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…
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 subtlepatterns.com, thepatternlibrary.com, and unsplash.com.
Thanks to Mary Gaulke, Tom Harris, and Chris Thilk for editorial oversight.