. With that, Lewis went to the creative department at Sesame Street and sold them on the idea.

“All we needed to say was [that] people are asking us to make this, and there was an appetite here to do it,” Lewis noted.

It also helped that Cookie Monster was involved in this parody. One of the strongest brands in social media, this furry blue character has more than 4.5 million likes on Facebook and is the source of the powerful Internet meme om nom nom nom.

“Share It Maybe” wasn’t Sesame Street’s first attempt at a Web-based video parody. Another popular spoof was Grover appearing in Smell Like a Monster -- a cute riff on Old Spice's The Man Your Man Could Smell Like campaign. The video, posted in October 2010, has more than nine million views.

Overall, Sesame Street's YouTube channel has generated more than 775 million views since 2006, including a whopping 72 million for Elmo's Song.

Sesame Street’s social media strategy is buoyed by the TV show’s long-running ability to partner with celebrities who bring their own audiences to Henson’s creations and hope to reach new fans through Sesame Street’s young audience demographics. Over the years, everyone from Jack Black to Norah Jones to Yo-Yo Ma and Johnny Cash has appeared on the show with its characters. More recently, Sesame Street has paired with hipster musicians like the Black Eyed Peas' Will.i.am and solo artist Jason Mraz in order for each to leverage of the popularity of the other to boost their brands.

“It's this idea that if you want to make yourself relevant to a new audience, you can make friends with other brands, said Andrew Davis, the co-founder and chief strategy officer for TippingPoint Labs. “The Cookie monster parody is a great example of that. They've constantly mashed themselves up with celebrities that already have an audience or memes. They've maintained their relevance.”

Davis points to Ford Motor Co.’s (NYSE:F) recent partnership with the motor sport Gymkhana to build the popularity of the Fiesta automobile among younger, adventurous customers as a good example of “two social media powerhouses that have gotten together to build a more formidable brand, the way Sesame Street does with celebrities.

No other Sesame Street character has as large a following -- or generates as much of a high-level response -- as Cookie Monster does, but Lewis and the Sesame Street writers who craft the 140-character jokes on the show’s Twitter account try to give fans a diversity of Muppets and their ilk. Grover, Bert and Count are also easy to write short jokes for, Lewis said, because their identities and personalities – what they would say in different situations -- are well-known to large numbers of people.

”Some characters are harder to do in 140 characters than others, but we also have Tumblr and Facebook,” Lewis said.

Sesame Street’s Facebook account has 595,000 likes, and it focuses on more visual content than its Twitter account. In addition, each of the show’s major characters has its own Facebook account, which can be difficult to manage. And Lewis admits that Sesame Street has not yet figured out how to translate its potential Facebook popularity into tangible results.

Hopefully, in the future, we will be able to do more [on Facebook], but by and large it is a bit of a wilderness, he said.

A more immediate priority is the photo-sharing site Pinterest, in which people can place pictures into image collections that can be browsed and passed around by others for possible “repinning” on their own accounts. This site represents an important market for Sesame Street because Pinterest is mainly used by women, who of course play a big role in influencing what their children view online and on TV. Lewis and his staff are compiling the content for Pinterest now but he said that they don’t plan to launch the campaign until we have all the assets that we want to put up.

Of less interest, Lewis said, is Google +, which he believes hasn't done enough to prove its value to a show like Sesame Street, which is trying to reach large groups of people. We've given it a couple of tries, but right now the audience isn't there, Lewis said about Google's foray into social media.

Each social platform that Sesame Street tackles is strategically intended to achieve a single goal: Help the brand stay connected to fans of all ages.

Sesame Street has a primary television audience of toddlers and parents of toddlers -- over 100 million people worldwide -- but it sees social media as an opportunity to remind older fans how much they liked the show.

We have an opportunity on social media to connect with people who were fans as young children and will hopefully be fans of ours again when they have children, or when they are aunts, uncles and grandparents, Lewis said.

It doesn’t hurt that users of social media are Web hoppers, going from one place to another on the Internet rapidly and frequently; they generally lose interest quickly and jump to someplace else with something else to offer -- somewhat like, well, toddlers. Sesame Street writers, Lewis said, are already trying to take what they’ve learned from their primary TV audience and translate that to the harum-scarum world of Web users by “experimenting really rapidly.

[Social media] is a perfect place for them,” said HelpAReporterOut.com’s Shankman. “It's short attention span theater.

Jim Henson died well before he could have imagined anything like social media, but as it turns out he built pitch-perfect brands to capitalize on it.

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