Here’s the secret to winning the Game of Thrones

The wait is finally over. Winter is here for real as Game of Thrones has started its last season. If you’re like me, you’re already making your predictions on who’s going to die, who’s going to win the throne, and just what is going on with Bran.

Even if you’re not a Thrones fan, you can’t deny the power of the show to captivate the world. Last season, Game of Thrones, averaged 30 million US viewers across platforms and was pirated over 1 billion times by people around the world. Season 8’s first episode was mentioned 344,000 times on Twitter while airing - not counting the post-episode discussion - and broke live viewing records for HBO.

Somehow, even when we’re surrounded by content and entertainment choices, Game of Thrones has remained watercooler viewing for almost a decade. In the age of on-demand video streaming, South Africans wake up at 3am in the morning to watch along with the US.

How many businesses would kill for a fraction of this kind of investment in their brands? But how many try to imitate the Game of Thrones path to success, and fall flat on their faces? It takes more than just sex, dragons and shocking deaths to get as big as Thrones.

How to build a phenomenon

When Game of Thrones first came out, it immediately stood out thanks to a unique mix of fantasy, ambitiousness and adult storytelling. And when the axe came down on the man we thought was our main character, that’s when it became obvious that this was something special. In short, it was a good story coming in at a time when nothing else like it existed on television.

However, you need more than great content to win over audiences. That first episode attracted around 2.6 million viewers, a number that looks as small and unassuming as the Stark kids were back then. It took a lot of groundwork to make it into the success we see today.

There’s a quote from Gary Vaynerchuk that sums it up best: “Content is king, but marketing is queen, and runs the household.” And like Daenerys Targaryen with a pair of dragons on each arm, HBO’s marketing stepped up to the challenge of turning Game of Thrones into a global phenomenon.

Game of Thrones’ marketing was as original and memorable as the show itself. There was the social media roast of everyone’s favourite villain, Joffrey, and later the opportunity to help topple his statue in the real world by tweeting #bringdowntheking. There were countless videos taking us behind the scenes and maintaining interest in the world of Westeros. And powering all of that was a near obsession with fan engagement - sharing their artwork and inviting them to be part of the marketing at every step.

It wasn’t just the obvious social media platforms that the show used to drive relevancy. At one point, Game of Thrones partnered with Spotify by creating character playlists and allowing users to compare their musical tastes to determine who they were most like. One of the most effective campaigns of all featured a shadow of a dragon across the pages of the New York Times.

You can’t win a throne without an army

HBO kept finding new ways to drive conversation about the show and keep it top of mind. It used digital to an extent that no-one else was at the time, driving momentum long after the shock of each twist had faded and we had no new episodes to enjoy. It found existing word of mouth and amplified it, so that more and more people could hear.

Eventually, the discussion became so widespread that people watched the show just so they could be part of it. Now, other brands were coming up with creative ways of getting in the Iron Throne - dragon skulls on the beach and massive tapestries depicting the show’s storyline. The hype had become self-sustaining - a television version of the network effect in action.

Game of Thrones may have had a lot of marketing budget to pull off this incredible and sustained push, but the essence of what it did is something that any brand can pull off. It took the time to connect with the audience, to find out from their own mouths what they valued. Then it focused on creating emotional experiences to match those needs, not just inside the show but far beyond it.

Even if you’re someone who doesn’t know their wildlings from their white walkers, there’s a lot organisations can take away from Game of Thrones. I know I’ll be watching intently - and not just to see how it all ends.

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