Game of Thrones Backlash: Two Marketing Takeaways

Disclaimer: Spoilers, probably

The wildly popular television series Game of Thrones premiered on HBO back in 2011, and has been growing in popularity since its debut. Unless you’ve been living in a cave under Dragonstone, you’ve probably heard of it.

A Smashing Success

For its duration, the series has been smashingly successful. The finale of its previous season racked up 16.9 million viewers, and its most recent, penultimate episode brought in 18.4 million viewers.

The show is based on the series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin, A Song of Fire and Ice. This series is truly a literary behemoth, detailing a complicated (and often very relatable) fictional universe populated in marvelous detail with vivid characters, cultures, creatures, and conflict.

The reasons for its success are myriad. From its inception, it has boasted masterful writing, deep and thoughtful character development, and courageous storytelling. It veers sharply away from other stories in the same genre, reminding us that villains are often painted as heroes, bad guys rarely get the punishment they deserve, and that the world is an unfair and unfriendly place.

A Divided Fandom

Fans of this era-defining series are currently awaiting its finale. But though viewership and engagement are at all-time highs, the fandom is deeply divided in terms of satisfaction. The most recent episode, The Bells, received the series’ worst Rotten Tomatoes rating ever (47%).

Why is this, and what can we, as marketers, learn from it?

1. Pacing

Fans of this series have had eight years to grow accustomed to its pacing. In previous seasons, storylines took a long time to play out (see Daenerys’ painfully long stay in Meereen, Arya’s seasons-long odyssey to Winterfell).

But starting in season seven, characters were suddenly traveling between locations at speeds not possible given the distance, which made it confusing as to whether or not all the different storylines were taking place simultaneously.

The actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (Jamie Lannister) remarked on this in an interview at the time, saying, “I feel like I’d been lulled into a different pace. Everything happened quicker than I’m used to… a lot of things that normally take a season now take one episode.”

Perhaps the writers felt that a change of pace would be well-received, or that it was necessary even if it wouldn’t be. For many fans, it was not a welcome change.

The Marketing Takeaway

As marketers, we aim to build relationships between our brand and its audience. With a lot of work and a little luck, these relationships can span many years. It’s important to take our relationship history into account before making abrupt changes, lest we annoy or disgruntle the ones we’ve worked so hard to win over.

A rapid change in pace might sound refreshing and innovative when it’s pitched in a conference room, but it’s not always the best approach. If we believe a change in pace in sales or marketing cadence is critical to success, we should plan to ramp up gradually, allowing our audience the opportunity to adapt.

2. Managing Expectations

Game of Thrones has never shied away from shocking plot twists. The element of surprise has long been one of its strengths, and fans have historically enjoyed the unpredictable turns in narrative direction. For many, this changed with The Bells, an episode that chronicled assumed-protagonist Daenerys’ horrific transformation from liberator to destroyer.

For a subset of Game of Thrones fans, this particular plot twist went a step too far. How could Daenerys, the so-called “Breaker of Chains” lay waste to an entire city after it had surrendered, obliviating enemies and innocents alike with impunity? Was it simply shocking, or was it wholly out of character? (It depends on who you ask, and probably whether they’ve read the books)

Character development has always been a Game of Thrones mainstay. For those that felt this development had not been contextually supported in the way they had come to expect, it was met with a rancorous outcry.

The Marketing Takeaway

You don’t need a long-form Game of Thrones thinkpiece to tell you that it’s impossible to make everyone happy. This is a fact of life for all of us, and especially for marketers. Despite your best efforts to please, support, and delight your audience, you will inevitably fail with some of them. Sometimes, this is just members of your audience being persnickety and demanding. You couldn’t possibly live up to their expectations—their expectations are not reasonable.

Of course, sometimes umbrage is warranted. This is the kind of displeasure that we should try our hardest to avoid. To do this, we have to start by understanding the expectations of our audience, and evaluating whether or not we think we can realistically deliver. In some cases, this will be simple. If you allow your email subscribers to opt in and out of specific lists, for example, it’s critical that you honor those selections every time you send an email. If we suspect our audience has certain expectations, like not being spammed every day of the week, we need to honor that as well.

In marketing (and television shows), success is meeting or exceeding the expectations of your audience. You can’t win with everybody, but that won’t stop you from breaking new records.

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