deadline badge_dbSocial media platforms are connecting hard-core fans to TV shows and movies in massive numbers, helping build a durable base for success for the programs smart enough to harness it in creative ways. But measuring what that superfan is worth, and how best to connect that superfan to a show and to broader audiences, in a way that everyone in Hollywood can understand is and advertisers will pay for, well, that’s a very different challenge. That’s the takeaway from the past three days of the PromaxBDA conference, which brings together marketing, publicity and promotion execs from throughout entertainment. As the show wrapped Thursday in New York, I took the opportunity to talk with the conference co-chairs, all top execs with NBC, Fox or Warner Bros. and all struggling to figure out what that fan is worth, and how you can consistently reach that fan.

Lisa Gregorian Warner Bros. TV“It’s a challenge here in the U.S. and it’s a global issue, which never before have we faced as marketing executives, where the viewer is so empowered,” said Lisa Gregorian, president and chief marketing officer of the Warner Bros Television Group. She also ended her term as PromaxBDA co-chair Thursday. “We’d craft the message and there was no dialog coming back (from audiences). Now we’re dealing with social issues, measurement issues. Really what viewers have is choice and voice.”

Gotham TV show imageThat’s led to a vast rise in what Fox Broadcasting’s COO Joe Earley, also a conference co-chair, calls “self-curation,” where people are connecting with the content and properties they care about on their own, rather than letting a source such as a network drive it to them with traditional advertising and marketing. “You’ve got to find a new way to break through” to those audiences, Earley said. “The rise of earned media is important. You can get both third-party and peer-to-peer endorsements (of a show), which we all know is a much more important way to influence audiences.” When Fox was getting ready to present rookie show Gotham (produced by Warner Bros.) to ad buyers at this season’s Upfronts, they decided to try something unusual: they publicly released the show’s trailer a week ahead of time.

“We wanted to demonstrate how much fan fervor there was for this show,” said Earley. “We put it out a week early and by time we got to the Upfronts, we were cruising at 5 million views. Is that one thing going to make a difference (in the show’s success)? Not with advertisers, but with the fans. They are already owning their place with the marketing of the show.”

Joe Earley Fox Broadcasting GroupInterestingly, Earley said he doesn’t think that a big fan buildup like what Gotham has attracted will in turn guarantee the show attracts the fall’s biggest audiences. As all three executives I talked with suggested, the superfan is increasingly necessary to a show’s success, but on the scale that networks operate, there just aren’t enough of them to guarantee overall success. The execs at least partly rejected comments two weeks ago by long-time investment analyst Mary Meeker, who in her annual rundown of the state of the Internet at the Code Conference said that “fans trump audiences.” An audience, she said, shows up at an appointed time (or checks in days or weeks later on a DVR or Hulu or VOD), then leaves that property to watch the next thing and the next thing, perhaps on a different channel or platform. Fans, by contrast, are continually connected with a show, posting on social media, creating fan fiction, blogging plot wrap-ups and interacting with a show’s “digital extensions,” those online shows such as The Talking Dead that reprise the latest episode and continue the fan involvement after the latest episode has aired.

Scot Chastain NBC“From our standpoint of audiences versus the fans, they have to co-exist,” said Scot Chastain, NBC’s SVP of Affiliate Marketing & Development, and Gregorian’s successor as conference co-chair. “The fans can help with the digital marketing. Fans can help you get started with the launch of a show. That pretty much kicked off marketing for Gotham. But at the end of the day, you want to get (the broader) audience to that premiere.”

Issues of scale are so important for the broadcast networks, which have to deliver much bigger minimum numbers to be considered a success. “On the network side, fans don’t trump audiences yet,” said Earley. “We must serve the big broad audiences on the network side.”

But there’s an emerging understanding that a show can thrive with a big audience, or an intense fan base. There may be two paths to broader success, and advertisers are now watching that social-media conversation about a show as much as the networks are. An intense fan base won’t necessarily make an advertiser pay more, but advertisers know that fan base does carry over its warm feelings for a show to those companies that advertise on it, creating a valuable “halo effect.”

“It’s important nowadays to get buy-in from the fan base even if it won’t directly impact advertisers,” Gregorian said. Advertisers “are listening, they are tracking social. How much engagement will the audience have with that particular show? They want their brands associated with those types of stories.”

Which means that the networks are forced to run two kinds of campaigns, one for that big audience of scale and a very different one for that smaller audience of passion, and all at the same time.

“It requires multiple campaigns running side by side,” Gregorian said. “It does take a toll on your resources and priorities. That I would say is the biggest challenge now on any campaign: ‘How often am I going to do it?’ What was (formerly) a once-a-week effort, now (it’s), ‘What do we have every single day to satisfy the fans?'”

But then comes the next problem: the networks know social-media strength matters, but no one can agree yet on how to count success.

“More than anything, we don’t have consistent metrics,” Earley said. “We can’t even look across the board and judge how things are performing. We’re still looking for correlation, we’re not even close to causation yet. Measurement is one of our biggest challenges. It has not kept pace. But with every platform being so different, how you measure it (on each) is different.”

So, building a marketing campaign for a show has gotten more complicated than ever. “It’s all gotta fit into the overall plan when we’re pushing out our content,” said Chastain. “If there’s not definitive measurement, you can’t look back at what worked and what didn’t. It makes it really difficult.”

Want to know how complicated it is? Conference organizers this year chose to modify a certain bewildered common Twitter hashtag as the way for attendees to follow what was being said at the show. It pretty much says it all, if you know where it came from: #wtfuture