How HBO Sells Fantasy: The ‘Game of Thrones’ Customer Journey

Game of Thrones concluded its fifth season on June 15, becoming HBO’s biggest hit since The Sopranos. How did a fantasy drama about ancient kingdoms and bloody family feud average 13.6 million viewers per episode and become a gold mine for HBO?

The unique challenge to HBO has been its ad-free business model, where subscriptions are its primary source of revenue. Ever since it launched The Sopranos in the 1990s, HBO shows have followed an “appointment model”, where new shows are released every Sunday. Rival provider Netflix makes all of its episodes available to consumers when a new show launches. This makes it all the more crucial for HBO to get fans excited for its shows, to pad the gaps in between episodes. In spite of this model, HBO’s shows, from the Sopranos and Sex and the City to Boardwalk Empire and now Game of Thrones, have all been huge critical and ratings successes.

Keeping consumers engaged is especially challenging at a time when marketers are constantly on their toes to keep the attention of the “chameleon consumer”, who shifts between preferences and defies typical market segmentation. To resonate with this new breed of consumer, organizations have to find “community vehicles” of communication like social media — something HBO did especially well. These interactions on social media gave fans an opportunity to interact with the show’s content and with each other, and organically further the Game of Thrones brand’s presence.

A mix of smart marketing campaigns, consumer-generated internet buzz and over-the-top events contribute to making HBO’s an admirable marketing strategy. Game of Thrones is a case in point to examine how HBO owned the customer journey through its multi-channel marketing campaign, finding innovative ways to keep its consumers engaged at each step of the experience, from generating awareness before the show launched, to maintaining high levels of engagement and finally, cultivating consumers’ loyalty — and finding some nifty ways to test it.

Before Game of Thrones: the awareness phase

The typical customer journey begins with awareness of the product, and HBO set out to cultivate awareness three months before its first episode aired. The now-famous phrase “Winter is coming” was used on promotional posters before the series’ launch in 2011. (Soon, it spawned an entire category of memes called Imminent Ned, named after the character on the posters.) The marketing art, cleverly designed to capture consumers’ shrinking attention spans, signaled that the show was out to make the fantasy genre accessible to an atypical fanbase. Marketing agency Campfire worked with HBO to create the “fantasy for those who don’t like fantasy”, according to Mike Monello, Campfire partner, executive creative director, and co-founder.

From screen to street: Multichannel engagement

HBO’s engagement tactics got more innovative to keep existing fans engaged, and to draw in new fans as the show’s seasons progressed. With episodes as long as an hour airing only once a week, HBO showed that it is possible to manage today’s meandering customer journey, one whose complexity and unpredictability often frustrates marketers. HBO hired Top Chef Tom Colicchio to create a customized menu modeled on the show’s fictional location. Thrones-themed food trucks went around New York City and Los Angeles, and fans were encouraged to post about the food on social media. The campaign got Thrones 120 million digital and social impressions.

HBO also tapped into the visual consumer to promote the Game of Thrones brand, adding to the mix a production blog that contains lush storyboards and behind-the-scenes content. The show’s bloodiest deaths were transformed into “Beautiful Death” artwork on a dedicated website, allowing fans to contribute. By doing this, HBO reached outside of the fantasy label to a wider community of established and novice artists and design junkies, giving Thrones a wider appeal.

Game of Thrones’ multichannel engagement compared to other shows, on its fourth season premiere (sysomos.com)

Loyalty to the Throne: How HBO keeps consumers hooked

HBO’s once-weekly airing model made it tough for fans to binge-watch the show, making their watching experience all the more valuable. Additionally, the show depends on its creator, author George R.R. Martin, to churn out Game of Thrones books in tandem with its release. Gaps between seasons stretch as long as a year, and HBO used this time to keep its fans engaged with the show’s content — creating easily shareable “snackable content” in the interim. In partnership with agency 360i, HBO hosted a social media comedy roast: #RoastJoffrey invited fans to create “roasts” on Twitter of the Internet’s most hated character, driven by insights from Sysomos social listening.

Characters may die, but offline marketing won’t

The show’s offline marketing challenged the status quo, proving that even today, digital isn’t the only way to engage consumers — and convert others. HBO’s marketing campaigns have shown marketers how offline and online are working as seamless executions to deliver a single customer experience. HBO tied together experiences across social, digital, and offline marketing to make the customer journey holistic — and by treating consumers as co-creators, allowed them to shape part of the journey.

In 2013 HBO ran a 2-page spread of fictional news stories in the New York times, generating buzz before its fourth season premiered. And then, in a true test of their fans’ devotion, at the Season 4 series premiere in New York, around 7,000 fans attending the viewing at Barclays’ Stadium were asked to surrender their phones upon entry. This social experiment ensured no leaks to social media. The fourth season finale was premiered in selected theaters, creating a new experience for fans and signaling that the show had moved beyond the constraints of the TV or computer screen to deliver an experience akin to the feature-length film. HBO is cementing the notion that traditional TV has to create novel experiences to make it the “first screen” again, capturing its audience’s undivided attention.

Online Engagement following the Season 4 premiere

HBO’s Game of Thrones marketing campaign made the Game of Thrones experience far more than just a 60-minute TV slot every Sunday, showing marketers the importance of creating quality content in a noisy market. With marketing becoming the “new architect of the buyer journey”, marketers must plan and execute multi-channel campaigns that make for a seamless customer journey.

This post originally appeared on the Percolate blog.