Steal these fresh consumer engagement ideas for your superfan experiences
Attendance at San Diego Comic-Con was healthy, the convention’s most prolific experiential brands showed up and the creative was enough to make this seasoned industry reporter swoon. Overall, this year’s Comic-Con passed our pulse-check and served up plenty of return-to-live trends we expect to see heating up in the world of superfan experiences and beyond. Here’s the scoop from the Gaslamp Quarter. (Read the full Comic-Con field report here.)
1. An Experience Before the Activation
It’s not out of the ordinary for SDCC fans to wait in a two-hour line in the blazing sun to participate in a 10-minute brand experience if it means they get closer to their favorite characters and plot lines. But that doesn’t mean standing around is a good time—until now. While on the ground this year, we saw multiple brands execute dedicated line engagement strategies specifically designed to keep the morale up and get the party started a little early.
Waiting in line to become the mother of dragons at HBO’s “House of the Dragon” activation wasn’t nearly as painful as it could have been thanks to the witty actors portraying guards of King’s Landing roaming outside the castle walls and all along the queue of attendees eager to get in. Our favorite character, naturally, was the guy who said he’d had too much dragon’s brew and wobbled around the footprint trying to name his sword. Another guard walked around asking fans which “Game of Thrones” house they represented and why. Observing the guards as they interacted with each other was another source of entertainment. (Agency: Giant Spoon)
We were part of the lengthy line leading into ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” teacher orientation activation, and were pleasantly surprised to find that a team of charismatic brand ambassadors were on hand to ease the pain. One of them walked through the line delivering Twinkies in branded packaging while another asked us questions about our own school experiences, like being a line leader and whether we were served chocolate milk in cartons or bags. We give ABC an A+. (Agency: Creative Riff)
Jam, a new platform that allows consumers to share and listen to bite-sized audio, was at Comic-Con to drive awareness and consideration. And while the company didn’t have an activation footprint, its strategy was right on the money. The brand unleashed a team of BAs (“Jambassadors”) wearing huge, insulated backpacks across the Gaslamp to promote its platform among Con-goers on the streets. In the mornings, Jambassadors distributed hot coffee to sleepy fans waiting in line for various brand experiences, and in the afternoon, the team switched to cold beverages to provide relief from the heat. (Agency: GDX Studios)
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2. Projections for Ambience
Projections are nothing new in the experiential world, but we found clever implementation of the tactic at select Comic-Con activations, particularly when it came to bringing mythical creatures to life. Paired with ambient audio, it was effective.
The “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” Tavern activation offered a rare peek at the forthcoming film from Paramount Pictures with a variety of touchpoints. Among them was the occasional projection-mapped dragon monster sighting through a window installation behind the bar, which added a nice touch of fantasy-inspired ambience. (Agency: NVE)
While touring the halls of Lumon Industries during Apple TV+’s “Severance” employee orientation, we observed any number of strange installations and character interactions. But the winner may have been the projection-mapped outline of a goat intermittently passing by a closed door, little bleats included. We’re only a few episodes into the series, but an office goat has to mean something.
Following a ceremonial dragon-hatching experience at HBO’s “Dragon’s Den,” the final phase of the activation was a photo op on the iconic Iron Throne surrounded by life-like flame effects. For some attendees, like us, it was a typical photo asset. But for others who had just the right timing, the appearance of a projection-mapped dragon in flight was seen in a grand window installation behind the throne, making for one badass souvenir. (Agency: Giant Spoon)
3. Trained Actor Interactions
The brands that delivered the most immersive fan experiences at SDCC were the ones that swapped traditional brand ambassadors for trained actors. It immediately leveled-up the activations. The biggest insight we uncovered is that many of the most talented Comic-Con actors had a background in improv, and were adept at thinking on their feet while interacting with fans. We saw a number of instances where skilled actors elevated an experience, like the team that brought HBO’s activation to life. Here are a few more standouts.
