With even TV ratings giant Nielsen tracking the social reach of television programming, there’s no question that social networking is an essential part of successful television programming. But a good social networking plan needs to go beyond straightforward social promotion: some of the strongest social wins we’ve seen in the television industry recently have come from highly-integrated, on-air social promotions.

Such promotion can range from a simple on-air call to action encouraging viewers to talk about a program — or even an advertisement — using a certain hashtag or directing questions to a certain account. However, that’s only the tip of the iceberg.

Many talk-format programs, from late-night to news broadcasts, will encourage social conversation by showing, reading, or discussing social messaging on air. It’s a trend Food Network cashed in on last Thanksgiving, with a “Thanksgiving Live” program that answered social questions on air, and ran live polls of social followers — creating a social smorgasbord that Nielsen claims was seen by 1.5 million people.

But smart social integration goes beyond having an announcer read tweets on air. To look at a recent example of a strong social TV campaign, let’s dig into the social media strategy the Discovery Channel deployed during Shark Week this August.

Real Social, Real Time

The appeal of social media for viewers is that it’s real-time, allowing people from all over the country — or even the world — to discuss events as they happen. Yet too often social integration efforts miss this key fact, with sluggish responses or limited interaction, both of which dial down the excitement factor. For a live social campaign to work, it has to work at social speeds — it’s the real time aspect that makes live social events so compelling.

On-air social promotion can be a bit rough around the edges simply because you’re working live with content sent in by viewers — and in television, it typically means you’re displaying current social activity in a sidebar or footer during a program. It’s a technique Discovery Channel has used for big events, and they expanded their social programming during this year’s Shark Week. The network ran reruns of original programming under the moniker #ExtraSharky, encouraging viewers to Tweet about the broadcast using the hashtag with a chance that their tweet would display on-air to other Shark Week viewers.

Even though most viewers are already watching television with a second screen — like a smartphone or tablet — nearby to surf the web or hit up their favorite social networks while they watch, including social media in programming both promotes your biggest fans and makes the social experience much more immediate for all of your viewers. In this way, Discovery turned reruns that had the potential to be pretty bland into a desirable programming block that encouraged viewers to re-watch Shark Week programming alongside countless other social fans.

How Social Shark Week Fared

Shark Week 2014 isn’t the first time the Discovery Channel has used live social integration to draw viewers into its programming. In a block of holiday-themed programming in late 2013, the company used on-air Twitter integration to huge results: there was a 143% increase in Twitter conversation about Discovery itself, while specific programs also saw big jumps in social chatter.

An episode of “Naked & Afraid” that used live, on-screen Tweets had 330% more Tweets and a 470% larger Twitter audience compared to the following week, which didn’t include on-screen social content. Similarly, the program “Moonshiners” saw upticks in viewership (140%) and tweets (150%).

Stats like that mean it’s no surprise that Discovery decided to go big on its social plans for this year’s Shark Week with showings socially-integrated programming every day of the week. Not only was the network the primetime ratings leader amongst cable networks during Shark Week, it also made some big social strides.

On Facebook, 13 million people had more than 21 million interactions related to Shark Week (up 110% from last year). And on Twitter, 70 different trending topics related to Shark Week and 10 of the week’s televised premieres hit Nielsen’s daily social TV ratings, with two Shark Week titles making it into Nielsen’s weekly ratings as the week’s most-talked-about TV.

Those two programs? They were both #ExtraSharky reruns that featured live Twitter integration: “Great White Serial Killer,” with 1.6 million impressions, and “Lair of the Mega Shark,” with 1.2 million impressions.

Rolling With Positive and Negative Social Sentiment

Despite this social success, not everything about Shark Week’s big social numbers was positive. Over the past few years, Discovery has taken criticism about Shark Week being more fiction than fact. This year’s programming drew similar criticism, so plenty of the social conversation surrounding the event had a negative sentiment.

When picking tweets to include on air during #ExtraSharky broadcasts, Discovery was careful to only select positive Tweets to help increase excitement and conversation around the show. Even if the controversy did work to keep people talking, Discovery was aware enough to avoid exploiting the controversy for marketing, which could potentially have generated even more negative sentiment in the process.

Compared to last year, the network took a notably mild approach on pushing its quasi-fictional content — like its documentary on the mythical Submarine Shark — as fact. The @SharkWeek Twitter account spent the week mostly talking shark facts, and when it came to the Submarine Shark, it only asked followers “Do you believe in the legendary #SubmarineShark?” — which is a long way from pushing fiction as fact.