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How Many Ways Can You Skin a Snake's Buzz?

  |  September 5, 2006   |  Comments

There are lots of lessons to be learned from

I'm talking about the pre- and post buzz around the now legendary "Snakes on a Plane," featuring bad-a** and always talk-worthy Samuel Jackson.

Yes, I know, everyone's got something to say about this film, but I suppose I have an obligation (as "the buzz guy") to slither a few comments in.

Here's the quick background. Snakes on a Plane, or SoaP for short, received an unprecedented amount of online buzz, more that just about any movie this year. Bloggers were particularly vocal, spirited, and hyper-evangelistic about this campy-sounding movie.

But here's the rub: box office results, roughly $21 million after the first two weeks, and roughly $25 million to date, were so-so, according to most pundits. Some even argued the movie was a total bust.

How could that be? This was supposed to be the quintessential word-of-mouth marketing case study. After all, the pre-buzz left online digital trail of consumer generated media (CGM) that would make most prolific of blog spammers blush. This was a film for which the studio, New Line, invited consumers to "participate" in key marketing (even content) decisions. This was the movie where cool and quirky blogs like Snakes on a Blog, were unleashed across the Web, spilling over into traditional media coverage.

Did a garter snake show up at the box-office instead of a cobra? Or is the story more complex? Heck, are we even asking the right questions.

From Office Football Pool to Office Focus Group

Hungry for answers, I started reading the endless post-mortem blog stream, but eventually I turned toward another important resource: my fellow employees. After all, I work in a firm that butters its bread by measuring and analyzing buzz, listening to the "voice of the consumer," and drinking out of the fire hydrant of the seemingly unstoppable CGM flow. What emerged from my internal focus group was a refreshing list of great hypotheses, theories, data-points, and even conclusions about what happened with this movie. I'll start with the negative theories, then slither on to the more optimistic conclusions.

  • The Insular "Long Tale of the Snake" Theory:Several of our analysts took a very close look at the film's buzz and found it didn't really impact the long tail of consumer conversation as much as one would have expected. If fact, buzz was quite concentrated among a cadre of vocal enthusiasts. Indeed, marketing pundits and camp collectors pushed much of the buzz, not your usual movie enthusiasts. Said one of our analysts, Jaclyn Van Owen, who monitors movies for several top entertainment companies. "I think some online folks just liked making fun of/spoofing this movie [i.e. fake movie posters found on SnakesOnaBlog.com], while consumers who talk prolifically about other movies are true enthusiasts and truly planned on seeing the movie, saw it, and then raved about the movies encouraging others to see it."

    Key question: Which influencers do you nurture, especially in the context of a new product launch, and what steps to do take to ensure their message pushes more broadly.

  • The Dead Snakes Theory: All good marketing needs to crescendo at just the right moment to maximize impact. If you carefully look at the CGM and blog buzz around SoaP, you'll notice conversation found its most strident voice nearly six months ago. This raises an important question: did it peak so early in the buzz cycle, the snake lacked venom by box-office time?

    Key questions: What's the right time to initiate buzz. How long will it last? Will the most impactful buzz builders move on to the "next big thing" too early?

  • The Loose Snake Theory: Aside from a few gross, highly viral trailers, New Line made a deliberate decision not to have press screenings for critics. Half the time, this works to preserve mystique and curiosity around a film launch; in other cases, early release or pre-screening, particularly with influencers, can help seed interest across a broader audience.

    Key question: How much do you reveal content in an effort to drive momentum? Does the answer depend on the film genre?

  • The Off-Snake Message Hypothesis: Context really matters, our analysts stress. It can make all the difference between small talk and a box office visit. If you carefully review the conversation, you'll find much of it centered on "making the movie" and "marketing the movie," not on the end product. There was only modest dialogue around the drama, excitement, thrill, or horror of the film.

    Key question: What type of conversation correlates most with purchase behavior?

  • The "Campy" Theory of Purchase Behavior: Similarly, several folks suggested that while the movie had quirky and "campy" appeal, and undeniable talk value, that just wasn't enough to get people to the box office. Said Sue MacDonald, "The general population generally doesn't like campy, B-movie stuff...at least not enough to keep supporting it when they know it's not that great a flick." Added Scott Hamm: "I enjoyed talking about the movie, looking at the CGM around it, and sending friends phone calls with Samuel L. telling them to go see it, but I never intended on going to the movie."

  • Key question: If we talk, will we also buy?

  • The "Fake Snakes" Theory: This draws from Freakonomic's author Steve Levitt's post, which suggests there was too much artificial propping up of ratings and reviews related to the move. He note that economist Cyril Morong found abnormally high ratings on one of the movie ratings sites, suggesting the film may have been subject to artificial stimulation (Snakes on Crack?).

    Key question: Do evangelists distort reality? If a grade has been "gamed," is it truly projectable?

  • The Blog Multiplier Hypothesis: Robert Stockton, one of our engineers, noted that while blog volume doesn't translate into a direct measure of sales volume, it acts as a "multiplier for the sales that would normally be expected for a movie in the class." SoaP, he noted, is a movie that bounced around Hollywood for years without garnering much interest. It was destined to be a very small release. Against that backdrop, barely hitting #1 is a very big deal. Stockton also points to the movie "Serenity" for key parallels. "'Serenity' was a movie based on a failed (but excellent) TV show with a small but loyal following. The studio wasn't at all sure it was worth supporting, and probably wasn't even going to send it to very many theaters. Instead, it enjoyed moderate success and went on to score very respectable sales on DVD. This is the blog-buzz multiplier at work."

  • The Rocky Horror "Camp" Dividend Theory: Many argue that campy movies do, in fact, translate into box-office success, but over longer periods of time. Just consider the Rocky Horror Picture Show. Cult-like fanaticism and midnight festivals have kept the box office ringing for decades. Then, there are DVD sales and other licensable memorabilia that can impact total revenue.

    Key question: Does buzz serve short- or long-term interests, and why?

  • The Slithering Success Theory: Some argued, calculators in hand, that relative to other films, SoaP did just fine, especially considering the fact it didn't overspend on traditional media. By this standard, the film clearly "paid out." Moreover, as our CEO Jonathan Carson notes, SoaP actually fared better for the film's star, Samuel L. Jackson, than some of his other films. Indeed, SoaP's $15.2M week one tally exceeded the first-week take from previous films starring Jackson, including "Twisted" ($8.9M); "51st State" (2.8M); and "XXX: Part 2" ($13.7M). Then begs a Cruise-esque follow-up question only buzz analysis can answer: is Jackson wired or tired?
Last Snake To Be Released

Yes, there are a lot of ways to skin a snake. Great buzz analysis is all about looking at marketing events in context, from many angles and vantage points. Who's talking? Where? how much? In what context? Was the buzz positive, negative, or persuasive, and for what particular reason? Did it spread and find reach, or was it self-contained? Importantly, how did it echo, validate, or drive further momentum against other marketing events?

There are still lots of lessons to be harvested from "Snakes on a Plane," but only if we ask the right questions.

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Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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