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As the power of owned media has waned with the decline of newspapers and magazines, the rise of the DVR and the increasing number of entertainment options, Comic-Con has become an instrumental part of television studios’ marketing strategies because it puts the shows directly in front of the fans.
And these aren’t just casual viewers—the roughly 130,000 people who trekked to San Diego last week are rabid fans of the science fiction/supernatural/comic book/ fanboy genre series that populate the booths and panels—the kinds of folks who are apt to wait in line for hours to catch a glimpse of the original cast of Firefly. While attendance at the annual confab has held steady since 2006, the attendees now act as their own TV-related social media strongholds with the power to deliver a message; each has an average of 200 Twitter followers and 500 Facebook friends, according to Todd Beck, founder of Beck Media & Marketing.
“Comic-Con is this great opportunity to solve your DVR problem and solve your traditional media problem and have this one-to relationship not just with one member of the audience, but one member of the potential audience that could bring hundreds more,” Beck says.
While word of mouth has always been one of the most powerful marketing tactics, Comic-Con intensifies the effect because it targets an audience of influencers. “What they tweet or write about or just tell their friends verbally carries a lot of weight,” adds George Schweitzer, president of marketing at CBS.
Listening to a Captive Audience
Unlike film, which often has to deal with long lead times before a release date, and whose presence has since diminished somewhat at Comic-Con, the event’s late July timing is perfect for an initial teaser strategy for fall series. It’s the first feedback on new programming for studios like Warner Bros., which screens all of its pilots back-to-back for about 2,000-2,500 people on the first night of Comic-Con and then shares their reactions with the networks and producers.
“It’s one big focus group, but you start off from a place of fandom,” says Lisa Gregorian, chief marketing officer at Warner Bros. Television Group, which brings more than a dozen shows each year. “Does it change what we do? Hopefully there are no surprises for us. But it’s always great to get feedback….This is word of mouth on steroids.”
Besides creating exclusive trailers and clips specifically for Comic-Con that convention-goers can then share on digital platforms and social media sites, the studios’ marketing teams spend their time on the floor listening to the sessions and the questions being asked and talking to fans informally.
“You take that knowledge and factor it in as to how tactically can you use that to pique their interest from a marketing perspective,” says Marla Provencio, executive VP and chief marketing officer at ABC Entertainment Marketing.
For example, ABC learned that fans of Nathan Fillion from Firefly were willing to make a leap and watch him in the romantic detective drama Castle, and rewarded fans with an episode set at a Comic-Con-style convention. In 2012, after the Once Upon a Time panel teased that Peter Pan’s archrival Captain Hook was coming to the show and the audience went “berserk,” ABC started running the promo on its air to great success.
Warner Bros.’ audience development team goes so far as to tag every piece of content that comes out of each session and then tracks the earned media value of Comic-Con, to evaluate its return on investment.
While Gregorian says the studio puts a great deal of thought into which new series go to the Con each year, it is loyal to the franchise as long as the network renews it. “If we make a commitment to bring a show, we bring it every year,” she says. “If the fans are the ones to help make it a success, you can’t then not reward them for that.”
Such is the case with the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory, which has been represented at the convention since 2007. “The early years of Big Bang, when it was viewed as something about nerds, and just in its infancy, Comic-Con fans embraced it, and that’s when we really began to feel the fever for the passion for those characters in that show,” Schweitzer says of the series that is now the highest-rated entertainment program on television. “Comic-Con helped really propel that show with the fan base.”
And besides breeding word of mouth and serving as a test ground for marketing material, the convention center in San Diego is also a great place to scope out the competition. “It really helps to see what other networks are focusing on their specific shows, what they’re putting their attention and their marketing dollars or media efforts toward,” Provencio says. “It becomes an educator for us to know what the priorities are for the other shows on other networks.”
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