|ombies. The dull-eyed, people-gobbling monsters have become the darlings of American pop culture, though certainly not for their charisma. Their flesh hangs, they'll eat their own families, and they never say anything interesting, yet our love affair with them has only intensified since they first lurched across the silver screen 80 years ago.
Today, straight-faced debates rage, to the tune of some 316 million Google hits, about where exactly a zombie has to be shot in the brain to kill it, what the appropriate steps are to prepare for a zombie outbreak, and whether honest-to-God zombie invasions may have been responsible for a number of strange legends and burial discoveries during the past 2,000 years. For real.
American Movie Classics Co. LLC rode into 2010 on top of that zombie wave with plans for "The Walking Dead," a smart, intense series about survival during a zombie apocalypse. The television show, based on the comic-book series by Robert Kirkman, was a new frontier for AMC, a cable channel not historically known for popularity among the 18- to 34-year-old male bailiwick. AMC wanted into that pool, and what better way to make a splash, execs decided, than with a bevy of carnivorous monsters.
To test the waters, the network planned a six-episode pilot series that would air beginning October 2010, scheduling it around football and other testosterone-centric programming that might vie for male viewers.
Strategic programming alone, however, wouldn't be enough to attract the audience the show needed to ensure its survival. Somehow, AMC had to tap into the zombie-loving hoards that were ardent fans of "The Walking Dead" comic-book series, and there was only one place to find them gathered together: Comic-Con International in San Diego.
Theresa Beyer, AMC vice president of promotions and activations, says the network wanted to plan a full-scale blitz for Comic-Con in 2010, a "gigantic effort" to create a presence so big and so captivating that it could be overlooked by none. With more than three months between the convention's July end and "The Walking Dead" season premiere, the network needed to be dead-on to engage Comic-Con's 130,000 attendees and keep them interested enough to tune in. Aside from enchanting show goers, Beyer says, a well-executed campaign would also attract attention from some of the thousands of media outlets that cover the annual convention, giving the launch of "The Walking Dead" an incalculable boost far beyond the show floor.
Generating a zombie-style frenzy that would crescendo during Comic-Con - and continue to grow up to the show's October debut - was the challenge faced by AMC and its creative agency, Bottlerocket Marketing Group LLC. The plan of attack they developed was staggeringly comprehensive, and hinged on a simple philosophy: Go big or go home.
In preparing for Comic-Con, AMC passed on pre-show mailings that risked being lost in the din of other exhibitors' efforts, and instead focused on creating multiple touchpoints for attendees at the show. The touchpoint hardest to miss was the street team of zombies, 10 in all, that staggered through the surprised crowds, flanked by five brand ambassadors who doled out collectible buttons, posters, and postcards. The zombies, outfitted in the full special-effects makeup that gives "The Walking Dead" its particularly frightening realism, served a two-fold purpose. The first was to quite simply get attention that AMC hoped would draw people to the network's booth on the show floor. The second was to send a message to fans of "The Walking Dead" comic-book series that AMC was staying true to the original story.
"It was imperative to let them know that authenticity was critical to AMC. People love the world of 'The Walking Dead,' the stark reality of it," Beyer says. "It's done very realistically, not goofy. In fact, it's not a show about zombies. It's a show about survival.
It prompts people to ask themselves,
'What would you do to survive?'" The gruesomely made-up characters not only stopped people in their tracks, but their hanging chunks of faux flesh also proved that AMC was taking this zombie business very seriously indeed.
|For its Comic-Con debut, American Movie Classics Co. LLC's "The Walking Dead" exhibit featured a recreation
of an iconic moment from the TV drama's storyline. Attendees could snap photos of themselves in the grisly scene,
with the images flooding social-media outlets.
