Halloween. It’s back…. Again!


One year ago I wrote a post just before the start of Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights 2013. It looked at how our use of social media to market the event reflected the major developments in mainstream U.S. social media since the days of MySpace.

Now another year has flown by. Tonight marks the start of the 2014 event, including the opening night Eyegore Awards ceremony.

Halloween Horror Nights is a great event to market. The nature of the content — gruesome entertainment largely created in partnership with horror-film directors and producers, TV shows (such as The Walking Dead), and musicians (like this year’s collaboration with Slash) — combined with the young-adult target audience allows for a lot of creativity.

The content and the audience are both perfectly suited to digital marketing.

As in past years, we’re creating videos to highlight the guest experience as well as our entertainment team’s creative partnerships; for example:


Social media fan engagement is a year-round activity but naturally intensifies during the event period. We have active fan bases on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This year we also started posting on Snapchat.

My team and I are responsible for the event website, a work in progress as we always continue to add videos and photos as the event progresses. Please check it out. (Note: it includes some gory images).

For commerce, this year’s ticket store is optimized for mobile check-out.

All this work keeps us busy but it really is a lot of fun.

If you’ve been to Halloween Horror Nights, please share your thoughts about the experience in a comment below.

(Disclosure and disclaimer:  As noted throughout this blog, I am an employee of NBCUniversal / Universal Studios Hollywood. All company information mentioned in this post is publicly available. All opinions are personal and do not represent the opinions of the company. See media relations website for official press contacts and press releases. To state the obvious, the achievements of Universal Studios Parks & Resorts are the result of the hard work and commitment of many people.)

The Muppets Take Social Media

Muppets angry old men (photo by Sifter)

As you may have seen, a fantastic television commercial for the upcoming Muppets Most Wanted movie aired during last weekend’s broadcast of the 2014 Golden Globes Awards ceremony.

The commercial had a built-in connection to the underlying awards show since Tina Fey both plays a character in the movie and was a co-host of the ceremony. (A solid marketing hook but not a surprising tactic.)

The commercial’s relevance to the show was increased by its storyline: feigned outrage about the movie’s lack of award nominations. (A more original hook.)

But what I really love is how the commercial spoofs both social media comment threads and, if I’m not reading too much into it, the way companies incorporate social media elements (Twitter icons, hashtags, real-life comments, etc.) into broadcast ads. And best of all, it achieves this using the Muppets’ brand of irreverent yet disarmingly cute humor.

What do you think?

Halloween. It’s back…

It’s mid-September but Halloween is front of mind at Universal Studios Hollywood because this Friday is opening night of Halloween Horror Nights 2013.

Halloween Horror Nights (HHN) is our annual nighttime event featuring entertainment geared toward horror-lovers and Halloween aficionados. We say the event is for ages 13 plus; it’s definitely not for children or the faint of heart.

For many of us at Universal Studios Hollywood the event has become a year-round endeavor. This is especially true for the core group of people leading the entertainment plans as well as for my team working on social media.

Facebook and Twitter have become amazing platforms for keeping fans engaged throughout the year — which means we have momentum heading into the start of the broad advertising campaign in September.

Universal Studios Hollywood held HHN in the late 1990’s but put the event on hiatus from 2001 – 2005. (Universal Orlando had it running throughout those years). My involvement in the event began with its return to Hollywood in ’06.

The timing of the ’06 return — coupled with the fact that digital has consistently been a primary communications vehicle since then — makes the history of HHN social media programs something of a mirror reflection of the history of mainstream U.S. social media.

Following is a summary of Universal Studios Hollywood’s HHN social media evolution.

2006, the re-launch year

MySpace was king.

As you may recall, Facebook was only opened to the general public in late Sept 2006. Up until that point it was restricted to students and select others. Its user base wasn’t yet large enough to be relevant to HHN marketing.

YouTube was more mainstream, having opened to the public in 2005. We dabbled with YouTube in Fall 2006, but MySpace was much more popular at the time and that’s where we paid the most attention.

