Unless you’ve been hiding under one of Orson Lannister’s beetle smashing stones then you know the newest installment of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones premiers this Sunday. With 18.4 million viewers and 158,000 tweets on average per episode, HBO continues to sail the social media waves as skillfully as Davos the Onion Knight. Not unlike the return of the White Walkers, Winter is Coming, and the legions of Game of Thrones fanatics on social media have returned with them.
User-generated-content has carried Game of Thrones through the off-seasons like Hodor carries Bran. (spoiler free)
Each episode produces shock and awe, disgust, and glee all in a single sitting. Fans react with a sense of respect rarely found elsewhere online. Instead of spoilers and internet trolls, social media feeds on Sunday nights are filled with “OMG. GAME OF THRONES” and “#GOT”- alluding that yes, a character you like probably just died. Yet the time spent between the seasons, far from the memorable deaths and impressive battles and betrayals, are strategies of virality and digital marketing as pointed as any Braavosi sword.
In 2013 during the time between Season 2 and Season 3, HBO launched a coordinated social media roast on the one thing Game of Thrones fans seem to agree on: a shared hatred of King Joffery. Using the hashtag #RoastJoffrey (powered by 360i) Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Vine exploded like Dragon Fire in Blackwater Bay. In the first 48 hours of the campaign the call to action collected more than 60,000 “roast posts” and over 1 million additional fan interactions.
The following offseason, HBO took full advantage of the creativity of their community with a visual call to action leveraging Instagram and Tumblr. The result is seriously cool and worth a 10 minute browse if you’re a fan of online social curations of art (who isn’t?) The campaign was launched during a 30-day countdown to the Season 4 premiere, appropriately titled Beautiful Death, featuring 30 illustrations representing a significant death from every prior episode.
HBO made the campaign an evergreen initiative and continues to ask fans to submit their own artwork to be used for the promotion of coming episodes. The transition from a UGC campaign to an evergreen social phenomenon of its own was a natural one, but HBO did kickstart this tradition by investing in UGC- a wise strategy that would please the Iron Bank.
As the fourth season launched, HBO added incentive structures to continue their increase of content. In one example, the #TakeTheThrone was an interactive social contest that awarded fans tickets to ComicCon 2014.
Additionally, HBO featured a live-streamed 4th season premier event on Facebook (proving the tangible value of Meerkat or Periscope well before their time) creating one of the most popular Twitter moments of the year with 493,500 tweets in the minutes leading up to the episode.
On YouTube, 89 percent of views for show-related content came from UGC. While HBO’s YouTube channel has earned nearly 180 million views, that number bends a knee to the more than 1.4 billion views for fans’ own videos.
In addition to the strategies above, fan theories and conspiracies are assets when shared on social media. They are user generated, provocative, and incredibly engaging. Just ask George R.R. Martin who responded to R+L=J in Time Magazine last July:
“So many readers were reading the books with so much attention that they were throwing up some theories and while some of those theories were amusing bulls**t and creative, some of the theories are right.”