Updated: MTV ‘Skins’ Strategy: Aim For Social Hit First, TV Hit After

MTV in the States has been heavily promoting its new teen drama Skins for months across a range of social media, including Tumblr, Facebook and its own community site. The show, which already had an existing fanbase in the U.S. since the original UK version ran on BBC America, debuts on the Viacom (NYSE: VIA) network tonight and will be viewed as a test case as to whether a new program can become a “hit” on social media before it even airs.

“With the social media promotion of Skins, we did the reverse of what we usually do with a show,” said Damon Burrell, VP of Marketing for MTV. “Typically, we wait until a show has a certain following on TV, then build social media sites around it. In this case, we started the social media campaign about 4 months ago.”

MTV is already claiming that the social media sites are a hit and are betting it will all to translate into high ratings for Skins, which deals with all the usual teenage angst and has been transplanted from the original setting of Bristol in England to Baltimore, MD.

By way of comparison with how MTV Networks’ other shows have done on social media, Skins already counts over 5 million video streams and 700k unique views on the Skins.tv community site, while @skinsTV on Twitter has over 8,000 followers as of the morning before its debut. The show has also counted about 36,000 Facebook “likes” has 2,500 follows on Tumblr.

In comparison, a week after it first aired, the network’s Jersey Shore had 1,500 Facebook fans and its other scripted show, RJ Berger had just 3,000 Facebook fans, and 5,000 Twitter followers.

Aside from building momentum in preparation for a new show, Colin Helms, VP of MTV Digital, noted that since Skins already had a following in its UK version, the network wanted to carefully cultivate that fanbase for the American transplant. In addition to getting fans used to the U.S. counterpart, it also was considered a good way to monitor reaction before the show got started.

“There’s different schools of thought around what social media can do for a new program,” said Tom Fishman, MTV’s social media manager. “We’re in the infancy of having social media help figure things out. We know it’s very easy to build an audience and prepare viewers for the next steps, but what about doing all this before anything has appeared on TV? That’s new territory. But in the last year, we’ve been engaging in a two-way conversation with the MTV audience in general, asking what they like and what they don’t like. And this is another facet of that conversation.”

Social media has become a full-time customer service job at MTV, Fishman added. “When we dedicated resources to engaging full time and understanding the nuances of what was being said across social media. So rather than just feeding communities and letting it just take off in all directions, with a largely hands off approach, we had people sitting at a desk all day to feed that conversation back to us internally so we could address any issues in a public forum.”

As part of the promotion going forward, social media will naturally still be a big part of the process.

With the first airing of the show tonight, MTV has created its own “entertainment check-in” service similar to GetGlue, which has been a partner on series like Jersey Shore. MTV is calling its check-in “CaptionBomb” (created by Starling; see the image at the left) and it’s intended to serve as a way to check-in and chat with other viewers during the show. “Viewers will be encouraged to write their own commentary that will appear on Facebook, which their friends there can comment on,” Helms said. “As you get more interest, you can unlock more custom ‘Skins.’ We’re going to reward people with MP3s of music from the show as well as other bonuses as they earn points.”

There are no plans to advertise on the social media offerings surrounding Skins, since the network feels doing so now would alienate the audience and detract from the main promotion: the show itself. But assuming the viewers do make the move from their computers and smartphones to the TV, MTVN execs might consider partnering with an outside marketer. “The emphasis here has been on connecting to the audience, not monetizing the social media effort,” said Burrell. “If it works, advertisers will come in time.”

Updated: Kenny Miller, a former MTVN digital exec who co-founded Starling.tv, mentions that his company is more than just an entertainment check-in service. He describes it as a “co-viewing” platform that can be tailored for shows and networks to create branded streams.