"I definitely felt like I made it, like I was a true adult when I was able to subscribe to HBO on my own," says Sabrina Caluori with a laugh. Caluori couldn’t afford to pay for HBO when she was in college, so she had a friend tape Sex and the City for her (on VHS!), and she would catch up on episodes in between classes.
A fan of other HBO series ranging from Six Feet Under to The Sopranos, Caluori’s career path ultimately led to her current position as vice president, social media and performance marketing at HBO, where she handles social media strategy for more than 40 HBO programming brands. And perhaps her greatest achievement thus far is the creation and launch of the second-screen experience HBO Connect in 2011. More recently, she debuted a first-of-its-kind social media production diary using Storify for the upcoming Cinemax original series Banshee.
Co.Create recently caught up with the social media innovator to discuss everything from the genesis of HBO Connect to the benefits of having Twitter-savvy Girls creator Lena Dunham in HBO’s stable of talent.
CO.CREATE: Where was HBO vis a vis social media marketing when you first joined the fold in 2007, and where did you want to take it? I understand that when you came onboard everything was being outsourced, and you brought it all in-house.
SABRINA CALUORI: Yes. I was in a bit of a unique position in that prior to HBO I was at an agency called Deep Focus [from 2003-2007], and Deep Focus, at the time, ran all of HBO’s digital marketing, media and promotion, and I was running that business. So when I came over and joined the team at HBO, the digital marketing was still being—I don’t even think we were calling it social marketing at the time—handled primarily by my old agency.
I think 2007/2008 was a very interesting time for social media. Working with HBO when I was at Deep Focus, we had done one of the biggest activations on MySpace for seasons two and three of Entourage. It was called My Entourage, and you could create your own Entourage. There was a contest where you could get flown to L.A., you and your entourage, to live like the guys on HBO’s dime. So we had a lot of success doing innovative digital marketing campaigns. There was a track record there.
When I came on staff—my original role was a marketing role for HBO.com—I was looking at social as a potential traffic driver to our digital platforms, and at the time social was really thought of as a campaign tactic. I think the shift that I tried to and I was successfully able to communicate early on was that social is not just a campaign extension but really, truly, it’s a 365-day a year job and having a team internally that really understood the brand voice and that could coordinate with all the teams across the organization through the whole life cycle of a program—not just through a premiere marketing play—could be a real value to us. Engaging the Entourage community year-round could not only drive traffic to HBO.com for activations and content, but could also be important in the DVD window and in the production window.
You really made your mark at HBO with the creation of HBO Connect last year. Can you talk about where the idea for it came from and your social TV strategy in general?
We recognized that social TV was a trend very early on and that HBO, and particularly our programming, was so right for that type of engagement. We felt really early that we needed to be very proactive in the space and in thinking about the space. From the very beginning, we took a two-pronged approach, which included working with third parties. We were one of the first networks to work with GetGlue in a big way as well as all of their competitors at the time. We tested campaigns with all of them.
But then on the other side, we felt like it was important that we start to look at our own digital products, that we also experimented with these technologies and thought about creating a branded environment that we could direct our fans to that used social and integrated these technologies. And I think that’s one of the things that is so unique about HBO. Not only do we own and produce almost all of our content, we’re one of the only networks that really has a strong brand outside of the programming brands. And we felt like it was important to think about a space in digital that was representative of the brand, that looked and felt like and upheld the quality of the brand. And that’s where HBO Connect came from.
How will HBO Connect evolve?
We are very excited because we’re breaking a hundred Q&As that we’ve done with various talent, and the site continues to grow in its usage and traffic. When we launched the first version, we had a couple of hunches about the types of different activities that users might want to take onsite. And some of those were very successful and some of them less so. And in the version two that’s live now we really focused on the things that we felt were the most sticky and that were really driving and exciting users. So the Q&A side of things has been, I think, hands down our most successful piece. And then the other thing in version two that we launched, that was a learning of ours, was that being able to do standup mini-activations in a really quick and flexible way was important. So we just did what we call a "Flock to Unlock," where we got Trubies, or True Blood fans, to tweet a certain amount of times in order to unlock an exclusive piece of content.
So those are two insights that we are taking in as we start to think about the next version of HBO Connect. We want to continue to think about promotional products or features that we can build into the experience, that we’re able to flexibly produce on a regular basis.
And then there has been a lot of discussion about the social media world moving to a more visual type medium. It’s inspired in a lot of ways by Pinterest and by the mobile space and what is attractive in the mobile space. And so we’re thinking about how, as a media company that has so many media assets, how we can evolve HBO Connect and particularly the live feed component of it to be more media forward. To think about not just the Big Three in the social side but also these up-and-coming social networks that put the image first. So we’re thinking a lot about Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest and how those can all be more prominent in the next evolution of Connect.
How flexible do you and your staff need to be given how suddenly new technologies and opportunities can spring up in social media? Is it important for you to be ready to jump on the next big thing?
