Tear a page out of "The Last of Us" marketing strategy

April 24, 2023
Ashley R. Cummings
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A modern digital campaign for a TV show comes with a familiar checklist. 

Using trending songs or sounds on TikTok? Check. Diced-together compilations of the show’s greatest moments? Check. Same old, same old? Check, check.

Yet the biggest name in TV this year—HBO’s “The Last of Us”—is raising eyebrows because of what it didn’t do. Some of their best social media marketing has bucked the trends. Instead, they’re starting with a new premise:

Quality trumps quantity.

Recently, Tommy Clark, founder of Social Files, dedicated his newsletter to the marketing genius behind “The Last of Us.” He was looking for the reasons it’s gone from cult popularity status to a bona fide smash: by episode 8 it hit 8.1 million viewers, up 74% from its premiere.

And according to Clark, “The Last of Us” isn’t using the typical make-an-HBO-show-a-hit playbook. Here’s what they’re doing instead—and how you can tear a page out of that same alternative playbook, even if you don’t have a smash-hit zombie show to sell.

The Last of Who’s-it-now? 

To catch you up to speed: “The Last of Us” has earned critical and popular credit as a well-spun adaptation of the popular video game. It’s an action-packed drama full of zombies, twists, tension, and no small amount of wit.

Like HBO’s “The House of the Dragon,” another recent success, it comes from a pre-existing universe of material. And it has another thing going for it. It’s just…kinda…good.

But what was the real key to their marketing success?

“No trending sounds,” wrote Clark in his newsletter. “No crazy concepts. Just curation of the best parts of the actual product.”Of course, they make the clips native to the platform. They’re not posting horizontal clips on IG Reels or TikTok...lol. But they’re also not getting too fancy

with it. The product (the show) is so good that it doesn’t need an overly complex content strategy.”

The success of “The Last of Us” is a good sign. All is well in the world of marketing. Turns out you don’t have to sell out the integrity of your product and completely change the recipe to make it play nice with different social media platforms.

“If you run social for a content-based business, like a podcast or YouTube channel, the prescription here is simple,” said Clark. “Don’t get too fancy with it. Just look for the best moments in your long-form content and curate it to social in a way that’s native to the platform.”

But there’s more happening here than building a good product and slicing and dicing it up for social media. If it were that easy, everyone would do it.

Clark says “The Last of Us” has a clear, methodical approach to social media. And it’s a big part of the reason they’ve become such a viral hit.

The Last of Us: a case study in modern TV marketing

True: entertainment quality has a lot to do with it.

How do we know? After the series premiere of “The Last of Us” debuted on January 15, 2023, it had a modestly successful launch. But the numbers kept rising. 

In fact, Variety notes, the social media buzz and pilot episode quality was enough: “HBO’s largest ever increase between a launch and a second episode, leading to an early Season 2 renewal.”

It would be one thing if “The Last of Us” became buzzworthy from word-of-mouth alone. But this isn’t that kind of story.

If “The Last of Us” were just another same-old, same-old social marketing story, Tommy Kelly points out it might mostly look like this:

Tweet to embed

“Beware the bloaters.” That photo has 2.2 million views, over 6,000 retweets, and almost 65,000 likes. Not too shabby.

But compare it to what “The Last of Us” is doing here, thanks to a tweet from series co-star Bella Ramsey:

The stats: 7.4 million views, 19,600 retweets, and nearly a quarter of a million likes.

Says Clark: “Remember, people want to engage with people on social media. It doesn’t matter if you’re promoting a hit TV show or a B2B SaaS product. The truth remains.”

There’s evidence of this behind-the-scenes approach working on other platforms, too. Take a recent Reddit post that highlighted series co-star Pedro Pascal buying Five Guys for the entire “ Last of Us” team.

47,000 upvotes. One lunch, but millions of hits.

Cynical marketing ploy? Organic representation of how cool the cast and crew really are? Who can say? The key is that “The Last of Us” doesn’t feel like cookie-cutter marketing. They’re giving us too many glimpses behind the curtains for that.

Don’t create—instead, use social media in its true role of amplification

The interesting thing to note here: there isn’t much creation going on with these social media posts.

The most viral tweets and Reddit posts aren’t “The Last of Us” zombie survival guides, cooked up by smart content marketers. In fact, “The Last of Us” is already out there in other forms of content—it was a smash-hit video game, if you’ll remember.

HBO’s “The Last of Us” marketing team isn’t straining to come up with excuses to build new content. They’re not inventing reasons to watch the show.

They’re simply taking an existing product and doing what social media does best. They’re amplifying it.

And they’re doing it in a way that feels native to social media without being pandering. One key: user-generated content, or UGC.

The Bella Ramsey tweet, for example? That’s technically UGC, if you consider Bella Ramsey, a star of the show, to be a “user.” 

But while behind-the-scenes looks are always fun and reliable, there’s more going on here. The social media team at “The Last of Us” does a great job of highlighting UGC from fans. Artwork is a particular favorite.