The event was themed around a fictional character named The Director — a twisted, violent, blacklisted filmmaker who was out for revenge on the Universal Studios backlot. We created a MySpace page for the character, filled with videos, photos and other content that set up his back story and told of his appetite for blood.

The page was very 2006. Luckily, it was 2006. The page was a hit.

2007 – 2008

YouTube became the focal point of HHN social media engagement, while MySpace faded out.


While we continued (and still continue) to create videos for YouTube, 2009 marked the start of official HHN Facebook and Twitter accounts.

From the get-go we gave Twitter and Facebook their own voices and perspectives. Twitter is used to provide more of an “inside baseball” view of the event (which has been executed well largely thanks to the passion and commitment of the event’s creative director) while Facebook provides more general event news and related entertainment (e.g., via the posting of original horror-related images/memes).

On a personal level, the launch of these social programs led to what should probably be the only time my name is ever mentioned on Bloody-Disgusting.com

2010 – 2012

This period was marked by steady growth of the event’s Facebook and Twitter audiences, experimenting with YouTube video advertising, and the addition of social commenting on the Halloween Horror Nights website.

HHN Instagram launched in 2012.


New for this year is the start of HHN’s Instagram videos (the capability was launched in June).


Wow, a lot has happened in seven years. Who knows what’s in store over the coming years… for sure there’ll be ever more ways to share the HHN scares.

I must end with a very well deserved thank you to my teammates/co-workers who’ve contributed so much effort and creativity to all the above-mentioned programs.

(Disclosure and disclaimer:  As noted in my bio and is obvious from the post, I’m an employee of Universal Studios Hollywood and am personally involved with the programs discussed above. All comments reflect publicly available information. Opinions reflected on this blog are personal and do not represent the opinions of the company).

$hift to Digital

100 Billion

A few weeks ago I read a data point that struck me as noteworthy for anyone interested in the growth of digital marketing and the trajectory of the advertising industry.

That data point, highlighted in a WSJ article, is that “Procter & Gamble Co. is now spending more than a third of its U.S. marketing budget on digital media…”

The article continued:

P&G chief executive A.G. Lafley said the consumer products giant’s digital spending on things like online ads and social media ranges from 25% to 35% of its marketing budget and is currently near the top of that range in the U.S., its biggest market.

This budget shift is of particular interest because it’s P&G, owner of the world’s largest ad budget and a company renowned for brand marketing.

Traditionally brand marketing has foremost meant television commercials, but the WSJ article also highlights a significant media-consumption milestone:  2013 is projected to be the first year that Americans spend more time with digital media than watching TV.

Which nicely segues to data included in an eMarketer article published yesterday:  eMarketer projects that in four years (2017) total U.S. digital advertising expenditure will be $61.4 billion, closing in on television’s projected $75.3 billion.

Within digital, the fastest growing format is video advertising. According to another eMarketer article from earlier this week, U.S. digital video advertising will increase by about 40% this year and next, and it’s growth is coming at the expense of television ads.

That article highlights research from the Interactive Advertising Bureau (IAB) that finds “much of that increased digital video spending will come out of former TV budgets. Seventy percent of buy-side US senior executives told the IAB they would likely move TV dollars to digital video in the coming year.”

Earlier this summer I wrote a blog post talking about the growth of online video. In that post I included an eMarketer projection estimating U.S. digital video ad spending will more than double from $4 billion in 2013 to $9 billion in 2017.

Putting this growth another way, eMarketer’s data indicates that video advertising will go from being approximately 6% of TV advertising in 2013 ($4.1b vs. $66.4b) to about 12% in 2017 ($9.2b vs. $75.3 billion).

A $9b market is relatively small but not insignificant. And as I explained in my earlier post, Google is especially well positioned to benefit from the shift in ad budgets.

More upside?

To add a personal prediction, I think there’s a good chance eMarketer’s forecast about upcoming video advertising growth is understated.

From my experience as a digital ad buyer, video ads have been surprisingly effective, not only for the brand-awareness building for which they were mainly purchased (targeted impressions were the primary goal) but also in terms of tracked view-thru conversions (i.e., online purchases made by people within 30 days of seeing the ad, meaning the video ad was likely at least one factor in the purchase decision).

