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Winter Is Always Coming: How HBO Wins The Game Of Social Media

HBO director of digital and social media Jim Marsh breaks down the Game of Thrones approach to social marketing and fan engagement.

Anticipation for Game of Thrones reached such giddy heights ahead of its fourth season, it's almost impossible to imagine an epic television show with a laundry list of characters, plots and subplots, rife with gruesome death and graphic sex was ever considered a long shot.

Part of what's made the show such a hit—aside from Jon Snow's hair, Tyrion's wit, Cersei's evil eye or, y'know, DRAGONS—is how the excitement among fans is articulated across every strand of social media. According to Nielsen's Social Guide, 6 million people saw a tweet about the show for its April 6th premiere, which also brought 1.9 million users to Facebook, and helped the show's Facebook page reach 10 million fans.

Photo by Macall B. Polar, Courtesy of HBO

HBO has managed to ride the wave of fans' organic social interaction around the show by getting involved in the conversations, while also using creative campaigns to keep stoking the fire during and between seasons. One of the show's most successful social efforts is the ongoing (well, sort of...) #RoastJoffrey, launched in December. Billed as the first social media roast, fans, celebrities, brands and even the show’s cast sent in taunts and jokes on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Vine. In its first 48 hours, it collected more than 60,000 roasts, 1 million interactions, and 850 million impressions during the show’s off season.

There was also a 30-day countdown to the season four premiere called Beautiful Death, which featured 30 illustrations representing a significant death from every episode, and also asked fans to submit their own artwork. As the fourth season began, HBO launched #TakeTheThrone, an interactive social contest that could land one lucky fan tickets to ComicCon 2014.

HBO director of digital and social media Jim Marsh knows that Westeros is a unique place and that some of the very things that may have initially been seen as the show's weakness—the number of characters and plots—are some of its strongest attributes in social media. Here, he talks about how HBO keeps fans talking after the bodies are cold.

Illustrations from "Beautiful Death"

Amplify and Reward

HBO has used fans enthusiasm for the wide variety of characters, plots, and legends in Westeros to fuel its marketing. "The speculation and conversations that happen around the smallest detail is amazing and part of what makes this audience so unique," says Marsh. "Our job is to amplify that excitement and conversation, so we’ve always just looked for ways to capitalize on that activity and reward the fans."

Replying to fans and sharing their reactions on Facebook and Twitter, and featuring fan-generated content on its Tumblr are among the ways the network continues to stoke social participation. While getting publicly recognized by the show in their social feeds can be reward enough for some fans, HBO also livestreamed the season four red carpet premiere from Lincoln Center in New York to Facebook Live, and brought some of the more creative Instagram users and other super fans to attend in person.

#TakeTheThrone, add your words to make the Iron Throne

Low barrier. High Creativity

Perhaps the most important aspect of all the network's social campaigns is that it allows for varying degrees of participation. Fans can get involved no matter if they just want to post a quick tweet or sing a song in Hodor. "Something like #RoastJoffrey, which our agency 360i came up with, is great because it’s so easy to explain—the first ever social media roast—and people immediately get it and know what they’re supposed to do," says Marsh. "Submissions ranged from basic tweets or Facebook updates, all the way up to hardcore fans who went to the next level with beautiful Vines, YouTube and Instagram videos, artwork and more for it. It’s amazing how accessible that was to both passive and hardcore fans."

Winter Is Always Coming

Obviously, the most social activity for the show is during the season but Marsh says the Game of Thrones audience doesn't stop talking about the show just because a season is over. The #RoastJoffrey campaign is a prime example—launched in early December, it very quickly became one of the show's most popular social campaigns. There's also an ongoing production blog to keep fans up to date on what's happening behind the scenes, before and during each season.

"We do the majority of our work leading up to and during the new seasons but for a show like Game of Thrones, consumers are always talking about it, discovering it and having something to say," he says. "It’s one of those shows that we really put a lot of effort into marketing year-round."

[Photo by Helen Sloan, Courtesy of HBO]

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