The Living Room
To pull Comic-Con attendees further into the storyline, AMC's 20-by-20-foot booth was an exact replica of a setting from "The Walking Dead" comic-book story - a living room in which an old farmer had the misfortune of killing his zombie wife, after which he wrote "Please forgive us" in her blood on the wall. Those who had read the comic-book series knew the gripping scene instantly, but even those not familiar with the story were drawn into the macabre strangeness of the exhibit. "I was amazed," Beyer says. "People came in and took pictures of every single thing in the booth, even the clock on the wall. They were so excited that we gave them even a mere moment to be part of the story."
Staffers invited visitors to photograph themselves inside the replica set. Encouraging attendees to take their own photos (rather than hiring a professional photographer to snap attendees' pics) was a strategy built on the knowledge that this predominantly young, male audience was tech-savvy enough to spread the images far and wide using social media like Facebook and Twitter, Beyer says. Fans could also register in the booth to be entered in drawings held throughout Comic-Con for a limited-edition poster created for the show's launch.
Hoping to turn those comic-book enthusiasts into TV followers, AMC made a concerted effort throughout Comic-Con to bring the show's characters to life. The trade show offered an ideal opportunity to do just that, if AMC could reserve one of the event's speaker panels - hour-long exhibitor presentations spread across 17 convention-center rooms, collectively amounting to hundreds of panels during the course of the four-day show. Comic-Con receives thousands of requests from exhibitors wanting to be included in the speaker-panel lineup, and AMC was gratified to snag a spot in one of the venue's larger rooms. The plan, Beyer says, was to introduce actors from "The Walking Dead" series, and tantalize would-be viewers with a clip from the upcoming series premiere that would hopefully incite a full-on frenzy for more.
Little did she know, that frenzy was already in full swing well before the doors to the speaker-panel room opened. Thousands stood in line waiting to get in, and when every one of the seats was filled, more than 3,000 attendees had to be turned away. When the actors went to the show floor to sign autographs after the panel, attendees mobbed them, jockeying to have just about anything you can imagine autographed.
The multifaceted approach created a thunderous response at Comic-Con 2010, Beyer says. IGN Entertainment dubbed "The Walking Dead" as the Best TV Show among exhibitors, and runner-up for Best Booth among all 1,000 or so at Comic-Con. Gawker Media called "The Walking Dead" one of the "Buzz Winners" of the show. And, in a marketing home run for AMC, the spectacle created by the zombie street team was so compelling that USA Today featured a photo of the partially dead posse on the cover of its Lifestyle section.
Eating it Up
To keep the fires burning, AMC invited attendees to follow "The Walking Dead" over the coming months via a digital platform that it launched at the show. Materials handed out to attendees drove people to a dedicated portal for "The Walking Dead" on the AMC website, where they could enter a sweepstakes for a stagger-on role in an upcoming episode, as a zombie no less. Fans could also follow "The Walking Dead" on Facebook and Twitter, and keep tabs on news about the show through the portal, where they could also leave comments.
|AMC gave attendees the chance to win a stagger-on role to the set of "The Walking Dead" in a social-media sweepstakes promoted at Comic-Con 2010.
With Facebook fans and Twitter
followers nearing 100,000 after Comic-Con wrapped up in 2010, it seemed that AMC had indeed created the fervor it needed to launch the series. In the months following the convention, AMC reinforced its marketing efforts by adding retail partnerships, Six Flags promotions, and scattered media purchases to its marketing efforts. But the network had one more big-buzz antic up its sleeve prior to the TV show's airing: a stunt intended to echo the wild success of the street team at Comic-Con, but on a much bigger scale.
In 26 international cities, starting with Hong Kong and Taipei, Taiwan, at daybreak and moving around the world, AMC and its global broadcast partner, Fox International, staged "attacks" in which hoards of costumed zombies lurched around well-known monuments and attractions, much to the surprise of unsuspecting citizens. Strategically timed to coincide with morning commutes, the invasion stopped traffic and started a buzz in each city, until it finally reached the site of the show's Los Angeles premiere.
