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USA Hacks Into Netflix’s Formula With Mr. Robot

A clandestine group of hackers takes on an evil corporation, breaking into emails and rooting through their files. That’s not the latest headline getting buzz on Twitter, but rather the plot of Mr. Robot, a new sci-fi series that just launched on USA Network. What’s newsworthy though is not so much the big-budget, multi-touch campaign the network used to launch they new series—but rather where they chose to launch the series and the audience they chose to target.

There were seven main beats to the interactive campaign, each one building on the first. What’s notable about all of them is that they didn’t run on TV, but rather online or as guerrilla tactics. USA’s plan seems to be to go after the long tail, to create devoted viewers who will watch the show online, via VOD or a streaming service. Purposely ignoring the high-Nielsen number premier is a bold move, but one we think was very warranted here. It’s also a road map for how shows might go about building the sort of hardcore involved audiences that are necessary for success in the new world of television. It’s a tactic Netflix more or less invented, and we’ve been wondering when the cable and broadcast networks would take it up.

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The campaign’s first beat launched during SXSW in March, where the pilot of the series premiered for festival attendees. Actors dressed up as “hackers” in black hoodies and sunglasses walked around Austin in a pack, handing out a card that promised the holder free food at certain locations or a black card with deeper discounts if they agreed to take and share a selfie with the hackers and “join the revolution.” (Which is very different than joining the [r]evolution, mind you.)

The promotion—which came of the heels of a quick co-promotion that “hacked” WiFi users at the Austin airport, with full-screen takeovers telling them their WiFi was now being provided for free by Mr. Robotwent viral at SXSW, with dozens of attendees jumping in to take advantage of the free food. It was a clever promotion in that the roving pack of “hackers” was sure to draw attention put Mr. Robot on the radar of the well-connected festival goers.

But something happened at SXSW, something much more important. Mr. Robot won the coveted Audience Award for Episodic Programming, and that, quite possibly got USA to ramp up spending on Mr. Robot, realizing they had their own potential Mad Men on their hands, a series that could redefine the network.

The second and third beats were somewhat more traditional and consisted of a mysterious site that USA launched in March that asked “Who Is Mr. Robot?” and invited users to submit their email addresses to find out. Approximately one month later, anyone who’d signed up received a cryptic email from Mr. Robot that invited them to decipher some binary code and then continue on to the Mr. Robot site where they viewed a series of anti-capitalist messages as part of their journey. At the same time, a 4 minute clip was released on the Mr. Robot Facebook page, which revealed Mr. Robot behind a haze of cannabis smoke.

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By slowly teasing out what the show was about and incorporating the sort of radical imagery (anti-capitalist slogans, marijuana) that ties in with the plot, USA was able to increase the buzz around the show while keeping true to its premise. Nothing truly surprising here, but the imagery and messaging were both unexpected for USA, which is home to light comedies like Psych and Suits, and again, were aimed at an audience that doesn’t traditionally watch live TV.

In the interim, the pilot was being screened for audiences at Facebook, Google, Twitter, Stanford, and Harvard—none of which are traditionally Ground Zero for hit TV show. That was a bold move and further evidence of USA’s plan to go after potential viewers on their home turf, rather than trying to force them back to the TV set.

The fourth beat was done in conjunction with Twitch, a very popular gaming video channel. Launched the week before the series premier, the campaign involved setting up a 72-hour “hacktivation” campaign that would erase more than $100,000 in consumer debt. (Erasing consumer debt is a goal of the hacker organization on the show.)

To promote the event, USA targeted Twitch users by “hacking” the Twitch livestream of the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3)—a big event for Twitch’s audience—and playing a message from fsociety, the hacker organization on the show. Every 30 minutes the “hackers” revealed a code that, when entered on the site WhoIsMrRobot.com gave them the chance to win an instant payout ranging from $10 to $5,000. Users who tweeted to enter the bonus portion of the contest were notified by a short video from an fsociety hacker who looked very much like an Anonymous one. The debt reduction promotion went dark for a few days before the premier only to re-emerge that day and continues on this week via a cross-promotion with the movie Self/Less.

