Syfy and Trion Worlds spent five years making “Defiance,” the groundbreaking series that’s part post-apocalyptic drama, part third-person shooter video game. Syfy’s marketing team spent an unprecedented 10 months promoting the show on social media to get viewers to watch the first episode. Was it worth it?
Set in St Louis, MO in a dystopian future, the TV show debuted in the U.S. on April 15 and aired next day in countries around the world. The game, set in San Francisco, launched simultaneously across PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 platforms on April 2. On the night of the U.S. premiere, “Defiance” ranked in the top 10 most-watched cable shows among adults ages 18-49, according to Nielsen’s TV ratings, and brought in 2.7 million viewers.
Dana Ortiz, VP of brand marketing for Syfy at NBCUniversal, explained how the team set “New Earthly Rules” for introducing sci-fi fans to a futuristic story by starting the conversation in the past.
Despite the novelty of the transmedia experience, the team still had to distinguish this post-apocalyptic story from others that had come before it, Ortiz said. Dubbed “New Earthly Rules,” the marketing campaign for the show posed the question, “Can aliens and humans coexist on a war-torn earth?” Said Ortiz, “It’s not unlike the Gold Rush era, when people really picked themselves up and started a new life.” In this case, the survivors would be sharing the planet with six other species that had come to Earth as a result of an alien invasion.
Syfy divided the target audience into three segments: gamers, who were generally the most vocal group; television viewers, who generally wanted to follow an epic tale and who were looking to see what their friends were watching; and a more immersive group that fell somewhere in the “sweet spot between gamers and television enthusiasts.” These were the people, Ortiz said, “who wanted to dive down that rabbit hole” and find out more about the series.
Syfy kicked off the campaign in July 2012 at Comic-Con in San Diego, where “gamers and entertainment could converge,” Ortiz said.
To keep the momentum going without blowing the budget, “Social ended up being a big part how we ended up getting the word out,” she explained. “We couldn’t sit and wait for the purse strings to open.”
The team set up a Facebook page and an official “Defiance” website, which Syfy shared with Trion, as well as a Twitter account. At the center of the campaign were a series of “making of” videos on YouTube that showed how the sets, makeup, costumes, characters, and storyline came together to form “Defiance.” (These were also posted on Facebook.) Said Ortiz, “From the get-go we knew it was rich content that was really going to sustain us.”
Once they created the content, the team “strategically placed ‘Defiance’ into conversation about pop culture,” Ortiz said. Ads were timed alongside key episodes of shows like “The Walking Dead” and “American Horror Story,” film premieres like “The Hobbit,” and throughout the Hollywood awards season.
In December 2012, fictional and real worlds collided as the Mayan calendar came to end, which some people predicted would set off a cataclysmic event to end life on Earth. It didn’t matter that the apocalypse never happened. “Just the fact that people were talking about the Mayan Apocalypse was reason enough for us to insert ourselves into the conversation,” said Ortiz.
Even live events, which included Comic-Con and the February’s TED conferences, aimed to draw in remote fans. Perhaps the most hands-on experience was the “The Defiance Container Village” at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in March 2013.
Ortiz described the village as a high-end “shanty town” where three participants — “Defiance” cast member Jesse Rath, Forbes journalist Jeff Bercovici, and blogger Curt Johnson — could experience the festival with 24-hour concierge service, security 24/7, their own bathroom and shower facilities, and maid service twice a day. Johnson had earned his spot in the village after racking up 14,000 retweets in 3 days in a Klout competition to spread the word about “Defiance.”
Other attendees could mill around the village and post what they wanted (usually bacon) on the Need/Want Social Bar to share on an interactive wall and on Twitter to compete for food from a food truck and other prizes.
Rath was one of several cast members who posted to Twitter and other networks about the upcoming series.
— Jesse Rath (@jesserath) March 15, 2013
Ortiz said that participation was voluntary, but the actors were given guidelines for how to post to social media and were kept in the loop when the marketing team had an event or a piece of content they’d like to promote.
Syfy’s digital team set high Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) for measuring the success of the campaign. Throughout the process, they were able to work with the research team to measure viewers’ intent to watch, which is usually something they don’t start measuring until weeks (as opposed to months) before the show. According to Ortiz, the campaign met its benchmarks every month except December, but even that didn’t lower their expectations. January brought more content and by the date of the premiere, “Defiance” had 250,000 Facebook fans.
Statistics from social media research firm Fizziology confirm that viewers were using social channels to talk about the show. On the night of the premiere, “Defiance” received more than 10,500 mentions on social media sites between the start time at 9:00 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. the next morning. In addition:
- Social conversation about the show was 95% positive
- 6% planned to play the game afterward
- 6% were relieved to see a good sci-fi series
- 4% can’t wait to see the next episode
- 2% used the word “Shtako,” which is one of the alien race’s word for poop in the show
“The great thing about having a long-lead campaign is that it gives you an opportunity for long-lead planning,” Ortiz concluded. “We were able to optimize and tweak every aspect of the campaign.”