How HBO Is Still Holding Experiential Events Despite the Pandemic

Multicultural marketing chief Jackie Gagne joins Adweek @ Home

ian zelaya and jacke gagne
HBO has experience with integrating online components into live events, which prepared it for our current virtual-only world. Adweek
Headshot of Mary Emily O

To celebrate the debut of Issa Rae’s hit show Insecure in 2016, HBO threw a block party. That kickoff event grew into an entire festival, drawing 2,500 people for the premiere of the show’s third season.

But when the pandemic hit, HBO’s vp of multicultural marketing Jackie Gagne needed to figure out a different approach. Gagne joined Adweek experiential reporter Ian Zelaya on Adweek @ Home today to discuss how her team managed to not just pivot experiential to a digital format, but saw even more success than in previous years.

This year’s Insecure Block Party went virtual, with intimate Instagram Live events and a Twitter watch party that saw more engagement than the already-popular show had enjoyed before, racking up 385,000 fan engagements across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook—and was the No. 1 trending topic on Twitter when the first episode aired.

By leveraging influencers, celebrity social chatter and gift boxes full of promotional goodies, the team managed to increase social engagement by 60% since last season.

“Our live experiences always had digital components to them,” Gagne said. “It made sense to work with the platforms where we had organically grown those audiences. Our Block Party was all about creating these experiences that highlighted the music, the friendship, the community, so we thought about how to bring those experiences into this virtual format.”

Gagne said multicultural experiential marketing is all about “meeting the audience where they are.”

Virtual events allow HBO to reach a larger audience than its usual live experiences, Gagne said. But she acknowledged that there’s more to explore in terms of digital tools and platforms to bring the events beyond the typical Zoom party. And even though HBO can’t throw a block party on an actual block right now, that doesn’t mean it can’t still put promotional products into people’s hands by shipping out influencer kits.

“There’s always an opportunity to use a physical object to create an experience for someone,” Gagne said. The #LowkeyInsecure kits included themed bites, eye masks, candles, a bingo game and bottles of prosecco with glasses.

On a more somber note, I Will Destroy You, the new show from Michaela Coel, premiered on June 7—smack in the middle of a revolution against racism and police bruality. The series “tackles consent and sexual assault in the way we had never seen before,” said Gagne, so the marketing plan was always to take the approach of focusing on wellness and mental health.

HBO had planned a breakfast series with wellness-related topics and mental health experts. And even as protests ramped up, it still made sense to focus on mental health resources for the Black community, especially with Black LGBTQ influencer partners during Pride month. “There’s a lot of pain out there,” said Gagne, “so the topics we were going to address were still really relevant.”

Experiential marketing continues through virtual components at HBO; Thursday night kicks off the network’s 11-day LGBTQ Pride celebration. That event, Human by Orientation, is the network’s first all-digital Pride and features performances from Janelle Monae, Kim Petras and Todrick Hall.

Watch the full panel here:

@MaryEmilyOHara Mary Emily O'Hara is a diversity and inclusion reporter. They specialize in covering LGBTQ+ issues and other underrepresented communities.