PromaxBDA 2016: HBO Marketer Details Culture Shift of Going OTT

New York -- Sabrina Caluori, senior VP of digital media and marketing for HBO, told an overflow audience at PromaxBDA’s New York conference that the 14 months since HBO Now launched have significantly altered the company’s culture and structure.

“The launch of HBO Now was a tremendous shift,” she told moderator Gwen Throckmorton, Facebook’s head of industry, U.S. entertainment and global sales. “We learned what it’s like to do direct-to-consumer marketing. For us, we were technically a wholesaler prior to this.”

She added, “In the traditional linear world, buzz and ratings are your key metrics. Now, we’re talking about cost per subscriber and measuring the effectiveness of our dollars. For marketers, it’s an entirely different level of scrutiny. … We’ve had to take a lot of cues from true D-to-C marketers.”

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One major epiphany, “particularly for management,” was the way that millennial consumers perceive and consume HBO, Caluori said. “They may have heard of The Sopranos, they may have heard of The Wire. But they don’t necessarily relate it to HBO. And they don’t have that same kind of relationship [to the network]. Their relationship is with programs. That was a big eye-opener. Our pedigree and the fact that we are award-winning, we had to do a lot of education about the value of the brand and how we are a differentiator. And also about the history of our content, which was totally new for us.” 

An example of that educational push is the network’s recent 15th anniversary marathon and on-demand promotion of Six Feet Under.

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Stemming churn and enticing customers to convert from the one-month free trial to a paid subscription has led to the leveraging of data in promotional campaigns and an unprecedented level of testing and optimization of ads. Caluori showed clips of several promos her team has created, including some that emphasize wintry scenes in Game of Thrones to run during snowstorms, when “people stay in and our sign-ups go up.”

Compared with affiliate campaigns with MVPDs over the five decades it has been in the pay-TV space, “We’ve had to move to a tighter call to action and get a lot of the more traditional fluffy marketing language out of there and just go, ‘Hey, you can start with one month free.’”

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Throckmorton asked Caluori if there was any piece of audience data that she hasn’t gotten, but would like to. “Ask me that in a year,” she replied. “Right now, we’re just trying to manage the amount of data that we have. There’s so much data available. The challenge for us is making sense of it, cleaning it, organizing it and figuring out which data is actionable.”

One data point that has gotten HBO’s attention, she noted, was the clear advantage the HBO Now offering has when viewing occurs on larger screens, via Apple TV, Roku or similar living-room devices. “We are much stickier” on those platforms, she said. “That shows that even though mobile is king, TV is not dead.”

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Execs at HBO and parent Time Warner have been challenged by some Wall Street analysts over what they call disappointing progress on HBO Now subscription levels, which hit 800,000 by the end of 2015. HBO CEO Richard Plepler has repeatedly maintained the company views the service as additive, a means of reaching cord-nevers or other viewers without a traditional bundle. With many operators increasingly focused on broadband opportunities, there is a lot of runway yet, he insists.

Speaking of operators, Caluori indulged one audience member who seemed to have just awakened from a very long nap to ask her whether cable operators had “resisted” the launch of HBO Now. 

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“The language we use to describe it has changed over time,” she said. “Almost everything we do” in overall HBO marketing cautions that a “TV package is required,” she said. With HBO Now, “that language was not used at launch.” 

The response’s deft understatement drew a hearty laugh from the crowd.