I’ve worked off and on at the San Diego Comic-Con Convention (SDCC) for the past 25 years. (SDCC, running July 9-12, is currently celebrating its 46th year.) I remember when it was a medium-sized, niche convention geared toward comics fans—a time when celebrities freely walked the exhibit floor without security and it was pretty easy to book a panel for your brand. And I’ve seen Comic-Con evolve into the mammoth, Hollywood-and-superhero-centric event it is today: with attendance topping 130,000 in recent years, nearly 700 panels, and so many events that SDCC has burst the seams of the San Diego Convention Center and now flows into off-site locations in nearby hotels, restaurants and parks. How is a marketer or publicist supposed to gain traction amid all that noise?
I checked in with Elliott Serrano, the founder and “CGO” (Chief Geek Officer) of the Chicago-based blog Geek To Me (geektome.net) and a former writer for the comic-book series “Army of Darkness.” Serrano is also a Con veteran who’s seen plenty of marketing successes and mistakes in 20+ years of attending comic conventions.
Q: How did you get your start in comic conventions?
A: I started when I was in high school, as a fan buying a one-day ticket to Wizard World, now known as Chicago Comic-Con. Then I got the bug and wanted to go for the whole weekend but couldn’t afford it, so I volunteered for the convention and got some cool swag. Then I became press, covering it for blogs and websites. Now there are so many people asking for press credentials that a friend who’s a local NBC news anchor says it’s easier for him to get credentialed for the Super Bowl than for Comic-Con. I’m not even going to SDCC this year—with press releases going out immediately after panels and so many events streaming live, I can cover the whole thing from home.
Q: So what can PR and marketing people do to reach you with a unique message?
A: Relationships between press and publicists are important. Offering exclusives or giving press more lead-time on a news event would make a difference. Embargoes are frustrating: The publicist says, “I want you to be prepared when the news hits, but please respect the embargo.” And the press person thinks, “If I can just play with the edges of the embargo, I can boost my click-throughs.” I’d like to help you capitalize on your event and boost my own traffic. That requires a relationship.
Q: What marketing events have really caught your attention?
A: A lot of times it’s just a fun trailer. Something creative that catches on and that people share online. “Mad Max” was huge on social media, and they didn’t even make a big deal of the stars. A good trailer should make me want to see more without showing too much. It makes me crazy when I see a trailer and think, “Well, I just saw the movie.”
Sometimes it’s a trend. Right now there’s a huge emerging female market in comics and science fiction. Look at “Hunger Games”: Jennifer Lawrence is an action hero now. Charlize Theron in “Mad Max” pushed the story forward more than Max did. Remember that the female market is not a girly market; it’s not all pink and purple. If you’re marketing to women, make sure it’s a kick-ass female hero.
Q: What about using celebrities and guerilla marketing, like having costumed characters walking through the convention floor?
A: The problem with celebrities is that fans shift as to who is the most relevant this minute. You can go from, “Wow, that’s so cool!” to “Where’d they get him?” I personally think the celebrity angle is over-rated now.
And the signal-to-noise ratio at Comic-Con is so overwhelming, you can end up with five different guerrilla marketing events going on at the same time and no one notices. Gimmicks like driving on stage in a truck may be splashy, but does that make me want to see the movie or buy the brand? Gillette did a promotion with superhero razors, but when you got right down to it, they were fictional razors that didn’t even exist. Where’s the actual razor I can go into a store and buy? You’ve got to have good content behind it all.
Q: So what marketing tactics do work? Swag?
A: Good swag can give you good buzz. At a “Clone Wars” screening, LucasFIlm gave me the press kit on a Darth Maul flashdrive. I didn’t have to be carrying around a big envelope of papers, it had all the PDFs and the images, it was environmentally friendly—and I could use it later. Every time I put it in my USB drive, I thought of “Clone Wars.”
Q: Is Comic-Con still relevant for marketing?
A: People do get excited about Comic-Cons, especially now that they’re expanding into new markets that haven’t been tapped yet. Wizard World just did their first one in Iowa, and it was huge. My advice would be to go into the smaller markets. That’s where the audience is so enthusiastic because they’ve never seen all this stuff before. Plus it doesn’t cost you as much.