The social media team constantly clicks “like” on fan-created art. This, in turn, draws more attention to fan-created art, which inspires more fans to create art, and—well, it’s a virtuous circle.

Soliciting UGC is a repeatable theme that anyone with social media can follow. Anytime someone engages with you or creates their own content themed around what you’re doing, every engagement only encourages more views.

Brands can do the same by replying to comments, DMing members of the user community, actively amplifying or even prompting UGC, or creating contests. “The Last of Us” isn’t necessarily doing all of the above, but you can use the same principles in your campaign.

The key? Think of yourself not just as a promoter or a creator. Think of yourself as a “curator.”

According to Clark, that’s one of the chief challenges—and successes—driving the marketing of the show.

“The Last of Us social team needs to be able to curate the most engaging moments of the show, the best fan art + UGC, the most relevant content posted by the actors,” wrote Clark.

One glance at the tweets “liked” by the team shows all sorts of curation going on:

  • Custom artwork, including show-inspired tattoos
  • Amplifying awards or other appearances from the cast that might be making the news
  • Adding engagement to other posts within the HBO family, particularly those that call out “The Last of Us”
  • Liking trending tweets, including those that go all the way back to the original “The Last of Us” video game
  • Behind the scenes videos, like this one of Pedro Pascal dancing while on the set

If you’re a fan of “The Last of Us,” simply looking at what their social media team is doing would be like reading a magazine dedicated to the show. These days, fanzines have largely been replaced by social media, including everything from official social media accounts to unofficial fan forums.

The goal: blur the lines between your marketing team and your fans. Make it difficult for fans to see where the enthusiasm for the show ends and where the marketing begins. They should look so much like each other that there isn’t a clear boundary.

If anything, your marketing team should come across as fans, too.

How to build your own viral marketing campaign without an HBO budget

There is one caveat to all of this: money.

HBO reportedly spends $10 million an episode, which doesn’t necessarily reflect HBO’s full advertisement backing. But even so, HBO clearly has the time, money, and resources to make a viral campaign like this happen.

They have the experience, too. HBO cut its teeth on last year’s “House of the Dragon” campaigns. That, too, is based on pre-existing material—not to mention the pressure of being the follow-up to an established hit in “Game of Thrones.”

But that’s not an excuse not to build a similar campaign yourself. “The Last of Us” could have used poor, outdated marketing tactics with all the money in the world. They still chose to spend that money wisely—using a crack social media team.

If you don’t have $10 million to spend on writers, makeup, special effects, and actors that make your marketing that cool, you don’t have to be HBO to steal a page or two from their playbook. Just try to keep the following principles in mind.

Give your campaign a face

We should never take the “social” out of “social media.” As a marketing tool, it’s all about interaction and connection. The more it feels like you’re using a megaphone instead of a smartphone, the less effective your campaign will be.

The best way to remedy that problem is to give your campaign a face. For “The Last of Us,” it’s the faces of its actors, including stars Pedro Pascal and Bella Ramsey. In the viral Reddit post, there were dozens of happy faces—the crew of “The Last of Us” flying on a plane together.

You can sometimes give a campaign a face even if there isn’t an obvious one available. 

Take an example from 2021. A UK supermarket chain, Marks and Spencer, went after its competitor Aldi. The claim: Aldi had infringed on the copyright of a cake that resembled a caterpillar.

According to Marks and Spencer, “Cuthbert the Caterpillar” looked like “Colin the Caterpillar,” its own cake. 

I know. Sounds silly. And hardly the material for a social media campaign.

Yet that’s exactly what Aldi did. They turned Cuthbert—yes, a caterpillar—into the face behind this legal battle, creating a hashtag: #FreeCuthbert.

Aldi’s willingness to put a face on the battle amplified the attention it received. People started commenting on the tweets, which meant they were commenting on the case. Soon, users were creating UGC with their own memes, hoping for engagement themselves.

The lesson? Social media makes marketing feel personal. At least it does when it’s at its best. Ask yourself how you can put a face on what you’re doing, even if you’re a large supermarket chain. It’s the whole reason sports teams have mascots.

Reward the reactions

The goal of social media is engagement. But why does it feel like so many brands missed the memo?

Brands like Wendy’s, for example, have made a name for themselves on social media by being tirelessly engaging. That means responses to fan comments, “liking” fan-made content, and generally rewarding people for talking about them.

One recent tweet even says it to a fan explicitly: “heard.” Sometimes, that’s all the fans want.

Making “The Last of Us” a first for your brand

Put a personal face on it. Recognize the faces out there who are engaging with you. Present your content without comment—and let it speak for yourself. It’s not always the recipe big brands embrace. But it’s what HBO has figured out.

Even if you don’t have a big-time HBO series to promote, those are the lessons you can glean. 

Adding a “face” to everything you do, creating prompts to generate UGC so people feel involved in the success of what you’re doing, and curating the UGC that comes in so that your social media takes on a life of its own. 

Oh, and it doesn’t hurt if people really, really like your zombie show, either.

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