I think as practitioners, yes, we’re ready to jump. I’m encouraging members of the team to experiment on every new platform as a user. First and foremost, we need to understand how the users are using a platform. And then HBO’s take is we’re not always in a rush to be the first one on a new platform. We like to look at the platform, understand how it’s evolving, understand what users like and appreciate about it and then think about what is the HBO way to go on this platform. For example, we have been watching Tumblr for a long time and looking at the type of user behavior that was on there and thinking about our programming and about our brand and how we could best play in that space in a way that felt organic. And what we decided to do as our first test on the platform was, we had noticed that there are such great artistic creations on Tumblr, and we knew that we wanted to do something that really put kind of art at the heart of it. And we realized that Game of Thrones was inspiring a significant amount of fan art. So our first Tumblr experience is Game of Thrones fan art [at a Tumblr page dubbed Cast A Large Shadow], where we carry the best fan creations, whether that’s interpretations of the theme song or beautiful oil paintings. And we use that as a way for Game of Thrones fans to play in this space that feels organic for the brand.
And how important is it for you to make sure the social medium is right for each HBO show. For example, while a fan art forum makes sense for Game of Thrones, I assume you don’t necessarily feel the need to create a fan art forum for Girls. Is that correct?
Yeah. Absolutely. We always think about two things when we’re coming up with a social promotion. Who is the audience for this show? And what are the behaviors that they’re doing already that maybe we could encourage in an HBO kind of way? And then what really works on the platform? We learned very early on that every platform is different, and if you’re going to be successful, you need to kind of speak in the voice of that community. So we think about those two things and then maybe where the intersections are between the two. That’s the first step in our strategic and creative process.
Everyone in this industry wants proof of how things are working. But how much of what you do is measurable, and do you think it needs to be measurable?
HBO is in a unique position. We are not ad-supported. And so we are not driven, our creative ideation and our strategies are not driven, by typical ad metrics. What’s going to drive page views or clicks or sponsorship dollars? So that gives us a certain amount of freedom. But certainly when we think about measurement, in a lot of ways, we’re looking at measurement against ourselves. One of the challenges in this space is that almost everything is measurable in some way, and it’s trying to find the right insights from that data. So we look comparatively at the activity that we’re doing against ourselves. And we pay attention to buzz and how that can be measured. So looking at things like the social TV ratings and also looking at all of the activities that can be measured on the platforms themselves, looking at Facebook insights or Twitter retweets. And then, for us, it’s really about looking at all of that data and then taking the context of who we are as a brand and our reach as a brand. We’re only in thirty million homes. We are not a broadcast network. So really trying to take all of that in together and synthesizing whether or not something we did was successful.
What is next for HBO in the social media space, especially social TV?
The third party social TV space is really starting to heat up. Obviously, GetGlue has made some changes to their platform. Miso continues to evolve. There are some new guys out there that will be entering the space in the next quarter. In the fall TV season we’re going to see a lot more third parties really pushing heavily into this space. So we’re excited to watch that and see how consumer adoption evolves, particularly as the tablet market grows and the changes in technology continue. And like I said, we’re excited to continue to evolve the platform of HBO Connect and work with our creators on what their vision might be for social TV and continue to evolve what we’re doing in the space.
How closely do you work with your showrunners when it comes to taking their series into world of social media?
In all of our marketing and our communication and our activations, we work with the creators and share what we’re doing with the creators and ensure that it’s extending their vision for the series and for the storylines. We would never, as marketers or as social media people, do anything that was an extension of the story without working very, very closely with the creators and their vision. How involved the talent, in general, more broadly is in social media really depends on how active they are as users of it. So somebody like [Girls creator] Lena Dunham is, by nature, going to be more active and interested in what we’re doing in the social space—and honestly, will have her own ideas and be more collaborative—than some of our other creators who are not quite as active in the space on their own.
Lena was live tweeting up a storm when HBO ran that Girls marathon on a Saturday in June this summer.
She is wonderful to work with, and obviously very savvy and gets the space and has great ideas as well when she’s not busy writing, directing and starring in her show. She is definitely amazing.
What are you watching on TV these days? And how do you watch your shows? Do you ever have time to see them as they air?
I’m admittedly a huge TV fan, which is what makes this job so wonderful. I watch all HBO shows in real time, live on Sunday night. That’s part and parcel of my job. I also, as a fan and as a very avid social media user, would hate to have things spoiled for me. A lot of times I know what’s going to happen on our own shows, but still. And I watch a varied mix of TV outside of HBO. I watch things on Showtime. I watch some things I would be less open to admitting on other networks. I’ll tell you, I’m a little obsessed with Dance Moms. I grew up dancing. That’s my dirty little secret reality obsession. I think I’ve watched every behind-the-scenes video about those little dancers on the web.
And are you personally active socially in terms of tweeting or whatever about shows that you really like?
Outside of our HBO shows, not usually.
How about binge viewing? Have you ever spent a weekend watching an entire series online or on DVD?
I binge view when it’s a new show that everyone’s been talking about that I haven’t watched. For instance, I desperately need to watch Breaking Bad. That is the kind of show that I would probably, in the winter, get the DVDs and binge watch on.
We have the luxury at HBO to replay our series and to do those kind of binge stunts in scheduling. And they’re great opportunities for us from a social media perspective to create activations around the whole day. We’ve found that to be a great tool for getting people invested in our own shows. And that’s why the Girls marathon that you were talking about has become a part of our strategy. That day, my team put together things like Lena live tweeting and [Girls executive producer] Jenni Konner live tweeting on Connect as well, and there were giveaways, and we were really trying to make that into an event in and of itself. And that’s been a successful thing for us.