What we can learn about Twitter’s top TV shows

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Two of the top shows in Twitter’s history are The Walking Dead on AMC and Empire on FOX. They’ve taken different paths to their social success, and generate very different conversations on social media. But there are a few lessons we can learn about social TV and how Twitter embraces its favorite shows.

The Walking Dead premiered in a very different time – way back in 2010. Twitter had not yet become to be the place to talk about TV. The first season of TWD was only six episodes and over those six weeks, there were about a million total tweets about The Walking Dead, including some lead up to the premiere and discussion after the finale. The premiere episode generated the most buzz, earning 63k tweets on the day it aired, October 31, 2010. TWD averaged about 150k Tweets per week during its first season.

What makes the The Walking Dead so interesting – and one of the reasons it’s been so successful on Twitter – is that it followed a very different pattern than most shows do on social, even from the very beginning. The biggest tweet volume spike of the week was on the day the episode aired, as holds true for all shows, then and now. But volumes for The Walking Dead only decreased slightly in the two days following each episode, which is unique. It retained 50-80% of size the original conversation on Twitter for two days after. Most shows generate some conversation the next day, but at significantly reduced volumes, usually around 10% of the episode day’s conversation. Here’s a streamgraph showing the daily tweet volumes for the first season of The Walking Dead. You can see big and then only slightly-less-big spikes corresponding to when an episode aired.

Tweets about The Walking Dead

Starting in the second season, The Walking Dead began airing each season in two parts with a few months break in between. In 2011, tweets about the show increased considerably, premiering with 200k tweets and hitting 350k during the finale. It generated 5.6 million tweets over the full season, and averaged 375k tweets per week (when episodes were airing). But more impressively, TWD continued to follow the same pattern it established the year before, with larger-than-average Tweet volumes the two days after the episode airs. This is really unlike any other show on TV. And it still holds mostly true today; the most recent season of The Walking Dead saw a big spike on episode day, then maintained 30% of that conversation the day after.

So why is this? Why does The Walking Dead generate so much conversation on non-show days? There are a lot of time-delayed viewers of TWD, which was true even back in 2010, which means more people talk about it on Twitter in the few days following a new episode. And The Walking Dead gives everyone a lot to talk about after an episode airs. It’s a show that embraces drama, cliffhangers and water-cooler moments. It’s not afraid to kill off important characters. And it’s one of the most reviewed shows on TV; people love to write and discuss it.

The Walking Dead has been a social media sensation for five years. Even now in 2015, TWD continues to hold strong on Twitter, generating nearly a million tweets every week it airs.

But let’s compare The Walking Dead to one of the newest social TV sensations – Empire. Empire premiered earlier in 2015. Its first episode started relatively small on premiere day, generating 135k tweets on January 7. However, Empire followed a unique pattern that only a few shows can hope to emulate. It generated more tweets each week as the season went on, not fewer. Most shows see an initial spike when they premiere, then see weekly declines after that. The lucky ones get another spike during the finale, but the unlucky ones continue to decline over time. During its first season, Empire saw more tweets each week than the week before. This culminated in a powerful final episode, that generated 1.7 million tweets on March 18, making it one of the most tweeted about shows of all time. You can see the weekly increase in this graph, which shows bigger and bigger daily tweet volume spikes until the finale episode.

Tweets about Empire Season 1

It helps that Empire had a short first season and didn’t take any weeks off. It aired 12 episodes, one each week for 12 weeks. A shorter season helps audiences stay engaged. The marketing team behind Empire worked tirelessly to promote the show and engage its audience across social media. The new season of Empire just aired, generating 860k tweets on premiere (just beating The Walking Dead premiere’s 801k tweets a couple weeks later).

Both The Walking Dead and Empire are on lists of the most tweeted-about TV shows of all time. It’s fascinating to look at the different ways they’ve built an audience on Twitter and the patterns around how their fans tweet.