Earlier this year, sci-fi fans across the world were shocked by a terrible revelation. Critically lauded show The Expanse was not picked up for a third season by the Syfy network, meaning the future of the show was suddenly uncertain. Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and YouTube were all abuzz with fans of the show discussing the fate of their favourite program.
The cancellation of a TV show is always sad for fans. However, this one was a particular kick in the teeth. Ratings were good, critical reception was tremendously positive, so why was it canned? Rumours abounded about studio demands and contracts but nothing official came out. Still, passionate supporters felt The Expanse deserved another shot – and what’s more, they decided to do everything they could to make it happen.
At its best, the internet has revolutionised the way we connect and coordinate. As a consequence, the relationship between creators and audiences has changed dramatically. Once upon a time, if you liked a show, you watched it… and that was about it. Maybe you bought merchandise, maybe you subscribed to fan magazines, maybe you went to conventions, but by and large, your interactions with the show were limited to either consuming or not consuming whatever the creators of that show put out.
Nowadays, if you really want to, you can maintain a continuous stream of conversation with the writers, actors and producers of the show on Twitter, as you’re writing a fanfic that ‘fixes’ that thing you hate from the latest episode and drawing fanart of the characters. Almost every popular show has its own subreddit where every time a new episode is released, fans discuss and dissect in real-time. More than one show creator has admitted to browsing fan theories for ideas about how they might resolve future plots and more than one graphic artist has ended up working on shows they drew fan art for. All this means that when fans encounter a situation they don’t like, they have the power to take action.
Save The Expanse was an amorphous hydra of a campaign run across multiple platforms and involving multiple interlinked stunts and messaging campaigns. In the space of two weeks, a plane trailing a #SaveTheExpanse banner was sent to circle Jeff Bezos’ office in Los Angeles, cakes and coffee were delivered to various producers, celebrity fans including George RR Martin posted video pleas to millions of Twitter followers.
What does this have to do with us? Well for starters, we have a few fans of the show in the office who had been following the campaign with some interest. We’d all had a chuckle at the lengths people were going to in order to support their favourite show. Then we got an email from one of the organisers of the campaign. Their request was simple: we want to send the Rocinante (the ship on which much of the show is set) into space. How much will it cost and how fast can you make it happen?
Most of our corporate projects are scheduled in terms of weeks, not hours, but we’re never ones to shy away from a challenge. The #SaveTheExpanse campaign had already begun a crowdfunder to raise the cash for a launch and maintaining the momentum was vital for the future of the show. We get a model of the Rocinante shipped to our office, building a mount for it on half-scribbled dimensions sent late at night, built a payload and then petitioned our contacts at the Civil Aviation Authority for a fast turnaround on clearance to launch.
Three days after we were asked to join the cause, we were livestreaming the release of our payload on Twitter to be swiftly uploaded on Reddit. Thousands of fans were following the official Twitter account of the #SaveTheExpanse campaign as we passed along updates of the payload’s journey through the stratosphere, past the Armstrong Limit and into Near Space. The payload touched down several hours later and the first image out was immediately retweeted by hundreds of followers. The video edit followed and was responded to not only by the show’s audience, but even members of cast and crew.
Less than two days later, Jeff Bezos, the focal point of many requests to save the show, made a surprise announcement that The Expanse Season 4 would be produced and released by Amazon Prime. The campaign was one of the most successful revivals of a television show by audience members in history, all of it made possible by social media. We were happy to help.
There’s a lesson in this for brands. #SaveTheExpanse wasn’t just successful because it was a good show. The hashtag was introduced by fans, but garnered a load of attention when it was retweeted by the Expanse Writers Room along with the petition to save the show. Among others, Cas Anvar, one of the show's stars, kept excitement at a fever pitch by engaging directly with fans throughout the campaign, highlighting and celebrating efforts and ideas and posting daily updates about the number of engagements, news mentions and trending topic hits the campaign had achieved. The reason this show’s fans achieved so much in so little time is that they were passionate, sure, but also because the brand was passionate about them and made them feel like a part of the team.
When your brand faces tough challenges, support from your audience can be the difference between pulling through stronger than ever and making some very tough decisions about the future of your business. Even if you’re not a beloved TV show, your products or services probably make someone’s life better. What are you doing to make your users, followers and fans into the kind of people who are ready to dedicate a week of their lives to your cause?