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How’d You Make That Flipping Awesome Content for HBO?

If your content went away, would anyone miss it?

That classic question should keep every content marketer up at night – or at least occupy a healthy portion of gray matter during strategy and planning sessions.

But what if your job is to market a content product – to make sure the audience develops such a deep relationship with it that they will certainly miss it – only for it to be canceled? How do you keep the audience and turn their attention to new shows?

That’s a challenge Jackie Gagne faces again and again. As senior vice president of multicultural marketing for HBO Max and HBO, Jackie puts together award-winning content, campaigns, and events to promote the cable and streaming service’s series and shows including Game of Thrones, 2 Dope Queens, and Insecure.

Yet, no matter how critically acclaimed or beloved by audiences the shows may be, decisions about renewal or whether the content stays on the platform happen outside her team’s sphere of influence.

Challenge of canceled-too-soon content

For example, Jackie’s team worked with agency partner Hearts & Science to promote the 2020 launch of the sci-fi/horror drama Lovecraft Country on HBO Max. To reach the desired 10 million cumulative views of the premiere episode by the time the series ended, the teams came up with innovative ways to reach a mass audience. Within that potential audience, the teams zeroed in on content experiences specifically for sci-fi fans and Black viewers.

To reach mass audiences, the team worked with Vanity Fair on articles about the show.

To reach Blacks, they created a writing competition on Black news and culture site For the Love of the Craft asked people to write about monsters in Black American history. The winner received $5,000, publication of their submission, and mentorship from show writers.

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They also partnered with music story site Genius on content that discussed the show’s creative choices and the challenge of creating a score for a series during the pandemic.

HBO Max won Most Innovative Content Distribution Strategy in the 2021 Content Marketing Awards for that work, and it helped earn Jackie a finalist nod for 2021 B2C Content Marketer of the Year.

Lovecraft Country went on to earn critical notice, two Emmys (and 18 nominations), and many fans. Yet it was canceled at the end of its first season.

What happens to the audience Jackie and her team built for that show? How does HBO Max keep viewers around when the content that drew them to the platform goes away?

Part of the answer comes from audience initiatives like Human by Orientation for the LGBTQ community, Pa’lante! for the Latinx community, and HBO POV, which celebrates the diversity of the behind-the-scenes talent that brings HBO’s programming to life.

I asked Jackie about how she uses these initiatives and other techniques to build – and keep – an audience. She shares her philosophy on putting the audience in the lead role and creating a connection that transcends a single series or show.

What ‘audience-first’ means

Your work has been described as “audience led” or “audience first.” What does that mean in terms of how you approach your work?

Audience-led or audience-first means we prioritize the audience in all of our work.

We think of the audience first when we’re developing our marketing strategies or campaigns because we want to make sure that those campaigns and our initiatives are authentic, that they’re resonant, and that they’re really reflective of the audience my team serves.

That means we go beyond the demographics. Our work is informed by cultural insights and passion points. We spend a lot of time identifying influential voices in the community. We look at the media they consume. And we work with a number of partners and partner organizations that help us to better understand our audience and ensure we’re taking the right approach in our marketing efforts.

It’s the difference between reaching an audience and touching them.

Audience-first is the difference between reaching an audience and touching them, says @jackiegagne10 of @HBOMax and @HBO via @CMIContent. Share on X

An audience-first approach really allows you to touch them. Our goal is to develop programs that are culturally relevant and going to drive an emotional connection, which is what HBO and other brands ultimately want to do.

Creating ‘always-on’ connections

When you succeed in emotionally connecting with your audience – creating passion for a series like Lovecraft Country, for example – what happens to those relationships when the series doesn’t get renewed?

Retention is an important objective for us, so we recognized pretty early on the importance of establishing what we call an always-on connection with our audience.

If retention is important, establish an always-on connection with the audience, says @jackiegagne10 of @HBOMax and @HBO via @CMIContent. Share on X

We’ve developed evergreen strategies with the idea that when a show like Lovecraft Country ends, we’re able to showcase other programming and talent relevant to the audience. In addition to supporting series, we do activations and events. We have partnerships with some key cultural events and festivals like Essence Fest, which happens every July and is a key cultural event in the Black community.

We also have a long-standing relationship with the New York Latino Film Festival and the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival. The idea is that we want to have an ongoing conversation with the audience. You always want to have something relevant out there.

Is that the concept behind initiatives like Power of Visibility (POV)?

Initiatives like POV are absolutely part of that always-on approach. We have content pieces for Power of Visibility in which we’ve highlighted around 100 of the behind-the-scenes talent that brings our programming to life.

Those content pieces run on our social platforms, but we also host POV events and workshops. We’ve expanded the program beyond the content series into real-life activations. We host POV events, workshops at industry events, and partner events. These allow our audience to meet that diverse talent, hear their stories, and engage in conversations about representation as well as about the content itself.

Building the right internal and external teams

How did you build the team you tap for cultural insights? What do you look for in team members and agency partners to help you create innovative content experiences for multicultural audiences?

Our team reflects the audiences we speak with daily. That’s incredibly important. Our partners also reflect the audience. And I will say in both cases we are very passionate about multicultural audiences and creating those moments that give back to underrepresented groups.

The marketing team at @HBO reflects the audiences we speak with daily, says @jackiegagne10 via @CMIContent. Share on X

Certainly, for team members and partners, we definitely look for that passion. We also look for ideas that are innovative that, again elicit the emotional response that drives conversation and allow the audience to connect in an authentic way with our stories and the talent behind them.

How do you balance the workload among your internal team and partners, agencies, and other external resources?

The team is structured by audience verticals. Our focus is on Black, AAPI, LGBTQ+, and Latinx audiences. In each vertical, we have audience experts. Doing that allows us to have expertise.

Internal team members are the experts when it comes to these audiences.

As we work with our creative partners, we do the ideation and we build the strategy.

As we’re ideating and coming up with concepts about how to promote a show, we’ll work together with our partners to identify all of the opportunities out there to engage the audiences.

In terms of the partnerships and cultural moments I mentioned, those are relationships that we own and establish. If we’re going to be at, for example, Essence Fest, we know from looking at the content and what we want to focus on, who the talent might be, and an agency partner to help us.

What’s next?

You work across so many channels – in-person events and industry panels, virtual events, user-generated content, social media, native advertising, and more. What do you see as the biggest opportunity going forward?

Our goal is always to meet our audience is where they are. So all of those will be important to our work as long as they provide opportunities for us to engage.

We do a lot of immersive events and activations, and technology is going to help us to enhance those experiences both in real life and certainly for virtual. We saw that with Lovecraft Sanctum, where we did a series of virtual reality events created for the show.

More recently, we leveraged 3D technology to have Latin artist Romeo Santos make an appearance at a pop-up experience we created in New York to promote a documentary that aired on HBO Max. I think technology will play a bigger role and it’s something we will continue to explore.

An image showing singer Romeo Santos welcomed guests in hologram form via PORTL, the interactive holoportation technology.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute