By Lizzy Lawrence
Hulu works with some of the biggest stars in the world. Selena Gomez, one of the leads of Only Murders in the Building, has 364 million Instagram followers. Kim Kardashian of The Kardashians: 336 million Instagram followers. Fame and followers, though, don’t automatically turn into viewers.
“Our talent is tier-one, we’re very lucky,” says Brittany Mehciz, VP of social for Hulu Originals. “But how do we more authentically connect with our consumers and our fans? It doesn’t necessarily have to be about the followers and the reach.”
Streaming competition is fierce, especially during a tumultuous economic period with consumers cutting down on subscriptions. Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, Apple and HBO are all duking it out for a finite number of potential subscribers. Hulu also benefits from its relationship with corporate partner Disney (subscribers can bundle it with Disney+), but even Disney’s service is also a competitor for people’s time. People subscribe to these services because of the shows they offer, and they tend to watch shows after hearing about them from friends or trusted creators. This makes social media, the word-of-mouth machine, absolutely critical to streamers’ business strategies. “It’s a symbiosis or two-way-street with social media, rather than a one-way pushing out,” says Paul Hardart, director of NYU Stern’s entertainment, media and technology program. “It’s more of a conversation.”
Hulu hired Mehciz away from Amazon in 2019 to lead that conversation for its original series. The streamer, which deserves more credit than it usually receives for popularizing TV watching over the internet, was amping up its original programming with a broader slate of series, movies, and documentaries. Under her leadership, Hulu’s social presence for its home-brewed series has grown tremendously, as have its subscribers and viewers. Breaking through the noise is not easy. This isn’t 2019 anymore when Netflix was one of the first streamers to truly take advantage of social media as a way to boost viewership (remember the #BirdBoxChallenge?). Brands have become increasingly unhinged as they try to capture consumer attention in a chaotic social media landscape. They want to know what works—and do that. But as Mehciz and her 17-person team reveal, you need a number of playbooks when you’re dealing with programs as disparate as The Kardashians and Only Murders. And you need to know when to throw them all out and write a new one.
Rolling with the punches
The Kardashians features many moments that are ripe for social media explosion: Khloé Kardashian revealing that ex Tristan Thompson proposed to her before impregnating another woman, or Kim Kardashian telling her grandmother that she had sex with Pete Davidson in front of a fireplace in her honor. But Kendall Jenner cutting a cucumber so poorly that a legion of fans rise up to make fun of her, culminating in the reality star dressing as a cucumber this past Halloween? You can’t make it up.
“We can plan as much as possible off of what we think is going to take off,” Mehciz says. “But when you see a clip of Kendall Jenner cutting a cucumber, it just fully takes off and has a life of its own. Then it’s, how do we position our IP to engage with that and fuel that conversation?”
A lot of brands do “social listening,” so they know what people are saying about them. But it’s what you do with the chatter that matters. After a show airs, Mehciz notes what clips resonate with fans, and then adjusts her strategy accordingly. After the cucumber moment, her team met with the Kardashians’ team to brainstorm other clips that might prompt similar reactions. They decided to flood TikTok with other lighthearted clips and see what sparked attention. “Sometimes, we don’t need to be so heavy-handed in things,” Mehciz says. “We can let the fans be that word-of-mouth spreader.”
Another unplanned viral moment came from The Dropout, Hulu’s series about disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. Hulu’s TikTok account released a clip from the show of Amanda Seyfried dancing uncomfortably to Lil Wayne’s “How to Love.” The clip quickly became a meme, spawning dance videos from fans and a recreation of the dance from Seyfried on the red carpet.
“We plan as much as we can, we’re very thoughtful,” says Mehciz, “and then when those moments arise, really try and double down on it.”
Finding the right influencer
Influencers are crucial in helping Hulu attract fans. The streamer works with several agencies to find the right ones depending on a show’s target audience. One of Hulu’s partners is BEN, which helps Hulu tap into its desired internet niches.
“Every single title is, in some ways, its own brand,” says Jade Handley Glenn, director of client development at BEN. “You have your own strategy for every single title: who we’re trying to tap into, the story we’re trying to tell, and the social conversation we want influencers to drive for each of the campaigns.”
BEN connected Hulu with the pop culture influencer Amanda Hirsch (@notskinnybutnotfat) to promote The Kardashians. The Kardashians are arguably the most influential influencers in the world, but Mehciz wanted to engage fans with an outsider’s voice. Hirsch had already talked about the show on her platform, even interviewing members of the family for her podcast. Mehciz and her team decided that Hirsch would be the perfect person to interview the family during the red carpet premiere, creating interview soundbites for Instagram and TikTok.
“She was able to bring something out in them that felt very authentic, that we couldn’t have mimicked ourselves,” Mehciz says.
View this post on Instagram
“I think people love to see the family being real. Any candid moments on the show, whether it’s a sister fight, or even some banter!” says Hirsch via email, adding that she would have promoted the show even without the Hulu partnership. She finds that her posts about more unfiltered or suspense-filled moments tend to get the most engagement from users. “We also love being internet sleuths and trying to figure out any unknowns together (I call it spiraling)! I think humor goes a long way, and those are definitely the best performing posts!”
Hulu has also relied on influencers for what they call their “ripped-from-the-headlines” titles: shows based on true stories. This content is trickier to promote because a lot of attention-grabbing posts are legally off limits. For example, Welcome to Chippendales posts couldn’t feature real-life footage of male dancers because Chippendales still exists in Las Vegas. Instead, Hulu worked with TikTok influencer Alex Wong to choreograph a Chippendales dance challenge and brought in other influencers to spread the trend.
Keeping up with innovation
Marketing strategies depend upon—and are limited by—the social media platforms themselves. BEN’s Handley Glenn started her career in the “mommy blogger” era, coordinating Pinterest influencer campaigns like blogger viewing parties of a new Disney Blu-ray DVD (talk about a blast from the past). The landscape has changed dramatically since then. She says that TikTok and the prevalence of short-form video have completely shifted entertainment giants’ social media strategies.
“Everyone’s authentic and silly and the content is so fun,” Handley Glenn says. “You’re able to provide reactions and introduce cast members, and even have sound clips take off.”
NYU’s Hardart says that it’s smart to diversify approaches for different platforms. Facebook skews older these days, for example, so it’s not the best place to market a show meant for younger audiences. But sometimes the best practice is to throw things at a wall and see what sticks.
“The nice thing is that social media is a giant experimental sandbox,” Hardart notes. “They’re all trying different things.”
Mehciz is in constant contact with Hulu’s platform partners and stays up-to-date on the latest feature and tenor changes. Twitter, given all its uncertainty under Elon Musk, is a daily topic of conversation among Hulu’s social teams. Mehciz says that she’s always keeping her eye out for emerging platforms as well. Her team has been chatting with Tumblr, which has seen a bit of a resurgence in the wake of Twitter chaos. Most importantly, she monitors social media trends not just as the Hulu originals social mastermind, but as a user.
“It’s important to not only be close partners with the platforms, read industry trends,” Mehciz says, “but also to just be a consumer yourself.”