Beyond the walking trees, “American Horror Stories” dolls and other disturbing creatures roaming FX’s eerie labyrinth activation—who were all very talented in their own right—we found that the actors playing bouncers outside of the network’s “What We Do in the Shadows”-themed vampire night club were perhaps even more memorable. They captured the humor of the show and the character of stereotypical club bouncers perfectly. One interaction we caught with an attendee: “I know you from somewhere! Nico’s pizzeria, 94th street. They make the best sausage and pepperoni.” And these guys could have gone on for hours like that. (Agency: Creative Riff)
Believe it or not, it’s challenging to find actors who can convincingly portray zombies, something AMC discovered more than a decade ago when it launched “The Walking Dead” and began activating around the show at Comic-Con. We’re told the jagged movements and otherworldly growls the show’s “walkers” make have a particular look and sound, which makes finding the right actors for AMC’s events (like this year’s final SDCC “Walking Dead” fan celebration) absolutely paramount. Loyal viewers of the series wouldn’t allow anything less. (Agencies: 3CS; Campfire)
Fans of “Severance” are familiar with the odd balance of unnerving optimism and cold-blooded austerity the leadership at Lumon Industries portrays in the series, and the actors who took on those roles at Comic-Con nailed it. From our orientation leader, to the Wellness Room doctor (who scared us a little) to the quirky duo that led us through an office dance break and beyond, everyone had the right skills to make for an immersive experience.
“If you’re going to have an immersive experience, actors are really key. We’ve had events where the entire thing has been made by the talent engagement. They embody the characters and they get the tone and they deliver so wonderfully that people feel it and they’re so excited. It’s worth the investment to get good people… And people with a history in improv are perfect for this [event].”
–Kenya Hardaway, SVP-Integrated Promotions, Multi-platform Marketing, FX Networks
4. Separate Lines for Photo Ops
Remember those never-ending lines we discussed? We were impressed to find that multiple brands implemented an impactful solution to the problem: Splitting up a key photo moment from the full activation, and creating a separate line to participate in each. This way, fans who don’t want to wait for the whole experience, or those that only have a short time before attending their next panel, have the option to participate without a huge commitment. And fans who have time to spare have the benefit of partaking in both.
Fans of ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” could stand in a sizeable line to participate in an in-depth “New Teacher DisOrientation” that took them through the halls and classrooms of the school, where actors, props and personalization elements made for an immersive experience. But for more casual fans or those short on time, there was a second option to take a GIF in front of a large school bus installation located just to the left of the main activation footprint, where the line was significantly shorter. (Agency: Creative Riff)
Time slots to participate in the Nintendo experience within the Comic-Con Interactive Zone sold out nearly instantly, so we couldn’t get access to the main activation, a stop on the Nintendo Switch Road Trip tour, which offered gameplay, demos and a look at the new Switch OLED model. That’s where this trend came in handy, particularly as we eyed the lengthy line that pre-registered attendees had to endure to get into the central footprint. As avid fans, we wanted to interact with the brand in some way, and the separation of the full experience from an adjacent photo op featuring one of the iconic Mario Bros. warp pipes was just what we were looking for.
Fox employed a similar strategy to ABC and Nintendo to cut down on line time for fans of “The Bob’s Burgers Movie.” Although it didn’t exactly have a main activation, Fox ensured that lines for photo ops and its Lucky Ducks game were separate from the epic queues for its daily “Patty Hour,” during which fans could score a complimentary burger. Because no fan wants to get in between a mob of consumers and free food.
5. Maintaining Momentum Through Digital
If the industry learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that finding a way to engage fans—of entertainment, sports, fashion, you name it—who can’t attend an event in person is vital to expanding reach, making consumers feel included and maintaining relevancy in a digitally dominated world.
HBO executed the approach flawlessly at Comic-Con with a companion app for its physical “House of the Dragon” activation, during which attendees like ourselves participated in a dragon selection and incubation ritual. Before exiting the experience, having proven ourselves to be true Targaryens, we ceremoniously hatched our dragon baby by activating DracARys, the augmented reality app (powered by Niantic and produced by The Mill) that we downloaded pre-event, on an NFC reader.
Activation participants received early access to the app, but it was available a few days later to anyone interested in the series and/or feeling the Comic-Con FOMO. The strategy has allowed us to “raise” our dragon at home and maintain a connection with the event and the brand. His name is Somakenya (thanks for asking), and he has already learned to come to our side upon the command “Mazis!” This is absolutely not part of the job. It’s just fun.This story appeared in the Fall 2022 issue