Cross-Media Case Study: Once Bitten
A campaign to sink your teeth into
HBO consults with all of its show creators when it formulates marketing campaigns for its series, but Alan Ball stands out. When it came to marketing Ball's True Blood, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of American Beauty and mastermind of HBO's Six Feet Under challenged the network to go beyond simple show promotion and truly set the stage for the vampire series in advance of its premiere, "to allow people to come to the pilot episode a little bit more engaged," says Zach Enterlin, the cable network's vice president of advertising and promotions.
With that directive, HBO enlisted New York-based ad shop Campfire to create a marketing campaign that served as an interactive prequel for the series. On the show, vampires decide to live among humans in the fictional Louisiana town of Bon Temps, a lifestyle choice made possible by a "synthetic blood nourishment beverage" known as Tru Blood - so they don't need to suck the lifeblood out of humankind. At the center of the show is Sookie Stackhouse (played by Anna Paquin), a telepathic waitress who falls in love with a 175-year-old vampire named Bill Compton (Stephen Moyer).
After reading the Sookie Stackhouse book series (by Charlaine Harris), upon which the show is based, and Ball's scripts, the creative minds at Campfire concocted a backstory for True Blood: the story of how the Tru Blood synthetic blood substitute was created, a description of The Great Revelation, during which the vampires decided to "come out of the coffin," and the story of vampires' initial attempts at integrating into human society.
Campfire partner and creative director Gregg Hale, who was one of the producers of The Blair Witch Project, admits to being nervous when HBO first presented Campfire's backstory to Ball.
But there was no need to worry: Ball bought into Campfire's inventive backstory and, with his blessing, it was told through an interactive prequel launched in May, four months before the show's September premiere. First, Campfire went underground, sending out about 500 letters written in dead languages, like Babylonian and Ugaritic, to bloggers specializing in horror, vampires and comic books.
J.C. Hutchins, a novelist and podcaster at jchutchins.net, received one of the cryptic mailings. There was no return address on the see-through envelope; inside, he found a black envelope with a red wax seal bearing the letters "TB." He opened the second envelope and discovered a letter written in a language he didn't recognize. "It was kind of creepy," Hutchins recalls with a laugh. "But I was also intrigued."
No stranger to alternate reality games, Hutchins quickly realized this letter was a rabbit hole that would gain him entrance to either an ARG or perhaps a viral promotion. But for what?
Stumped, Hutchins asked his readers - through a blog posting and video - to help him solve the mystery. Before long, Hutchins - as well as others who had received the letters - found their way to microsites created as part of the True Blood interactive prequel, including bloodcopy.com, written by a fictional blogger who happened to live in Bon Temps. This blogger also reported receiving one of the dead-language letters (which were later distributed more widely via print ads), and worked with other bloggers to unravel the mystery, driving them to the vampire hangout revenantones.com - that site's live gatekeeper would only allow admittance to those who could convince her that they were vampires. The cam-chats between her and bloggers were posted to YouTube.
The bloodcopy.com site ultimately served as the campaign's main hub, with its diligent blogger providing regular text and video postings and an interactive forum. As the campaign evolved, viral videos seeded throughout the Internet heralded the vampires' coming out through The Great Relevation. Campfire also sent out samples of Tru Blood to mark the occasion. They couldn't mail vials of synthetic blood, so instead the recipients got vials full of candy. "I was a little nervous and anxious as to what their reaction would be to that," Enterlin acknowledges. But, thankfully, the response was positive, with no pushback whatsoever, according to Enterlin, who says, "They all knew they were being marketed to, but as long as they were entertained by the marketing, they were along for the ride."
Hutchins was one of those who went along for the ride. For his part, he was impressed that HBO and Campfire went underground with their initial push, reaching out to lesser-known bloggers as opposed to "Weblebrity" bloggers. "While we [lesser-known] creators might have smaller audiences, those audiences are very engaged and invested in what we do and the content we create," Hutchins notes.
After spending several weeks focused on this base, the campaign hit its second phase in late June, targeting the wider mainstream audience through HBO-branded outreach. At its core was the launch of the fictional Tru Blood beverage. "The way we had always talked about [this portion of the campaign] is that it would be like Coke or Budweiser launching a new product," Hale says. "It needed to be everywhere, in all media, and done slick and nice."
In Manhattan, you couldn't walk by a deli this summer without seeing posters hawking the Tru Blood beverage, and some delis even had fake signs informing customers that Tru Blood was sold out. In addition to a major out-of-home effort, the campaign included national print, online ads and television spots, with all of the components driving traffic to trubeverage.com, the official Tru Blood site for vampires.
July saw the launch of weekly video recaps of the happenings on bloodcopy.com; they ran on HBO On Demand, HBO.com, YouTube, iTunes and Zune, HBO Mobile and Affiliate Broadband. A mock documentary on vampires aired on HBO, and snippets from the faux film were also released virally. Fake ads for vampire-focused products, including a vampire-human dating service and vampire-oriented legal services, began running on-air - the dating-service ad actually directed viewers to the microsite lovebitten.net, created by Deep Focus.
Next came a PSA campaign with outdoor (including multiple stage street campaign by ... And Company), print, on-air and online elements supporting the pro and con sides of the "Vampire Rights Amendment" debate. In late July, HBO went as far as to send street teams posing as members of the American Vampire League and the Fellowship of the Sun to the Comic-Con convention in San Diego where they lobbied Comic-Con attendees to sign petitions for and against the Vampire Rights Amendment.
The network also distributed copies of a True Blood comic book, based on Campfire's backstory, at Comic-Con and elsewhere.
Because of the size and scope of the campaign, HBO relied not only on its in-house team and Campfire but also on a number of partners to create and place components, including ... And Company, PhD/OMA, Behavior, Grand Central Marketing, Cornerstone, Top Cow, Spacedog and Deep Focus.
But was the massive effort a success? "If the activity on my blog was any indication, it sure did generate interest. My True Blood blog entry is one of the most visited posts at my Web site," Hutchins says, noting that if HBO's goal was to "generate what I call brainspace - meaning getting people thinking about a brand or a significant element of a product or media property - then it absolutely worked."
Of course, it all comes down to ratings. True Blood's Sept. 7 premiere was initially reported to have drawn 1.4 million viewers, and the press, clearly out for blood, immediately dubbed the show a ratings disappointment for HBO.
But not so fast.
Variety reports that the overall audience for the True Blood premiere rose to 5.4 million, once the data measuring other viewing options - encore runs, DVR viewings and video-on-demand - trickled in. Bloody good news for HBO, which renewed True Blood for a sophomore season after its second episode aired.