Going Viral: What Distinguishes a Good Social Media Campaign from a Great One?

In recent years social media has played an increasingly important role in the marketing of films. Facebook opened its doors in 2004, Twitter followed in 2006, and both quickly began to make an impact on how films were marketed and awareness built. Twitter in particular gained early notoriety as many pundits attempted to draw the line between scathing Twitter sentiment and huge drop-offs from Friday box office, particularly for the 2009 release Borat. While Twitter is too small a soapbox to greatly affect box office revenue, it can offer a reflection on a particular target demographic prior to and after a film’s release. A finger on the pulse, if you will, which, if interpreted correctly, can offer invaluable (not to mention inexpensive) insight that can be used to not only predict revenues but adjust and fine-tune marketing strategies.

BoxOfficePro.com started monitoring Twitter and Facebook in September 2009 and since then has monitored and offered commentary on all major releases. While Deadpool is the latest film to take social media by storm, it surely is not the first. During the last seven years of our monitoring of online activity for films, there have been some truly epic viral marketing campaigns.

Social Media Marketing Hall of Fame: What do these films have in common/what distinguishes them? 

The Twilight Saga, The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, and Fifty Shades of Grey all leveraged the immense popularity of the books they were based on to appeal directly to their core female demographics. Our research and analysis have proven (based on returns by genre and tweets per box office dollars) that women from their teens to 30s are the most prolific commenters on film on both Facebook and Twitter. As such it’s no surprise that these four novels (which are some of the highest-selling novels of all time) had impressive online campaigns.

The Twilight Saga was a special case, as it managed to exploit the public’s fascination with its two leads, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, and meld it into buzz for the films. No films have seen more of a bump from premieres than Twilight did, thanks to its leads.

Paranormal Activity generated interest online and in a few select cities with early releases, and then used that early buzz to create an online contest where people could vote for the cities they wanted it to show in next. This proved to be an ingenious move, as the entire process snowballed into a viral superstorm that became a template in years since for many sequels and other titles aiming to tap into the horror demographic.

Inception didn’t have a book or comic to rely on, but the premise of the film caught on quickly enough—through trailers and early word-of-mouth—that it trended post-release more than any film in recent Twitter history.

The premise of Unfriended (Skype chats inflict horror on a group of teens!) is exactly what made its trailers so popular—online with teens. While it didn’t do as well financially as many on this list, it tapped into the younger generation of moviegoers better than most and still holds the single-day trailer buzz record on Twitter, something that even Star Wars and Deadpool can’t match.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens took advantage of the massive latent demand for the Star Wars franchise to create a buzz storm that likely won’t be seen again until Episode VIII. Stars Wars was always going to be a winner given its pedigree, but the online campaign started early and continued for months leading up to its release, with constant releases of information, posters, trailers, and interviews. It fed the demand for the film and never let it wane. The marketing tie-ins from toys to cereal also reached fever pitch, and by the time December 18 rolled around the deluge was inevitable.

Deadpool was a unique story in that the marketing of the film centered almost entirely on the Deadpool character rather than the movie he would be headlining; the movie was almost secondary to the antics of its lead. Ryan Reynolds was a huge catalyst for buzz surrounding the film with his early tweets (Deadpool on the toilet in costume said all that needed to be said to diehard fans that a true adaptation would be forthcoming). The unconventional marketing for the film was hugely successful, from Reynolds selling chimichangas from a food truck during the Super Bowl (Deadpool’s favorite food) to “leaked” tweets from the stars themselves and spoof posters of other films before release. Arguably no other actor in the social media era has done more for a release than Reynolds for Deadpool.

The truth about a viral campaign is that although you can plan for it and invest countless dollars into its preparation, it’s a lot like trying to get lightning to strike a particular spot—that is, hugely unpredictable. You can prepare your lightning rods, but if the storm doesn’t form correctly nothing will happen. The main lessons learned from the above successes: find the strengths of your product and leverage it in a clever, creative way that speaks to its target audience. Marketing on social media is not simply a checkbox on a larger list; it can be a true catalyst for larger grosses. Appeal to the sweet spot on the online social crowd of teens to twenty-somethings with something different and creative, set the kindling and wait for the fire to start.

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