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This was another cleverly done promotion in that the Twitch audience is again not likely to watch live TV: this was clearly a play for the long tail.

The fifth beat also involved Twitch, which was the site of an early release of the pilot episode, hosted by popular Twitch personality Marcus “DJ Wheat” Graham and featuring cast Q&A both before and after the premier, which garnered 190K views. After the release on Twitch, the pilot was released on an array of digital platforms, including Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, YouTube, Xbox and EW.com.

This was probably the boldest aspect of the promotion, and we applaud USA for acknowledging that their target rarely watches linear TV and bringing the show to them in the places where they are, rather than trying to force them to watch the show live. While some of the viewers of more mainstream sites like Hulu or YouTube might watch the show live, it seems that USA is betting on long tail viewing and we agree that this is the wave of the future, particularly for high quality shows like Mr. Robot, whose appeal will not fade over time, and whose cult status will make them appealing to a new generation five, even ten years down the road. Here again, we see shades of Netflix, whose buzz building techniques for shows like House of Cards and Orange Is The New Black broke a lot of “you-can’t-do-that” style rules.

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The sixth beat was a more traditional promotion, and seemed aimed at the people who would actually be tuning in live on June 24th. Called “10 Seconds of Fame” and invited users to share a Facebook picture that would then be displayed on a billboard in Times Square for 10 seconds as part of a promo for the show. Easy enough, and the initial steps seem just like any other network promo. But then—the fsociety hackers enter the picture and apparently hack the camera and security system. We see fictional footage from Times Square that shows a seven-billboard takeover with the message that “(JANE SMITH) HAS JOINED THE REVOLUTION. The final frame invites the user to share their video across social media and/or learn more about the show.

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While many (if not most) “you tricked me!” promotions go awry, this is well done in that it really is unexpected and again, plays to an actual plot line in the show. While some participants may be disappointed that their face is not going to light up Times Square for 10 whole seconds, we think the “get” here is clever enough to make up for it.

The final beat of the campaign was a Twitter-based reminder to watch the show the night it premiered. Users signed up via a link in the show’s official Twitter account (which currently has 45K followers) and received an immediate thank you tweet from the account and then a reply the day of the show that included a :30 trailer. While this was not as clever as the first three beats, it was a solid way to get more traditional fans to tune-in and including the video in the reminder gave them something they could share with their friends.

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According to Variety, Nielsen estimated (that word again! It’s 2015—why can’t they actually know???) that “Mr. Robot” averaged “a 0.46 rating in adults 18-49 and 1.752 million viewers overall in the 10 p.m. hour, retaining 75% of its demo lead-in from the season premiere of “Suits” (0.61 rating in 18-49, 2.13 million viewers overall). It skewed very male, with about 62% of its 18-49 audience comprised of men.”

This was not impressive number for a premier, but we’re guessing USA is focused on another number and that’s an impressive one indeed. According to the same Variety article, Mr. Robot “garnered nearly 3 million views across multiple non-linear platforms in the last four weeks.”

That’s a number every TV network should be shooting for, as viewers who watch on non-linear platforms tend to be far more dedicated. They’ve set aside time to watch, often watch several episodes at once, and are likely to come back for more. That’s far preferable to viewers who tune in just because the show is on.

Overall, the promotion for “Mr. Robot” was a solid A. It was clever, unexpected, reached the right audience and played off of actual plot lines in the show, giving viewers a taste of what they might expect when they tune in. But most important, it acknowledged that the type of people who’d watch a show like this (e.g. the Netflix audience) no longer watch linear TV and reached out to them in the places where they live online. Our only question now is how long until we see USA release all episodes at the same time? GRADE: A

Huge hat tip to Vast Media for their help with this article. Check out their service at www.tv-at-web.com for their comprehensive library of international case studies on how networks and brands are using social media and the web to promote TV shows.

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