Sharknado- Capitalizing on a Viral Sensation

July is the month that American’s celebrate excess. The Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Competition takes place at noon on the fourth, the nation’s eating competition takes place all day in backyards across the country, and we celebrate by shooting tens of thousands of dollars of fireworks up into the sky in the evening.  Do I even need to mention the Golden State Warriors here?  Sorry Thunder Fans. However, my favorite July indulgence of excess takes place at the end of the month when Syfy releases its annual F-U to dramatic cinema, the next installment of Sharknado.


For those unfamiliar with…, wait, we are all familiar with Sharknado, and really that is the point of this article. The series, which is about to release the 4th installment on July 31, began with tempered hopes, but literally blossomed overnight. During the airing of the first movie on July 13, 2013, Social Guide measured 318,232 tweets about the show during its broadcast, a full 17% of all the tweets sent about TV that night, and that was only the beginning.

Sharknado 2, aptly titled “The Second One” delivered over one billion impressions, putting it on par with the Super Bowl (2.5 billion Twitter impressions in 2015) and the Oscars (3.3 billion Twitter impressions in 2014). Yet it only had 3.9 million total viewers — still a tiny fraction compared to Super Bowl XLIX’s 112 million viewers.

The point of this posting isn’t to tout the awesomeness of Sharknado, or how to emulate their formula, but how to capitalize on something once it does go viral.

Even Syfy doesn’t have the exact formula. In fact, they have released over 250 original movies over the course of the last ten years; premiering about two a month, in a variety of genres, and Sharknado is by far their most popular/successful.

Some attribute the success to a clever title, or good subject matter, but really, scroll through this list and you will see numerous “clever” titles such as “Lavalantula”, “Stonados”, “Mansquito”, “Piranhaconda” and a movie which tells me they must be running out of titles “Man-Thing”. In addition, there are 11 movies about sharks (including the 3 currently released Sharknado movies), and 5 about tornados in one form or another.

Some articles attribute part of the success to the Gen-X and Gen-Y nostalgia with Ian Ziering (Steve Sanders from Beverly Hills 90210 as if I had to tell you) and Tara Reid (American Pie 1 & 2, National Lampoons Van Wilder, and Tom Brady’s ex-girlfriend, you know, before this).

While that may be part of it, it can’t be the whole story. In an effort to try and recapture the nostalgia factor, Lavalantula, which came out immediately following Sharknado 3 and ran multiple ads during “Sharknado Week” and, in an effort to appeal to the same crowd, ‘stars’ almost the entire cast of the Police Academy movies, drew only about half of the viewers of Sharknado 3, and nowhere near the social media buzz. Oh, it still spawned a sequel, 2 Lava 2 Lantula[1], but the nostalgia itself wasn’t enough to vault it into the Sharkosphere. Damn, now I’m even doing it.

Really, Syfy got lucky Sharknado went viral, but they certainly knew how to capitalize on it. The Sharknado social buzz phenomenon is a great example of how Twitter works best in building and fueling a global conversation around a topic. It helped that the @Syfy account was super dynamic and responsive throughout the entire process, retweeting fans and responding to messages in real-time.

But, an overwhelming Twitter presence is not sufficient for a cultural product to enter popular culture discourse. What matters more, is the Twitter user responsible for generating the tweet. After the success of the first movie, Syfy immediately greenlit a sequel within 24 hours, and began casting people they knew would help support the movie. These included (in no particular order):

Kelly Osbourne, Robert Hayes from Airplane (who flew the airplane in the movie), Wi Wheaton, Comedian and famous Twitterer Kelly Oxford, Andy Dick, Al Roker and Matt Lauer, The Weather Channel’s Stephanie Abrams, 30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander, Taxi’s Judd Hirsch (who drove a taxi), Subway’s Jared Fogel (it was a good idea at the time), Biz Markie, Downtown Julie Brown, Billy Ray Cyrus (talk about nostalgia with those last 3), Daymond John from Shark Tank (almost all the shark tank folks have been eaten at this point. Mark Cuban was the President of the United States in the 3rd one!), Perez Hilton, Pro wrestler Kurt Angle (WWE has over half a billion users across all social platforms, yes you read that right), Kelly Ripa and Michael Strahan, Marc McGrath, Kelly Oxford: The Twitter star/bestselling author, and that isn’t even the entire list.

When asked the criteria for casting, Executive Vice President of Marketing, Digital and Global Brand Strategy of Syfy Michael Engleman stated “20,000 or more Twitter followers and you’re in.”

