How FX Is Facing Down the Challenges of Promoting Season 2 of The Strain

Sets animated prequel, online course

Devising a marketing campaign for the return of 2014's top-rated freshman cable scripted series among adults 18-49 might seem easy—all those viewers will simply come back for more, right? But FX isn't taking anything for granted when it comes to promoting The Strain's July 12 return.

That's because no matter how successful Season 1 was—Guillermo del Toro and Carlton Cuse's vampire thriller was the No. 8 overall scripted cable series in the demo with 2.4 million viewers in live-plus-seven—marketing a show's second and third seasons is a tougher challenge.

"For us, Season 2 and Season 3 are more important because Season 1 you have the benefit of newness. It's like a romance—it's very easy to fall in love the first three months," said Stephanie Gibbons, FX's president of marketing and digital media. But after that, "all these other shows are competing for attention and love. You have to re-woo and recommit. You have to say, 'Don't forget how great it was when we were together.'"

So, Gibbons and her team "relaunch and market every show, every season, to consumers because of the fact that we've long believed that it's essential to reconnect, just like any relationship," she said.

FX employs certain marketing elements for all its returning series, especially on social media, "which becomes all the more critical because there already are groups of people and fans, and they are participating in the fandom and sharing it," Gibbons said. "So, we amplify in social because social is the pebble at the top of the mountain that turns into the avalanche."

There's also the usual billboards and key art. The Strain's Season 2 billboards are provocative but less controversial than Season 1's disturbing eye-worm

Gibbons is pulling out all the marketing stops for The Strain, giving the show an "A-level push" on par with Sons of Anarchy and American Horror Story. 

"I put my stick out there and continue to look for new water, big time," she said. "If I feel like I have a good property, I'm going places I haven't been before in this media plan."

That includes taking The Strain where no FX show has gone before, including a Strain-inspired online course at the University of California, Irvine; an animated prequel; and an interactive feature that turns a user's voice into a strigoi (the show's vampires) whisper.

FX's most ambitious bit of marketing for the show is its four-week free online course with UC Irvine, called "Fight or Die: The Science Behind FX's The Strain." The course, available through Oct. 1, is divided into three "strains" of learning— parasitic invasion, disease dynamics and cyberattacks—and delves into real-world examples of events depicted in The Strain. 

"A lot of sci-fi and horror series have a part of them that's based in fact, science and fear because there is a disturbing reality that lies beneath the narrative," said Gibbons. "You can go online and learn from the masters of that subject."

Comflix Studios created an animated prequel on the mythology of the Occido Lumen, a Strain relic essential to defeating the show's evil master.

"Because The Strain is already a graphic novel, it lends itself to mythology," Gibbons said. "This brings those still frames to life but also tells you history that goes back thousands of years to where this Occido Lumen came from."

FX also embarked on an extensive partnership with Xbox One, both with paid media placement—preroll and postroll Strain promos run during two Halo original series episodes on the Halo Channel—as well as a branded interactive landing experience. Xbox One users can investigate locations from the show, download a custom animated-avatar prop or download the FX Now app to watch episodes of the show. Gibbons said the average engagement time is 11 minutes, which she called "huge."

"I don't know when the last time was that I spent 11 minutes brushing my teeth or on another super necessary thing," she said.

Among FX's other Strain marketing highlights: 

  • A Strigoi Whisper feature, which lets viewers record a message on their desktop, mobile or tablet microphone that then gets manipulated through an audio filter to sound like a strigoi. The result can be shared on social media or email.
  • An abundance of social content on Facebook and Twitter, including The Citizen's Guide to Vampire Survival ("Tip #11: Leave vamp corpses where they fall. Avoid the worms and blood."), Corrupt Anatomy Infographics, GIFs and more.
  • The network asked fans to submit Strain-inspired art, and the most creative pieces will be featured in the Fan Gallery section of the show's website.

Gibbons promoted five members of her marketing team Monday: Sally Daws (now evp, marketing and digital media), John Varvi (evp, on-air promotions), Todd Heughens (svp, print design), Jason Phipps (svp, digital media) and Lance Reiss (svp, marketing).

"For me, marketing is a relationship, and it requires ongoing passion and maintenance if it's going to last," said Gibbons. "You have to have a team of people that feel that passion for the project and feel that passion for the hunt. I love the hunt, and I want to work with people who love the hunt."