A single, painless tactic gave Food Network its biggest social-engagement kick ever and landed it on Twitter's list of trending topics - twice. This little procedure is so simple that it’s a wonder more television shows aren’t using it.

First for the finale of the most recent episode of "The Next Iron Chef" and, more recently, during an episode of the current season of "Food Network Star," Food Network put a Twitter hashtag onscreen throughout the episode. This small move increased viewer engagement while allowing fans to interact with on-air personalities like Alton Brown, Giada De Laurentiis and Bobby Flay.

“We’re seeing a level of excitement we have never seen before,” Angela Moore, vice president of digital at Food Network, said in an interview with ReadWriteWeb. 

That excitement is measurable. Food Network made Twitter's trending topics list for the second time ever during the season premiere of "Food Network Star," a contest in which contestants compete for a show on the network. This episode also saw a 300% increase in online viewer engagement over last season’s premiere, when an onscreen hashtag was not included. The initiative has also tripled the average number of Food Network followers on Twitter, allowing the network to keep viewers involved after the Sunday night broadcast of "Food Network Star."

Still in Experimentation Phase

Shows like "Food Network Star" entice viewers to tune in each week as they follow the ups and downs of their favorite contestants. This year Food Network added a team concept to the contest, with established Food Network personalities Brown, De Laurentiis and Flay each leading a team.

Brown, De Laurentiis and, to a lesser extent, Flay have been tweeting during each week’s episode. Occasionally they partake in lighthearted trash talk, but more often they’re cheerleading for their teams and interacting with viewers. Other Food Network hosts - notably past "Food Network Star" winner Melissa d’Arabian - have also chimed in on the #Star hashtag.

“We monitor each celebrity’s social media, but they’re free to say what they want, when they want,” Moore said. “What you see on the hashtag is completely unfiltered.”

Moore said online interaction dropped off after last month’s premier, but overall it has been building steadily. Food Network expects to see the most online activity on July 22, during the finale of the current season of "Food Network Star." The episode will feature live viewer voting to choose a winner from the remaining finalists.

Expect More Experimentation

David Griner, director of digital content at the ad agency Luckie and a regular contributor to AdWeek’s AdFreaks blog, said television show producers are learning what advertisers already know: An online platform increases an ad campaign’s (or television show’s) reach. Griner pointed to statistics that show the average television ad campaign has 50% reach. Add in a social media campaign and the number jumps to 57%.

Griner said the first show to successfully use an on-screen Twitter hashtag was Comedy Central. It used #TrumpRoast when it roasted Donald Trump last year. The hashtag was used 27,000 times during the broadcast and helped give Comedy Central its highest Tuesday night rating in the network’s history. 

Since then, other shows have experimented with on-screen hashtags. One of the biggest success stories has been NBC’s "The Voice." While its ratings still trail those of segment leader "American Idol," it generates an average 200,000 tweets per episode, which is five times the tally of "American Idol."

“If they’re done right, hashtags help focus the conversation,” Griner said.

Photos courtesy of Scripps Networks.