What Marketers Can Learn from How NBC Promotes Hit Shows
Ever see The Good Place on NBC? It’s incredible. They say good writers should show, not tell. I’m just going to ask you to allow me to break that rule because I’m telling you: The Good Place is incredible. I will say no more because #spoilers. But one thing I will absolutely spoil as loudly as I possibly can is how NBC promotes The Good Place and other shows like it in order to get mileage out of their content, a return on their investments, and most critically, a passionate audience that adores their shows.
Recently, our team was invited by Wistia, a presenting sponsor of Marketing Showrunners, to their big company event, Change the Channel. The afternoon featured, among other things, interviews with showrunners from B2B brands ThriveHive and InVision, a deeper dive into brand affinity marketing for SMBs and mid-market companies, and an announcement of Wistia’s new product suite that helps brands publish, measure, and grow binge-worthy original series. (You can replay the live stream here.)
Among the most eye-opening things MSR learned while attending, however, was precisely how much content a network like NBC creates in order to promote and grow just one show. (Speaking of spoilers, I will spoil this for you: 1 bajillion content. NBC creates 1 bajillion content per episode of their shows.)
This is something I wish I could inject into the brains of every marketer on planet earth right now:
No one out there is better at this than media companies.
Look at how NBC distributes a single episode of The Good Place. They run a trailer on social, cross-promote on other NBC properties, follow up with cast appearances on morning & night shows, and make highlight clips. pic.twitter.com/xyGN2pYOXO
— Chris Savage (@csavage) October 4, 2019
Just think about the backdrop to all of our content marketing today. How many blog posts do you think go spinning out into the world per second? If you answered 30, you’d be both correct and incredibly stressed out. (Here’s a fun little trick: Make your left eye twitch uncontrollably by watching Worldometers’s blog post counter.) And so what happens? We as marketers see that number, and rather than calmly figure out a slow-and-steady strategy that can actually impress people enough to cut through the noise, we race for more: more impressions, more stuff, more traffic, more numbers. (I’m exaggerating, because I’m preaching to you, and you’re already a member of the proverbial choir. You, my dear friend, understand the ills of most marketing these past few years.)
But while most brands chase impressions, the good marketers do things that actually impress.
As Wistia CEO Chris Savage says in the tweet above, no one out there is better at this than media companies. They know how to publish a core asset, like a show, then get a serious return on their investment in that show — building a passionate fanbase for the program as they do so.
We’ll break down what NBC does in just a second, but first consider what most brands do. Since we’re in such a race to catch up with the ceaseless onslaught of “pieces” shipped every second, we feel stressed whenever we’re not hitting publish. And so, we do very little promotion of the things we’ve already published. If we write something we think is worth others’ time, something that can indeed impress them, we give it a cursory tour of social media, pasting the links everywhere, and then it’s back to pumping out more stuff.
Thus, when most of us promote a piece, it looks like this:
Publish an article, maybe email it to folks, and put the link on Facebook and, eh, let’s say Twitter too.
Look, I totally get it. As I write this very piece — and this is 100% true — I am stressed out just thinking about the entire month of November, as we at MSR are planning something big all month long to help marketers make the business case for great shows. (Interested? We announce on the last Friday of October to our MSR Monthly subscribers.)
(See? Even that was an excuse to use this current piece to think about future pieces.)
Again, I understand what you might go through because I go through it every. stinking. day. Combine our rush to publish more pieces with our desire to prove the value of what we do, and we drink a pretty stress-inducing cocktail each day. A manic-rita. A panic-tini.
We need a way to relax … then carry on, calmly, towards better results.
Ironically enough, this is the first thing the main character sees during the pilot of NBC’s The Good Place:
I’m not saying the folks at NBC have it any easier, but I do think they’ve figured out something we marketers yearn to understand: the best way to use what you have to get what you want. In other words, NBC and other networks promote their shows by taking an existing asset, then using that asset to create an endless stream of useful assets, all of which are used to grow the original asset. Everything they create compounds in value. That’s content marketing playing out in beautiful fashion. That’s the true “R” in ROI.
Without us digging all that deeply if we’re being honest (because our left eyes keep twitching, because #modernmarketing), here’s a cursory look at what NBC does so well to promote their shows in sustainable, repeatable fashion:
1. The New Episode
First, a showrunner in charge of a series for NBC creates something worth spending time with: an episode. The episode is the cell of the entire body of work that is an original series. (Inside the cell are many smaller pieces, like the blocks and beats of an episode’s underlying format, or “rundown,” which we’ll revisit in a later article. For now, calling an episode the “cell” feels right.)
