The lessons of 'Mad Men' on Twitter

At SXSWi, three of the people who have been Twittering as characters from the hit AMC show talked about their experiences and what producers and marketers can learn.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
A project undertaken by several people to Twitter as characters from the hit AMC show 'Mad Men' became a phenomenon, despite it being entirely fan fiction. Three of the authors appeared at SXSWi Tuesday to talk about the lessons that can be learned from the experiment. Twitter

AUSTIN, Texas--For many fans of the hit TV series "Mad Men," one of the biggest events of 2008 was the sudden emergence of a number of the show's characters on Twitter.

At first, it seemed as though whoever was posting regular tweets from within the fictionalized 1960s world of the AMC network show was doing so on behalf of the producers. But as is well known now, they were a group of people who had taken on the task themselves, and who quickly found their project shut down. As is equally well known now, a public outcry and some fancy footwork by AMC's digital marketing agency eventually allowed them to continue, as they do to this day.

On Tuesday at the South by Southwest Interactive festival (SXSWi) here, three of the people involved in the so-called fan fiction appeared on a panel to discuss the experience of Twittering deep from inside the "Mad Men" story line, and to share their thoughts on lessons that producers and marketers alike could learn from the project.

First up to speak was Carri Bugbee, who Twitters as Peggy Olson, one of the leads on the show. Bugbee was honored with a Shorty Award--which rewards the "best content producers on Twitter"--last month. She won in the advertising category, which is ironic, given that Bugbee undertook her turn as Peggy Olson as a fan and not under any official "Mad Men" auspices.

Bugbee talked at length about the genesis of her participation in the project, explaining about the levels of detail she and others who were Twittering as "Mad Men" characters would follow in order to make their posts feel as authentic as possible. She said she told almost no one about what she was doing, and that keeping the Peggy Olson account alive and vibrant--before and after it was taken down and reinstated--was extremely time consuming.

As a public relations professional herself, Bugbee said she thought there were a series of lessons producers and marketers could learn from the "Mad Men" fan fiction.

First, she said, producers should strive to reserve the Twitter accounts for all the characters in whatever show or film they're making. "I can't believe that any of us would have to say that," Bugbee said, adding that for fans, "if you have a favorite TV show, you could probably go reserve (any character's) name on Twitter" even now.

Next, she admonished producers and marketers by saying that if they haven't already reserved all the accounts for their work's characters, it's probably too late to retrieve the names if they've already been taken by someone else.

"Once someone's got it, they've got it," she said. "You could certainly engage in some copyright battle to retrieve it, but it wouldn't" look good. AMC can certainly attest to that.

Another lesson, she said, was that if you're a producer or marketer caught up in a controversy like what happened with AMC forcing Twitter to shut down the fan "Mad Men" accounts, it's best not to "bury your head."

"If the media's swirling around you, and wants to know stuff," she said, "give them something. Speculation isn't good."

Bugbee also advised that producers overcome their institutional need to control all aspects of their work and "use your fans to your advantage." That, she said, is such an obvious thing to do, yet most filmmakers, producers and marketing or advertising agencies seem stuck in a previous era where it was anathema to let anyone else monkey with your properties.

And finally, she said that those in control of brands need to put the resources into monitoring what people are writing about them on Twitter. "If you're not following what people are saying about you on Twitter," Bugbee said, "you're missing out on a treasure trove of data."

Betty Draper, aka Helen Ross
Next up was Helen Ross, who had been prolific Twittering as Betty Draper, the wife of Don Draper, another main character on "Mad Men."

Also an advertising executive, Ross explained that when she'd first heard about the "Mad Men" Twittering, she assumed that it was yet another in a string of clever marketing moves AMC had commissioned for the show. Among them, she recalled, was an effort to litter New York City subway cars with Don Draper business cards that promoted the show, and in another case, AMC was able to wrap a subway car with large images about the show.

"I thought maybe ("Mad Men" creator) Matt Weiner was casting for Twitter writers," Ross said. "He is so brilliant, and the show is so brilliant that I thought maybe he was having this idea about Twittertainment."

Ross said she had also started Twittering using additional accounts beyond Betty Draper in order to create little "mini-dramas" with her various characters. By steeping herself in the show's aracana and its voice, style, and story lines, she was able to build extensions of the show's arc that felt realistic to many readers.

And as a result of that experience, she said, she advised anyone participating in fan fiction like this to take over several characters in order to control the development of outside-the-lines dramatic evolution.

"It seemed like we were extending the fictional world," Ross said, "by making (the) characters live between episodes and between seasons. It revealed (the characters') mundane, everyday activities, and everybody knows that Twitter is good at" that.

"This enabled 'Mad Men' fans...providing them with commentary from the characters," Ross said. "All of us have strived to remain parallel to the 'Mad Men' universe, and to not interfere with the story lines. I can't say enough about how much research and devotion to detail this entails. I now have a whole collection of 1960s cookbooks."

Ross also cautioned potential fan-fiction Twitterers to remember that the work done by by people like her and Bugbee and fellow panelist Michael Bissell is only half of the picture. The other half, she pointed out, is the fans.

"Our 'Mad Men' on Twitter wouldn't be very exciting if it was just us talking about what we're eating for breakfast." Instead, she said, doing the project well involved give and take via Twitter with fans, allowing those fans to feel involved and close to the characters.

As someone who's actually in the advertising industry--the "Mad Men" milieu--Ross said there are further lessons producers and marketers need to draw from the "Mad Men" Twitter experience. Perhaps most important, she suggested, advertisers need to "stop siloing." In other words, they need to understand that to get their message out, it is necessary to spread it across a wide variety of platforms.

In the 1960s, she said, a marketer could reach 80 percent of the audience by airing one spot on the three TV networks. Today, she said, it would take putting advertising on about 100 different networks to get the same result. And that means using TV, mobile devices, Twitter, Facebook, and more.

"Building this relationship (with fans) is so important," Ross said. "Loyal viewers not only watch more of your show, but they'll also sit through the commercials and engage with your advertisers."

Finally, Ross said, "What we're doing, we think, is transforming fan fiction into a new kind of marketing. It's not just fan fiction. It's brand fiction."

Roger Sterling, aka Michael Bissell
The last to speak was Bissell, who had Twittered as Roger Sterling, Don Draper's boss on "Mad Men."

Bissell said the major lesson he thinks he learned from the project was that it's really important to do your research and stick to details. For example, he said, he discovered by being chided by readers, that the Long Island Iced Tea hadn't been invented by the 1960s, meaning that Twittering that Sterling was drinking one was impossible.

He also said that anyone who thinks they can examine how something like the "Mad Men" on Twitter project happened and decide they understand exactly how the medium works is fooling themselves.

One example of that, he pointed out, is that when the project was first getting going, the most-followed Twitterers had perhaps 40,000 followers. Today, those numbers are in the many hundreds of thousands, meaning that the scale of the medium, and what's possible, is vastly different than it was even last year.

"People who say they've got this figured out," Bissell said, "are assuming the world isn't going to change again."