Wed. Sep 27th, 2023

The pandemic, the rise of new social media platforms, the formation of new streaming services and the passion of fan communities are just a few of the factors that all who work in entertainment marketing have had to take into special consideration over the past few years. While different strategies can be more or less effective in different contexts, there are a few key ideas that entertainment marketers can all learn from each other.

At the Variety Entertainment Marketing Summit presented by Deloitte, marketing executives who lead companies ranging from Snap to the Los Angeles Rams came together to discuss what their work looks like in the media landscape of 2022.

Aim for Long-Lasting Impact in Marketing Strategies

Jackie Gagne, SVP of multicultural marketing at HBO and HBO Max, detailed a recent Los Angeles-based marketing campaign for HBO Max’s 1980s Lakers drama series “Winning Time.” The company partnered with Project Blackboard, a nonprofit that renovates public basketball courts, to spend weeks fixing up a court in Inglewood for community use. The result, she said, was a winning ad strategy with lasting impact.

“We partnered with a local street artist, David Flores, to create a mural that was inspired by the show, and the result was… absolutely incredible,” Gagne said. “Sometimes brands come in for the day and then we pack up and leave, so this was a wonderful opportunity. Sure, we definitely wanted to promote the series, but we also were able to do something meaningful.”

Panelists also discussed the importance of connecting authentically with audiences. Cheryl Guerin, executive vice president of global brand strategy and innovation at Mastercard, discussed the company’s True Name initiative, which allows trans and nonbinary people to change the name on their credit card. Amy Smith, chief strategy and impact officer at TOMS, looked toward the future, saying she isn’t “sure that the next generation of consumers is influenced by celebrities any longer. I think they see each other as celebrities.”

Churn Is Here to Stay

When Andrew Wallenstein, president and chief media analyst for the Variety Intelligence Platform, asked the room of attendees who had ever subscribed to a streaming service, cancelled it after watching their series of choice and then re-subscribed for the next season, a significant portion of audience members raised their hands. That phenomenon is called “churn and return,” according to Jana Arbanas, U.S. telecom, media and entertainment sector leader at Deloitte, who discussed the future of subscription video-on-demand (SVOD) with Wallenstein.

The “churn rate” specifically refers to the portion of a base that cancels its subscriptions for any number of reasons. Arbanas said the current rate of 37% for SVOD platforms in the U.S. has remained steady for two years and isn’t going anywhere. She attributed the phenomenon to generational differences with regards to attention span, preference for user-generated content on social media and a lack of options to keep SVOD consumers around between seasons of their favorite show.

“Consumers want more options… Streaming companies need to really think how to keep and maintain that relationship with the consumer in between shows. Options play into that, in terms of low-cost options or high-cost options,” Arbanas said. “There’s no silver bullet relative to churn, and options become really important.”

Authenticity Is Key for Engagement 

Audiences can tell when a creator is not actually interested in promoting the product, which means it’s on companies to do the hard work of finding the right voices for a campaign, said Diogo Felippelli, VP of social media at Fox Entertainment, during the Visionaries of Creator Marketing panel. He offered an example of a recent campaign for “Next Level Chef,” a new Gordon Ramsey cooking show. For that project, his team collaborated with food content creators on TikTok to promote a new “burger challenge,” something that wouldn’t have worked if Fox partnered with random creators who had no interest in making food videos.

“We have a lot of data… but at the end of the day, [you need to] take your time and go to an influencer or creator’s feed and look through their content, spend the time, you need that personal touch,” Felippelli said. “If you’re promoting a new show, and you are asking them to react to a scene in the show, but if they’ve never done a reaction video, why would you try to force content on them?”

Chanel Tyler, creator lead of beauty strategy and content partnerships at YouTube, said it’s important to treat creators as the media moguls they are, adding, “When we think about what a creator means, they’re really a full holistic business, not just somebody who creates content.”

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Nina Mishkin, director of creative strategy at Snap, Inc.
Getty Images for Variety

Augmented Reality Is a Two-Way Conversation

Nina Mishkin, director of creative strategy at Snap, Inc., said the 600 million monthly users of Snapchat go to the platform for visual communication and that’s exactly what entertainment companies need to promote their releases. From visual effects that allow users to transform into their favorite characters to interactive randomizers that tell people what shows to watch, Mishkin said her platform invites “Snapchatters to envision themselves as part of” a property.