Creating an episode worth spending time with is the challenge facing tons of marketers today, which is a major reason we launched MSR in the first place. So I don’t want to gloss over this fact: Creating a binge-worthy series can feel supremely difficult when you’re just starting out. But since this piece you’re reading right now is about marketing the asset, not creating it, I’d encourage you to explore our production techniques section where we go deeper into the creation process. (Not sure where to begin? Our most popular pieces are about the three parts of a show you’ll need to plan for, the best interview questions to ask guests to get great content from them, and the subtle but crucial differences you’ll encounter when writing for a show or a podcast specifically compared to writing a blog post.)
2. The Trailer
Next, NBC makes a trailer. Not for the whole show — which is the only time many brands might make a trailer — but rather, for each episode. So often as marketers, we overvalue the launch event itself, but a huge reason any launch succeeds is how well we raised anticipation ahead of time. It’s far more effective to hand-deliver an episode to an audience which is eagerly awaiting it than it is to disappear for a time, build out your next episode, then launch it to an unsuspecting world. Said another way: It’s easier to fill your restaurant if there’s already a line out the door. Bonus: Not only will those people patronize the restaurant, but the excitement of that initial crowd can attract even more people to the door.
As marketing showrunners, we might be thinking, “It’s fine for NBC to create an episode trailer for The Good Place. They’re telling a serialized story with lots of cliffhangers written into it and professional actors to deliver the emotional moments. We’re not NBC. We’re not The Good Place.”
I get it. Maybe you interview experts on your podcast. Maybe you filmed a docu-style series where you profile businesses or individuals who champion a similar belief system to your brand. Maybe you did all that while balancing 12 other projects, too. We don’t always have tons of time, nor the tantalizing, teasery-type material we think we need, to create a trailer capable of raising anticipation. Or so we assume. See, this is where the one skill we all already possess as marketers prior to creating shows can actually help us: writing.
Write a trailer script.
Record yourself asking big, burning questions the audience can’t wait to answer.
Tease what you’ve learned using a few “open loops,” as they say in journalism. (That’s where you start talking about the action of a sequence of events, but fail to deliver the payoff.)
Without needing to hire Ted Danson or Kristen Bell or shoot a dramedy about heaven and hell for months on end, we can absolutely create irresistible trailers. Here’s an example of what one might sound like — note the burning questions and other types of open loops that help it raise anticipation:
“We wanted to know about X. So we scoured the web, found the absolute best person in the world to teach us more, booked our flights to this small but magical town just outside New York, and sat down with that oh-so-perfect person, where we learned a few things we wanted … and one big one we didn’t want, but definitely needed to hear. So what was that one thing? Where did we travel to in the first place? Why was it magical? Who was that person? Also why am I currently holding a plush lizard in my hand? His name is Larry, by the way. That’s all coming next week on the show. Get it via email on Tuesday at 8AM.”
These can be short. These can be templated, with a similar format each episode trailer. These can be recorded in the same static studio or conference room, perhaps even batch recorded in the same day if you already know what episodes are coming up in your show. All that matters is they get the job done: raising anticipation for the next episode.
Then, like NBC, we can put each trailer on social media, send it via our newsletter, or perhaps use paid advertising to target the right subset of our audience. Most crucially of all, however, we can copy this tactic from NBC:
3. The Cross-Promotion
To ensure a larger but still-relevant audience sees the episode trailer, NBC will play the episode trailers for a given show across other shows. Now, most of us don’t run networks of shows. (Though increasingly, we’re finding examples of brands that run digital networks of video series and podcasts.) However, what we all possess as marketing teams is some kind of pre-existing attention across all the surface area we cover. So, yes, Mailchimp runs a network of shows and can cross-promote a new episode of a second series right inside the show you’re already enjoying. But they also use their log-in screens for their users to advertise their shows. We can use in-product messaging, home page banners, blog notifications and CTAs, email footers, pinned tweets, Instagram bio links — you name it, if it’s already owed by us and already likely to receive attention, we can help re-direct some of that attention towards a forthcoming episode. Even if people don’t act immediately, which they likely don’t even with NBC’s cross-promoted shows, we’re priming our audience to tune in later. We’re increasing the odds that the all-important asset we built — the episode — actually yields a return.
