By Ming Yee

SXSWestworld Changes the Game

By David Larkin, VP, Creative Director, Experiential

It can be tough for brands to stand out at SXSW. From big name musicians, to hit films and every major brand, everyone in the creative industry is competing for attendees’ attention. In 2014, HBO set a new bar for experiential activations at the festival with their Game of Thrones Ascend the Wall VR experience. Since then, the network has continued to establish itself as a category leader with one outstanding activation after another deploying cutting-edge tech, immersive environmental design, and innovative social strategies with a hyper-precision that demonstrates a deep understanding of their audience and trends.

This year was no different. With their “Live Without Limits” Westworld experience, HBO had this year’s ‘must see installation’ and set yet a new standard for experiential design. It all began with a faux tourism campaign to visit Westworld with OOH, digital and TV spots promoted by the company Delos. Partnerships with travel brands like Delta and Lyft extended the narrative to journeying to the park and further amplified the campaign leading up SXSW. Over the course of 5 weeks HBO’s production partner Giant Spoon transformed 2 acres of land outside of Austin, TX into the fictional town of Sweetwater, constructing a set of over 20 fully-art directed buildings and populated with 60 trained actors to create perhaps the first truly limitless guest experience outside of Westworld’s fictional universe.

Media and influencers were invited for a private sneak preview before SXSW badge holders were able to make reservations to experience Sweetwater on one of three days during the opening weekend of SXSW. HBO’s announcement of the experience came via a tweet and link to the reservation site that traveled at lightning speed across the web, igniting conversations on social along with a slew of speculative earned hits with reporters from PSFK to Complex trying to guess what the network had in store for 2018.

The day before SXSW opened, in a rather savvy-PR move, HBO announced a limited standby list that would give a small number of un-invited guests access to the experience each day. And that’s how I got in.

From the sidewalk queue through the bus ride back to Austin, the entire experience was scripted and executed with impeccable detail. Much like a video game come to life, each interaction provided an opportunity for ‘play’ and exploration with the extensive crew of trained actors and detailed environment. I thought an actor broke character when they took out an iPhone for a call only to realize the conversation furthered the narrative and revealed her role in the experience! Gamification was the through line that drove long-term, meaningful engagement in Sweetwater. There was an economy system with in-game currency (earned by completing tasks assigned to you by the actor ‘hosts’) granting access to new ‘items’ (in the form of meals and drinks at the saloon or entry to poker-games) and Easter eggs were hidden around every corner. I stumbled across a building on the outskirts of town with keypad lock (combination is season 2 premiere date) that lead to a hidden lab where technicians were creating new ‘hosts’. This type of behavioral design creates an emotional thrill and sense of accomplishment similar to unlocking a new level in a video game.

But while we can only access a video game by proxy, always separated from the play-world by a screen and controller, HBO made the series’ town of Sweetwater real. Much like an amazing vacation, guests left with a diverse range of authentic, lived experiences that connected them to the show in a way no video game or digital content ever could. This unique variety of encounters paired with unhinged user agency kept guests fully engaged throughout the experience. They were either actively involved in a moment or documenting it, effectively turning every guest into micro-influencers churning out hours of near-continuous content into the social web where the experience lived it’s second life through re-tweets and roundups, giving fans across the globe a taste of what we were experiencing on the ground.

This experience has wide-ranging implications beyond endemic entertainment properties and brands. CMOs across the globe should be asking themselves how they can replicate the HBO-effect and their agency partners should be proactively ideating and pitching more innovative experiential work. Edelman Digital is uniquely positioned to be a leader in this space with clients already showing an appetite for this kind of creative and we’ve been able to deliver, at a smaller scale, similarly impressive KPIs to the Westworld experience. At Comic-Con San Diego 2017, we debuted an Escape Room to drive excitement for a client’s co-branded comic book launch. Built inside a retrofitted shipping container with custom technology, fans traversed three immersive rooms while discovering clues and solving interactive puzzles to uncover a mystery. This activation delivered an overwhelming amount of positive reactions from fans on the ground and more than doubled the previous year’s results. Success from this and other one-off experiential activations not only grew the account but expanded our scope as AOR across the entire FY18 calendar year. Experiential is the future of how brands tell stories and connect with audiences in new ways. And it’s here now.

About Edelman Digital

Edelman Digital is the digital advisory and integrated marketing arm of the world’s largest communications marketing firm. Our global staff, in over 65 offices worldwide, is built to manage the complexity of modern marketing and online reputation, using a data-driven social-first storytelling approach designed to deliver real-time business results. We believe in exploring future-forward technology to advance the stories we tell. The output of our work delivers experiences that transform culture, reputation and relationships to inspire real-world action between brands and consumers.