Winter is coming. Or, at least, Game of Thrones is about to come to an end for another season - another year - and we'll be left out in the cold for nine long months, wondering what'll be in-store next for our favourite fictional power struggle. This season has brought with it a new level of emotional turmoil and torment, with only the faintest slivers of hope shining through the darkness. How will it all end? At this point, all of us are in the same boat, as the TV show has now pretty much caught up with the books (even passed them in some instances). No one by George R.R. Martin knows for sure what will become of Westeros - and even he might not know what the producers have in mind.
But while we all ponder about the future occupant of the Iron Throne, it's also worth considering why we're so enthralled by the show. Why are we so drawn to such a violent, offensive, depressing story, why is it that people can't get enough? There are obviously many answers to this - a man cannot answer all of them in one post - but there are a few lessons we can take from Game of Thrones' massive success, notes that are worth considering and may help in building your own content strategy (even if you don't have dragons in it).
NOTE: This post is 100% spoiler-free
1. The Unquestionable Power of Storytelling
Above all else, Game of Thrones is a triumph of the power of story. Most medieval-style books and TV shows go for the traditional angles of knights, princesses and good conquering evil in the end. Game of Thrones doesn't do that. In a world where power rules above all, the reality would be that those most willing to do whatever it takes to hold that power would win. This is where Game of Thrones is truly resonant - it's honest to the reality in which the characters live. This not only means we witness hideous, calculated acts of violence in order to gain or hold power, but it also means every move has a counter, every action has a reaction.
This is one of the fundamentals of great storytelling, that you need to be aware of not only the core story, but how each element of your that story came to be, and will, in turn, affect others. In researching characters, it's important that you, as the writer, understand their every motivation, the why of their existence. Once you know that, you can also start to work out how they'll respond to every situation presented to them - because you know them. Even if that depth is never exposed to the audience, the writer has to know the why, to understand the logic and reasoning behind each characters actions. Game of Thrones does this like few other stories have, each character has their own reason for doing what they do, nothing is ever out of place.
In a content sense, what we're really talking about here is attention to detail. The bottom line for all content is 'attention to detail is the difference between 'good' and 'great''. This applies to all aspects, from spelling and grammar to research and references - the more time you put into your content, the better it will be. If you ever find yourself thinking 'that's probably good enough', it's not - when you settle you're short-changing your audience, and while mistakes do happen (no doubt I've made one somewhere in this post), the most important thing is that the work you present is the best it can possibly by, according to your own standards. When you can publish something and safely feel that you've done all you could to maximise its potential, you're on the right path - and nothing uncovers that path better than practice.
Game of Thrones wins because the characters feel real, their motivations and logic feels like it's actually been lived. This is a testament to the efforts George R. R. Martin has put into creating the world - it's those details that have taken it to the next level.
2. The Undeniable Lure of Controversy
Some of the things that happen in Game of Thrones are just so terrible. Beyond terrible - some of the worst examples of human depravity and violence are put on display, every week, inspiring anger, hatred and, above all, masses of discussion around each episode. Of course, not all of the discussion about Game of Thrones is based on those more controversial elements - but a lot of it is, and there's definitely a case to be made for the way the show uses controversy to spark interest.
Think of it this way - if the creators had opted to cut away from the violence, to instead show other characters reacting while leaving the actual act itself to your imagination, do you think it would generate as much discussion?
No, Game of Thrones has mastered the art of controversy and divisiveness as a device for further discussion.
This reminded me of an article I read a while back which looked at the controversial tactics employed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA regularly makes headlines due to their promotional tactics - in the article, the author, Scott Alexander, discusses a PETA campaign in which they offered to pay the water bills of needy families in Detroit - but only if those families would stop eating meat. The campaign was widely criticised, with commentators highlighting the arrogance of PETA's move - these people are about to have their water cut-off because they can't afford to pay for the most basic of human needs, the last thing they're considering is going vegan. The campaign is just one example of the many divisive promotions PETA has put forward, campaigns that have made them one of the most despised activist groups in the world. But at the same time, that controversy, which sparks so much hate against them is also the reason why PETA is such a success.
Consider this - PETA's cause is one which pretty much everyone is in agreement about. People hurting animals is no good, there's very few people in the world who would be in support of the 'unethical' treatment of animals. If PETA were to go out and ask people to stop hurting animals, they'd generally get support, but what they wouldn't get is attention. As their cause is not divisive, they can't get the same amount of attention they generate through controversy in other forms - people would definitely support their mission, but no one would be talking about it.
The example used in Scott Alexander's post is Vegan Outreach, an organization who do pretty much the same thing as PETA. But have you ever heard of Vegan Outreach? Few people have - but everyone's heard of PETA. They generate attention, and while much of that attention is negative and may actually turn people against them, the divisive nature of it generates discussion and causes people to take sides.
