Everything old is new again, especially if you’re a member of Gen Z—just ask Kate Bush, who is enjoying a career refresh due to Stranger Things. Content brands are again showing up at conferences and pulling out all the stops for visitors with experiential activations.

While the pandemic kept fans away from San Diego’s Comic-Con for two years, it maintained virtual events. Yet this year’s roster of supporters is vastly different from last year’s virtual event.

Save for Showtime, the industry’s biggest streaming channels were not listed as brand sponsors. This year, streaming services are facing the challenge of standing out in a world awash in lookalike content, and Gen Z, one of the most attractive consumer demographics, holding $360 billion in disposable income, watch as much long-form content online as short-form according to recent research. That’s led some of the world’s most recognizable content brands to partner with the most famous nerd culture conference: Comic-Con.

Legacy streamers and channels with multi-format fan favorites are marquee sponsors of San Diego’s Comic-Con

Streamers and new Comic-Con 2022 sponsors like Prime, Hulu and ABC must fight for a piece of a hyper-competitive market while tangling with the likes of TikTok and YouTube for Gen Z’s attention. Streamers like Hulu must make their platforms seem worth paying for in a landscape that offers popular forever free, Gen Z-targeted alternatives like Paramount’s Pluto TV. Pluto TV provides access to popular TV shows and movies on-demand via dedicated “super fan” channels that run a single show 24/7; that’s a critical detail. As much as 66% of Gen Z still uses a TV set to watch their favorite shows each day, 96% subscribe to at least one streaming service and 76% of households reported in one study that they own a smart TV. That means traditional channels like ABC with a strong digital presence and legacy streamers like Hulu (home of global anime megahit Attack on Titan) have a chance to craft a new, self-replenishing audience from 13-24s. Digital natives are content super consumers; they are not likely to abandon their favorite superheroes and Anime characters once they grow up and are out of college. It also means a new layer of competition for streamers: Gen Z is as likely to binge-watch anime on one of Pluto TV’s dedicated channels as they are to turn to a paid streaming channel.   

A yearly pilgrimage for influencers and nerd culture superfans, Comic-Con is where channels with the most substantial offerings (and the most to lose) are A/B testing innovative marketing strategies, including social watching through private label platforms. For example, Amazon Prime is livestreaming a cast Q&A session for its upcoming The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power on YouTube, while Marvel is doing so directly from its website in addition to YouTube, Facebook and Twitch. Livestreams are useful for streaming content brands because it ramps up on-site engagement, ensuring that visitors, already fans, will activate their own social networks during the event. Bringing non-attendees to livestreams makes it easier for targeted ads to work as they should — driving casual viewers to the platforms to discover related content.

Comic-Con, superfans and IRL social watching

Gen Z, just like any other demographic, has distinct characteristics that make them appealing to advertisers. For example, back in 2017, Hulu asserted that Gen Z would define the future of television in an internally published whitepaper. It found that:

  • 70% of Gen Z respondents equate “watching TV” with watching via an online source.
  • Gen Z is less likely to actively avoid watching advertising and over 50% said they don’t mind or even enjoy watching TV ads.
  • 60% of Gen Z respondents prefer to “binge” a show, watching multiple episodes at a time – compared to just 40% of Gen X.
  • Gen Z is motivated by a need to be “in the know” about TV to be part of the social conversation. 20% have posted about a show… without actually watching it.

Now that all demographics tend to binge-watch and consumers can find the same shows and movies on numerous platforms, networks like Apple TV and Peacock TV are looking for new ways to inspire brand loyalty. 

These brands likely see appealing to Comic-Con attendees as key to building their reputation as a source for unique, superfan-worthy content organically and important as they roll out new engagement tools like series-specific AR apps. That’s especially true for prestige drama networks like Apple TV+, which brought the cast of its hit Severance to the San Diego conference.

Like Attack on Titan, Severance is a cross-over content phenomenon that appeals to the young Gen Z fans, Millennials, and older Gen X parents who tend to form the bulk of Apple TV+’s subscribers.

In the case of HBO, 20% of its subscribers are devoted to a single program, which drives their engagement. While that’s a minority of viewers, these superfans can be powerful influencers within their social circle, especially when it comes to drawing friends and family to subscribe to a streaming service: ‘It’s worth it’ means a lot more when it comes from a loved one or friend.

For Apple TV+, however, the stakes may be just as high as for HBO Max in terms of reaching younger demographics. The much newer streamer is close to approaching HBO Max’s global market share (7%) at 5.6%. That makes immersive brand activations an important marketing opportunity for the streaming service to gain an advantage with new audiences.

Apple TV+’s immersive fan experience for the show, Welcome to Lumon, takes visitors through a maze of orientation scenes drawn from the drama’s Emmy-winning season. Designed to introduce non-viewers to the series while inspiring fans to post to Apple TV+’s social channels, #welcometolumon does double duty for Apple TV: Raising awareness of an often overlooked streaming service while introducing its strongest drama to a new generation of viewers who might not otherwise search for a dystopian office drama.

An old-school spin on social media

Shifting demographics to include the next generation of young adults currently requires streamers getting everyone watching together via a watch party or sharing content where users are the stars via social media

Enter immersive social media: it means pulling consumers into branded content, literally. It’s an idea that has been embraced by the granddaddy of them all, Marvel, which is streaming live from Comic-Con on Marvel.comYouTubeTwitterFacebookTwitch, and Whatnot. Marvel is streaming but also connecting with fans onsite while building anticipation for live reveals of the upcoming MCU slate and immersive exhibits.

While that’s not a huge shift in Marvel’s marketing strategy, it reflects how the home of the world’s most lucrative youth-targeted content next to Disney is willing to remind its audience (and platforms) that streaming networks rely on the studios for binge-able content.

For example, HBO’s House of the Dragon immersive experience featured seven themed stages allowing fans to walk through a virtual set. In addition, attendees could download a preview of HBO’s new augmented reality app, DracARys, which lets users hatch and interact virtually with an AI-powered dragon in real life. Watch the video here.

Game of Thrones activation at Comic-Con 2022.
Picture: HBO/Twitter

The Takeaway:

As networks and streamers present new ways to engage conference attendees online and onsite, they also create gram-worthy content that influencers and mere mortals would share. The in-person angle is an old-school way of creating brand ambassadors – but in the age of Instagram and TikTok, cool immersive experiences can go much further to drive consumer awareness and online engagement. With immersive marketing, the sales funnel can be entered anywhere – and brands like Marvel and HBO are happy to spend millions to bring consumers along for the ride.