Case Study: Move Over, Dracula: PR & Marketing Meet Online to Introduce Fans to a Creepy Crew of Characters


Company: HBO Agency: Campfire Timeframe: Feb 2008-present Starting this September, there may be a few contenders to Count Dracula's throne as the most notorious vampire, as that month marks the premiere of HBO's newest series, True Blood. Based on the vampire books by Charlaine Harris, the show tells the story of a band of nocturnal predators who are able to resist their innate and insatiable hunger for human blood thanks to "Tru Blood," a synthetic blood substitute product developed in Japan. As a result of this concoction, the vampire characters can mingle with humans without wanting to feast on them. This premise, which will inevitably be compounded by dramatic twists and turns, sets the stage for what HBO hopes will be a successful new program. Its recent original shows (including John From Cincinnati and Tell Me That You Love Me) didn't live up to expectations, so HBO has a lot to prove with the series' debut. As evidence of its commitment to make this show a hit, the premium cable network has embarked on an integrated marketing campaign designed to generate buzz, in addition to reaching the following specific goals: Position True Blood as a bold and fresh take on the vampire genre; Provide consumers with advance insight into key components of the narrative to amplify their viewing experience and enable deeper engagement with the show from the outset; and, Activate targeted "superfans" to build early awareness/word-of-mouth and ultimately create evangelists for the show. While traditional communications efforts to generate awareness are in the works, the campaign has also been immersing consumers in the True Blood world via an "interactive prequel." Here, the storyline takes place five years before the first episode airs and comes to life across multiple platforms. The focus is the creation of the Tru Blood beverage, and the subsequent integration of the vampire characters into human society. Creepy Collaboration According to Zach Enterlin, HBO's vice president of advertising and promotion, a large portion of inspiration came from the show's creator/director, Alan Ball, who won an Oscar for the American Beauty screenplay and was the creative mind behind the critically acclaimed HBO series Six Feet Under. Ball played a proactive role in providing input and vetting materials throughout the campaign. "In one of our first meetings with Alan, we recognized that this show and its very rich and diverse [premise] presented some really exciting marketing opportunities," Enterlin says. "Alan posed a specific challenge to us: How do we immerse viewers in this world before the premiere of the first episode? There's a lot of pressure on the first show to set the stage. Alan wanted to set some of that in advance. He's a great collaborator who values the role of marketing." In addition to Ball's input, the HBO team collaborated with Campfire, a Manhattan-based production house and advertising agency founded by Mike Monello and Gregg Hale, two producers of the 1999 hit film The Blair Witch Project. Campfire's specialty in conceptualizing and implementing large-scale campaigns that have a cinematic bent appealed to HBO. For instance, The Blair Witch Project, which was made for $22,000 and earned $248 million at the box office, owed much of its success to a Web-based viral effort that began long before the film was released. A prime component was trailers attempting to persuade moviegoers that the movie's tale of ghosts and missing teens was indeed true (while, in reality, it was fiction). "I've followed and tracked Campfire a number of year," says Enterlin. "We've wanted to work with them, but we were always searching for the right project. We thought this was a great opportunity to collaborate with Campfire and flesh out the campaign, telling stories through marketing via promotional content and creating these immersive experiences for consumers." But fostering an environment in which marketing and communications can work in tandem took its own fair share of strategy. "Baking all these elements into a marketing platform takes forethought, ingenuity, and a willing client/agency partnership," says Jeremiah Rosen, partner/director of accounts at Campfire. "From the very first meeting, both parties need to be honest about their expectations and capabilities. Only then can the agency deliver a campaign concept that makes clear how these assets--PR, advertising, events--will play off each other and make a greater whole. This kind of integration must be planned for. It doesn't happen by accident and it doesn't happen in a vacuum." The Language Of Blood Campfire began working on the planning of the campaign in February 2008. Six Campfire staffers worked full time on the initial preliminary stages of the campaign, monitoring message boards, setting up a fake blog and conceiving new materials for development and timing of release. On May 21, Campfire and HBO officially launched the campaign for True Blue with the first phase, which focused on the interactive prequel launch. The first thing the project team did was send ominous letters in black envelopes sealed with red wax to its chief influencers--vampire enthusiasts, horror film bloggers, subscribers to the magazine Fangoria and other members of the goth community. The letters, written in dead languages such as Babylonian and Ugaritic, actually targeted audiences who could translate them. The team then launched two microsites--Chishio.jp, an in-story site created by "Japanese vampires," and RevenantOnes.com, an online forum for vampire chat. To drive traffic, the "dead language ads" ran in alternative weeklies and online. The translation of the cryptic letters were posted on blogs and message boards and used to drive traffic to RevenantOnes.com. (On July 1, both Chishio.jp and RevenantOnes.com shut down their sites.) The second phase, launched on May 26, focused on the unveiling of Bloodcopy.com, a blog created by in-story characters to solve the mysteries surrounding the dead languages ad. This site is critical to the campaign because it acts as a central hub; it will also aggregate all elements throughout the campaign, including multiple in-story text/video postings per day. 