Takeaways from ‘Survivor’ for engaging your audience

The enduring reality show offers lessons for brand managers and other communicators.

Man on computer on island

For 20 years and 40 seasons, CBS’s “Survivor has captivated audiences and helped to change the landscape of television forever.

Although the show might not attract the record-high audiences it once did, it continues to be a stable ratings performer for CBS, attracting a devoted audience that tunes in season after season to watch a new group of 20 castaways compete for the $1 million prize.

CBS is commemorating the show’s 40th season this spring with “Survivor: Winners at War,” the first cast composed entirely of players who have already won the game. This time, the stakes are even higher: Not only are the castaways playing for the largest prize ever given out on a reality television series ($2 million), but they will also win the title of “Sole Survivor” against the game’s greatest players.

How has a show that premiered in 2000 stayed on the air for so long and continued to connect with audiences across a diverse range of demographics? The strategies that “Survivor” has used to keep the show engaging don’t just make for great television—they also offer plenty of takeaways for brand managers who are looking to keep audiences engaged with their PR, marketing, and social media efforts.

  1. Reward loyalty.

“Survivor” rewards viewer loyalty more than perhaps any other show on television. Although viewers unfamiliar with the show can easily jump in at the beginning of any season, the series frequently brings contestants back to compete via season concepts such as “Fans vs. Favorites,” “Heroes vs. Villains,” and “Second Chances.” Over 20 years, this has allowed the show to build a complex mythology of past relationships, encouraging viewers to continue watching season after season to see their favorites get another shot at the grand prize. (One of the returnees in “Winners at War,” Ethan Zohn, won the $1 million prize all the way back in 2002.)

Rewarding brand loyalty is a great tactic to incorporate into your marketing mix. For example, if your organization has been around for a long time, why not dig up some photos from yesteryear and post them to your brand’s social media channels to celebrate #ThrowbackThursday? Those who have followed your brand faithfully for years will appreciate the fun trip down memory lane, and even your new fans might get a kick out of seeing your brand’s humble beginnings.

Similarly, Facebook’s new “Top Fan” feature offers an easy way to identify the followers who are engaging with your brand’s page the most. This can be a great way for social media managers to interact with loyal followers—even if it’s just responding to a comment or sending a personalized “thank you” message to show that your organization cares.

  1. Emphasize relatability.

In each season’s group of 20 castaways, viewers almost always find at least one character to connect with. Especially in recent years, the “Survivor” casting team has found complex contestants who go far beyond the one-dimensional caricatures often presented in other reality TV programming. From “Survivor: Ghost Island” there was Donathan, a 28-year-old gay male who grew up in rural Kentucky, and there was 59-year-old grandmother Janet, a fan favorite from last fall’s ”Survivor: Island of the Idols” who became the oldest contestant in the show’s history to find a Hidden Immunity Idol. Identifying with these characters encourages viewers to keep tuning in.

These types of relatable characters are also a crucial element of successful public relations and marketing campaigns. As a brand manager, it is important for you to not just understand your key audiences, but also to ensure those audiences are reflected in your brand communications.

Many of Procter & Gamble’s campaigns offer fantastic examples, including their Emmy-winning “The Talk” video (produced as part of the company’s “Black Is Beautiful” campaign) and the “Thank You, Mom” campaign that spotlighted the strength and tenacity of hard-working mothers around the world. Both featured sympathetic characters in relatable situations—which helped them win accolades and audience acclaim.

  1. Innovate.

“Survivor”  has not been afraid to introduce twists that keep the game fresh and exciting. Some proved incredibly popular with fans and were incorporated into the fabric of the game (such as Hidden Immunity Idols, first introduced in “Survivor: Guatemala”), whereas others fell completely flat with viewers (“Survivor: Nicaragua‘s Medallion of Power”) and were quickly discontinued. Either way, shaking up the status quo while keeping essential elements intact helps breathe new life into the series season after season.

Innovation is crucial in creating public relations, marketing and social media campaigns. It takes a creative concept to make your brand stand out amid the clutter. Furthermore, even if a campaign is well received, brand managers must continue to innovate—for following a “wash, rinse, repeat” method when it comes to brand messages is a surefire way to lead to diminishing returns.

  1. Be human.

The successful “Survivor” contestants relate to the others in a personal way. A castaway can excel in the survival aspect of the series and perform well in the physical challenges, but if they do not navigate the social dynamics, they will not make it to the end of the game. Because the winner is ultimately determined by those who have previously been voted out, forming genuine connections and maintaining relationships is the only way to become the Sole Survivor.

The same concept is true for brands. Outstanding brands speak to their audiences as people, instead of as mindless machines created only to receive marketing messages. This kind of one-on-one connection is part of the reason that social media has become an integral part of many brand communications, as no other channel allows for the same kind of individualized interactions that can turn a simple fan into a true advocate for your brand.

This piece originally ran on Scooter Media’s blog.

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