Across from the South by Southwest convention center, an old-fashioned church is upside down, perched precariously on its steeple. It’s a promotion for AMC’s show “Preacher.”
A few blocks away looms a full-sized Ferris wheel with flashing red and blue lights, casting a glow on the “F-Society” arcade in its shadow — it’s promoting USA’s sleeper hit “Mr. Robot.” A line for silk-screened T-shirts with messages from the show — “Social Media Owns Your Relationship” — snakes around the corner. Dozens of pedi-cabs and buses are emblazoned with ads for Pied Piper, the fictional company at the center of HBO’s “Silicon Valley.”
That show’s star, Thomas Middelditch, who plays the CEO of Pied Piper, said TV networks are targeting the South by Southwest crowd in Austin, Texas, with these elaborate experiences because the tech world is increasingly mainstream.
“Even if you’re not in tech you know about tech. You may not be inventing an app but you heard that the guy from Snapchat turned down $6 billion from Google or whatever it was … and I think as a result it becomes part of the zeitgeist,” he said.
At SXSW, the line between TV show entertainment and conference reality is blurred. Branded content seems to be everywhere, and if the lines for the attractions are any indication, the self-professed geeks attending the festival are eating it up. And that’s a big win for the media giants pouring millions into these “activations,” as these branded experiences are called.
They’re designed to bring consumers into the show itself, even if it’s just for as long as a ride in a bus wrapped in an ad for the fictional company “Pied Piper.” The hope is that the more tweets, snaps, and Instagrams these experiences prompt, the more viewers their shows will draw.
With South by Southwest’s film and music festival sandwiching an “Interactive” conference, Austin has a history of bringing together entertainment and technology, and that relationship is even more evident this year. Various virtual reality headsets are on display, and director J.J. Abrams’ content-sharing app KnowMe is making headlines as one of the most talked about apps at this year’s festival. On top of that, the streets around the convention center are packed with publicity stunts from traditional media companies. Millions of dollars are being poured in to promote TV shows, seemingly more than years past, though there’s no official metric.
And for HBO, looking to build buzz for the upcoming season of “Game of Thrones” as well as “Silicon Valley,” it’s worth spending money on an attraction to get attendees talking. HBO hired a company that stages Broadway plays to transform a space a few blocks from the convention center into a “Game of Thrones”-style “Hall of Faces” — an exhibit HBO is calling “#SXSWesteros,” in reference to the name of the world depicted in the popular show.
“Given the tech and social influencers who attend SXSW, we wanted to bring to them a SXSWesteros experience that tapped into technology and was very interactive with the hopes of these influencers really spreading the word,” said Joanna Scholl, HBO’s vice president of consumer marketing.
The space is dark and eerie, very much like the show, and visitors can pose for selfies with props from the show, including a $30,000 throne. Visitors can use one of several iPads on hand to take a selfie, to post onto the creepy black-and-white walls of faces. At every point, visitors are encouraged to tweet and post on Facebook or Instagram.
Though many at SXSW may be cord-cutters or cord-nevers, especially now that HBO has direct-to-consumer app HBO Now, some of the TV companies see an opportunity.
“They have such a massive following, so you’re not only hitting that one influencer, you’re hitting every single person that follows that influencer, and that kind of continues to have a halo effect, so it helps to amplify our marketing message in a much bigger, broader way,” Scholl said.
There’s no question that the opinions of developer, entrepreneur and investor attendees at South by SouthWest are increasingly important thanks to social media. And shows like “Silicon Valley,” about a start-up, and “Mr. Robot,” about hackers, are bringing the stories that resonate with the folks at the event to the rest of America. So for those marketers, in town from Hollywood and looking to make a splash on Instagram and Twitter feeds nationwide, it pays to target the tech-savvy crowd.
For a few days in Austin, geeks rule.