December 2015




The Brands Strike Back

It is a period of great unrest in the media industry. Individual readers, striking from their mobile devices, have installed ad blockers, while platforms have become publishers in their own right. Memes and internet flotsam come and go within hours.

But a handful of cultural forces have managed to capture the attention of wide audiences, proving that while media has become ever more niche-segmented, there’s still enough power for a few stories to destroy all dividing lines.

Pursued by many challengers, a long-awaited space opera sequel and a hip-hop biographical musical provide plans on how to nurture and activate your audience and restore freedom to the galaxy, while a small band of editors rounds up the big digital stories of 2015


Cover photo: BB-8 rolls trough Cleveland, photographed by Eric Drost.

The Big Stories of 2015


Advertising Continues To Evolve

Advertising is on everyone’s mind, both for its importance to social platforms that need to monetize and as an increasingly essential element of branded content programs. Twitter keeps expanding the reach of its ads, announcing plans to sell them on outside apps and websites and to display them to logged-out users. Meanwhile, Snapchat introduced a number of ad products this year, one around its Discover media section and one that allows companies to buy branded, geo-specific filters. Instagram rolled out “carousel ads” to bring a catalog-spread-like feel to the ads lifestyle brands run. YouTube introduced clickable overlays that can include product information and links to purchase. And Facebook has been testing “canvas ads” in a dedicated shopping area for retailers to show off their wares.

The news wasn’t all sunny, though; ad blockers took on a new level of relevance and adoption. That’s the result of consumers finding ads more intrusive than ever, getting in the way of actual content (and they’re not incorrect). That behavior threatens the financial underpinnings of the media industry, which is already struggling to survive an increasingly online and mobile world. That in turn has led brands to push deeper into native ads, to the point now that the FTC has had to tell brands to clearly label native ads as such.

Platforms Become Publishers While Media Gets Curated

This year saw big changes in form factors for the news. The term “platform as publisher” entered everyone’s lexicon as Facebook introduced Instant Articles, allowing media companies to post their stories in full directly on Facebook, with the pitch that this would decrease load times and improve performance on mobile.

On the curation front, Time rolled out The Snug, a site that curates what it feels is important news, specifically targeting Millennials. While the popular news digest app Circa shut down due to lack of funding, Apple launched News and Facebook launched Notify, two apps that took curation cues from RSS. And Snapchat introduced Discover to bring the news to the hip, young crowd that prefers its platform to other social networks.

Content Marketing Tactics Mature

Brand publishers are shifting from YouTube to native Twitter and Facebook video in an attempt to reach viewers where they are and play to the Facebook algorithm. Despite changes that emphasize friends’ updates over those from Pages, some publishers are seeing more traffic from Facebook than Google, largely as a result of editorial tactics that emphasize social sharing over search results. A study showed people trust user-generated content on Instagram more than brand-produced photos. Twitter shared tips on crafting the perfect hashtag and introduced a Brand Hub for audience insights that can help guide your publishing efforts. USA Today’s tests with SMS sharing show, along with plenty of other examples, how much messaging apps have grown in prevalence and usage.

Evergreen Quote

“When you’ve shared something great that followers can enjoy for months or years to come, don’t let them forget about it. The secret is making sure you don’t forget about it either. When you publish any high-quality content with long-term relevance, make a plan for re-sharing it in three months, or six months, or even a year.”

— From “It’s Not Easy Being Evergreen,” in our July issue.

Never Tell Me the Odds

Star Wars Reboots Movie Marketing

How much do you really need to do to sell a new Star Wars movie?

Fans and marketing professionals alike have been pondering this for the last three-and-a-half years, ever since Disney announced it was acquiring Lucasfilm and moving forward with a new adventure in a galaxy far, far away. The franchise, which is nearly 40 years old, has active and engaged fans who have followed it through six movies (some better than others), a couple TV shows (raise your hand if you watched the “Ewoks” TV movies) and countless comics, books, video games and more (most all of which have now been disavowed as non-canon). But the path forward wasn’t clear.

Beginning with early headlines, like J.J. Abrams taking the helm and first peeks at the cast, and kicking into hyperdrive with the first teaser trailer in November 2014, the studio has engaged in a franchise revitalization campaign unrivaled in its scope and methodology.

Was it worth it?

Great, Kid! Don’t get Cocky.

Most movie marketing campaigns are designed to draw attention to a few key moments, primarily the release of new posters and trailers. Trailers are still the primary way people discover new movies, providing a focus point for early discussions, both online and offline. In that respect, The Force Awakens has been no exception, since all four trailers (including the clip that debuted on Instagram) have led to millions of digital column inches’ worth of debate and speculation.