'Blood' Thirsty On June 11, samples of the Tru Blood beverage (red sugar water in plastic vials) were sent to the same people who received the cryptic letters. "'Want to Buy 'Tru Blood'" ads began running in alternative weeklies and online. Two weeks later, the campaign launched "The Great Revelation" announcement, in which viral videos were seeded to disseminate news regarding the official "coming out" of the vampires. In July, HBO began running "BloodCopy.com Reports," a weekly video recap of vampire happenings on HBO On Demand, HBO.com, YouTube and Apple/Zune. Later in the month, TV spots promoting the show began to appear. And, for vampires looking for love, the project team has just launched a faux vampire/human dating microsite, LoveBitten.net, to complement the on-air dating spots that have begun airing. Comic Relief At the recent annual Comic-Con show in San Diego, which attracts a large audience of comic and sci-fi enthusiasts, HBO distributed comic books that recap story elements. They also had Tru Blood act as the official sponsor of the masquerade costume ball, while "members" of both the Vampire League and the Fellowship sought signatures for their petitions for or against the Vampire Rights Amendment. Just last week, after a True Blood Web site was launched with episode guides, video teasers and behind-the-scenes information, HBO introduced the crown jewel of the campaign: an online True Blood comic book (see graphic on opposite page) with a serialized continuation to roll out on a weekly basis. And, following the show's premiere on Sept. 7, HBO will release a True Blood wiki for vampire fans to update and edit information pertaining to the show. From Sept. 8 to Nov. 23, plans are in place to continue to market and publicize the show across all HBO platforms. All of these elements comprise a campaign that truly integrates marketing, PR and communications. It was critical for both the agency and the client to view digital platforms as the gray area in which everyone's interests can meet. For the True Blood initiative, generating buzz online got people talking offline, and vice versa. Plus, knowing their target audience enabled the team to play off its consumption habits in ways that were enriching, but that wouldn't necessarily work if aimed at a broader audience. Stay Tuned It's still too early to quantify the campaign's return on investment, but Enterlin says he and the rest of his team have delighted in the audience engagement. "We just want to have fun with it," he says. "[We want to] break through in a provocative way, have a wink with our tactical elements and bring consumers along for the ride." PRN CONTACT: Zach Enterlin, zach.enterlin@hbo.com; Jeremiah Rosen, jrosen@campfirenyc.com Authenticity Speaks Louder Than Marketing One lesson Zach Enterlin, HBO's VP of advertising and promotion, learned while working on the True Blood campaign was to never trick your audience. According to him, the core audience for the show--comprised primarily of vampire enthusiasts, fantasy aficionados and gamers--is sophisticated and won't take kindly to being patronized by marketers or duped by cheap stunts. "They're going to see one part of a campaign and go on Google the next minute [to further investigate it]. They can sniff out a campaign real quickly," he says. "We're not trying to fool anyone. It's the worst thing you can do, [and if you do] there will be a tremendous groan from the audience when they realize it's for a TV property." Because of this, it's imperative to develop a viral-based marketing campaign around a very specific, well-researched target audience. "We've launched materials and--I'm not kidding--we could follow the reactions online within minutes," Enterlin says. "There was a follow-up effect with our audience. It's interesting seeing firsthand how engaged this audience is, and how active they are online." Organic Just Tastes Better When considering the current viral campaign for HBO's upcoming show True Blood, HBO advertising/promotion VP Zach Enterlin says the most important element of any viral effort is making sure all the components feel organic. "When we started working on this campaign and developing materials for it, it had to feel true to what Charlaine Harris and Alan Ball have created," he says. "It had to match that tone and feel. Staying true to the source material has been real key for us. We're looking to pique curiosity among our target audience and deliver materials they're interested in interacting with. We have a lot to live up to--this show is very fun and entertaining. More broadly, we have to live up to our brand here at HBO."

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