As promised, it’s time for our first Transmedia Case Study (TCS). In this bi-weekly series, I’ll be digging into a recognizable Big Media property – a major film, broadcast TV show, published book series, AAA videogame, popular comic book, indy/cult hit, or even a beloved consumer brand – and evaluating the effectiveness of its transmedia campaign. To get things rolling, let’s start with an example of transmedia done right. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you…GAME OF THRONES.
It’s a property close to my heart. I read the first book in the early 90’s, and George R.R Martin’s fascinating tale of political intrigue, medieval warfare, and ‘mature fantasy’ captured me in its singular gravity. Sadly, ‘life’ got in the way (as it so often does), and with no widespread Internets to keep abreast of series developments, A Song of Ice and Fire fell off the narrative radar. But my time in Westeros would not be forgotten…
Flash-forward nearly 20 years.
I caught wind of the show going into development at HBO in 2007. My biggest concern – you know, aside from the obvious ‘How the Hell are they going to pull off the sheer scope on TV???’ – was with audience awareness. Sure, the books were best-sellers – and ‘fantasy’ had gotten a much-needed boost thanks to Tolkien going mainstream – but what about the masses? How were they going to reach the kind of audience numbers that would keep a show like this on the air, justify the hefty per-episode budgets, and make it must-see appointment television?
A SPANDEX SOAPBOX
It should be common knowledge by now, but I’ll say it again for the flat-Earthers who still have hairy-knuckled fingers in their collective ears: Geek is in. Genre properties are no longer the embarrassing indulgences of pasty-faced basement dwellers wielding 20-sided dice and polybagged variant covers; sci-fi, fantasy, comic book, and cult IP have seen massive growth in public mindshare in the past decade. There’s much debate as to what lit the fuse on this pop-cultural explosion; did Star Wars/Star Trek nerds, now in positions of power and respect, shape the modern media landscape? Were The Matrix and Lord of the Rings trilogies effectively uniting the once-disparate scifi and fantasy sub-cultures? Did female-embraced cult hits like Twin Peaks, Buffy, and The X-Files pave the way for broader acceptance? Were the Muggles amongst becoming a minority? Were seismic cultural shifts making it so vampires and zombies could finally step out from the blood-soaked shadows..?
There’s no right or wrong answer. But when did the questioning itself reach critical mass? In what arena did genre IPs slay the competition and claim the box-office/TV-rating/best-selling crown? What did established media properties like Lord of the Rings, Batman, Iron Man, and Harry Potter have in common with unknown upstarts like Heroes, Fringe, LOST, 30 Days of Night, and The Walking Dead?
The marketing gurus at HBO knew they had to tap into this make-or-break audience from square one – not only to energize the books’ existing fans, but to bring potential legions of genre flag-bearers to their standard. Somehow, they had to establish a unique brand presence amidst deafening (and competitive) signals and noise, build unique in-the-flesh buzz for the show, and have the experience be personal, shareable through social media, and immediately iconic.
The Iron Throne campaign (2010 – current) is an ingenious gimmick for 3 core reasons:
- It lets established fans fulfill a long-held dream of taking the true seat of power in Westeros, with photographic evidence.
- Newbies to the IP are immediately acquainted with the core imagery/branding of the upcoming series: title, font, throne, and tone.
- The whole thing was designed to be SHARED on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and other social networks. Each person who sat in throne and posted their pic became a brand evangelist by association – a living advertisement.
WINTER IS COMING
The gears were now in place, and HBO launched an aggressive Twitter campaign in the summer of 2010 to post the ‘best’ Iron Throne pics live from the show floor. An active Facebook fan page wasn’t far behind. Both entities felt personal – like they were speaking directly to fans as a trusted friend, and encouraging their involvement in a growing but selective community. Genre fans were made to feel like they were getting in on the ground floor of something special. Buzz continued to grow with exclusive photos, set reports, and collectible contests. Book sales from the four available tomes began to see unmistakeable bumps…
And then came The Wall: this brilliant (and FREE) interactive experience – dubbed The Maester’s Path – introduced thousands of fresh eyeballs and mouse-clicking fingertips to the mythology and tone of the series. This wasn’t your mother’s rainbow-hued fantasy project; things were going to be bleak. Cold winds…mountains of ice…black ravens…grim pledges…whispers of monsters, and fates worse than death…all wrapped in the language and vocabulary of the existing books AND upcoming series. A grim yet delicious appetizer, but one concocted primarily for a gamer’s discerning palette.
And for the rest of us..?
The GoT-inspired food truck campaign was another brilliant move. Have a celebrity chef with ‘urban snob’ appeal – and an established brand (TOP CHEF) – showcase his culinary chaps crafting a selection of the dishes described in mouth-watering and period-accurate detail in Martin’s books. The trucks would make limited appearances in major media cities (Los Angeles and New York), on a first-come/first-served/social-media-driven basis. Smart.
Once the traditional marketing machine started rolling into gear late 2010, it should’ve been obvious they had a hit on their hands. The first episode of the show aired to entirely respectable ratings – but Game of Thrones soon became one of the only premium cable shows in history to grow in viewership over its first season. Even replays and extra airings were snagging great numbers. Giddy, HBO gave the green light to Season 2 within days of the premiere. And all the while, the social media campaign kept the fans energized and engaged with show trivia, episode quotes, favourite moments, and links to fan-made GoT homages:
And things didn’t stop when the first season came to a close; with the long-overdue fifth book in the series about to launch, the transmedia machine was now running on all cylinders:
- Game of Thrones Series Companion App
- HBO-Go Interactive Viewer
- Interactive ‘Areas of Control’ Map
- mobile Game of Thrones ‘Weather Skins’
- Thrones-inspired Fashion
- Game of Thrones ‘War of the Five Kings’ sigil tattoos!
Not to mention this:
With such a creative and multi-tiered transmedia strategy, and such capable execution on all fronts, is anyone really surprised by the results?