Five lessons learned from Big Brother’s Facebook strategy

Love it or hate it, Big Brother remains one of the biggest television success stories ever in Africa. The fifth season – Big Brother Africa (BBA) Allstars – drew millions of viewers across the continent, keeping them glued to their seats from July to October this year.

By the end of the fourth season in 2009, the show had amassed a respectable fan base of over 100 000 Facebook users. But when BBA Allstars hit TV screens, the fan numbers quickly exploded to over 300 000 – tripling in size in just three months.

How did they do it? We spoke to the team at DSTV Online and they were kind enough to share their secrets. Their answers are remarkably simple and full of common sense.

Lesson One: Fish where the fish are
In the early days of social media every big company wanted their own network for their own users. DSTV Online was no exception, but by the time BBA Allstars arrived they had learned their lesson.

Graeme Cumming, GM of, sums it up nicely: “We took a decision to move away from our own social networking platform and forums, and rather move the conversation onto Facebook where the bulk of our users already had active profiles.” The strategy worked beautifully.

Lesson Two: Don’t make your users work
A fatal error that many site owners make is to force people to use cumbersome mechanisms like bespoke forums or commenting systems to interact with one another. Too often this involves shunting them off to an unrelated page which requires yet another login.

For 90% of sites out there, this is a big waste of time, not to mention a huge drag on interaction rates. Facebook offers a whole range of social plugins that take literally minutes to set up and allow you to add rich, friendly and deliciously viral functionality to your site.

“We implemented the Facebook commenting widgets onto all our news articles so that instead of sending a user off to a forum to have a conversation, they could have the conversation on the news page itself, where the context could be retained and remained relevant,” says Cumming.

They also implemented Facebook’s handy “recent activity” plugin on all their pages – which is another great way to keep the velocity of conversations high.

Lesson Three: Forget exclusivity – embrace inclusivity
Another hangover from the past decade is the tendency to want to keep certain content exclusive to a site. This might work with a niche publication like the Wall Street Journal, but with a TV show (or product, or brand) you want your content to go everywhere and anywhere it can reach.

“Our editorial team also made great use of the Fan Page to break news stories and draw fans into the official Big Brother site where the story and associated video highlights could be found,” enthused Cumming. “Gone are the days of retaining exclusive content on the official site only – news would be pushed out across Facebook and Twitter as it was unfolding within the house.”

This is perhaps the most exciting thing about BBA Allstar’s success – to see a powerhouse like DStv approaching social media as a broadcast medium (which they excel at) and not a static web presence. And the results speak for themselves.

As Cumming says, “You didn’t have to live on the official site to get your BBA news anymore – it would be delivered to your Facebook News Feed, and you could then decide on whether this was something you wanted to read or watch. Our stats tell us that this was very often the case, with Facebook coming is as one of our biggest referrers.”

Lesson Four: The positive feedback loop is everything
Globally the television industry has a somewhat uneasy relationship with the internet. Like the music industry it is well aware of the threats of piracy and disintermediation – the phenomenon of people using the internet to buy TV content online from the likes of Apple and Netflix, cutting the networks out of the picture.

But unlike the music industry, TV execs have also realised the power of the internet to carry messages well beyond their one hour airtimes. Television is an intensely conversational medium – an almost universal social object that can give complete strangers common ground.

What shows like Lost and The Simpsons have proved is that the online conversation around a show can become a phenomenon in itself – drawing new viewers in like a magnet. Twitter excels at this kind of catalytic conversation, and Facebook – with it’s broader base – is quickly learning how to do the same.

Nowhere is this more apparent than on the BBA Allstars Facebook page. Tracking the conversation rates from early July to late October, you see comment and like numbers rise from dozens per post to literally thousands. By the time the winner was announced – Uti from Nigeria – individual posts were getting over 4 000 comments at a time.

How did they make this happen? Simple: They made sure that every channel talked to every other channel. Watching the show? You’ll see messages pushing you to Facebook. Checking out Facebook? Updates push you to the site to watch a video, and then remind you of tomorrow’s highlights.

As Cumming says: “Big Brother Africa is a truly cross-platform production. It’s a 24 hour television production, but it’s also a 24-hour online (PC and Mobile) and interactive TV production. Users are able to move between platforms as they experience this show, and Facebook has proven itself as key to the cross-platform experience that we create.”

Lesson Five: You don’t need a TV network to do it (but it helps)
So you’re thinking – sure DStv can do it. It’s a giant, scary corporation with armies of staff and endless budgets. But that’s where you’re wrong. If size and budget were all that mattered, then would Trevor Noah have more Facebook fans than anyone else in South Africa? And yet he does.

Case in point is the fact that it took DStv Online four full seasons of BBA to attract its first 100,000 fans, and then just three months to get the next 300,000. It’s all in the execution and the leverage – hordes of underlings and wads of cash aren’t of much use.

And neither is DStv Online big and scary with endless budgets. I’ve worked with them, and trust me, they would laugh at that description. They’re just ordinary folks using social media to get more value out of some great content.

If you look at it that way, that’s something anyone with a bit of passion and common sense can do. You may not get 300,000 fans, but you might get 3,000 or even 30,000. How will you know until you try?



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