What Social Doc “Bully” Tells Us about Data Analysis for Producers

Data collecting has become part of a producer’s digital DNA, with much written in recent years about the importance of big data – whether in media, education, politics or beyond. Open data has been explored here before. With so much information at our fingertips, though, how can we use data patterns and trends to meaningfully produce, market or distribute new content? It’s just not enough to count numbers of views, likes and tweets.

Billions of comments and opinions are posted on social media every day. It makes perfect sense, then, to leverage those conversations into practical data. The nonprofit Harmony Institute (H.I.) has been examining story-related content, in particular analysing audience behaviour with regard to social-issue documentaries. They tracked Lee Hirsch’s award-winning feature documentary Bully to measure its spread and influence across social media between January and June 2012. The film was accompanied by an online campaign to stop bullying through educating children, parents and teachers. Their insights can be applied to any social-issue project or grassroots marketing campaign.



Researchers analysed both the volume, but perhaps more usefully, the sentiment behind social media conversations (positive, negative, neutral). They also applied link-tracking tools such as Bitly, alongside standard academic research methods. They focused on three main factors using the Crimson Hexagon platform:

1. How social media contributed to Bully’s influence globally

With the film mentioned in nearly 200,000 trackable posts within five months, social media clearly helped promote not just the film, but its wider mission to get one million children to see it. Originally, an MPAA “R” classification meant children had to be accompanied by an adult. But a high-school student’s grassroots campaign gathered over half a million signatures through campaign.org, persuading the MPAA to allow a PG-13 rating after minor re-edits. One might have concluded the campaign’s success lay in its viral nature – over 150,000 signatures in just a few days. But sophisticated data analysis showed CNN coverage moved to traditional mass-media outlets – effectively taking the campaign offline – and maintained momentum that secured 400,000 more names after a month.

2. How celebrities with a high number of social media followers influenced issues

As part of its outreach campaign, The Weinstein Company partnered with Twitter to promote sponsored posts that linked to the film’s trailer. The #BullyMovie campaign sparked over 100 times the normal conversation rate. The company also launched the Anti-Bullying Twitter Tuesday campaign a few days before the film’s premiere, targeting pop and entertainment celebrities. The success was unprecedented – one tweet from Kim Kardashian produced over 3,600 click-throughs to the campaign website.

Another tweet, originated by the outreach team, generated much of the conversation: “RETWEET PLEASE Did u know 13 million kids get bullied every year? I support @BullyMovie. Let’s make it a trend. #BullyMovie.” The tweet was shared nearly 68,000 times within 24 hours, representing one third of all posts mentioning the film.

Just 0.05% of Twitter users are responsible for more than half the platform’s shared links, so working with influencers has a significant impact.

3. How everyday users shared Bully’s content and engaged with the issues online

The campaign showed that people with fewer followers could still be influential. Demonstrating a more personalized engagement with the project, but featuring fewer retweets, people in this category generated nearly one fifth of the total tweets.

So a multiplatform approach, pairing online with traditional media, plays a crucial role in providing longevity, an essential for any grassroots campaign. Given the incredibly short window afforded by online visibility, broadcast diffusion becomes vital, where key influencers – whether individuals or companies – quickly spread information across many networks. Moreover, the release of associated content, either around the appearance of a film or broadcast of a TV program requires strategic timing.

The Big Picture

Harmony Institute has advanced research by collaborating with BAVC, a leading arts organization that works with content creators to inspire social change. Impact Playbook, a guide for modern-day storytellers, helps creators and producers interpret data to better understand the influence of their work, set meaningful goals, and evaluate projects.

Even so, project-by-project data analysis only gives a micro view. Producers can’t see data patterns relating to various story typesImpactSpace, which launches later this year, will offer content creators a wide variety of measurements. The web application will collate all kinds of useful data and trends – around both individual films, and multiple film-types – while working closely with filmmakers, storytellers, online platforms and press associations. So, for example, users will be able to access data around Bully as a standalone film, as well as collated data around all social-issue films that have bullying as a central premise. By providing comparative, customizable measurements, ImpactSpace will let content creators weigh actual results against strategies for a film, analyse audience perceptions – especially how and where people talk about a film ­– and optimize media use to guide the story experience.

There is a danger of favoring algorithms over emotional connections to tell stories, but for content creators and producers, it seems a combination of the two is the right approach for the 21st century.

Tishna Molla
Tishna Molla is a film agent, producer and consultant based in London, UK.
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