SXSW 2011: Fan to Fanatic: True Blood’s Marketing Hook

Full disclosure: Dee Cook, a former associate editor at ARGNet, was employed by Campfire to work on Seasons One and Two of the True Blood marketing campaign. She also attended a SXSW panel dedicated to the campaign, and graciously agreed to post a summary of the conversation here.

Some readers may recall a buzz back in 2008 when various bloggers began receiving mysterious dead language mailers and posting about them. These mailings served as the beginning of a marketing push for HBO’s True Blood, which premiered on the small screen later that summer. Representatives from some of the agencies involved in the campaign’s creation joined an HBO executive, a True Blood fan site co-owner to describe how it all happened during the SXSW panel, Fan to Fanatic: True Blood’s Marketing Hook on March 11, 2011.

Zach Enterlin, Senior Vice President of Programming for HBO, explained that the True Blood experience wouldn’t have been possible without the vision of Alan Ball, the show’s creator. Ball brought the show to HBO after the end of the hit Six Feet Under, and asked them how they could educate viewers about Bon Temps, Louisiana, as well as a world where vampires exist and live among us. Enterlin, a long time follower of Campfire’s work, brought this dilemma to them. Campfire jumped in with enthusiasm: Enterlin recalled that Brian Cain read all six books published at the time in the space of one weekend. Campfire wasn’t working alone. In fact, season one had ten agencies working on the campaign, and the HBO marketing machine was strongly backing the project. Enterlin credits the gusto all the vendors had for the work for how coherently so many different moving parts were able to move together. It just worked, he said, because everyone was on the same page together.

Season two of True Blood saw some unusual partnerships between the show and brands like Geico, Harley Davidson, and Todd Brandes from Digital Kitchen explained that the team decided that if vampires were living out in the world, then they could be marketed to: so they ended up cold calling some 30 different brands, resulting in seven brands that were eventually used in True Blood-themed banner ads.  Alan Ball nixed one of the brands, a gum maker, because he argued vampires did not chew gum.

According to Sabrina Caluori, Director of Marketing at HBO, True Blood was envisioned as an opportunity to engage the fan base not just during the 13 episodes of the season, but year round, an opportunity the fans were obviously hungry for.  HBO’s legal department was originally a bit concerned to find fans role-playing series characters online, but eventually realized that it was important to not only let them do so, but to encourage them. This vision ended up permeating their philosophy. HBO purposefully identified fan favorites and builds on their worlds online, such as the Babyvamp Jessica blog. Caluori understands the concept of harnessing the power of brand ambassadors and letting them do the marketing work by spreading the message via word of mouth, which is key to building a passionate audience.

Speaking of brand ambassadors, the panel closed with a viewing of Snoop Dogg’s “Oh Sookie” music video, with some explanation from Enterlin as to its origins: Snoop had apparently begged Alan Ball to be on the show, and when he got the green light to make a music video, he wrote the song, filmed it, and produced the video in less than ten days. He’s just that much of a True Blood fan!

The audio podcast of the panel is available on SXSW’s site.


  1. HBO’s legal department was originally a bit concerned to find fans role-playing series characters online, but eventually realized that it was important to not only let them do so, but to encourage them.

    – This is indeed a break through. The role of “community” is going to be central to the future of entertainment on the web. Media companies need to get used to regarding their audience as participants as much as they are viewers. This leads to a zillion legal issues that take us well beyond “fan fiction” of the past.

  2. It was really gratifying to hear a content creator say they they embraced fan fiction. It seems like some of the cable shows are really paving the way on allowing fans to play in the story universe.

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