HBO’s experiential tactic to build buzz for its comedy series Insecure has always been a promotional block party. The network hosted a small gathering in Brooklyn to celebrate the series premiere in 2016 and grew the event into Insecure Fest, a 2,500-person festival in Los Angeles for Season 3 in 2018.
HBO was slated to expand the event concept to New York, Houston and Chicago to celebrate the Season 4 premiere in 2020 but—like every brand that planned consumer experiences this spring—scrapped the idea due to the Covid-19 pandemic. HBO and Team Epiphany, its partner experiential agency, instead created the first Insecure Virtual Block Party to get quarantined fans excited for the return of the series.
The network held a four-part social media event for the season premiere on April 12, which consisted of a pre-episode live Q&A with creator and star Issa Rae and her cast on their Instagram channels; a pre-episode DJ set by Zaytoven on Insecure’s Instagram page; a live Twitter watch party hosted by Rae, the cast and Essence magazine and a post-episode Instagram Live concert by rapper Jidenna.
Jackie Gagne, vp of multicultural marketing at HBO, said the network and Team Epiphany were in the final stages of planning physical block parties when they no longer became an option. Once they were forced to work from home, the teams brainstormed ways they could still engage fans around the theme of a block party, which ties into the main storyline of the new season.
Dana Flax, vp of program marketing at HBO, noted their goal was to offer fans fun, on-brand interactions on social media that could also take their mind off of the news.
“Luckily for us, Insecure has always been an incredibly social show so it seemed like a no brainer to pivot the plans to digital,” Flax said. “We felt that as long as we were giving the fans unique experiences virtually, they’d still have a fantastic time. As a plus, we’d end up getting to reach people in smaller markets as well.”
To kick off social conversation the week of the premiere, HBO facilitated a rap challenge from the Insecure Twitter account. The challenge asked fans to share their best raps—a nod to main character Issa’s signature mirror raps—with the hashtag #InsecureRapChallenge. The challenge led into HBO’s announcement of the block party with a colorful promo flyer posted on the show’s Instagram and Twitter accounts. The promo announced the lineup but kept Jidenna’s performance a secret until the livestream.
To build more buzz, the brand surprised select fans on the premiere weekend with deliveries of #LowkeyInsecure kits for the event. The kits included themed bites, eye masks, candles, a bingo game and bottles of prosecco with glasses. The surprise-and-delight moment is similar to how other brands have engaged fanbases in quarantine with contact-free stunts.
“We paid close attention to our audience and worked to develop moments that would resonate most with them thematically, as well as in the digital space,” Gagne said. “We want our audiences to know that we see them, we get them, and that we’re here to engage with them right now.”
HBO also leveraged celebrities and influencers to boost social conversations during each event, with live commenters including Janelle Monáe, Kerry Washington, Cynthia Erivo, Lena Waithe and Crissle West.
The strategy to pivot digitally paid off for the network. According to Nielsen social content ratings, the episode was the No. 1 most social premiere among premium cable series premieres and all primetime scripted comedy series premieres on cable networks since September 2019. The premiere drove 385,000 fan engagements across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook—a 60% increase from the third season premiere’s social impressions—and was the number one trending topic on Twitter once the episode began airing. Moments throughout the episode also sparked 11 more Twitter trends, including #LawrenceHive, Asian Bae, Molly and Issa and Rubik’s Cube.
The three Instagram Live streams drew around 130,000 viewers total, according to HBO. Flax said while the events were also executed without issue, the brand had to prepare for any potential technical hiccups that can happen with social media livestreams.
“When you democratize the control to people in different places, with varying Wi-Fi signals and comfortability levels with the platforms, the risk exponentially increases that things can go wrong,” Flax said. “My recommendation to anyone looking to orchestrate an event like this is to test, test, test as close as possible to the start of the actual live event, and to come up with fun and self-aware contingency plans in the likely chance that something unpredictable happens.”
Gagne and Flax said based on the social feedback to the block party, HBO plans to continue creating digital events as long as physical events aren’t an option. The network is simulcasting a pre-show for tonight’s premiere of the drag queen docuseries We’re Here on its YouTube and Twitter accounts—while also releasing the episode for free on the YouTube Premieres platform—and is planning virtual moments for the series premiere of queer skater series Betty in May.
“We are an audience-first team,” Gagne said. “So long as our audiences are leaning into virtual experiences, we will continue to think about how we can speak to our viewers, virtually, in meaningful ways that stay true to the brands of our shows.”