The first episode of "The Walking Dead" smashed cable TV records that were almost a decade old, capturing 5.4 million viewers to make it the biggest first-season debut for an original scripted series among adults 18 to 49. By the six-episode-season finale, that number was up to 6 million, the record was broken again, and the network was eagerly planning a second season. The success of the launch was gratifying, Beyer says, but the work was far from over.
The show's season-one finale aired in December 2010, and the second season was not slated to begin until October 2011. "People's memories aren't that elastic, and 10 months is a long time," Beyer says. "We needed to make sure we had a lot to feed them through the year to keep them interested until the next season debuted."
Zombie Fan Club
Bottlerocket and AMC were back to the drawing board for Comic-Con 2011 by January, and somehow their task seemed even more daunting. "Going into the first year there was no existing fan base, so we were really building from the ground up," says Dave Chatoff, Bottlerocket's vice president of strategy. "But for season two, we knew we had people there already who were diehard fans with very high expectations. The first year went so phenomenally well, if anything we did came off as cheesy or like it was mass marketing for the next promotion, we would risk losing them. We worked hard to be true to 'The Walking Dead,' to capture the essence of it, and the marketing plan in season two was really an ode to the fans."
Based on the overwhelming
response AMC's promotional campaign received in 2010, the team decided to build on that success. But unlike the first year
when there was little pre-show promotion, by spring of 2011 AMC had a solid base of followers to woo through social media.
Along with Facebook and Twitter, the AMC portal dedicated to "The Walking Dead" had become integral to marketing, as it had evolved into something of a community gathering place for fans. There they could view trailers, show clips, and even exclusive webisodes; follow news blurbs and blogs; participate in sweepstakes and games; and discuss the series with other viewers. In preparation for 2011's Comic-Con, AMC retrofitted the page as a special portal for the upcoming appearance of "The Walking
Dead" at the San Diego gathering, disseminating information about the speaker panel, the booth, and a new sweepstakes. Those who couldn't attend Comic-Con could live vicariously through the portal, viewing event photos and announcements, watching the speaker panel featuring the series cast and executive producers, and checking out the season two trailer just moments after it was unveiled at Comic-Con.
AMC used that digital platform to tantalize its loyal fans in the months before Comic-Con 2011, but that marketing push was spread to the masses when Comic-Con chose "The Walking Dead" to be a feature story in the annual magazine distributed to registered attendees four months in advance of the show. With that boost, and the fact that show attendance was expected to swell to 150,000, Chatoff says, the team set ambitious goals for the upcoming exhibition. "The first year had been huge, but we didn't just want to sustain the excitement. We set out to grow our social-media following and the press buzz for 'The Walking Dead' even beyond what it had been in 2010," he says.
When Comic-Con opened in July of 2011, there was no place to hide from zombies. Added to the zombie street team were hotel TV ads, elevator wraps (advertisements covering the outside and inside doors of elevators), and hanging banners in the venue's common areas and down the hallways leading to the speaker panels.
|Thousands waited in line at AMC's 2011 Comic-Con exhibit for a chance to be photographed on another replica set from
"The Walking Dead." This one depicted a rooftop scene in which a character cuts off his own hand to escape the zombies.
Outside the San Diego Convention
Center, two 18-wheelers circled the venue - each wrapped with the same graphics depicting a scene from "The Walking Dead" in which a mass of bodies was being transported. On the sides and backs of the trailers, the message read, "Don't open. Dead inside." And from the back doors, a jumble of faux body parts protruded. "It's so overwhelming at Comic-Con that it can be hard to have a voice," Beyer says. "But we got a big response outside of the convention center and had people running after the trucks."
To create a must-see exhibit, Beyer knew the 2011 booth had to portray another unforgettable moment from the first season of "The Walking Dead." The iconic moment she chose was a scene in which a character chained to a roof must cut off his own hand to escape the zombies. The character, Merle, disappears for the rest of the season, and the sub-story line of where he went had fans riveted.
