HBO Westworld’s poetic mastery of transmedia at SXSW

Kyle Koniewicz
Apr 10, 2018 · 10 min read

How a television network deftly used every modern media channel to swarm herds of SXSW tech-nerds miles away from the mega-conference, only to discover how a rich, real-life experience could transcend the delights of their shiny new toys.

As my bus turned off the highway and began down a winding dirt road, a white-suited young blonde man with an expression resembling King Joffrey’s menacing scowl stood to make an announcement from the front of the aisle: “Welcome to Westworld, where you will Live Without Limits. Here you will be witness to salty language, physical altercations, and even gunfire. The only rule we have for you: don’t break anything.”

As you’ve likely read, one of SXSW 2018’s most powerful and most talked about experiences was HBO’s Westworld. Just outside Austin, a 2-acre, real-world town of Sweetwater from the smash-hit show was meticulously recreated and populated with 60 actors playing the show’s “hosts.” Over the course of the SXSW Interactive weekend, roughly 3,000 lucky event-goers were invited to visit as “guests,” thrust into the world to explore, interact, discover, and live without limits, and without cell phones. I write this article as one of Iris’ SXSW attendees who took a chance to join the stand-by line for what would become an epic, day-long, and refreshingly tech-empty experience.

That same evening in Austin, HBO hosted a session at SXSW titled Westworld: Establishing A Transmedia Franchise, featuring Jim Marsh, Noreen O’Toole, Halle Phillips, and Tanner Stransky representing HBO and Kilter Films. As my colleague and co-author Kevin Folk listened in the audience, they broke down the how and why of building out Westworld’s Transmedia empire. They explained the strategy of building out the mythology of the show, creating a fan culture from scratch, and extending the show’s story beyond the screen by inviting its evangelist fans to experience a day within its captivating world, exclusively for themselves.

“Transmedia storytelling represents a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels for the purpose of creating a unified and coordinated entertainment experience.

- Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture

The panel covered HBO’s 5 Rules for Killer Transmedia, which we explore below, supplemented by our first-hand account of how these rules played out in their fully immersive, unforgettable, and nearly entirely analog brand experience.

1 | Choose your battles wisely

As you may suspect, transmedia is an expensive undertaking. In the words of the panel, “This was not a cheap campaign.” It takes a lot of creative and logistical effort, along with a receptive and passionate fan base, to bring a transmedia campaign to life and to support and sustain its efforts. So, how does a brand know if their investment and efforts will bear fruit?

Weeks in advance of SXSW, I received a forwarded email from a colleague: “You have to do this while you’re at SXSW.” Finally, digging through my inbox the week prior to the festival, I realized all advance tickets had been claimed, and desperately set Twitter to exclusively notify me of tweets from @WestworldHBO for daily ticket announcements. After 3 consecutive failed 9am registration attempts and countless retweets of elated fans returning from the experience, I swung by Austin’s Eastside Tavern. There, I found a line of stand-by fans extending down the block, all hoping to fill in for no-shows. One fan told me he’s moved “maybe 50 feet in 4 hours, with another 20 to go.” Needless to say, I assembled a daypack that night, woke up early, and departed to join the line. I arrived at 9:15am as number 16 in line of what soon became more than 200, prepared to wait the next 5 ½ hours on the sidewalk.

Clearly, the promotion of a campaign of this magnitude lives and dies by the active digital participation of its fans. Those fans then engage with the material, sharing stories and expanding its influence far beyond a traditional campaign. In this way, HBO built upon the richness of the Westworld universe, inviting fans to take an exclusive journey within the show’s world.

2 | Have a great story to tell

To create a successful transmedia campaign, a brand should ask itself, “What would I want as a fan?” Sure, creating original and meaningful content can tap into the fervor of fans who are hungry for more than what was contained in the show’s runtime, but the real-life Westworld experience instilled a new sense of discovery by personally involving me in something new and exclusive: a physical experience worthy of the show’s universe..

At one point in the midst of my visit, I heard a spout of shouting grow louder in the distance. Soon, gunshots rang out, and hosts everywhere dropped everything to run toward the action. The men yelled with guns drawn, the women cried out while trying not to trip over their skirts. Then the bell rang at the sheriff’s station, a sign to guests and hosts alike to gather for the next major story progression. The scene that followed would play out over 10 minutes, some of which is captured below:

In Sweetwater, the lines became blurred between crafting a marketing experience and creating a rich narrative. The town became as rich a piece of content as any episode of the show, and guests were invited to participate in and contribute to it. With 444 pages of parallel and often intersecting scripts playing out on a 2-hour loop, the experience became more improvisational than experiential brand activation — one constructed entirely in the tone and voice of the mysterious Delos, Inc., the mysterious overlord company that runs Westworld in the show, rather than that of HBO.

3 | Construct your world

Beyond creating a new chapter in a brand’s story, a transmedia campaign should provide fans a sandbox in which they can interact and play, free from the restrictions of linearity or technology. Westworld’s fans love the multi-layered universe of the show, from its characters and environments to the deeper questions it poses about ethics and life, and at SXSW, guests were invited to personally experience these elements and participate in the story first-hand, rather than just watch one play out.

HBO’s sandbox was not only the physical town of Sweetwater, with its many structures and characters, but also the multitude of narratives to explore, secrets to unlock, and Easter eggs to discover.

As a Westworld fan myself, some of my most appreciated moments at Sweetwater included:

• Bounty hunting for a wanted man, showing hosts a photo I took of his wanted poster on my phone, and receiving responses like, “I don’t see anything there,” and “I don’t speak ye language!”