“AR is the opportunity to personalize so many of your stories,” Mishkin said. “But don’t just do it at those tentpole moments, really think about AR as a solution that aligns with your release schedule and the everyday moments of consumers, because that’s the way you don’t just drive attention for your new release, but you build a fandom.”

Todd Spangler, Variety’s NY digital editor, likened the AR strategy to cardboard cutouts at movie theaters that moviegoers can insert their face into for a photo opportunity, and Mishkin agreed that AR is unlike any other marketing strategy available to companies.

“Whether it’s making them a part of your movie poster, transforming them into characters, helping them understand the vast library and what they should watch, AR is a way to make that a two-way conversation that is really powerful,” Mishkin said.

The Untapped Landscape of Ad-Supported Streaming 

As streamers like Netflix and Disney+ begin to move into the ad-supported TV space, James Toney, chief strategy officer at advertising platform MNTN, said he often hears from clients that they “don’t want this to feel like advertising.” His response? “Too bad, bro.”

“Everyone knows that we’re making an ad,” Toney said. “We are delivering an ad during an ad break — it’s an ad. The best thing that we can do is let people in on the joke and make it a little bit of fun.”

Toney said research has shown that people are more inclined to pay less and watch more ads, instead of vice-versa, on streaming platforms, which allows companies to join a digital ad world that is a change from traditional, linear advertising. Toney said there is “nothing but opportunity” in the “underdeveloped” landscape of advertising on streaming platforms, likening it to the social media revolution.

“We’re trying to participate in a cultural moment,” Toney said. “The more we fall in love with us as mini-storytellers as opposed to maker of ads, the better the ads are gonna be and the more enjoyable they’re gonna be to watch.”

Avoid ‘Garbage Trends’

Lionsgate has cracked the code on TikTok engagement. The studio has 4 million followers on the platform and receives millions of views on many of its videos. David Edwards, EVP of global marketing at Lionsgate, said the key components to that success are “irreverence,” “self-awareness,” a sense of humor and acting quickly on popular trends.

Rose Phillips, SVP of digital marketing at Sony Pictures Entertainment, warned against “garbage trends,” which inflate quickly and lose relevance just as fast, while other trends last much longer.

Edwards said the one area Lionsgate is still struggling to see results is in “conversion,” or the ability to convince users on TikToks to translate their love for the company’s content into actual buying power.

“It’s a group of people who are there to consume, and they want to consume content, but then to try and leverage that into taking an action through a retail sale, seemingly there’s a degree of aversion to that or reluctance to engage in that way,” Edwards said. “It’s still early days and we’re learning, but that is one place we have found a little bit of a road block.”

Subscription Tiers Are Not One-Size-Fits-All

Roku’s head of media and entertainment Jon Goodstadt presented Michelle Garcia, Paramount+’s senior vice president of marketing, with a series of thoughts and evaluations from Roku subscribers about their streaming habits, including the idea that many people are willing to “let go” of $5 dollars per month easily, but fees above that cause them to think harder about the value they’re receiving for that money. According to Garcia, the way to appease subscribers is making room for premium content.

“We currently offer a good mix of free and paid options,” she said. “We think it makes sense. At the heart of our strategy, we want to give consumers the option to choose what’s right for them. Currently at Paramount+, [in] ad-supported streaming options, we’ve been an early believer. We have two plans. One is at a $5 fee, the Essential plan, and we also have the $10 premium plan that has no commercials.”

Additionally, when asked about how Paramount+ navigates consumers’ frustrations with ads, Garcia noted that it’s important not to lump subscribers together based on price tiers alone when it comes to marketing.

“This past week, we had new subscribers coming to us for ‘RuPaul’s All Stars Drag Race’ season premiere, but also the PGA Championship, right? If I were to say, ‘Let’s market to those people as one big block because they pay $10,’ you’d probably say I’m not doing good marketing. They clearly came for different motivations, so we use that information to figure out the right communication strategy.”

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Left to right: Jennifer Prince, chief commercial officer of the Los Angeles Rams and Terry Feit, partner, telecom and media at Deloitte & Touche LLP
Getty Images for Variety

Hollywood Marketing Tactics Can Work in the Sports World, too

In a conversation about the evolution of sports marketing, L.A. Rams chief commercial officer Jennifer Prince emphasized that working for a west coast sports team has encouraged her to draw from Hollywood when it comes to marketing strategies. For example, Inglewood’s SoFi Stadium, which was built in 2020, makes great use of the big screen.

