It was almost by accident that creative agency gnet —one of this year’s finalists for PromaxGAMES Agency of the Year to be announced on Thursday, April 26—found themselves in the world of entertainment marketing.
“We definitely did not start as an agency,” says CEO David Getson. “17 years ago, we started in an effort to launch a cable channel about video games. Gnet was a placeholder name in our first effort to start a game network. Games were going to get pretty big, we thought, and they didn’t have a mass-market marketing platform that appealed to us as fans.”
Getson and his partners, gnet President John Rosenberg and Creative Director David Moodie, weren’t wrong, they were just a little early. So instead of founding a cable network, they pivoted to become a production company that “did all the things we wanted to do creatively but through other people’s distribution,” says Getson. “Whether that was television channels like MTV or Syfy or websites like AOL Games, along the way we got to know the industry really well. Over time, we saw a real opportunity to change the way product was marketed so we started evangelizing the idea of the content campaign.”
Again, Getson and Rosenberg were ahead of their time, but this time they were just the right amount ahead. They started creating content campaigns for game companies that kicked off as long as a year or 18 months before a game was even going to debut and continued long past launch.
“That marketing should serve as entertainment was an evolutionary thought” as recently as ten years ago, says Rosenberg. “The ability to carry your audience through, inform them about the product, make sure they got the messages you wanted, allowed them to do deep dives and lean forward into your product was the goal. Our campaigns would hit on each of those pillars. They would be entertaining first and foremost but they would also carry the message.
“As we’ve seen distribution evolve and now with social media being so prevalent, we have the ability to drop content that’s also ‘lean forward’ in those platforms that then ladders up to a big, umbrella theme to content you might get off of YouTube or a broadcast or cable channel. It all fits together. Wherever you bump into that content, you are getting a message that all comprises the larger campaign.”
Gnet’s first true integrated content campaign came in 2008 when the company helped Electronic Arts (EA) launch Dead Space.
“[The campaign] included tent-pole high-definition trailers, behind-the-scenes documentary series, interactive motion comics that were available online and a full one-hour special on Syfy,” says Getson. “That was our first full fledged content campaign that leveraged the web for full video.”
What gnet learned from that campaign is that it all starts with the hardcore fans.
“There’s a core audience that you build a community around,” says Getson. “All of our content campaigns are driven by this notion that you have to inform and convince your core. By the time it’s hitting the mainstream, the core is so super-engaged and super-informed that they are true believers who are echoing the message that the mainstream audience is going to hear.
“The key to a content campaign is that the message — while totally connected and cohesive — is very different when you are talking to the super core on the deep web versus to the masses in a 30-second spot in the Super Bowl. They are the same idea but they are expressed creatively quite differently. That’s the magic of a content campaign.”
That dynamic exists as strongly as ever in the gaming community — and it’s only grown stronger with the arrival of social media, Twitch, YouTube and other gaming platforms. But now TV networks and streaming services are drawing lessons from the game space to develop their own version of super fans.
Take, for example, HBO’s Westworld, which just returned for season two on Sunday night. In the run-up to premiere, the show’s creators have brilliantly created games and scavenger hunts aimed directly at the show’s superfans, implicitly challenging them to solve puzzles before the season even started. Generating that sort of buzz at a foundational level led to the piquing of more casual fans’ interest.
Gnet already is working with Netflix to create similarly immersive campaigns. For sci-fi series Altered Carbon, gnet developed content around the show’s fictional company called Psychasec, which manufactures the so-called “sleeves” into which people digitally download their consciousness so they can live forever.
“We were creating an experience outside of the show that set the stage for potential fans,” says Getson. “[W]e wanted them to know that this would be an environment where they can fall in love. It’s a signal to the fan that there’s a lot to this world you can explore. It’s a place you want to return to. It’s another way of letting a fan engage beyond the product itself.”
Video games and TV shows also are becoming more similar in that they are both deep experiences into which fans can lose themselves.
“When you look at places like Netflix or other passion brands, people feel a connection to these brands as part of their identity or as part of a connection to other like-minded people,” says Getson. “We feel like a lot of the philosophy behind how you market games applies to those passion brands as well. That’s the journey we are on now.”
Creating that sort of intense connection with fans has its pitfalls. Two years ago, gnet worked with Activision on a trailer that announced that Call of Duty was headed for outer space. Many core fans were not happy.
“It was the number-two most disliked video on YouTube that year, although that edition of Call of Duty wound up being the best-selling video game of the year,” says Getson.
What the fans didn’t like was not the trailer itself, but that the game was departing from its roots that had initially been put down in World War II.
Instead of pushing back, Activision made it clear that it heard those fans.
“The brand let them know ‘we hear you,’ ‘we are listening,’ ‘we absolutely value what you are saying,’ ‘don’t worry, we got you,’” says Getson.
“You’ve got to be sincere, you’ve got to be honest and you’ve got to service what those fans are referencing,” added Rosenberg.
Later, Call of Duty announced that its next edition would be returning to WWII and that trailer, also produced by gnet, became the most-liked trailer in the company’s history. Watch closely and see if you can recognize one of the featured actors:
Another Netflix campaign gnet worked on was for Marvel’s The Punisher, which kicked off with a trailer that viewers didn’t get to see unless they waited for the end of the credits at the end of Marvel’s The Defenders. The trailer, below, announced the show was on its way and also gave a nod to true fans by revealing The Punisher’s symbol, a skull, chiseled out in stone.
“We knew that fans would recognize what this was,” says Getson. “They were being given a little bit of a gift and they would be the ones to take the message out. That’s how you begin to engage with a fan early.”
“If you look at what’s going on in the games industry, there’s a lot of evolution that’s going to be relevant to other industries soon,” says Getson. “There’s no more selling a game at GameStop on Tuesday. There used to be 100 games a year like that. Now what’s going on is there’s a smaller group of games that are always on. When that’s your product, it’s a continual, never-ending love affair with your fans. It has to be or it’s not going to work.”
That’s the space that Netflix, HBO and other TV and streaming networks are increasingly finding themselves in.
“We think a lot of products and services are going to be always-on services that will either have a loving fan-base or they will not survive,” says Getson.
And while it seems most of this would be driven by metrics, that’s not entirely true.
“The most sophisticated brand people get this,” says Rosenberg. “There’s a balance between the science and the artistry. If you focus only on the science you are never going to innovate, you are always playing to what people are reacting to.
“When we start planning a campaign with our clients, there’s research to understand what the audience is feeling … to help inform the focus of the creative campaign. But when it comes to the actual creative, we try as much as possible to be untethered by the science so we can advance and innovate as much as possible. Then you can marry that with the data and metrics to dial it in.”
It’s those two areas — creating never-ending immersive content campaigns and marrying data with creative for real effect — that differentiates gnet from other agencies, say Getson and Rosenberg.
“We firmly believe that we do something that’s unique, that you don’t see regularly in the marketing world,” says Rosenberg. “Starting with the premise that we could create fans and continue to evolve them while allowing new fans to join is something we unwittingly fell into. If we can be the Pied Pipers of that and pull industries in that direction, that’s really where this company can go.”