The digital marketing guru at Sony Pictures Entertainment talks to iMedia about the headaches of social media and why, in the end, they're worth it.
As president of worldwide digital marketing for Sony Pictures Entertainment, Dwight Caines has worked on more than 200 film campaigns. He's heralded numerous strategies that have paid off for the studio through the years. Yet, he's also the first to admit that everyone in the business is still learning and trying best to keep up with the rapidly changing toolset at their disposal.
In an interview with iMedia, Caines discussed the power of social media and the dilemmas it can quickly bring to bear.
iMedia: How have your primary responsibilities changed over the years at Sony Pictures Entertainment?
Dwight Caines: I now have a kind of dotted line management oversight over a team called Image Works Interactive. They were formerly called Sony Pictures Digital, and this is the team that supports us in-house and allows us to leverage all of our movie, TV, and home entertainment brands in the digital space. It's as if we have an in-house agency, but essentially in this relationship they're really integrated into my team of marketers and creatives, so we have a real buy-in from everybody that's working on the products.
Generally, what I'm trying to do -- and I think this is the hardest part -- is to bring people together for some of the larger, more strategic conversations around what we do in this space, how we comply in this space, and how we innovate.
iMedia: Are you intricately involved in the marketing blitz and run-up to every major motion picture release? Can you give an example of what that work entails for a senior executive such as yourself?
Caines: It's always been interesting to me because I've often heard digital marketers at other studios, or even people who wanted to be in business with us, talk about the digital team not having a seat at the table. And for us, I've never experienced that. So in every senior marketing meeting, every early meeting with filmmakers, I'm at the table. We look at this as just an extension of the marketing team.
One of the interesting things about digital is if we were to do nothing, the medium allows us to measure how some of the other marketing efforts are resonating with consumers. So, for example, organic search might spike when something happens in the publicity world, or online chatter might grow and the sentiment might move from neutral to positive. Site traffic will often grow when other media runs. If we did nothing, we'd still be measuring very closely how consumers were reacting to our material, but the fact is we're launching many, many engagement opportunities on each campaign.
So I'd say my team is deeply integrated -- there's sort of a publicity and an outreach angle to what we do, there's a creative angle to what we do, there's a research and business intelligence angle to what we do. It's a deeply integrated team with the rest of marketing.
iMedia: What's the all-time most innovative and clever campaign you've seen so far?
Caines: It's hard for me, after working on some 200-odd campaigns, to really isolate one, only because there are different levels of success with each. Frankly, some campaigns are designed to maintain a particular positioning among consumers. Some are designed to change their perspective. And so it's really hard to isolate a campaign and say this one worked better than that one.
iMedia: OK. How about this: What's the one campaign that you wish you were behind?
Caines: Nothing comes to mind right now, but I will say that I try to be a student of marketing and watch what other people do. I'm always looking at other peoples' media that runs and how well they've integrated the call-to-action from, say, broadcast to digital to a print interaction. And I always respect when people do that really well. Because attention is so fragmented, what we're trying to do is just build deep immersion as many ways as we can.
I did love the Jack in the Box hang-in-there campaign that just recently ran that launched in the Super Bowl where Jack was in a coma. It was just an interesting, fun narrative they created for a brand.
iMedia: What's the creative process when outlining a movie campaign's digital path? Is there a lot of opportunity to develop entirely new content or is it primarily pulled from the film or storyline?
Caines: There are probably a few campaigns a year where we invoke, for lack of better terminology, the phrase "Blair Witch" and we think of how immersive we want to be. Consumers are at the point where it's pretty hard to fool them that something is real. Frankly, when we build campaigns, we try not to fool them. We instead aspire to what I like to say is a good story well told.
On every campaign, we have the opportunity to build content that's themed to the movie, and the goal as to whether that's the right thing to do is whether immersion in those themes helps grow interest for the movie. Sometimes if you do something and you find out that people consumed it, but it didn't impact interest, well then that's probably the wrong way to have spent the time.
On every campaign we say, "Is there a parallel story that we can create? Is there a character that we can introduce in a long lead way that could be the first introduction to the concept of the movie?" We probably look at the targeted pictures, the genre pictures, as the obvious ones for that. There are certain event titles like "2012" where we have a pretty immersive experience, or "Angels & Demons" where we had some content hidden in the trailer that launched people into another set of discovery.
iMedia: How do you gauge the success of a campaign beyond box-office sales? What other objectives are you trying to reach?
Caines: There are some key outputs that are the same on all of the campaigns that we launch. If we're going to build a site, we're going to look at traffic to the site and how that traffic grows. We're going to look at the discussions that happen as a result of the things we do in our campaign. So, were we able to generate message board chatter, discussion about something that we built, say, a multi-player game?
We look at how shareable our content is that we build -- our original content or viral video or even the trailer or TV or clip content. How shareable is it? Did we do a good job in our media to make it shareable, to make it accessible? Did we motivate people to look for more? And when they did, did they find us? Was our campaign optimized enough? I'd say that looking at all of those indices helps us figure out whether we're performing in the way that we want.