As more digital marketers experiment with video advertising and as marketing departments overall continue to become more metrics focused, I believe there’s a strong likelihood that the shift to video advertising — and its increasingly sophisticated audience targeting — will rapidly increase.

Buenos Aires

TripAdvisor logo decal in window of Buenos Aires panaderia (bakery)

I recently returned from Buenos Aires. We try to go every year to spend time with my wife’s family; however, we didn’t make the trip in 2012 so it’d been two years since our last visit.

Like all vibrant cities, a lot can change in a couple years. Some of the changes I noticed included less people smoking in public places and the existence of more bicycle lanes along the edge of city streets.

I’d have called both of these “healthy changes” if I weren’t so skeptical about the safety of biking in such close proximity to Buenos Aires drivers.

Another noticeable change is the expansion of Starbucks in the city. That one can see Argentines in these shops is a testament to the power of Starbucks’ brand and “place making,” as Buenos Aires is definitely not a city in need of help on the coffee front. Fantastic, more-reasonably-priced coffee is available all over the place.

I also observed two changes related to digital marketing.

First, and not surprising given worldwide trends, is how widespread mobile Internet usage has become. (Including by my 60-something in-laws who now regularly use their phones to access information on the go).

Close-up of TripAdvisor and other decalsSecond, unlike two years ago, I saw TripAdvisor decals in the front windows of many hotels and restaurants.

The decals are a tangible reflection of TripAdvisor’s rapidly growing popularity around the world.

I saw most of the TripAdvisor decals while walking around Palermo, a neighborhood that’s very popular with international tourists. So the decals may foremost be valued as a way to generate business from North American and British tourists.

But even if that’s indeed the main motivation for Argentine venue managers to post TripAdvisor logo decals today, the decals themselves also serve as great brand-awareness and brand-prestige builders for the local audience. Palermo is full of high-end stores and restaurants and is popular with many locals as a fun place to eat, drink and hangout. TripAdvisor has the good fortune of having its brand name and distinctive logo visible on numerous storefronts in a fashionable neighborhood

TripAdvisor has been on a tear — gaining market share in countries around the world and seeing its stock price increase over 45% year to date. In Buenos Aires its growth is openly noticeable, like the spread of Starbucks. But unlike Starbucks, the TripAdvisor brand name is being posted by others, rent-free.

How to add decades to a brand

Old Violator example. The brand is what's reduced.

…not in the good way.

Following are two things still used in some national retailers’ 2012 Black Friday marketing creative that smell like (and belong in) mothballs:

1. “Doorbusters”

Not the actual deals – those most everyone likes – but the word itself.

Hearing “doorbusters” makes me think of a Sears newspaper circular circa 1985.

I don’t know what the actual history of the word is, but it’s beside the point. What matters is that it sounds old (not to mention tacky).

True, the word does clearly convey that there are special deals available, as the “Doorbusters” banner atop Best Buy’s website did. However, there are many other ways to communicate the message without sounding dated; some examples I found on other national retailers’ websites included:  “Thanksgiving Weekend Sale,” “Black-Friday Deals” and “Annual Holiday Sale.”

Given the overwhelming importance of portraying their stores and merchandise as being current and desirable, using a word as old sounding as “doorbusters” strikes me as anathema to the desired brand image.

It only makes matters worse when you point a “Doorbuster “ arrow at boxes of Monopoly, Connect 4, and Operation, as Target did.

"Doorbuster" advertisement example from Target, Nov 2012

Try as I might, I just can’t imagine hordes of shoppers busting down doors to get their hands on 40-year-old board games.

2. Jagged-edged violators

Old-style starbursts look… old. Very, very old.

Are they eye catching? Maybe. But there are a lot of eye-catching images one could put in an ad that you (and/or the legal department) would think better of.

My wife and I bought the L.A. Times on Thanksgiving Day. The above example is from the CVS Pharmacy circular. The “SLASHED!” makes it look like they dipped into a mattress retailer’s playbook for inspiration.