I want to stop right here for just one second, because this is where it starts to sound like work. We just spent a few paragraphs earlier in this article on how stressed out and work-drunk we all are … and now we have to add this new trailer marketing stuff to our plates? To that I’d whisper softly to the marketing world that it’s gonna be okay. Everything is fine. If you need to, I have a warm shoulder you can rest on before I deliver some good news:
NO! We don’t need to add anything new to our plates. We need to shift some of our time and budget from things that aren’t working to something that will with our trailer marketing. For instance, we can shift some of the paid advertising we do, whether digital or offline, that supposedly increases our “brand awareness,” towards a more effective (and more measurable) episode-level awareness strategy. Alternatively, we can shift some of our efforts normally dedicated to episode launches back one step, focusing more time and budget on raising anticipation for when it does launch in the future. I’d argue either case uses our precious few resources far better.
Regardless, we don’t need to layer on yet another type of marketing to our already overflowing schedules. We need to rethink what’s actually yielding results, and act accordingly.
Additionally, we can use perhaps the most underused asset across the entire show to help raise anticipation for each future episode or season: the host. Using the host to help market the show helps us as marketers unlock nascent value.
4. Talent Tours
In the case of NBC, on-air or on-screen talent will help promote their shows as they appear on morning shows, late night shows, podcasts, blogs, newsletters, and so forth. It’s eerily similar to promoting a book or a movie: There’s a big thing you want everyone to consume, so you take some of the stuff you’ve gathered as a result of that project (the talent’s charm and stories and insights, the moments or lessons from inside the asset, etc.), and you sprinkle that across pockets of audiences all across the world in organic fashion.
If your show host or your talent isn’t appearing on a “tour” of sorts to promote the show, guesting on various other shows, you’re missing one of the most proven and, mercifully, audience-friendly approaches in your show marketing strategy. (This is why tapping an influencer or celebrity to host your brand’s show can be difficult. They’re less likely to hit the pavement, work with PR, and/or participate in your overall promotion strategy for the show.)
Once your host appears elsewhere, you can then take clips from that, and once again promote the material on social media and other “typical” marketing channels.
5. The Same, New Episode
Then, finally, NBC returns to the same asset which began the promotion in the first place: the new episode. They release it at the (constantly messaged) usual time, alerting their social channels to tune in now.
But they’re not done yet.
You see, missing from this list so far was a “Step 0” that would have preceded the #1 above. Before “1. The New Episode,” would really be, “0. Clips from the Prior Episode.” It’s not a list so much as a virtuous cycle: the latest episode yields endless little moments you can quote, crop, snip, clip, repurpose, reuse, and re-share. (Some of those are the same things, but I have so little time as a marketer that I must carry on. You understand, I’m sure…)
We can raid each episode for endless bits of content, which can then be promoted on the usual channels, which helps drive audience to both that episode and the show overall, which then gets them into our ecosystem for Steps 2-4, trailers, cross-promotion, and talent tours.
Here’s the graphic Wistia used to summarize what NBC does:
Compare that to the usual promotion of our episodes, blog posts, and other content as marketers:
As marketers, we’re entering a new era where brand awareness is not nearly as important as brand affinity. Who cares who knows about our companies? When we optimize for “awareness,” we’re assuming that the thing we actually want is just going to happen. We assume they’ll like us. When we aim for reach, for eyeballs, for impressions, we automatically assume that we’ve built something worthy of the time and dollar investment of our audience. “Awareness” is, after all, a proxy for what we really want. So why don’t we proactively aim for what we really want? We want affinity, not awareness. We want them to spend time with us (audience or community), not glance at us (impressions or traffic).
The best organizations in the world at grabbing and holding our attention are media and entertainment. The best organizations in the world at generating revenue sell products and services, instead of ads. (That’s us.) So why don’t we learn from the best in media and entertainment? Imagine if we adopted more of their approaches at brands whose business models aren’t crumbling? We can have the best of both worlds — but we first have to be willing to learn from a world outside of ours. Starting today, let’s embrace our new mandate: Marketing isn’t about grabbing attention. It’s about holding it. Great marketers know that results don’t require that people merely show up. They require that people stay.
We don’t need to do net-new things and increase our stress. We need to shift our efforts to match what our jobs have become. So put down the manic-rita and pour out that panic-tini. Let’s you and I stop acting like typical marketers and embrace the role as it should look today, investing strategically in the right things, at the right time, for the right goals. If it helps, we can even put up a nice big sign for when we enter this new phase of our careers:
Founder of Marketing Showrunners, author of Break the Wheel, and host/producer of docuseries about creative work. I’m trying to create a world where people feel intrinsically motivated by their work. Previously in content marketing and digital strategy at Google and HubSpot and VP of brand and community at the VC firm NextView. I write, tinker, and speak on stages and into microphones for a living. It’s weird but wonderful.
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