I think everybody in the marketing department feels like they've contributed to the box office. If you ask somebody in legal, "How do you measure success?" They're integral to the process, but probably couldn't easily pinpoint share of box office. So it's really hard to say, "I own this piece of the success."
iMedia: What do you say to the naysayers? Is it really effective? How do you justify the time and money spent on this investment?
Caines: Well, it's getting easier and easier. If you think, probably a year ago, none of us were talking about Twitter. I'd say a couple of weeks ago, Facebook hit the 200 millionth user, and a year ago, they were probably just cresting 100 million. That growth is really indicative of changing consumer behavior.
When some of us who've been doing this for 10 or more years first started, we had to do just what you alluded to -- we had to justify the spend and really make a case for how we could be impactful. And now, every time you pick up a magazine or read an article or see something on the news, there's some new digital trend that's happening that we're chasing or trying to anticipate. As it relates to becoming a fully integrated part of a campaign, I don't find myself having to sell that hard anymore. I think filmmakers are often coming to the table with their own ideas for us to pursue.
iMedia: That's great. Is that a new phenomenon, or new within the past couple years at least?
Caines: It always existed, but there were some filmmakers that seemed to be more focused on it than others. And now I think it's becoming something that's pretty expected. Everybody wants to ensure we're well taken care of on the digital front.
iMedia: Where can a movie campaign be damaged by digital marketing efforts?
Caines: I think the biggest thing is really about how quickly word of mouth spreads. Even if there was a marketing effort or just an event that happened, word of mouth used to be me calling a friend, seeing a friend, or emailing a friend and talking to them. And now social media -- the phenomenon of microblogging, and updating your status, and talking to friends in real-time instantaneously -- is the thing that, when it works for you, it's phenomenal. But when it's working against you, it can be one of the most difficult things to overcome. That's why it's important to understand how the medium works.
All the measurement that we do ensures we can tell whether a sentiment that's developing or traveling is isolated to a group, a site, or a message, or whether that's the prevailing thought. We've never really had a campaign that we've launched that's backfired. We've never put something out and had it become viral in a way we weren't meaning for it to. I attribute that to the level of research and buzz monitoring we do before we create content.
If we understand where the strength in a film property is before we ever build anything, we're going to have much more success than if we respond to something emotionally and launch before we're ready. The great thing about buzz online is that before Twitter and microblogging really took off, the last guy who spoke online was typically the opinion that led the way. When you read, you're reading the last thing that was said, and then you're reading the past. So one of the things that we always seek to do is put content out in the world that generates the kinds of discussions that work for us.
When we find the message boards where people are favorable and they're talking about clips or particular scenes, give them more of the same and make those voices become louder than the other voices. We invest in it, but spend a lot of time and lot of care in understanding consumer perception before we ever go. Buzz is really hard to turn around and control, but it's the thing that, when it works for you, it's very cost effective, pretty low tech, and an important part of every campaign.
iMedia: How do you keep digital from destroying or harming a movie campaign's larger goals?
Caines: Preventing the harm is about understanding what the most important topics are for discussion. Rather than seeding discussion, it's about feeding content, feeding the video that generates the most positive discussion. It's a little bit of a science. The other thing that we do as well is throw some media into the mix so that consumers aren't left to form their opinions. Rich media can deliver pieces of content and an array of content that reach people where they're living on the web in a way that can be influential for us.
iMedia: Leaks have become a problem for all media. How can a consumer know when a leak is actually a leak and not a marketing stunt? Moreover, how does a film studio overcome leaks? How can you spin it into a positive?
Caines: Every device now provides the means to distribute word of mouth beyond its core phone capability or email capability. Because of that, movie sets become less secure. You hear about things happening, and sometimes you say, "Well how did people find that out? Wasn't that said behind closed doors?" The only way to manage leaks is to try to have consumers tune into conversations with you directly.
Like many of the other studios, we have a twitter.com/sonypictures account where we invite consumers to follow us. We try to make sure that the news that breaks is as real-time as possible. When you look at some of the followers of @sonypictures, they include some of the online journalists, webmasters, and other movie studios. And what happens is those folks become marketeers for our message. So something that is inaccurate, when we want to fix that news, we have tools at our disposal to get the correct news out as quickly and efficiently as possible. The same technology that can often turn on you is the same technology we rely on to sort of control how conversations are happening.
iMedia: What do you see as the most important and useful interactive marketing tools available to movie marketers today? Is there anything that you're looking forward to down the line?
Caines: As it relates to the continued development of social media, this is something really new because of the way people seem to be taking ownership of our brands. There are certainly intellectual property, trademark, and copyright issues that we all have to deal with, but if we can get beyond those, we can really enable consumers to share our brands in a way that satisfies them, doesn't feel like marketing, and at the same time, benefits us.
I really think social media has become somewhat of a killer app for us. And speaking of applications, I think we're still trying to figure out the best way to use applications. There was a period of time where we were all creating embeddable content, and I feel like there are too many choices for consumers. So we have to rely on getting into the communities that they're socializing in and making sure that they feel a real connection to our brands -- real relevance to our brands. We're still trying to refine. I'm looking forward to whatever Web 3.0 brings us, and we'll continue to work on the things we've been doing in the past.