Campfire’s innovative marketing techniques targeted distinct audiences across all media to make True Blood a cultural and critical talking point
By Rosie Lavan
PROJECT TITLE: TRUE BLOOD: REVELATION
SHORT STORY SYNOPSIS: Alternate reality game which trailed the HBO series True Blood for five months before it aired in 2007. This True Blood prequel introduced themes and characters from the show, including the synthetic blood product Tru-Blood, via online content, direct fan contact and advertising. The carefully architected, immersive campaign targeted hardcore horror fans and general viewers alike and generated much media interest.
FORMAT: Alternate reality game: elements included websites and online content, social network activity, mailers, advertisements and product releases.
PRODUCTION COMPANIES: Campfire; HBO
STATUS: Project completed
RELEASE DATES: April – September 2008
AWARDS: International Advertising Bureau’s MIXX Awards 2009: two Golds for Product Launch and Digital Integration; a Silver for Social Marketing; and a Bronze for Interactive Video.
The television series True Blood follows life in a small town in Louisiana after the development of a new synthetic blood product enables vampires to live openly among humans. It was something of a departure for HBO, the American network whose reputation is built on landmark shows that pack a cultural punch, like The Sopranos, Sex and the City and Six Feet Under.
True Blood is based on The Southern Vampires Mysteries novels by Charlaine Harris and created for television by Alan Ball, the Oscar-winning writer of American Beauty. HBO was anxious to ensure that it would be a big hit, capable of filling the gap left by The Sopranos which left screens in 2007. The network approached Campfire, the innovative New York-based marketing firm set up by the creators of The Blair Witch Project, to develop a campaign to trail True Blood. The result was just as new to HBO as vampires: a five-month long immersive alternate reality game which introduced the story, engaged its very different potential audiences, and generated huge media interest.
While there were no precedents or direct influences for the campaign, Campfire drew on the lessons and experience of its hugely successful previous projects, notably The Art of the Heist, the ARG it created for Audi, and Beta-7, the three-month live story it developed for Sega.
Campfire’s strategy to attract, stimulate and maintain interest in True Blood was carefully structured. They knew that several distinct audiences for the show existed, and different elements of the campaign were designed to identify the points of engagement for each group.
The hardcore horror audience seemed a natural first target. The opening stages of the campaign – the discovery element – were aimed at this demographic. Fans received mysterious documents in dead languages like Babylonian through the post, and then joined discussions on social networks and in online interactions with the game’s gatekeepers. Vials of Tru-Blood, the synthetic blood product, were sent out to participants, and online content included news stories and interviews featuring the Japanese scientist who developed Tru-Blood. One of the key websites in the game, Blood Copy, appeared and the story moved forward with the consensus among vampires that it was time to declare their presence.
The next stage was integration, signalling the initial outreach to more casual fans. Tru-Blood’s visibility was boosted with an advertising campaign, and the vampire rights debate – cannily mimicking the controversy generated by such real-life equality activism – got underway with pro-vampire rights public rallies and opposition activity centred around the Vampire Rights Amendment.
The third stage was focus, as the campaign began to zone in on Bon Temps, Louisiana, the town in which True Blood is set. Characters from the series were introduced, while beyond the fiction the campaign itself began to draw widespread media attention. It was this cultural, critical interest in the established press that brought the series under the radar of those among HBO’s audience who are drawn to the network by its reputation for high quality, significant television. The New York Times, for example, ran a story headlined ‘Vampires coming on HBO, after months of warnings’. Such attention was a PR win for HBO and made True Blood a cultural talking point.
The results are testament to the success of the campaign: 30,000 forum posts, 1.5 million pages viewed, 5.9 million viewers and 50,000 viewing hours during the game culminated in an audience of 6.6 million for the TV premiere.
For Mike Monello, co-creator of the campaign and co-founder and Executive Creative Director at Campfire, audience engagement means audience empowerment. “It’s a different approach to storytelling,” he says. “It’s about setting a framework, using story or the world to put things out there and get people to tell your story to each other.”
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