Experiential Marketing at SXSW—Worth the Hype?

By: Mary Ermitanio | Sophia K. Yen

From Viceland’s baby goats to Warner Bros.’ Ready Player One activation to HBO’s real-life Westworld, SXSW goers enjoyed another year of buzzworthy and impressive film and TV marketing activations. Since its founding in 1987, SXSW has experienced tremendous growth in attendance, with over 70,000 conference attendees and over 420,000 visitors participating in the 10-day event last year. With a coveted demographic in its registrants—70% are between 25 and 44, and nearly 60% make over $100,000 a year—SXSW has attracted millions of marketing dollars across the entertainment industry.

We experienced both of the most talked-about activations at SXSW—Westworld and Ready Player One—and wonder, with bigger brands and bigger budgets vying for a larger share of voice, are such activations still a worthwhile undertaking for film and TV brands?

Last year, HBO delivered an interactive escape room-style experience that immersed festival goers in settings from Veep, Silicon Valley and Game of Thrones. This year, HBO eclipsed much of the festival buzz with an immersive Westworld experience to promote the upcoming Season 2. People were shuttled 20 minutes outside of Austin to a real-life ghost town, where they stepped into a re-creation of Sweetwater and were greeted by actors playing the android Sweetwater hosts. It was an immersive, interactive theater experience, akin to New York’s Sleep No More, but with the excitement of being inside one of your favorite TV shows. According to marketing platform Hyp3r, HBO accounted for 62% of entertainment brand mentions at SXSW and was the most popular brand overall on social media (followed by Viceland). On the ground, demand for the experience was high and the line (one of two lines pictured below) was one of the longest. The experience also had tons of photo opportunities for sharing. From our personal experience, the activation endeared the show even more to current fans, while nonviewers were looking forward to binge-watching Season 1. We consider this a big “W” for HBO.


For the upcoming Ready Player One film release, Warner Bros. heavily promoted the film with a surprise premiere and a massive activation that included a VR experience and various interactive sets featuring elements from the OASIS. The premiere, which included an appearance by Steven Spielberg, generated rave reviews on the ground and online, despite experiencing technical difficulties. Hashtag mentions on social media were averaging 250 to 2,500 per day but have gone up to over 19,000 since the premiere. According to Spredfast Social Analytics, the movie’s Twitter buzz reached 106 million (over 30% of the Twitter universe) during the first 12 hours after the event.


(Photo credit: Digital LA—Kevin Winston)


(Photo credit: Digital LA—Kevin Winston)

SXSW has become one of the biggest experience stages for the world’s most creative brands. With much of our time spent online exposed to digital advertising and branded content, real-world immersive and/or interactive experiences can spark curiosity in nonfans and can further endear favorite worlds and characters to fans. While the examples covered had big, flashy experiences, big budgets aren’t necessarily required in order to see some form of ROI. At last year’s SXSW, Hulu promoted The Handmaid’s Tale with an interactive experience that required no space at all, just a dozen or so costumed, role-playing actresses walking around downtown. Yet the stunt generated a lot of buzz both on the ground and all over social media. While the festival grounds are arguably more cluttered than ever, activations that are carefully thought out and designed to be shareable and/or “Instagrammable” are amplified through word of mouth and social media. The key here is that marketing is amplified by individuals, whose content their friends and family trust.