Marketing, of course, is all about generating attention - but the right attention is what you really want. The old saying of 'all publicity is good publicity' is often shown to be true, but even then, very few organizations go out of their comfort zone and declare their stance on divisive issues for fear of alienating significant portions of their audience. This is definitely a major risk, but what the PETA example shows is that standing for something, taking a hard line that forces people to choose one side or the other, can actually strengthen your brand by inspiring supporters to side with you. But, of course, not every brand has a controversial angle to take - you'd be hard pressed to find a topic that separates fans of paperclips, for example. But maybe the issue doesn't have to be directly related to your brand.
In the example noted above, PETA has jumped on board an issue not related to animal cruelty - poverty in Detroit - and has shoe-horned their issue into the spotlight by making it about them. That makes everyone angry, everyone gets up in arms about PETA and declares their hate for such a lowdown tactic. Then the conversation shifts to other things PETA has done in the past. Then the conversation shifts to what PETA is actually trying to achieve. Now you find yourself talking about animal cruelty and PETA's mission, and debating the effectiveness of their tactics, which, in itself, is an endorsement of the very thing you're debating. It's what's more commonly known, these days, as newsjacking, and this case, in particular, highlights how newsjacking, hijacking a popular topic of discussion for your own brand benefit, can be used well, and why we see more and more brands trying (and mostly failing) to latch on to the latest trending hashtag. Because most of the time, their efforts are lightweight, they're one-note jokes or random associations that fall flat. But there is power in controversy, and on taking a stand, particularly if there's a way that stance can generate conversation around your brand. There's a significant risk that you'll also inspire hate, but maybe, in some cases, accumulating haters is useful. Or at least acceptable, if the case is that you're also solidifying those likely to endorse your message.
Using Game of Thrones as an example, you can see how controversy can absolutely generate discussion, community and facilitate the spread of your brand message. It's a risky tactic, but one which is clearly effective - 1.1 million tweets have mentioned 'Game of Thrones' in the past 30 days alone, many of them discussing the show's more controversial elements.
There's little doubt that controversy does generate discussion - though often, controversy is too controversial for most to consider as a valid opportunity for promotion. But maybe it shouldn't be - the pay-offs are there for those willing to take the risks.
3. The Unequalled Returns of Reaching Out to Your Fans
While Game of Thrones very much relies on the quality of their product to do the talking for them, they still employ a range of clever tactics to keep fans connected and keep the conversation going, particularly when the show is off air.
At a session at SXSW this year, the social media team from Game of Thrones spoke to a packed house about their tactics. They discussed how they used a series of 5-second 'Visions' to ramp up hype around the show's fifth season - short video clips, combining old and new footage, which were sent out to people who signed up to a purpose-made website via text message. The website, ThreeEyedRaven.com, had more than 1.3 million fans sign-up, and those fans were subsequently sent 'Visions' which would then vanish 90 seconds after being viewed.
Fans were frustrated by the promotion. A total of three million people attempted to watch the first 'Vision' within 24 hours, but many missed out because of the 90-second rule. This sparked a mass of conversation online - which was precisely the intention of the promotion, and over time, and with subsequent releases of further 'Visions', fans worked out the rules of the game and eventually go what they wanted - new and somewhat substantial footage from the upcoming season.
While the social media team admitted they pushed their fans to an 'emotional tipping point', the discussion and interest generated hit the targets they were aiming for and built up discussion and anticipation leading into the fifth season.
This is one of the many promotional campaigns the Game of Thrones team has run to boost fan interaction and maintain interest in the off-season of the show. Another example was the '#CatchDrogon' promotion, also run before the fifth season premiere, which called on fans to contribute to an online dragon hunt - the ultimate prize being unique content from the show. Fans were asked to contribute their own GIFs and content, tagged with #CatchDrogon, in order to qualify for the prizes. The campaign worked with the fan community to involve them in not only the promotion, but in the creation of content, again boosting fan engagement and activity.
While much of the discussion of Game of Thrones may seem totally organic, the social media team for the show are regularly running promotions to boost engagement and generate discussion. These efforts pay-off significantly, maintaining awareness between seasons and keeping the conversation going. Efforts like this have lead to DVDs of the program selling at record high levels for HBO (despite the also record high-level of illegal downloads of the program).
So while we now have to prepare ourselves for the long wait between Season 5 and 6 of the Song of Ice and Fire, there are things we can learn and apply to our everyday work linked back to some of the core principles of the show's massive success. Game of Thrones has become one of the biggest and most-loved programs of recent times, and these three elements have all played a significant part in that process, and while not all of them can be transferred direct to your own marketing efforts, they are worth considering, worth mulling over and looking deeper into the why of the show's success. Maybe, in amongst the potions lined along the Grand Maester's shelves, you might find something that will provide the key to your own online success.