How HBO’s ambitious SXSWestworld campaign leveraged hyper personalization and content at scale to captivate festivalgoers—and an entire industry
Loyal fans of the HBO series “Westworld” might have thought twice about the roundtrip ticket to Sweetwater.
The fictional town is home, after all, to more than a few gunfights, ambushes and bloody massacres that are the trademark of the provocative sci-fi Western series. But that didn’t stop attendees at SXSW from lining up for a chance to see the network’s SXSWestworld experience—a three-day event so ambitious Forbes said it was “Certain to inspire FOMO and regret for years to come.”
It takes a lot to stand out at SXSW these days, but that’s exactly what HBO did with a program that transported festivalgoers 30 minutes outside of Austin and immersed them, as if by time machine, into a whopping 90,000-square-foot replica of “Westworld.” The experiential concept: in SXSWestworld, fans could live out their own “Westworld” fantasies.
It was a strategy born largely out of necessity—by one of the first television brands to build its business based on content, not advertising revenue. More people tuned in to the “Westworld” series premiere in 2016 than any other series in HBO’s history, including “Game of Thrones” and “True Detective.” But with a 16-month hiatus between seasons—the calling card, it seems, of many successful cable series—the network needed to reenergize its fan base while simultaneously piquing the interest of prospective viewers. The strategy would need to focus on leveraging the passion of existing “Westworld” fans while creating a live experience so unique, so spectacular and so shareworthy that it could entice even the most reluctant viewer to tune in.
The power of SXSWestworld would, in many ways, belong to the fans.
“We’re always trying to build programs that are driven by the superfan, the one that we call our ‘deep diver,’ that’s online talking about the show and influential amongst their peer group,” says Steven Cardwell, vp-program marketing at HBO. “You need to start with your superfan as the epicenter and have them radiate out and get the people that aren’t a superfan to pay attention to what they’re doing and thereby cosign and get on board with it.”
Loyal fans have always been instrumental to the success of TV shows, but as more and more consumers are faced with an overabundance of choices of what to watch (there are more than 600 scripted series on TV right now), cable and streaming networks have had to step up their game to stand out and give viewers more reasons to tune in. It’s why Hulu sent its “Handmaids” out on the streets of SXSW in 2017 and 2018. It’s why the “Game of Thrones” iron throne suddenly popped up in New York City a week before the series’ 2019 final season premiere. And it’s why Amazon Prime unleashed its “Garden of Earthly Delights” activation …read more