So the booth at Comic-Con 2011 became a 20-by-20-foot model of the rooftop set, complete with a life-size replica of Merle with his bloodied hand chained to a post and a saw nearby created by series' co-executive producer and special effects makeup designer Greg Nicotero. "Booth visitors could handcuff themselves to the pipe next to Merle and pretend to cut off their own hand," Beyer says. People waited upwards of an hour to ham it up on the recreated set next to Merle.
Zombie Dreams Come True
AMC linked the in-booth photo op to its 2011 sweepstakes, the grand prize of which was an all-expenses-paid trip for two to Los Angeles, where Nicotero created a zombie bust of the winner. Ten runner-up prizes of a season-one box set and a limited-edition poster were also awarded. To enter the sweepstakes, attendees had to photograph themselves chained next to Merle and tweet it with the hashtag #WheresMerle. Then they had to follow the @WalkingDead_AMC Twitter account, through which winners would be announced. Those not attending the show were invited via the Web page to tweet any photo of themselves with the same hashtag for entry.
And, just as AMC hoped, attendees tweeted away, with more than 100,000 entries into the sweepstakes by the time it ended on Aug. 1. But the clamor didn't stop there, as fans blogged and posted photos and status updates to Facebook about "The Walking Dead" at Comic-Con by the thousands. In fact, in its wrap-up for the show, Ad Age dubbed "The Walking Dead" as the most talked-about TV show at Comic-Con, with more than 11,000 mentions on blogs, social-media sites, and press outlets. AMC estimates that more than 70 percent of Comic-Con attendees visited the booth at some point during the show, as much as double the first year, and exceeding the wildest dreams of the marketing team.
|By its third Comic-Con appearance in 2012, "The Walking Dead" exhibit generated a line of attendees who waited more than two hours for a photo opportunity.
For the speaker panel, Comic-Con upgraded "The Walking Dead" to one of its largest rooms, this one with seating for 5,000 people. But it still wasn't big enough to accommodate the swell that turned out, and after every seat was filled, more than 4,000 people were turned away. In fact, according to statistics provided by the Comic-Con My Schedule tool, in which attendees log their interest in panels, "The Walking Dead" ranked No. 1 in popularity among the hundreds of panels offered at the show.
At the 2011 speaker panel, AMC showed a sneak-peek clip of season two, posting it and a video of the panel discussion on its Web page shortly afterward - and putting a link to it on "The Walking Dead" Facebook page. The clip received 7,500 "likes" and drew more than 1,100 comments on Facebook almost overnight. And by the end of the convention, "The Walking Dead" Facebook page hit a staggering 3 million fans. In addition, Beyer says, AMC surpassed 250,000 Twitter followers, making Comic-Con 2011 a raging social-media
success. That wave of social-media energy carried "The Walking Dead" into another record-breaking premiere for season two in the fall of 2011, scoring 7.3 million viewers - a 38-percent increase over season one. By the season-two finale in February, more than 7 million fans had connected to the show via Facebook.
By the time Comic-Con 2012 rolled around, "The Walking Dead" had become the belle of the ball. Once again, the exhibit comprised a recreated set from a pivotal scene from the TV show, and attendees waited two hours for a photo op and the chance to win a spot at an autograph-signing event. The 2012 effort also introduced trading cards, which fans collected as a prize for dressing like zombies, and a zombie-themed Facebook game.
And like the previous two years,
the campaign was all the rage. Attendance at the speaker panel swelled
to 6,500 people, and the show's Facebook fans surpassed the 10-million mark shortly after the event - a feat AMC playfully commemorated with a banner on its Facebook page that read, "You don't get to 10 million fans without eating a few."
Indeed, the popularity of "The Walking Dead" continues to spread faster than a zombie pandemic. The devotion of attendees who have lurched in lock step with this zombie invasion and devoured every marketing morsel is just proof that great minds taste alike. E
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