Over the past decade or so, the term “content marketing” has restricted people’s perceptions of “content” to a narrow view of internet-focused material, the kind designed to build a brand. In actuality, the scope of the term is much larger, as American culture features a wide and diverse array of “content.”
This is particularly true for television programming, which has more complicated economics than movies and video games, considering people are not explicitly paying to see a show the way they pay to experience a film or game. This makes most television shows exercises in brand building as much as they are vehicles for entertainment or artistic expression–just like most marketing content, i.e. podcasts, newsletters, articles, etc.
HBO, the most successful cable channel in original programming and the home of countless classics like The Sopranos, The Wire, and Deadwood, knows a thing or two about branding.
Game of Thrones, the hit HBO series based on the bestselling novels by serial procrastinator George R.R. Martin, is both one of the best and one of the most popular television shows in history. It brought grounded fantasy into the mainstream and made HBO, the home of prestige TV, the epicenter of cool during its peak. Accordingly, it raked in $2.2 billion while it was on air.
And yet in spite of the unmatched magnitude of success Game of Thrones had, if you’ve spent any time on the internet in the past few years, you know the finale was universally reviled.
Even with the bad taste the show (and intellectual property [IP]) left in the public’s mouth, HBO knew that the 90% of the show that audiences loved—dragons, morally gray characters, political machinations, and so on—was worth betting on.
And thus, House of the Dragon, a prequel series to Game of Thrones, debuted August 21st to an audience of 10 million people, the largest premiere in HBO’s history and one of the most watched episodes of cable television in the past decade.
Was this a guaranteed success? In hindsight, of course, but the reality of the situation is that HBO executives have been sweating this decision since Game of Thrones went off the air.
With that success in the face of a Russian Roulette-level gamble (the show cost roughly $200 million to make), there are lessons for content marketers to take from HBO’s strategy. Let’s explore them.
1. Branch out your most successful content
If you’re looking for new content creation ideas, chances are one of the best possibilities is something you’ve already covered and had results with. The aim isn’t to regurgitate the same information a different way, but to explore another angle, another narrative.
This will allow you to reuse that knowledge base and leverage past results to produce a piece of content that is more likely to resonate with your audience than a random idea. HBO was able to use pre-established character histories and the mountains of costumes and sets they had created for Thrones on House of the Dragon, a perfect use of assets that would otherwise sit around aging.
For example, if you work in the healthcare industry, maybe you have a great article going into why certain medicines are so expensive. A way to branch off of that already proven concept is to make something else explaining how those expensive drugs could be made cheaper.
2. Strategize around your competition
Despite its massive $200 million budget and the additional $100 million HBO spent marketing House of the Dragon, it isn’t even the most expensive television show to premier the past month. That honor would go to Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power, with an estimated budget of roughly $1 billion. Yes, billion with a B.
As two fantasy series based on beloved IP, these shows were always bound to clash. Amazon had revealed its series September 1st, 2022 premiere date back in February, so what did HBO do? They slid House of the Dragon in two weeks before The Rings of Power, knowing they could grab hold of the conversation and keep it fresh before their competitor could.
This cognizance of what a competitor was doing and making plans to undermine them is exactly the kind of strategic thinking many brands lack. Making great content that people enjoy is fantastic, but if you do so while pulling people away from competition, you’ve won.
3. Don’t be afraid to drop a bad project
HBO knew House of the Dragon was a winner, which is why they pumped so much money marketing it to every edge of the internet. As experts in television programming, HBO also knows when something isn’t working.
In the three-year span since Thrones ended, HBO has explored a variety of spinoffs. No one knows how many for certain, but with insider info, we can deduce it has been at least half a dozen. One, under the working title Bloodmoon, even shot a pilot episode well before House of the Dragon had the cameras rolling.
What happened to Bloodmoon? Well, in all likelihood, it turned out bad, as HBO canceled the project and has refused to let any member of the public see the pilot.
The takeaway here? Quality always reigns. Quantity does nothing for brand building if the audience doesn’t want to consume the content. If something just isn’t adding up for a project, sometimes the best course of action is to drop it and move on.
4. Excited staff make better content
Game of Thrones ended well before it ever should have, considering the scope of the story, the amount of unused plot from the books, and the rushed nature of the final season. A large part of why it ended early was fatigue, as the cast, but particularly the showrunners, David Benioff and Dan Weiss, had tired of the laborious task of filming the show.
Initially as ardent believers in the material, Benioff and Weiss’s commitment and fervor for the universe waned over the years as other projects appeared and Thrones grew larger and more difficult. By the end of the series, they just wanted to wash their hands of it all.
House of the Dragon’s showrunner, Ryan Condal, has come into the universe with excitement and ideas that only fresh eyes can bring.
While your product and niche will vary, keeping your staff passionate and excited about the brand will almost always lead to better content. The same way a reader can pick up if something was written by AI, they can pick up if the writer actually cares about the content they’re writing, and that impression makes all the difference in the world when you’re trying to get people to invest, literally and metaphorically, in your brand.
Written by James Grieco