How the Social Media ‘Betrayed’ The Hunger Games

Posted on 28. Mar, 2012 by in Customer Research

I’m always interested in predictions; especially those involving forecasts of consumer behavior. Mostly because the future is just that, the future, and therefore is unknowable. But, I’ve also devoted my career to attempting to anticipate customer actions. And so an Ad Age Daily article on Friday (3/23/2012), entitled “Why ‘The Hunger Games’ Won’t Make $100 Million Its Opening Weekend” caught my attention. My interest was further piqued because the author and analyst based his predictions on the examination of film-focused activity on the social media leading up to last Friday’s opening.

The author claimed that traditional marketing research for box office forecasts (using telephone interviews and surveys) is passé. He argued that measurement of online clicks is more accurate today, citing the ability to track trailer-viewing and online sharing through emails, Facebook, Twitter and personal blogs. A film like The Hunger Games, targeted at young adults is even more prone to this mode of interaction, the author suggested. Online data showed Hunger accumulating 89.4million views (10 days prior to release). But compared to the first Twilight episode (at 98.5million views) and an early Harry Potter sequel (136.2million views) the analyst concluded Hunger was trailing.

A statistical model was compiled. The model’s components included measures of online activity: content sharing; fan-made trailers; other UGC; and trailer mashups. Data for several other teen-oriented films (including the Twilight film and the early Potter movie among others) was fed into the model. With a strong statistical fit, the model predicted a $70million take for Hunger (bumped up to $80million because Hunger had an advantage of opening in 300 IMAX screens – with higher ticket prices).

On Monday, March 26, Hunger’s actual box office figures were released; $152.5million! Hunger became the most successful non-sequel movie opening ever! And so, the projection based on online activity underrepresented Hunger’s actual ability to stimulate ticket sales. This documented event validates a message I’ve continued to send: while monitoring online activity can provide some insights into consumers’ feelings and intentions, there is still substantial influence occurring via traditional, personal offline communication. In the case of Hunger, traditional face-to-face communications and interactions obviously supplanted what at least one “expert” thought he saw lacking in the online activity surrounding the movie’s release.

I’ve tried to alert the marketing community to the fact that public word of mouth is only a fraction of total word of mouth. A current study from Microsoft reiterates this message with a finding that 90% of word of mouth takes place offline in what I call the private social media (text messaging, phone calls, emails, and face-to-face conversations). Can the interests and passion posted in the private social media fully represent the feelings being communicated in the private social media? Obviously in Hunger’s situation, a resounding “NO”. The only acceptable conclusion; audits of only the public social media are likely to be misleading.

Marketers really owe it to their brands to monitor total word of mouth. That means auditing the public (online) social media but also conducting some marketing research to sample private (offline) social media activity. Check out my article (written with Doug Pruden) “Controlling the Grapevine” in July/August 2004 Marketing Management for more ideas on how to assess the volume and valence of word of mouth.

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