The success of The Hunger Games wasn’t exactly a long shot. But then, it wasn’t a foregone conclusion either (see: the performance of best seller-turned-box-office-disappointment The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). An elaborate and ongoing social media campaign, orchestrated by Lionsgate and agency Ignition, helped turn a strong bet into a blockbuster—the film has earned more than $450 million at the box office worldwide so far.
Lionsgate’s senior vice president for digital marketing Danielle DePalma saw early on how social media could be the backbone of Hunger Games marketing and would be the best route to engaging fans in a meaningful and cost-effective way. One key: assigning a separate hashtag to each campaign event. “Those really helped us trend because each one of those milestones had its own identity and helped it to spread so easily,” says DePalma, who, at 29, has overseen innovative web campaigns for such films as Saw, Kick-Ass, and The Expendables.
The social media campaign could not have succeeded without solid creative or a masterful overall campaign, helmed by Lionsgate’s chief marketing officer Tim Palen, which included an offline strategy overseen by senior vice president of media and research Erika Schimik.
Here, DePalma takes us through the strategy and execution of the social media campaign, which rolled out in sync with creative, PR, and traditional promotions and kicked off with the release of the first image of the Mockingjay, the pin on fire (See campaign elements and images in the slide show above).
The Hunger Games marketing team learned early on that an engaged fan base was already eager for any word of the coming screen adaptation of their favorite book. Tapping into that base was task one. “Our first mission was to start connecting with the fans of the book by utilizing Facebook and Twitter,” says DePalma, who began that process more than a year ago.
They decided that the first big reveal of the campaign—the cast of the film—would happen online. And since Facebook was already a hub of fan discussion, that was the natural place to do it. Their next step was to invite die-hard fans for exclusive visits to the set of the movie, also via Facebook, thereby establishing early on that the site was an essential gathering place for fans and the place where they could gain information, access, and community. “It was really all our way of developing that direct connection and that direct dialogue with them,” she says.
At the same time, the team at Lionsgate was coming to understand the breadth of Hunger Games content that fans were creating online. Those materials gave the studio a window into what fans were most interested in. “One of the things we did around that was to start Fan Fridays on Facebook, as a way to highlight all the great works they were doing,” says DePalma, who also used a Hunger Games channel on YouTube as a showcase hub. “That allowed us to really start forming an emotional connection with fans, and it got them following us and then spreading the word for us. It was exciting because we knew that we could work with them and get them onboard to really help push the campaign.”
Lionsgate’s entire campaign was built on this fan-based communication. DePalma jokingly refers to Jessica Frank, Lionsgate’s social manager, as their “fan whisperer." "She had a personal relationship with all of these fan sites. From the beginning, she was the one communicating with them [and] working on all the social, posting on Twitter and on Facebook. She was really dedicated to that on a daily basis."
“We decided from the beginning that we wanted to tap into all the large social platforms, but in different ways, because each platform is unique,” explains DePalma, who began with a viral campaign targeting fans of the book, on Facebook and Twitter. She and her team then launched a site called TheCapitol.pn that allowed fans to register for a district—a key component of the campaign. “That gave them an identity for this Hunger Games community, and it gave them an active role.” Fans could create their own district badges on Facebook, where they would connect to their district communities and be active participants.
“Within Twitter what we did was expand on that. We started assigning fans different roles within this virtual world. We have district mayors and district recruiters, which really got them active and sharing over Facebook and Twitter. I mean, that’s what Facebook and Twitter are—it’s like your way of identifying who you are and sharing that with your friends. So, by giving them an occupation within their district, we gave them an identity.” And it made the fans into invested participants in the campaign.
Once that was established, DePalma moved on to Tumblr and YouTube. “Tumblr is such a visual site and really has a footprint in fashion as it is, so we thought it was the perfect place to launch our Capitol Couture blog"—showcasing the movie’s outlandish costumes and makeup, and grabbing fans who were interested in that aspect.
The elaborate world created by Suzanne Collins helped the movie’s marketing team imagine the many ways they could bring it to life for fans, such as letting them choose district identities. “We felt that this was something that we would start with the core fans and then we could see how much we could broaden it out from there,” says DePalma. "People started consuming it and sharing it and it really took on a life of its own. That inspired us to push it even further.”
Lionsgate could have easily taken a cue from Twilight and separated the community of fans into Team Peeta and Team Gale, playing up the love triangle of the story in the same way Twilight’s marketing had stoked fans’ allegiances to Team Edward or Team Jacob. But they resisted. “We never went to the love triangle place,” says DePalma. “We knew from fan feedback early on that we wanted to avoid that. We could have done a lot with that online, but I think that’s definitely much more teen- and young-girl focused,” she assesses. “And I think that this film really appeals to all four quads.” (Men under 25; men over 25; women under 25; and women over 25.) They were careful not to confine their fans to one box.
“We established early on that the fans really became this self-policing ecosystem. Within the comments they would say, ‘Don’t do that, this film is so much more.’ So, we learned from them the do’s and don’ts, and we learned early on that they didn’t want us to go there.”
That allowed them to tap into male fans. The videogame-oriented site IGN focused on such things as how to train for the games, which seems to have drawn in men who weren’t otherwise interested in the movie. "We wanted to make sure that the way that we put it out there had a broad appeal.”
As Tim Palen told The New York Times, “We made a rule that we would never say, '23 kids get killed.' We say, ‘only one wins.’” The choice to never show a bit of the actual games helped to frame the entire campaign. And it left everything else up for grabs. “We were able to dive into the world of the Capitol,” says DePalma. “It allowed us to focus on the stunning visuals of the Capitol and the adult cast of the film [Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks], who were much more known, rather than selling the games.”
