USA's 'Suits': Inside the Social Media Race to Lure Michael Phelps, Apolo Ohno

Shane Mahood/USA Network
Michael Phelps and Gabriel Macht on "Suits"

The two Olympians were publicly courted by the NBCUniversal-owned cabler after executives caught wind that they were self-proclaimed fans.

Who knew social media could be the new casting director?

When USA Network first caught wind early last year that Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time, was an unabashed fan of Suits -- thanks to an enthusiastic tweet sent in January 2013 to his 1.4 million Twitter followers -- executives went into overdrive. At the time, Suits was in the thick of its sophomore season, and by then, the marketing team had noticed a large sports following was forming.

But Phelps was the cream of the crop. "In terms of a singular fan, it was very notable. Phelps stood out," USA's executive vp marketing and digital Alexandra Shapiro tells The Hollywood Reporter. The NBCUniversal-owned cabler immediately capitalized via retweets and a custom-made Suits visual (with Phelps' quote prominently featured), generating significant social media impressions. The road could have ended there, but it didn't. The benefit of "real-time response marketing in social is it's not just about what happens in the short term and in that moment, but it's also how you leverage it and create a long tail with it," Shapiro says. 

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Days later at a staff meeting, Shapiro entertained the idea of bringing Phelps on to Suits, which features hotshot lawyer Harvey Specter (Gabriel Macht), a self-proclaimed sports enthusiast who often name-drops top athletes such as Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. The timing also couldn't have been better, with the Sochi Winter Olympics hitting right around the time Suits' season-three midseason return airs. Without an obvious link to Phelps, the challenge for USA became how to effectively and smartly engage him.

First, they recruited the help of NFL Characters Unite producer Charlie Ebersol (his father is former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol), who happened to be friends with Phelps. Second, USA called upon the Suits cast to actively and publicly woo the swimmer. Cue life-size cardboard cutouts of Phelps, leftover from Speedo adverts. (The network also spent "a pretty penny" to send them to the Toronto set, Shapiro says.) USA's message to the cast was clear: We're committed to bringing him to the Suits world, but it's up to you to help make it happen. "Organically, all the actors -- in particular Patrick J. Adams, Sarah Rafferty and Meghan Markle -- started doing selfies with these flat Phelps [cutouts] and posted them on their Instagram accounts," Shapiro recalls. Because of the cast's significant web presence, "It took on a life of its own."

All told, roughly six months elapsed from Phelps' first tweet, finalizing the contract -- it took several months to hammer out the details -- to actual filming. Phelps appears as himself in Suits' March 6 episode in a memorable cameo, as one of the top names Harvey has been unable to close as a client. Though some thought was given to Phelps appearing earlier in the season, "we were very strategic about when we were going to air this episode so that it would have a bigger cultural halo effect," Shapiro says, ultimately deciding to capitalize on the Olympics.

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And Phelps wasn't the only Olympian targeted via social media. Former Olympic speed-skater Apolo Anton Ohno, an NBC correspondent for the Sochi Games, is featured in four Suits interstitials -- the first of which debuts Thursday morning across NBCUniversal and Comcast's Xfinity platforms and channels, including the Today show, local NBC affiliates in 29 markets and VOD, an example of corporate synergy at work. (Comcast, in fact, did cross-promotional spots for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics with NBC's Community and 30 Rock.) THR exclusively debuts a sneak peek at one of those spots, also featuring Rick Hoffman and Rafferty, below. "What we did with Phelps became the paradigm for what we wanted to do with Apolo," Shapiro says.

It was happenstance that Ohno, an avid Suits viewer (he tweeted his support in June 2012), was a surprise guest at an NBCUniversal-sanctioned training event, prompting Shapiro to cold-ask the former Olympian about possibly participating in a Suits-related campaign. "It was pretty easy on all parts to convince everyone to participate," Shapiro marvels. The four spots were filmed in Los Angeles; one in particular features Hoffman in a skin-tight body suit. "What works about the concept is it's custom content from the show, brought to you by Xfinity, tying together a really popular program with a high-involvement event with the Olympics is a great formula," says Peter Intermaggio, Comcast's senior vp marketing communications, sales and marketing-video services.

As Shapiro tells it, Suits (centered on a top Manhattan law firm) lends itself to being a property they can "get buy-in and create interest by virtue of popularity of the show," she says. "It is not only one of our biggest dramas, but it probably has the most cultural resonance of all of our scripted dramas -- in terms of the dialogue they use, the sports references and the high fashion. There are a lot of different pillars that we leverage in our marketing campaigns." Suits' recent fall finale averaged 3.2 million viewers in live-plus-same-day viewing.

Their next potential target? Kelly Clarkson, another A-lister who has made her Suits fandom known on Twitter. "If Kelly wanted to be on our show or do something for a marketing campaign, we would welcome her with open arms," Shapiro says. "Anything is possible. If she's interested, we will definitely make our numbers and emails available to her."

Though social media has played a significant part in bringing Phelps and Ohno into the USA family, Shapiro is aware that this would be difficult to replicate in the future. "We are always looking for new ways to make noise, to get through the clutter," Shapiro says. "The reason this worked was because it was organic. It started with them first."

She adds: "It's niche marketing at scale. What this can do is this could create a social campfire if we execute this properly, and this is what we're interested in. Small is nice but we want the scale."

Suits, currently in the middle of a college tour, returns March 6 on USA Network.

Twitter: @insidethetube