These Movies Used Digital Video to Crush It at the Box Office, From Adobe

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Illustration: Graham Erwin Photo by: Illustration: Graham Erwin

There has never been more competition for people’s time and attention than there is today. While any marketer knows this, movie marketers probably know it best of all. They launch new brands every weekend in a movie theater near you. So what’s the secret to breaking the digital box office?

Video is a natural way for movie markets to amp up a premiere, but with today’s fragmented cast of video formats, the directorial process can be difficult. Savvy movie marketers are finding that cross-channel campaigns featuring online video and social media are an especially promising way to market new films through paid promotions and by targeting fan bases on platforms such as YouTube.

Take the case of “Pitch Perfect,” a 2012 comedy about an a capella crew from Universal Pictures. For the release of the sequel, “Pitch Perfect 2” in May, Universal bought plenty of traditional advertising such as premium TV ads and even a Times Square billboard. But the company attributes much of the franchise’s runaway success to its marketing efforts across digital channels.

Tapping into YouTube’s passionate a capella community was “an invaluable part of our success,” said Josh Goldstine, President of Worldwide Marketing at Universal Pictures, at YouTube’s BrandCast event in May. Having struck gold once, Universal Pictures went even deeper on the video platform the second time around, recruiting the platform’s star a capella singers to create music videos in support of the sequel and even casting one of these groups in the movie.

Using what it learned from YouTube about the huge community of enthusiasts that a capella has on social media, “Pitch Perfect 2” launched social campaigns to target fans on Tumblr, Snapchat and Instagram using a mix of paid ads and earned media. Universal Pictures knew the film’s fans were on these platforms, because they were already talking about the movie there and creating their own riffs and responses to the movie’s songs and jokes. The company catered their executions to each platform, posting GIFs on Tumblr, red carpet snaps on Snapchat and personal photos with emoji captions on Instagram.

Each social platform included daily countdowns to the premiere, working fans into a GIF-induced frenzy. It worked: “Pitch Perfect 2” has brought in $280 million at the box office to date. Numbers like that make it hard to believe that only 45 percent of marketers consider social networks to be highly important channels for their messages, according to a study on real-time marketing by Adobe and the Direct Marketing Association.

In other instances, Universal went even narrower with its audience. The company’s teen horror movie, “Unfriended,” allocated 60 percent of its ad budget to digital—more than double what Universal had ever done before and much higher than the 10 percent industry average. Universal used viewership data on its YouTube pre-roll ads to improve targeting and adjust media spend in real time. For example, when certain ads proved more engaging to viewers, Universal Pictures would put more budget towards them and decrease spend on ads that got skipped using YouTube’s “Skip Ad” feature.

These insights then trickled over into the 40 percent of the ad budget Universal Pictures chose to spend on traditional outlets, pushing a message it had refined through trial and error on YouTube. The movie ended up with a higher awareness in its core demographic than movies with campaigns that cost twice or even three times as much, according to Universal. The bottom line? A $16 million opening weekend and worldwide box office total of $54 million, which made the budget $1 million project incredibly profitable. Moviegoers told Universal that online video was the number one source of information for their decision to see the movie.

So where does that leave things before the credits roll? Using the data at your disposal to optimize for the strengths of each channel, you can spend smarter. It’s not about being everywhere all at once, but choosing your bets and being exactly where your audience expects you to be.

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