A Modern Marketing Showdown On The Small Screen: HBO vs. Netflix


There are few things we welcome into our home with such willful abandon as television. That’s because we don’t just watch television anymore. We binge watch.

A recent survey by Harris Poll on behalf of Comcast showed that 82% of U.S. adults say they binge-watch television. (The survey conductors defined binge-watching as “watching two or more TV episodes of the same show in one sitting.” Amateurs.)

In fact, TrackMaven’s own home base, Washington D.C., tied with Dallas and San Francisco for the title of “bingey-est city,” with 88% of adults admitting to bouts of binge-watching.

But unlike other binges, of which we might want to stay mum (drinking, eating, shopping…), television binges seem to warrant proclamations on social media, much to the delight of entertainment companies and their marketing teams.

Google Trends shows that the search term “binge drink” is losing interest over time, while “binge watch” and “binge eat” are on the rise, which most of us can attest to personally – binge watching and binge eating are notorious bedfellows.

While marketers in the entertainment business used to rely on genre comparisons, focus groups, and early audience feedback to fine-tune their marketing efforts, social networks act as massive, dynamic focus groups ripe for data mining.

Ratings may tell us how many people are tuning in to watch a show, but online buzz offers us a look at how much we are buying into a show. Are we talking about it? Are we quoting it? Are we creating sub-cultures around it? Those are the questions proactive marketers are paying attention to online, and they’re tailoring their digital content strategies with real-time responses to address our level and means of cultural buy-in to their programming.

In terms of online fanfare, two of the most buzz-inducing television premieres so far this year were Netflix’s Season 2 premiere of its political thriller House of Cards, and HBO’s Season 4 premiere of its fantasy juggernaut, Game of Thrones.

So, we surveyed the most engaging social media posts each company has produced over the past year and found a few trends and tactics within their respective marketing strategies that could benefit marketers from any industry.

Netflix’s Nostalgic Marketing

Netflix’s social media strategy thrives on nostalgia with pointed appeals to our collective cinematic memory. While you might guess that Netlflix’s social media post with the highest engagement over the last year would center around its hallmark, Emmy-nominated series, House of Cards, well, you’d be wrong.

The post that garnered Netflix’s greatest Facebook triumph featured a character much more disturbing than the scheming Frank Underwood – Dr. Hannibal Lecter.

It seems Frank may have finally met his match. Netflix’s “Hello Clarice” post garnered nearly 20 times as many social interactions compared to Netflix’s average Facebook post. Netflix’s “House of Cards 2.14.14” post, below, was slightly less viral with 13 times the average social interaction.

(It wasn’t necessarily a fair fight. With a lifetime gross of over $130M since its 1991 release, Silence of the Lambs has a significant head-start for cultural inertia.)

Netflix saw another spike of engagement by appealing to one of our seasonal soft spots – the holidays. Sure, it was only September when Netflix posted this announcement that Love Actually was available for streaming, but with 447 shares, clearly love was all around us.

Netflix’s nostalgia strategy isn’t reserved for Facebook alone – it works just as well on Twitter. Netflix’s #NowOnNetflix Mean Girls announcement raked in 4.6K retweets, 15 times as many as their average.

But Netflix’s social media strategy is much more than simply pandering to pop culture references. The company has mastered tactics that are the calling card of any proactive marketer – analytics-driven audience segmentation.

Netflix’s crown jewel is data – namely, the more than 5 billion content ratings gathered from customers since the company’s 1998 launch. Using this wealth of customer data, Netflix’s proprietary algorithm can predict audience demographics for the content in its filmography and zero in on overlap in audience taste profiles.

For House of Cards, for example, its success was based on a perfect storm of diehard David Fincher fans, diehard Kevin Spacey fans, and lovers of political dramas.

Netflix’s Chief Content Officer, Ted Sarandos, put it this way:

“What we can do better than anybody else is determine the potential audience size for these different projects. We look at our database of users, both from DVD and the streaming side. We look at how users rate shows and movies. But other feedback is more implicit because they may not issue a rating and tell us how they felt but we’re able to surmise that if they watched the whole series in a 24-hour period, they probably liked it. For original programming, what we’re most interested in is the overlaps [in taste] — that’s how we best analyze potential audience.”

And it’s working. Netflix has attracted a slew of other mold-breakers to its slate, from Ricky Gervais to the Wachowski Brothers (of The Matrix and Cloud Atlas fame). Keep an eye on the company’s upcoming slate to see how they utilize their data to create and market original content that strategically targets overlapping niche audience preferences.

HBO’s Character-Driven Marketing

The film industry’s content strategy used to be centered around the gospel of the “four-quadrant film”. Studios evaluated projects based on their believed ability to appeal to these four main categories: men under 25, older men, women under 25, and older women.

But as our Home Box Office, HBO broke from the mold of four-quadrant analysis and blazed a trail for premium television programming that was relevant to our culture, not our demographics. Just think back to the 1999 pilot episode of The Sopranos, which introduced us to a modern mobster struggling with his empire – and his anxiety.

Looking at HBO’s digital content with the greatest engagement over the past year, the network has amplified that cultural relevance in its social media presence. HBO encourages its programs’ adoption into the cultural lexicon, highlighting highly-quotable lines and images from each episode.

With Game of Thrones, for example, HBO has addressed audience segmentation in its marketing strategy by harnessing the power of its ensemble cast, appealing to the sub-cultures surrounding each character.

Khaleesi, of course, is clearly a fan favorite and four-quadrant character, appealing to people of all genders and ages, so –unsurprisingly – she is featured in many of HBO’s most popular social media posts:

However, HBO doesn’t simply market down the Mother of Dragons middle. The company undertands that the cultural relevance of their programming comes from the power of ensemble casts that offer something – or someone – for everyone.

After last Sunday’s Season 4 Game of Thrones premiere episode, for example, Arya and the Hound fought their way into viewers’ hearts, and HBO saw better-than-average engagement by individually highlighting their character arcs.

Game of Thrones is epic and fantastical, but we each have a particular character or two we especially hope to see each episode. HBO has seen above-average interaction on their social networks by sharing content that stokes the repetition of memorable quotes and spurs the adoration of the fan base for each individual character, rather than simply promoting the show at large.

As a creative content marketer, HBO has also found a unique way to appeal to the fan bases for past shows and characters on social media: celebrating the birthdays of their shows’ star actors.

This tactic is essentially a free version of native advertising; amongst all the birthday Facebook posts for your friends, there is a birthday post for your favorite television character.

And HBO’s character-centric social media content hasn’t gone unnoticed by Netflix. Just last week, Netflix earned a spike in audience engagement with this taunting tweet, featuring Frank Underwood on the Iron Throne:

Strategically timed less than 5 minutes before the Game of Thrones Season 4 premiere, the tweet earned 32 times as many retweets as Netflix’s average.

So, if you tune in for the next episode of Game of Thrones this weekend, don’t just watch the battle for the Seven Kingdoms — watch for the brewing battle of clever digital marketing tactics between our television tastemakers. You may just notice a few interactive marketing strategies worth adding to your own marketing playbook.

If you liked this post, you might like our MARKETING MAVEN’S GUIDE TO FACEBOOK for insights into the best times to post and best practices for word count, Calls-to-Action, punctuation, and more.