Know Thy Audience: Marketing the Horror Film “It Follows”

Ben Johnson on 11 March 2016

What happens when you learn mid-campaign that you’re targeting the wrong audience?

Every now and again, we work on a movie that is really special — when our initial assumptions about marketing and target audience are completely disproved, and when data brings to light new opportunities.

Last summer, we worked on the Facebook advertising in Denmark for the horror film It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 2015). It became one of our most contentious and interesting film projects to date, and after reading Jason Coffman’s article on Medium, I felt it was time I put pen to paper about this experience.

It Follows premiered to rave reviews in the Directors Fortnight at Cannes in 2014 and went on to be nominated for various awards in 30 festivals around the world. It was a hit in the over-30 age pool as revealed by box office numbers and our own advertising numbers.

Yet It Follows failed to impress the typical horror audience. This is where our initial assumptions about the campaign’s target were wrong and led us to switch targeting to an older demographic while changing the messaging to the young.

Actors Jake Weary and Maika Monroe and director David Robert Mitchell in Cannes (image source)

Our campaign in little old Denmark

Gruvi created a microsite featuring the trailer, showtimes, and ticketing links. We also made a Facebook newsfeed player for the film — for promoting as Facebook Page posts with a particular focus on users interested in the horror genre.

We were quite late into the campaign and only focused on the advertising, not the community management. Starting late restricted the time we had available for testing.

Typical horror targeting

The typical target audience for horror is 15–24 year olds, and mostly male. Given that the main characters in It Follows have similar ages, the initial tactics were simply to follow a tried-and-tested pattern: we set the targeting and basic age categories (as above) and identified a series of movies with which to compare the film.

We promoted several posts using text like this: Did you like movies like PARANORMAL ACTIVITY? Then IT FOLLOWS is the movie you’ve been waiting for! (This translates more succinctly in Danish.)

Immediately, people commented in droves, and at least 60% of the responses were not positive.

For example, commenters complained It Follows was over-hyped, not nearly as scary as it was professed to be, and some qualified it as down right boring. Many warned others not to waste their money on buying a ticket, and some even demanded their life back.

The comment section on one of the posts. The first three read: “it’s really bad. Like really !!!”, “it’s certainly not worth the money” and “Fell asleep… it’s really not worth it”. Another user tags one of her friends in her comment who replies “We must?” and is told in return “Yes (thumbs up)”

 

These negative expressions took us and the page administrators at Angel Films by surprise. The primary issue was not that the expected age group wasn’t engaged with the film, but that they disliked it and weren’t shy about expressing it.

Comparing the film to shock-horror titles such as The Ring (2002) also negatively impacted sentiment, as young people who saw the film complained It Follows was nothing like these titles. And they were right.

Unexpectedly, viewers over 30 defended and praised the film. Older viewers didn’t just like the film, they loved it.

Getting on the right track

Turning things around depended on identifying and targeting the right audience. In order to achieve that, we ran test campaigns for various age groups. This revealed males over 30 were actually most responsive.

One particular post, promoting a still from the film in which the main female character floats in a pool, engaged male users over 50 years old. The fact that our target audience was predominantly male was no surprise — it was the age that was uncommon.

By switching targeting mid-campaign, we found it was between 50-75% cheaper to get an older audience to engage with the advertising as the following table shows.

We also adjusted out messaging to younger audiences, removing the reference to other movies, focused images on the lead character, and updated the text to be more inline with the film.

This caused the number of negative comments to decline significantly in subsequent advertised posts to younger audiences.

What could have been done to improve results

It Follows performed well in Denmark: there were 16,000 admissions for the film. Had we known at the beginning of the campaign what we knew by the end of it the outcome could have been even better. So what could we have done differently? Here are some suggestions:

Do not to take established ideas of target audiences for granted

Test early with small budgets to see how the creative performs. Make immediate adjustments once the consensus is in. By dropping references to other horror titles early on in the campaign, we were able to reduce significantly the number of negative comments.

Testing and optimising also allowed us to understand the audience for the film title: men and women over the age of 30 who appreciated the 1980s art house feel of the horror and its “creepiness.” This is a clear trend and something that has been noted for films like The Witch and Babadook.

Regarding costs, reaching a large number of people for a small cost is ideal. However, if a campaign is not reaching the right people, it is a waste of resources. Reaching the right audience is far more valuable and ultimately more cost effective as it activates word of mouth, which multiplies the effect of the paid ads.

Ensure the community manager is prepared

Despite the fact that the engagement early on in the campaign was primarily motivated by negative sentiment towards the film, exploiting this conversation and maintaining the discussions could have helped to onboard more potential audience members.

Community management could have also focused on educating the audience that this is a new horror film subgenre. Art House Horror is about creepiness as opposed to the out and out shock and awe of The RingParanormal Activity, etc.

If we had been running the page admin, we would have countered the negative comments with video reviews (like this one from the guys at Red Letter Media) and dropped them directly into the comments, updating everyone who had shared, liked, or commented on the post.

Again, films like It Follows are part of a subgenre that attracts a different audience than typical horror films. A wider analysis of the appeal of art house horror would likely produce interesting results in terms of the actual target audience, the size of the audience pool, and its members’ viewing habits.

That being said, we would relish the opportunity to work on a wider campaign for another art house horror title (it’s a shame we missed The Witch). If said film is the quality of It Follows, then we could do amazing things!

Appendix: Campaign Budget and Results

We spent a total of 10,000DKK (1,500 USD) on page post advertising

  • Reached = 256,000 (the number of Danes who saw our ads)
  • Clicks = 18,000 (clicks through to Gruvi, and clicks within the ad unit)
  • Actions = 47,000 (comments, likes, clicks)
  • Click through Rate = 7.71%

For the lay person these are pretty good numbers!

This resulted in the following interaction with our technology:

We also spent a further 6,000 DKK (880 USD)on native Facebook video advertising and achieved the following results

  • Reach = 118,000
  • Clicks = 3,811 (clicks with ad unit)
  • Total Video Starts =32,500 (amount of video views after 3 seconds)
  • Viewers after 30 seconds = 6,500 (amount of video views after 30 seconds)


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