Launching a show in today’s multichannel, multiplatform universe means so much more than just planning some on-air promos and hoping viewers tune in.
It starts with identifying the target audience and then figuring out how to reach them, turning over every tweet, Insta post and Snapchat filter in the process. It requires great assets deployed in strategic ways as well as partnerships to try new technologies – such as Facebook bots, Twitch livestreams and Snapchat AR filters – to try to grab viewers’ increasingly short attention span.
At the 2018 PromaxBDA Conference in New York on Thursday, four of TV’s top marketers gathered together to discuss how they and their teams came together to get the word out about some of TV’s best and most beloved shows.
HBO’s job when Westworld was preparing to return for season two was two-fold: first, remind viewers of the show after 16 months off the air and second, broaden the audience of the genre show that’s steeped in its own sometimes confounding mythology.
“This is one of the most ambitious campaigns I have ever worked on,” said Chris Spadaccini, EVP, consumer marketing, HBO. “We were off the air for 16 months. Our job was to make it relevant again.”
In addition, he said, “Westworld is very much a genre show. The plotlines are convoluted and the show itself is quite cerebral. We wanted to make it accessible to a broader audience.”
In preparation for the show’s April 22 premiere, HBO kicked off the marketing campaign in December 2017 with a promotion encouraging people to binge-watch season one over the holidays.
From there, the team took a “’go big or go home’ approach to our marketing,” said Spadaccini.
“If we wanted Westworld to be perceived as an event, on what bigger stage to debut than the Super Bowl?” he said. “That gave us a much-needed awareness boost, reminded people that HBO is much bigger than Game of Thrones. We wanted to make sure we were in the same consideration set as our competitors such as Hulu and Amazon Prime who were also advertising in the game.”
But HBO’s biggest moment came a month later, when it built a replica of Westworld’s home town, Sweetwater, 20 miles outside of Austin, Texas, for an activation that took place during SXSW 2018.
“If you’ve been to SXSW, you know it’s a great place to reach influencers,” Spadaccini said. “But it’s also incredibly cluttered. I call it brand soup. If you want to be there, you need to do something really memorable.”
HBO worked with New York-based experiential agency Giant Spoon to create the experience, which included transporting people there by shuttle bus, Lyft or even one dedicated Delta flight. Attendees got to choose whether they were a “black hat” or a “white hat” and proceed with their experience from there.
When all was said and done, the activation scored 1.9 billion impressions, with several media outlets declaring it the most impactful event at SXSW, a two-week conference known for making an impact.
Beyond that, HBO also created an interactive experience, Facebook Messenger bot and virtual concierge meant to target the superfan with immersive content, but also allow that content to emerge from that rarified air into the mainstream. Once superfans found Easter eggs and solved clues, content was unlocked and shared across social media until everyone who cared was in on the mystery.
“We conditioned fans to look for a deep experience in the marketing,” said Spadaccini.
Showtime’s The Chi
The Chi, created and executive produced by Lena Waithe and Common, is a very different show than Westworld. But at their cores, both shows are posing key questions about the nature of humanity
“This was a story that was in my soul that I had to get out,” said Waithe in a video. “I had to get it out of my body and on to the page. But it still lives in my spirit because it’s personal to me.”
The Chi tells the stories of multiple characters who living interwoven lives on the South Side of Chicago.
“It’s connecting dozens of characters in a complex web of characters and relationships,” said Don Buckley, CMO, Showtime. “Our answer to the marketing was to use tone, tenor, music and sound design to create a feeling of emotional connection made with the suggestion of narrative.”
Buckley and his team cut a promo that they loved. Thinking they had nailed it, Buckley brought it to Waithe. But instead of immediately signing off, she instead said, “I have an idea about music. There’s an artist I love named Rory.”
So the team took Waithe’s suggestion and returned to the edit booth. The below is the final result:
The next round played out much the same. Buckley and his team put a trailer through five rounds of edits, and then it was time to take the work to Waithe again.
And again she said, “I have an idea about music.”
“So we got Chance [the Rapper], my music budget was exploding, and our social KPIs were headed in the right direction,” said Buckley.
In the end, The Chi drove the most free trial signups for Showtime of any freshman series in its history and averaged 4.5 million viewers weekly across platforms, marking the network’s best series debut since Billions in 2016.