Bridging the trailers and a handful of other big events, including the cast’s appearance at 2015’s San Diego Comic-Con and the goings-on at Star Wars Celebration, Disney has kept a steady drumbeat of smaller moments. Following the final theatrical trailer, roughly 15 TV spots have debuted, with a new one every two or three days, it seems. Each has been covered by most every news outlet on the web, from dedicated, fan-run movie sites to mainstream pubs like Fortune and Newsweek. We’ve also seen an 18-hour unboxing event on YouTube; Star Wars Google themes; 360 video, custom stickers, and a profile picture skin on Facebook; a cast Q&A on Twitter; a virtual reality experience from Verizon (along with Google cardboard giveaways); a game that turns your phone into a lightsaber; and long-lead stories in Rolling Stone, Wired, and elsewhere, coming at the movies from just about every angle.

Did Disney need to spend the money to cut over a dozen TV commercials and spin up so many extensive digital experiences? Are they risking creating a sense of audience burnout?

Consider what’s at stake:

First, Disney is more likely to catch flak for doing too little than for doing too much. Underwhelming opening weekend box-office is usually blamed on “lack of marketing commitment” or something like it. If the studio only released six TV commercials and the movie had fallen short of sky-high expectations, whoever put the kibosh on those other six spots would be held accountable for the $30 million difference.

More importantly, it’s not just about selling the new movie. That 13th TV spot that gets shared by your Facebook friends may not impact your decision to buy a movie ticket, but it could give you a nudge when you see a BB-8 plush on the endcap at Target. In fact, sales of the previous movies as well as other related products on Amazon spiked sharply after theaters starting selling tickets. The even bigger picture is Disney is looking to reinvigorate Star Wars as an unparalleled, multifaceted franchise, with new movies, TV shows, video games, and experiences at Disney Parks (a Porter Novelli client) rolling out in perpetuity.

In that larger context, Disney had every reason to pull out all the stops for a remarkable content marketing campaign.

Google and Verizon gave away limited-edition Google Cardboard viewers for the virtual reality adventure, Jakku Spy


Disney debuted the new toy line with an 18-hour livestream on YouTube.


A behind-the-scenes photo featured in Wired’s interview with J.J. Abrams

A script read-through photo was one of the first social media spikes.


At the D23 Expo, Disney CEO Bob Iger announced new Star Wars-themed lands coming to Disney Parks.

Stay on Target

The fever pitch of excitement around the premiere may have seemed inevitable, but remember that the initial announcement faced a good deal of cynicism — from longtime fans disillusioned by the prequels, skeptics who questioned Disney’s motives, and a larger audience suffering from reboot fatigue. Simply rolling out a few trailers would have piqued fan curiosity, but by themselves, they wouldn’t have done much to ignite a true passion and sense of importance around the movie.

The continual march of small and large content pieces steadily built that feeling. Going back to the early read-through picture, showing the original cast and new additions rolling up their sleeves together, each piece added to a larger story: the creators’ commitment to honoring the original spirit of Star Wars, while starting a new chapter.

Examples of the now novel use of practical effects, stories of what the experience means to the cast, including the perspectives of J.J. Abrams and the new additions who grew up with the original movies, demonstrated authenticity and respect, which reassured longtime fans. At the same time, innovative digital experiences and promises of future Disney Parks additions got fans excited about all the possibilities of the renewed future.

This Will Be a Day Long Remembered

The multifaceted campaign was also key to meeting the specific needs of diverse audience segments. Geek sites may latch onto a clip that’s heavy on Kylo Ren, while general-interest sites might more heavily cover one that focuses on Rey. And debuting a new trailer during Monday Night Football means not only reaching a sports-oriented audience but also becoming a topic of discussion on Media Twitter, which can discuss the pros and cons of media synergy and other topics. Only a small segment of the Star Wars fanbase is interested in live toy reveals, but that audience is very interested. Whatever angle you’d like to take, from lightsaber design to feminism to cultural nostalgia, there’s been an element of the campaign that can fit with your narrative and focus.

Today, engaging your audience doesn’t stop at getting them personally excited; it also means inspiring them to create their own content that excites others. Within a couple days of each new trailer or TV spot, a shockwave of fan versions would hit the Internet — include entries from the likes of the U.S. Navy. The fan videos are gaining serious media traction in and of themselves, largely thanks to the scramble to piggyback on the success of viral content that will play well on social platforms. As we explored in a recent PNConnect blog post, the volume and reach of fan content in 2015 is on an entirely different scale than during the prequel releases, let alone the original trilogy. Disney did well to keep feeding this beast.

The end result of the monumental campaign was a sense of urgency that compelled audiences to see the movie immediately, lest they be left out of the all-encompassing conversation. People couldn’t be talking about anything other than Star Wars for more than a couple hours.

