For years, March Madness fans lamented on social media their inability to find college basketball games on lesser-known truTV. In 2018, the network tried to educate them.
In 2011, truTV started airing the First Four games—those between the four lowest-ranked at-large teams—of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament (better known as March Madness). Basketball fans on social media seemed to ask one question in unison: What is truTV?
Until 2008, truTV was known as Court TV, airing reality shows and trial coverage—many viewers unfamiliar with truTV may have watched the O.J. Simpson murder trial unfold years prior under its previous name. When Time Warner changed the network’s name to truTV, its focus changed to reality TV before rebranding in 2014 as a comedy network. But no matter the network’s year-round content, each March brought a torrent of taunting basketball fans.
“See you in March 2015, @truTV. It’s been real,” one Twitter user tweeted at the network in March 2014.
See you in March 2015, @truTV. It’s been real.— LG (@LGhail) March 24, 2014
When truTV rebranded to comedy, the network hired Puja Vohra as its senior vice president of marketing and digital. [Ed. note: Vohra left the network in May.] Before her tenure, the network mostly ignored what Vohra called a “tsunami of hate” from social media users. But she didn’t want truTV’s social media team to simply wait for the storm to pass.
“We decided that we [wanted to] clap back and make a little bit more noise,” Vohra says.
She chose to use the attention to truTV’s benefit. Social media users don’t often fill a brand’s mentions without an invitation or a terrible misstep by the brand, so engaged users—especially those who aren’t yet fans—were a big opportunity for the network.
TruTV’s social media team started responding to hectoring users, often mocking them with barbs of their own. In 2016, for example, a Twitter user tweeted a chart showing that people only Googled truTV in March. In response, truTV tweeted back a made-up line chart, the line curling into an illustration of a middle finger. “You’re good at interpreting charts! What do you make of this one?” the truTV account tweeted.
As truTV continued to respond to social media users each year, Vohra and her team noticed that the negativity was shifting into a fun back-and-forth between the network and those tweeting at them. For the 2018 NCAA tournament, the truTV team and social media marketing agency Movement Strategy decided to soften the communications with a public service announcement-style campaign called truTV Awareness Month. Instead of trading insults and middle fingers, the network chose to educate new viewers.
TruTV Awareness Month expanded beyond social media and included TV ads, free shows on the truTV app and videos starring the network’s talent talking directly to basketball fans. By this point, truTV had many well-regarded comedy shows—“Impractical Jokers” became so successful that it earned syndication in 2017 and “Billy on the Street” received a 2017 Emmy nomination.
“We had this arsenal of assets, these custom spots, plus this huge library of great clips and GIFs from our shows,” says Dan Manu, vice president of social and digital at truTV. “We want people to know our brand voice, but also get to know our talent and shows and understand why you really should be aware of us.”
Although the tone changed, Vohra says that the plan for the campaign remained the same: Tell people what truTV is about. “The ultimate goal is for us to get people to check out truTV, to come and watch our shows, to become fans of our shows and then eventually become advocates.”
TruTV Awareness Month started on March 1, 2018, with faux-dramatic public service announcement commercials—think “the classic Sarah McLachlan [ASPCA ad] with the slow music,” Manu says—airing amid new episodes and marathons of truTV shows. But the heart of the 2018 campaign, Manu says, was truTV’s social media war room.
The war room team consisted of writers, freelancers and social listeners sitting side by side from morning until midnight during the week truTV aired March Madness games. “Hoodies and beards,” Manu says, describing the war room. “A lot of hoodies and beards.”
The team searched through the thousands of tweets in truTV’s mentions and the #truTVAwarenessMonth hashtag. Manu says that they only wanted to respond to tweets related to confusion about March Madness airing on truTV, prioritizing accounts with a lot of followers or those saying something unique. Manu also wanted the team to have their own unique responses to showcase the network’s creator-driven voice.
Most of the network’s shows are driven by creators—for example, Amy Sedaris and Andrea Savage created, produce, write and star in their respective shows, “At Home with Amy Sedaris” and “I’m Sorry”—so Manu had a unique voice in mind for the campaign. Those in the war room responded to thousands of posts across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, shifting to a tone somewhere between pitying and educational.
“We wanted to show how we want to help these poor souls who don’t know truTV,” Manu says.
On the first day, the war room team came prepared with loose scripts for responses, but Manu wanted them to rely more on their in-the-moment creativity. Even if they created 100 brilliant responses, he says that they’d burn through them in the first two hours. Most people in the war room had comedy training, he says, so they were able to adlib a response, collaborate on edits and quickly respond to badgering social media users.
“We don’t want this to go through a five-layer approval process because by that point, it’s too late, it’s not that funny and we’ve missed the opportunity,” Vohra says.
Manu says that he knew the campaign would be successful as soon as he saw the PSA-style ads starring the network’s talent. The talent adlibbed, too—truTV’s creative team went into shoots with about 20 scripts and came back with about 100 pieces of content. When the games kicked off, the war room team simply had fun.
“This is the only time of year where I watch TruTV. #MarchMadness,” one user tweeted.
“This sad lack of truTV Awareness is heartbreaking,” came the response from truTV’s Twitter account, adding a PSA-style video featuring stars of the network’s shows. “NEVER make fun of people who suffer from this disorder. BELIEVE THEM. It’s the only sure step towards recovery. #truTVAwarenessMonth.”
This sad lack of truTV Awareness is heartbreaking.— truTV (@truTV) March 19, 2018
NEVER make fun of people who suffer from this disorder.
It’s the only sure step towards recovery. #truTVAwarenessMonth pic.twitter.com/qIXVwSXsKh
By the end of March, truTV had published 1,418 #truTVAwarenessMonth posts, generating 132,584 social engagements. The network received 72 million impressions on social media and 34 million video views, representing a 42% increase in digital and social video views from the 2017 campaign.
There were more new viewers who then watched truTV’s primetime shows, converting 19% in 2018, compared with 6.3% in 2017, according to analysis from Nielsen NPower.
The campaign also won a Shorty Award for best television campaign and was a finalist for best integrated campaign.
Manu and Vohra noticed that people who responded to truTV now seemed to be in on the joke. When the network responded to a barb, Manu says that people would often respond back that they were already a fan. Other people were now advocating for truTV, recommending their favorite shows on the network to viewers who dared to ask, “What’s truTV?”
“The campaign has evolved,” Manu says. “We’ve gotten a fanbase for the campaign itself. Every year, people can’t wait to see how the truTV social team talks back to these people. We’ve moved from originally … a street fight where it’s us fighting these trolls to a boxing match where it’s a spectator sport and no one’s getting hurt and people are coming to watch.”
In 2019, truTV made the campaign even friendlier by branding it as, “Welcome to truTV.” Instead of lecturing or educating those who don’t know about truTV, the network welcomed them. Manu says they’ve gone from defensive to “killing them with kindness.”
Vohra says that each year, the network gets closer to its goal of winning more fans and seeing less negativity. She believes that there may be at least one more year of a similar campaign; it still works well, she says, especially for how little it costs. As long as truTV has thousands of people tweeting at and about it, Manu says that the network should take advantage. “No matter what, when people are talking,” he says, “it behooves you to talk back to them in one way or another.”