Marketing Mr. Robot

Originally published at C21 Media

Nicole Greiner, research analyst at VAST MEDIA, explores USA Network’s launch of the second season of “Mr. Robot” – the first in a new monthly series of articles from VAST MEDIA, tracking digital content marketing innovations in partnership with C21‘s FutureMedia.

After launching in June last year, hacker drama “Mr. Robot” quickly became USA Network’s signature show, redefining the cabler and forging a new path for its original dramas. And while the series has been a hit among viewers and critics alike, its clever and unexpected marketing has also received widespread acclaim.

“Mr. Robot’s” ongoing marketing campaign is as radical and as much a dramatic departure from regular efforts as the show itself. It impressively shows how broadcasters can build a devoted audience of hardcore fans by targeting not the masses, but rather a niche demographic that can identify with the themes and ethos of the show.

For “Mr. Robot’s” second season, which premiered on July 13, USA Network easily managed to re-activate the show’s loyal audience. Since the beginning of the marketing push, the show has primarily catered to the tech crowd, being marketed to people who spend most of their time online. Through unexpected campaigns and by employing buzz-building techniques similar to those used for season one, “Mr. Robot” was quickly being widely talked about again.

Around two months before the new season premiered, USA Network again fired up the marketing machine by sharing a video of a faux press conference in which US president Barack Obama addresses the activities of the series’ hacker group fsociety. The clip appeared so real that fans and media outlets were abuzz wondering about the tools the cabler had used to create it.

Manipulated footage of Barack Obama was used in the campaign

But the pre-season promotion really kicked into high gear with a global Facebook campaign at the beginning of July. USA Network used Facebook Live as a platform to let fsociety spread their anti-capitalist message around the globe. Over the course of 24 hours, various live streams targeted at 13 regions around the world went online. The live parts of the stream were followed by a preview clip that hinted at a much-discussed cliffhanger from “Mr. Robot’s” first season.

After some conventional promotion across the show’s social media accounts, the marketers surprised fans with an unexpected turn of events by ‘hacking’ themselves and leaking the first episode of the own second season. For a few days, USA Network had promoted a live Q&A session with the series’ cast on July 10. The event was streamed live on the show’s official Facebook page when suddenly the stream was interrupted by fsociety. Fans who tuned in were rewarded with the first part of the season two premiere, which was immediately removed from the page after the stream ended. After that, the episode was made available in staggered succession and for a limited time on Twitter, BuzzFeed’s Discover channel on Snapchat, YouTube, and USANetwork.com.

The marketing heavily utilized the show's hacker group fsociety

Despite the limited availability of the early season premiere, it generated more than 31,000 tweets from over 20,000 unique users. The biggest engagement spike happened on July 13 when “Mr. Robot” season two premiered on USA Network, generating 85,000 tweets by 61% male users overall. Nearly 30% of all tweets expressed excitement and anticipation, showing the success of the campaign (according to data from social media analytics platform Blurrt). Once again, USA Network brought the show to the places where their target audience was (the pilot had already been released across multiple digital platforms prior to its linear TV premiere) and marketed itself to both the “always online” niche demographic and their loyal fanbase.

The self-hack was an especially clever and self-ironic marketing strategy considering the show had previously faux-hacked livestreams on Twitch for a 72-hour “hacktivation” campaign from digital agency ISL that created enormous buzz for the series premiere.

Web platforms played an important part

The same strategy of a limited release combined with buzz-building was also used during San Diego Comic-Con 2016. The world premiere of the “Mr. Robot” Virtual Reality Experience on July 21 was not just a regular debut of a VR experience tied to a TV show. As a first-of-its-kind global VR simulcast, fans had to watch it at a specific time because the content disappeared from the Within app (the VR startup that distributed the experience created by specialist studio Here Be Dragons) immediately after the broadcast.

Fans in San Diego were also invited to a world premiere event attended by the show’s cast, where they were provided with branded cardboard VR sets and headphones. Although the content disappeared from the app immediately, Comic-Con attendees could still view the VR experience at a “Mr. Robot” Repair Shop or, through a partnership with Uber, let it come to them in a “Mr. Robot” repair van.

An ad for the "Mr. Robot" VR experience

Throughout all of “Mr. Robot’s” marketing, USA Network remains faithful to the show’s premise and anti-corporate, anti-establishment message. “Mr. Robot” accurately captures hacker culture, which results in the ongoing marketing campaign feeling authentic. This is also reflected in the official “Mr. Robot” Digital After Show, which USA Network launched for season two. Hosted by tech-themed website The Verge, the show streams live after the linear broadcast of “Mr. Robot” episodes. Each week, The Verge editors break down the episodes while also examining the technological aspects of the show.

In sum, USA Network drums up interest for “Mr. Robot” through elaborate marketing stunts and distribution of its content on many platforms. That way, the cabler cleverly continues to reach out to its target audience, which prefers to watch shows on non-linear online platforms and generally tends to be more dedicated than most viewers who tune into the show on linear TV.

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