“The Infinity Screen is 70,000 square feet. It is double-sided. It’s 4K. It has 80 million pixels. It’s the largest screen in the NFL. The experience it brings to the stadium is incredible. The infinity screen is great for not just when you’re in your seat, but also thinking about the consumer experience from when you are getting there. You’re parking, getting dropped off, walking into the stadium.”

The screen is complemented by a string of technologies: touchless admission, digital pylons and 3,500 screens throughout all of Hollywood Park, which are all connected. Prince also discussed the ethos behind the “movie trailer” the Rams dropped ahead of of the 2022 NFL Draft.

“We don’t have top draft picks. So for us to stand out in conversation, we do things differently,” Prince said. “This was a great articulation of that Hollywood style — Dennis Quaid, Scott Eastwood, Josh Holloway and Tyrese Gibson, plus 24 Rams employees were in this. About 50 different Easter eggs that were dropped. About 12 of our partners are integrated into this. This was done by the Rams.”

There Are Concrete Tools for Activating an Emotional Connection With Consumers

When asked about how to ensure consumers connect emotionally to the content they consume, Disney Media’s senior vice president of networks franchise management, integrated planning and licensing Jennifer Rogers Doyle spoke about Disney’s reliance on music as a marketing tool.

“Music is such an engaging factor. It invokes emotion. So with each one of our properties. that has music, we have full on music strategies. Music strategy starts for us before we’re even producing the music: what’s going to be that song that hooks people in, that shows you what the world might be? How can we put out music videos or lyric videos or sing alongs or behind-the-scenes [content] to allow our kids and consumers to really engage in that?”

“The core advocates, the most passionate fans, are the ones that are first out of the gate to talk about it. Do your research, do your homework, know about the characters, and then, what kind of seed do you want to hopefully plant?” said Spencer Kaplan, head of entertainment marketing at Riot Games. “What do you anticipate them to feel as they’re watching the episode? How do you hope to inspire them to share and express that? Music. Or maybe they love to watch YouTube [about the content]. That unlocks some strategies.”

With Blockchain, Your Consumers Can Become Your Marketers

According to Blockchain Creative Labs CEO Scott Greenberg and president Melody Hildebrandt, web3 blockchain technology can allow companies to focus more on their content and design strategies, as consumers end up stepping in to support marketing efforts themselves. Hildebrandt explained the benefits using blockchain to sell content as opposed to methods where consumers can, for instance, buy or rent movies on traditional digital platforms.

“It’s about having a complex royalty scheme that can be encoded in software, versus something that is tracked through this massive operational backup process. With most media, you’re really just renting. You can buy a book on Kindle — you don’t own that book. You really are renting it, without any of the underlying rights. What’s really powerful here is when you actually have the ownership, that gives you the right to sell. We did an activation with Dolly Parton on this, Dolly Parton’s fanbase is massively in love with her. And they feel like, ‘I actually own a piece of the action, and when I resell this, Dolly’s getting a piece of action, not her record label. The community becomes the best marketer.”

Added Greenberg: “It’s a great handoff to the marketing team. They build upon. We have basically activated passive fans to be active.”

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Greg Lombardo, head of experiences at Netflix
Getty Images for Variety

Listen to Your Fans

Netflix’s head of experiences Greg Lombardo shared that leaning into the organically-formed fandoms around different Netflix properties has been a large guide in his work. For example, the traction “Bridgerton” developed after its first season debut inspired Netflix to launch live events like The Queen’s Ball: A Bridgerton Experience and Bridgerton Afternoon Tea in time for Season 2.

“‘Bridgeton’ is a great IP to think about in this space [of fan marketing], because its core audience is fairly underserved. A lot of times, a woman between the ages of 18 and 45 is not the first person that someone is thinking about, unfortunately, when they’re making an experience. It’s been great to see that audience really embrace the experience, bringing the live music, that regency era and then breaking down the hurdles. Presenting it in such a way where people have real license to participate, but also can hang back and just kind of enjoy if that’s what they enjoy.”

Kayleen Walters, partner and head of franchise development at Minecraft, concurred about the importance of providing fans with agency.

“One of our most successful pivots was that we created the Minecraft Marketplace, which is five years old this month. It is about empowering our players to become creators. We have provided them with the tools to create worlds and we curate a marketplace where players and parents and caretakers know they can go and safely choose content that really continues the engagement of the game. We started with nine different creators and a couple dozen pieces of content to put up. Five years later, we have over 300 creators and 45 of them have made over a million dollars.”

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