• Watching as a host discovered a Polaroid photo (a no-no for hosts) of herself, appeared disturbed by its existence, and pretended to not have seen anything by hiding it behind the bar. Then stealing that photo and using it to test whether other hosts were experiencing the same bug, before returning to her 2 hours later, after she had been missing it for a full run through the script, and having it snatched away, and still being informed completely in-character “This is not meant for you.”

• Going toe-to-toe with the infamous lost samurai, and instead of backing down, successfully ordering him to “cease all motor functions” and to “reboot” as a room full of fellow guests watched silently in awe. Then forcing the samurai to experience a technical short by showing him said Polaroid.

• Reporting the samurai’s odd behaviors to a Delos employee, who rewarded us by recalibrating a large man to “dance like a pretty pretty girl for 10 seconds” upon awakening.

These were just a few moments of over 5 hours spent at the activation, investigating the town, digging into its inhabitants’ stories, and unlocking the secrets within. And while the digital accounts of the experience were enough to draw me to the town, and you to this article, HBO realized it was the fans’ personal experiences themselves at the core of Westworld’s transmedia success.

4 | Cast the audience in juicy roles

A centerpiece of the Westworld marketing strategy is to never treat fans solely as viewers, but to immerse them within the world and story. Just as in the show, guests are allowed the freedom to do as they please, limited only by their own inclination. Fans became the stars of their own stories as they began to explore the world created for them. Here’s how I became acclimated to my role:

As I entered the Mariposa Saloon for the first time, a host reminiscent of Maeve from the show introduced herself, gently grabbing my hand and immediately laying on the flattery.

“Hey handsome, where are you from? I’ve never heard of Chicago. You can call me Rosa. What do you keep lookin’ around for? No one can help you now.”

I quickly realized I’d need to choose my path: Either get eaten alive by 60 professional actors with pages of script at their disposal as me, an advertising professional from Chicago, or to cast this identity off, replacing it with a strategically crafted new one that would set me up for success in my intended mission: conquering Westworld. For the next 5 hours, I put on a new skin as I dove into the deep end. This was Westworld. Nothing could hurt me. I could do no wrong. Or I could do all of it. It was completely up to me.

Placing fans within the show’s universe as active participants allowed them to become co-creators of their own stories. This was not just a piece of theater to watch, or an A/B choose-your-own-adventure as cowboy or detective, but a real, grand adventure requiring me to become both. While some guests were more comfortable digging for coins in the graveyard, watching live music, or playing blackjack, others quickly realized the only way to progress within their stories was to don the persona of a guest and fully embrace the tangible world around them — which leads us to the final rule.

5 | Break all the rules

The success of Westworld seems to fly in the face of what SXSW traditionally represents. Whereas SXSW is a festival that celebrates connected experiences, often augmented by emerging technologies and screens, and that allow people to experience an artificially heightened state of being, Sweetwater is exactly the opposite: a physical space in which attendees are transported great distances not by VR, but by bus — and where any use of technology is rejected. It is here that they must step outside of their comfort zones and break all the rules they’d become accustomed to. In the words of the Westworld panel, “sometimes more is more.” Westworld’s IRL experience allowed guests the unique advantage of being constrained neither by technology nor the expectations of others. It was only the challenge of letting go of themselves that they had to overcome.

Straying beyond the ropes that designate what is and is not a permissible area to explore, with the words of the stuffy, white-suited man from bus ringing in my ear, “Don’t break anything,” I found something. Sitting just beyond view and unguarded lay The Maze, a literal labyrinth. The winding halls are part of the year-round attraction that the ghost town upon which Sweetwater was built offers to tourists. But still, the symmetry with the show’s mythology and the mysteries of Sweetwater, and the rush of discovery created a wonderful moment. Moments like these were reserved for guests bold enough to Live Beyond Sweetwater’s and their own Limits.

This was how, as a participant within HBO’s transmedia campaign, I witnessed first-hand as each rule to its success played out. But how do we judge the success of a campaign like this? The panel struggled with this question — and rightfully so. Do you count shares and likes on social media? Or the number news articles and stories (like this one) written about it? The general sentiment associated with a hashtag? Or the ratings of the show itself upon its premier this Sunday night? One thing is clear: as new forms of media continue to evolve, the metrics we use to measure their impact will need to evolve with them. However, in our subjective opinion of our experiences, the word success is a massive understatement.

For marketers hoping to achieve the same impact with transmedia campaigns of their own, the 5 rules shared by HBO’s Westworld panel seem to provide a reliable guide. First and foremost, choose your battles wisely. Does your brand have the content and fan base necessary to sustain and justify a transmedia campaign? If so, have a great story to tell, preferably an original one that will be fresh to your most evangelical fans. Then construct a world, and provide a physically and emotionally engaging sandbox for these fans to play within. Cast them in juicy roles, inviting them to shape their own experience with your brand. And most importantly, break all the rules. Understand your constraints, but also question the alleged limitations they present, whether in the form of “best practices” or comfort zones, and do all you can to push beyond them.

So, what is next for Westworld? As guests at Sweetwater discovered, the numbers to know are 0422 — April 22nd — the premiere date for Season 2. Guests also discovered personalized table invitations (complete with blood splatter) in their hats upon departure, the meaning of which will be revealed at this date as well. The panel also announced a mobile game — the Delos Park Training Simulation. What secrets lay within? You’ll have to jump in and start searching to find out.

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