Early on they teased images of the faces of the Capitol, which was done as part of a cobranded campaign with China Glaze, the nail lacquer. “When we released the ad that we did with Effie Trinket [Banks] online, especially within the Tumblr community, the fans went crazy. I think at that point we knew this was something our fans really wanted to see more of.”
It was all a tease of the colorful Capitol, which readers had only been able to imagine until then. “It was really about teasing because there was a lot obviously that we didn’t give away and people never saw until they got to the film.”
Clearly, social media was a tremendous factor in driving the success of The Hunger Games, but no one is under the impression that traditional media—print ads, TV commercials, outdoor—are no longer essential. In fact, by turning the release of those traditional campaigns into online events, Lionsgate was able to turn advertising and public relations into the cornerstone of its social campaign.
The release of each character’s poster and each trailer became huge moments for them online, in part by driving people to Twitter from the posters. “They created a ton of social buzz and got everyone really excited,” says DePalma. “And within the first 24 hours of the release of the trailer, it had 8 million views. “I think Tim Palen described it best,” says DePalma of her boss. “He said it was just the perfect storm where everything just aligned and really kind of had to feed off each other. So, I really don’t think one over the other is more important. I really do think that they had to complement each other.”
The campaign was designed to have traditional media work in tandem with online. “I think those creative materials are brilliant but on top of that each one of the trailers that we released or the TV spot that we released would have a specific hashtag on it that would launch a different part of the campaign.” Among them: #HungerGames100 marked 100 days until the movie’s release; #HungerGames74, 74 days out (that number was chosen because the story is set against the 74th annual Hunger Games); #WhatsMyDistrict launched the viral campaign for fans to ally themselves with a chosen district team in connection with an MTV sneak peek; and #HeadtotheSquare launched the Facebook tab where fans could run for mayor of a district.
What would have been standard offline PR moves—spearheaded by Lionsgate’s executive vice president of publicity Julie Fontaine—became integrated into the traditional ad and online campaigns. For instance, Josh Hutcherson appeared on Good Morning America to introduce the first trailer. To have that clip online and to see him with fans to go along with the trailer [which was also available online] was fantastic. "Along with all these, all the good TV outlets covered the release of all of the pictures along the way. So, everything that was done traditionally we were able to amplify online." Similarly, when Entertainment Weekly put out covers revealing how Peeta and Gale looked in character, they became larger events for Lionsgate. “It was being able to use those traditional off-line elements online and that’s really how it all worked in tandem.”
For the launch of the poster 100 days out from the movie’s release (“#HungerGames100”), Lionsgate created a puzzle, allowing fans to gather pieces from many different places online in order to assemble the poster themselves, thereby leading fans organically from one social media site to another. One hundred partner sites hid their puzzle pieces on their Facebook page. "Then they tweeted about it and sent their Twitter followers to their Facebook page,” says DePalma, who reveled in getting blogs, Facebook, and Twitter to work together. “We were pleasantly surprised throughout the entire process.”
Another big event was “Hunger Games 24,” for which fans tweeted in favor of their city to be one of 24 locations of an early screening of the film. “In less than a week, we basically saw 100,000 tweets," says DePalma. "It was amazing to see the results of something with no media support behind it. It was something that was simply the fans expressing their excitement to see this film. It gave them the opportunity to get involved just by tweeting.” They also played off elements of the film by partnering with 12 different websites as “district sponsors.” Explains DePalma: “Those 12 sponsors brought those opportunities to their fans, so they promoted it to their fans via Facebook and Twitter as well. It was Yahoo, Fandango, IGN, Machinima—everything from portals to teen-focused sites to more male websites. We were able to see clear results right away from each one of those campaigns.”
Though the plan for the campaign was comprehensive from the beginning it allowed for changes along the way to optimize according to the reaction of fans. “On Facebook it was all about the time of day we were posting and what we were posting,” says DePalma, who was able to see immediate results, like as many as 100,000 likes on a single Facebook post.
“What seemed to work the best, too, was fan-created content. I mean, the Peeta memes were always the top performers. That’s how we were really learning about what our audience liked most, through those Facebook results." Similarly, while tweeting throughout each day, they could gauge engagement. “Whether it was people retweeting or responding to us,” says DePalma, “we were able to steer the conversation.”
Lionsgate released The Hunger Games: Girl on Fire app for iPhone iOS the day before the movie’s release. “The iPhone game is a pick up and play, simple sticky game because it has two levels,” DePalma explains. Whereas the Facebook game is much more expansive, creating the world of Panem online, and it was released in beta for fans only first. “We’ve slowly been allowing the fans in first and over the last week or so we opened it up to the public. From there we’ll continue to release different districts for the game”—which will be a slow rollout leading up to the next theatrical release.
With the film still playing strong at the box office and two more movies to come (the second one is slated for November 2013)—not to mention the first film’s DVD release on a still-unannounced date (no doubt that announcement will occasion a big event online)—DePalma declares, “We’ve got a long road ahead!”
So the campaign continues. “Everybody [in the core fanbase] has seen the film now. Fans want to be able to continue to share with friends their excitement for the film. [The ongoing campaign] gives them something tangible to continue to spread the word online and to share with friends that maybe haven’t seen the film yet or haven’t read the books.” To that end, she orchestrated the exclusive release of a new clip from the film just the other day, in the Facebook game.
According to DePalma, between Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tumbler, The Hunger Games has more than 6-and-a-half-million followers. “We have to continue to communicate with these fans and to keep them engaged. I’m sure as we move into production of the next film, it’ll be starting all over again.”