The conventional movie campaigns is trying to sell the audience on a movie. The push for The Force Awakens has adopted a forward-thinking content marketing mindset, in order to sell not just the movie — which has broken several box office records already — but an entire multimedia and multi-generational experience.

YouTube was a core campaign channel, both for official videos and fan creations.

Anti Viral Brands

“While other media outlets throw everything against the wall to see what sticks, brand publishers have the freedom to remain true to their core editorial values… Brand publishers who resist viral sameness give their audiences something increasingly rare and valuable: a clear focus, with a unique point of view.”

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?

Selling an Unprecedented Musical Mash-up

When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, it was easy to know, years in advance, that Star Wars Episode VII would be a cultural juggernaut. By contrast, another major phenom of 2015 was tough to anticipate: a hip-hop Broadway musical about Alexander Hamilton. Yet like The Force Awakens, Hamilton met with success by respecting the fundamental principles of content marketing: create unique moments, cultivate community, and deliver a top-quality experience.

Create Exclusivity…

What Hamilton did: More than perhaps any other medium, theater cultivates an aura of exclusivity. Each unique nightly show can never be duplicated, and only the 1,300 ticket holders in attendance get to know the details of each performance. On top of that Hamilton offers a unique synthesis of genres, recasting colonial history as a Tupac-esque hustle from humble beginnings. (It’s no accident that the only main character in Hamilton played by a white actor is the straitlaced King George.)

Lesson learned: Embrace whatever it is that makes your brand weird, whether it’s cabinet meeting rap battles, goofy executives, or an unconventional product development process. Putting a unique face forward helps forge a connection with your audiences.


…But Offer Ways to Participate…

What Hamilton did: While tickets to Hamilton are tough to score, anyone can listen to the show, start-to-finish, via Hamilton’s 46-track original cast recording. And two hours before every performance, the entire front row of seats is sold for $10 each (#Ham4Ham) to the winners of a nightly raffle open to the public, which means that hypothetically, all anyone needs to see the show is $10 and the persistence to keep trying the lottery until your name is selected. As a bonus, several times a week members of the Hamilton cast and crew treat lottery visitors to a “#Ham4Ham Show,” a bonus sketch that can be anything from a role-swapped performance to guest appearances from actors starring in other shows.

Lesson learned: Accessibility matters. Leverage social media to offer alternative ways for fans to build an affinity with your brand. Have empathy: Consider how your users or customers will most often access your product and ensure that’s a positive experience.

…And Build Coherent Community.

What Hamilton did: Online, fans can join “Twitterico” and “Tumblrico”Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda’s affectionate nicknames for his social media followings. Here Miranda makes himself eminently accessible, answering fan questions, teasing cut lyrics and sharing backstage photos. Over time, fans have sent over 1 million tweets about the show. Twitter and Tumblr also spawned two pop-culture spanning memes, #force4ham and #ParksAndHam, which mashed up Hamilton with Star Wars and Parks and Recreation, respectively. Miranda and other members of Hamilton’s cast and creative team both participated in and heartily encouraged these memes.

Lesson learned: Community-building is a two-way exchange. Don’t just send out Tweets or accept blog comments; reply and engage in a dialogue. Make your customers and followers feel like part of something interactive.

Hot Take? More Like NOT Take.

“A thoughtful, well-crafted article grounded in thorough research and analysis can do more for your brand than 20 hot-take posts. Quality is what gives your content staying power — it motivates readers to share, it leads other publishers to reference you as a source, and it elevates your position in search. If you dedicate all your energy to quick hits, you’ll miss out on building long-term value.”

From “Knowing When to Say No to Content” in our October issue.


PNConnect is the global digital services offering from Porter Novelli. Our global team spans 60 countries and brings the combined digital resources of our social media marketing, creative production, paid promotions, and web development capabilities together for one purpose — to help our clients share their story with the world.

For more information about our team and approach, or to learn how we can help your organization with digital strategy, development and measurement, please visit the PNConnect site.


Thank You


Many thanks to our December contributors.

Chris Thilk in Chicago and Tom Harris in Raleigh wrote this month’s article about Star Wars, and Mary Gaulke in Sarasota wrote the piece on Hamilton. Chris Thilk also compiled the recap of the year’s major digital news stories.

Eric Drost uploaded this month’s cover photo to Flickr, and William Tung uploaded the Stormtrooper photo, some rights reserved. Some backgrounds courtesy of,, and

Thanks to Mary Gaulke, Tom Harris, and Chris Thilk for editorial oversight.

Drop Us a Line

We’re eager to hear your thoughts on this edition and your suggestions for future issues.