Thursday, March 15, 2012

What Authors and Publishers Can Learn from the Hunger Games Marketing Campaign, Part 1

Two weeks before its release on March 23rd, The Hunger Games movie is already expected to do as well in the box office as—if not even better than—the final Twilight movies. It’s expected to gross $100 million in its opening weekend alone, and $275 million over the length of its run in theaters. In Fandango’s twelve-year history, it’s never even come close to selling as many advance tickets as it has for The Hunger Games. Fueled by the pre-movie buzz, the paperback of the first book—by no means a new splash in the market, having been out for two years already—is outselling the year’s biggest book hits. And the excitement is only growing.

Both book and film can chalk their incredible recent success up to a versatile and inexhaustible marketing push by Lionsgate studios. And though we might have little hope of matching the blockbuster studio’s budget, much of what’s made the studio’s push so successful can easily be applied to publishers’ and writers’ own promotional campaigns. Here are just a few elements you can adapt:

1.) Create a bridge for existing fans. When Lionsgate inked a deal to bring The Hunger Games to the big screen, the series was already a hit with teens, reporting more than 150,000 sales and boasting a fan frenzy that came close to the Twilight and Harry Potter series. But with three years between the movie deal and its big-screen release, Lionsgate needed a way to keep the film on fans’ radars. By creating a “bridge” of content the existing fans were hungry for already to lead them to the new content in theaters, Lionsgate turned what could have been a setback into a chance for existing fans to spread their fervor through word of mouth.

Why it matters for books: When an author has an existing fan base—whether from social media popularity, recent recognition in the media, or another successful novel or series—one of the biggest challenges to bringing a new book out is carrying the author’s popularity over to a new title. Though most marketing campaigns focus on attracting new fan bases, they still take care not to lose the hard-won fans that already exist—and getting a reader to pick up an author’s second book can be harder than you think. Writers and publishers must approach the gap between initial buzz and the new book’s publication strategically by bridging content. The most successful bridges give existing fans more of what they already love and want (whether it’s the books’ smoldering love interests, the author’s snarkily hilarious style, or the writer’s off-the-page personality) while at the same time introducing concepts and characters that will appear in the new book and tying back to the upcoming new release.

2.) Create extra content… Lionsgate made every landmark on the route to a finished film a spectacle for fans, building buzz around everything from the choice of a director to fan input on casting calls and auditions and finally their strategic release of casting decisions, one name at a time. But it was the extra materials the studio generated—everything from posters featuring each individual character to viral social media content from social networks to name generators —that really held hungry fans’ attention. Part of the brilliance of the Hunger Games marketing campaign is that much of the content released to build excitement would have needed to be created for the films anyway—like music for the soundtrack and clips of Katniss in the arena. Put it all together, and fans had plenty to munch on while they waited for the movie to release.

Why it matters for books: Not every publisher or author has the resources to build whole social networks or schedule a photo shoot for every character, but there’s a world of possibility available nonetheless. Consider hinting that one character from a previous series will show up in the new book, and allowing fans to guess which one. Introduce your main character with a short story in their voice, or give fans a story about an existing character that made them clamor for more. With a little creativity you can put together “dream casts,” interactive games and contests, early reveals of content and images, and more. The key is to delve into what makes a book—or an author’s previous books—appealing, and find an efficient way to create more of that content than will be needed in the finished book. By re-purposing material for an early buzz-building release online, publishers and authors can make a new release visible and appealing without an unmanageable investment.

But plop all that extra content up online at once and you're likely to find it's wasted; truly good content needs an innovative and strategic plan to succeed. Next week, we'll talk about what that plan might look like! Check out Part 2 in this series to find out more about how to bend the odds in your favor.


  1. This is all really interesting stuff, and while I see how most of this works, it doesn't address the issue that many have with promoting their own works. My books are are for children in early elementary school. They don't use the internet the way an older child does. They don't discuss what they have read, and search out fellow fans and talk about what's next. I've been really thinking about this endlessly lately, and how kids in grades 1-4 can be reached in better ways using online marketing/social media. It's a different animal when the gatekeepers are in the mix.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Michael: maybe the market target for the youngest readers is not them but their parents and teachers. I try to reach them via Facebook, blogs, and Twitter as well as visiting with them at book festivals or conferences. Still, major media exposure, say TV/Radio, is harder (effort and $$) to reach in my experience. Promotion is a full-time job, but I try to build media presence a bit at a time.
    Thank you, Rachel, for the thought-provoking post. I am looking forward to reading about your 'plan' in the next post.

  3. Ana, I agree that it's the parents and teachers that need to be reached. And I've done many of the things that you suggest, and they seem to be working to a certain point.

    I guess I'm just jealous of the passion that teenagers have for the stories they love. =)