In addition, Syfy has developed several innovative tools to help their audience engage with the movies. Among the tools for this immersive experience is the Go Shark Yourself app, which allows users insert themselves into shark-attack scenes from the movie and share the images with friends, as well as a partnership with Phillips Hue for a promotion that syncs up Sharknado viewers’ household lightbulbs to the action on the screen. “If someone loses a limb on the TV, the bulbs might turn red,” Engleman said.

According to Engleman, “The overall philosophy is very simple: Allow the consumer to play an integral part in the marketing, putting them at the center of the story, and allow them to become as much of an ambassador for Sharknado as they’d like to be by giving them content and assets”.

That included letting fans name the sequel via a Twitter contest—hence the hilariously deadpan result, Sharknado 2: The Second One.

So how do you adopt this to your business strategy?

Step 1: Embrace the Chaos

Once Sharknado was a hit, Syfy immediately capitalized on it by replaying the movie several times, so those that missed it during the first airing could see what all the buzz was about. They cast heavy social media influencers in all of subsequent sequels to ensure the conversation would continue, and they made it something people wanted to be a part of.

They created brand advocates, and these weren’t necessarily even people that liked the movie, but wanted to be part of the conversation. Wil Wheaton gained 3,400 new followers in a single night by tweeting about the first Sharknado movie, and he wasn’t even in that one. Syfy recognized this and made sure to put him in the second installment. In fact, around 15% of the conversation came from only 495 accounts, which were mentioned a total of 66,952 times in the 24-hour-period surrounding the broadcast of the first movie.

Once the conversation began, they knew people wanted to be a part of it, and embraced it. In fact, the third movie ends with a cliffhanger where the movie cuts out just as a piece of falling shrapnel is headed towards Tara Reid’s character, April. The movie ends with “Will April Live or Die?” #AprilLives or #AprilDies and tune in next year to find out.

Be sure to embrace the chaos with your own followers. Identify users or followers with heavy influence and try to get them to become a brand advocate for your business. It only takes a small amount to make a tremendous impact.

Step 2: Be True to Your Audience

What makes the Sharknado movies so fun to watch is the level of absurdity. It’s a movie about tornados full of sharks being hurled at seemingly unsuspecting townspeople. We know people are going to die. What makes it unique is they continually find ways to slip in guest stars (without any spoilers leaking) and kill them in unique ways. Really, that is what the audience wants. Don’t just kill people; make it satisfying to the audience.

No death can be truer to this statement then the way Sharknado 3 killed off George R.R. Martin, the writer of the Game of Thrones books. Audiences were extremely surprised, and a little dismayed, by the episode “Red Wedding” when (spoiler alert) they killed off some of the most popular characters in the GOT series including Lady Stark. To parody this, Sharknado 3 had a marquee for a movie named “Shark Wedding” where Martin was killed (beheaded ala Ned Stark) as he sat next to a woman in a wedding dress.

One of the most fun things to do during airings of the movies is to play the “wait…isn’t that the guy/girl from (blank)” game. It immediately drives a viewer to pick up their phone to check twitter to see if yes, that is indeed (blank).

Also, they didn’t try to generate better special effects, or create a ‘better’ movie. They knew the fans liked the movies because they were bad. Sharknado is a comedy disguised as a horror movie. The creators didn’t try to change that, but instead stayed true to their audience as should you to yours.

Step 3: Build Anticipation

Before you give your audience what they want, make them want it a little more first. Sharknado has been masterful at slowly releasing trailers, and cameos. They released the next movie’s title “The 4th Awakens” just about the time Star Wars: The Force Awakens (the highest grossing movie ever!) came out on DVD. Another puntastic name and great timing. They even released a documentary about how the movies were created called “Heart of Sharkness[2]

This continually reminds the audience that a new one is coming out and holds the anticipation. In the next installment, Carrot Top and Gilbert Gottfried are going to get eaten by sharks. I don’t know how it’s going to happen, but it’s going to be glorious.

Step 4: Be Responsive

As I mentioned previously, @Syfy was super responsive throughout the entire process, retweeting fans and responding to messages in real-time. They knew people wanted to be part of the conversation and wanted to give them their 15 minutes of twitter fame.

Be sure to be responsive to your customers. Re-post and re-promote as much as you can. You never know who you might be influencing and you are always a few clicks, likes and shares from a viral success.

Step 5: Check the Weather

The next Sharknado might come around sooner than you think. Take a forecast of your audience to see if you can anticipate what topic will drive them into a frenzy. And make sure to capitalize on it when it does come around. You never know, or maybe you do…


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[1] Of course that is what it is named.  I don’t know who is responsible for naming movies at Syfy, but that has to be one of the best jobs ever.  Well played Syfy, Well played.

[2] Where my Joseph Conrad fans at??