FX’s challenge when it came to marketing Ryan Murphy’s latest series, Pose, was oddly similar to HBO’s with Westworld.
Pose, which tells the stories of ball culture in lower Manhattan in the late ‘80s, is a series that was poised to immediately appeal to a diverse LGBTQ audience at its core, but FX wanted to broaden its reach.
“We thought it was going to be edgy and dark and lead you into what it was like to be transgender in the late 80s, but when we met with Ryan Murphy, he said ‘I see this as bright enjoyable and joyful summer fare.’”
So the team ripped up its first strategy and started over.
“We went to what is really true about humanity – what really connects us. It’s not what we look like on the outside. The soul of the homo sapiens connects with fear, love, shame, the need to be seen, accepted, the need to have our actual existence validated,” said Stephanie Gibbons, president, multiplatform marketing, FX.
The team started looking at the overall groups they could target, starting with the African-American LGBTQ community and then moving out to transgenders and core LGBTQ adults. They then also realized that it might make sense to target the show to women – especially fans of musicals and who celebrate gay culture.
“Essentially it’s the hell you all go through,” she said. “You look at every single place there is, you go through all this stuff and you end up with ‘so, we should market to the people who like it,’” Gibbons joked.
Once the target market and media plan was established, FX started to create.
“We made sure that this campaign celebrated life, beauty, color, being alive. Every single person we put on the key art was a transgender woman,” Gibbons said. “We’re big believers in the primacy of outdoor. What really drives interest, passion and communication for that one to one mission of people telling other people is data and visuals they can’t avoid.”
With the hyper-colorful visuals were in place, FX went to town creating assets to be used across social, including GIFs, stickers and videos. They also attended LGBTQ parades and threw a few balls of their own.
“The show is about finding family,” said Gibbons. “Ryan Murphy wanted people to see the aorta of this community and then broaden it knowing that everyone feels these things.”
AMC’s The Walking Dead and Fear the Walking Dead
Last but not least, AMC’s Justin Manfredi, SVP of marketing, discussed the network’s long-awaited crossover between The Walking Dead and spin-off Fear the Walking Dead.
For AMC, the fan base was there so the question was “how do you excite one of the largest and most critical fan bases in the world in new and unique ways?” he said, noting that The Walking Dead has 36 million fans on Facebook and 60 million across both franchises.
The buzz started about nine months prior at San Diego Comic Con, when the producers of The Walking Dead, including creator Robert Kirkman, sat on a panel. A fan asked whether a crossover event would ever happen and Kirkman slyly said, “I’d love to see a crossover.”
“That allowed us to start our campaign,” Manfredi said.
But the network didn’t really start anything; instead, they sat on their hands and let fans spin their own theories about whether the crossover would actually happen and if so, who would crossover.
Three months later, at New York Comic-Con, Kirkman was back on a panel. And this time, he confirmed that the crossover was on.
The last question was who would cross, and that answer was soon provided by superfan Chris Hardwick on his show, The Talking Dead. There, Hardwick revealed that Morgan, played by Lennie James, would be making the move.
“In a highly technical, social and digital world, we went for a fan-centric approach using a fan-centric show,” said Manfredi.
The next day, James appeared on a Facebook Live stream, addressing fans about the move, talking about his first day on the Austin, Texas, based set, and expressing his relief that the secret was finally out.
“Within the first 24 hours, we saw 2.7 million viewers on Facebook Live with 91 percent positive social sentiment and more than two times the average social engagement,” said Manfredi.
The team then began to build up to what they were calling Survival Sunday on April 15. AMC would air the season-eight finale of The Walking Dead and move right into the season-four premiere of Fear the Walking Dead.
From there, the team initiated several social activations, including a partnership with Twitter in which fans could tweet AMC and receive content in return, an augmented reality filter on Snapchat allowing people to place a zombie in their snaps, and a Twitch partnership that promoted the crossover during a four-hour livestream in which Team TWD faced off against Team FTWD over a game of Pub G. People who entered #SurvivalSunday in the chat during the stream were entered in a contest to win prizes.
Finally, the network partnered with ESPN on this fun integration that allowed AMC to reach male viewers:
As a result of all of that, AMC saw ratings increase for the season finale of The Walking Dead by 21 percent over its season average. Fear the Walking Dead became the only scripted show on cable to show growth over its first season in the past two years, said Manfredi.