In truth, the jagged-edged violator does seem like a dying breed. Most art directors and national-retail clients seem to have transitioned to more modern-looking styles with clean edges.

Some of the people hanging onto the older style might be thinking that the jagged edges are more effective at “violating” the underlying ad (or packaging) design, and thus better at grabbing people’s attention.

Perhaps that’s true. But even if it is, that’s not enough reason to stick with them. The damage caused by the visual – i.e., the way it makes the brand or product look dated – is too great.

A pot of fresh creative

This holiday-season print ad from Starbucks, on the other hand, is beautiful.

SB print ad

The creative is both whimsical and serious at the same time. It embraces emotion and subtlety — no screaming offer during a week of screaming offers, and it foremost relies on the product to catch your eye.

The ad made me think about how good those little chocolate chips would taste atop a ‘guilty-pleasure’ drink.

And there’s an eloquent beauty to the word “Rekindle.” It’s not commonly heard in advertising so it made me stop and think. It also captures an important emotional element of the holiday season – reconnecting with old friends and family.

When I passed by a Starbucks in my neighborhood, I saw this complementary standee in front of the store:

Starbucks store standee - showing 3 holliday drinks

Last night I also saw a Starbucks TV commercial that told a holiday-related story about “rekindling” a family relationship. I think the spot could have told its story a little better, but overall the emotional direction fits the season and the message distinguishes Starbucks from competitors.

For example, there’s also a Peet’s Coffee in my neighborhood. I prefer its coffee to Starbucks. But compared to Starbucks – with its ads and the store standee and holiday decorations – it seems rather stark and cold.

Meanwhile, what happened to Target? Its TV ads from a few years ago magically turned mundane products like bottles of household cleaning materials into playful images and were a joy to watch. At that point in time, going to Target felt cool. Not any more.

Halloween Horror Nights videos


Halloween – it’s fun, it’s freaky and it’s become a huge business, having grown into the 2nd largest U.S. holiday by commercial activity.

My colleagues and I at Universal Studios are very aware of the ever-increasing passion for the holiday, given our annual event called Halloween Horror Nights. The popularity of the holiday and the event itself has allowed us to expand the number of event nights offered each year, to the extent that the first nights are in now in September.

As quick background: Halloween Horror Nights is held at Universal Studios in Hollywood and Orlando, and features serious scares and gore. It’s not intended for children or the faint of heart.

The teams creating the event attractions pride themselves on authenticity and high production values. There’s a strong movie-industry tie-in, including partnering with film & TV properties for attraction themes (e.g., the very popular The Walking Dead series) and working with movie-industry talent (from makeup artists to film directors).

A recent Wall Street Journal article about high-end horror attractions described Halloween Horror Nights as: “The Grand dame of haunted attractions, this venue is the most popular in the industry and closely watched each year for cutting-edge techniques.”

Digital marketing has played an important role in building awareness of, and excitement about, Halloween Horror Nights. Video is a central element of the digital marketing.

In the spirit of the Halloween season, I’d like to share examples of the online videos we produced for the event this year. Generally speaking, the videos fall into one of these categories:

1. Preview videos

During the summer we release a video highlighting the upcoming event’s main attractions and intellectual properties (IPs).

Prior to the release of this ‘umbrella’ preview video, we also create videos announcing specific attractions and IPs. These videos play well with the event’s core audience that is hungry for the latest news as well as existing fans of the respective IPs (e.g., The Walking Dead or Silent Hill, both featured this year).

2. Guest Reaction videos

During the early nights of the event we film event guests reacting to the scary/gory content and package the highlights into rather entertaining videos.

These videos were unique to the industry in 2006 when we initiated them, but have since been copied in style and approach by our main competitor and others. (To that point, our approach to Preview videos has been copied as well, which we take in the spirit of “flatter is the sincerest form of compliment.”)

An example Guest Reaction video is featured at the very top of this post.

3.  Celebrity Reaction videos

This is a subset of the Guest Reactions video, but feature celebrities — either associated with the featured IPs or who visit the event as fans and agree to be filmed.

The above video of The Walking Dead cast has a little less attraction content than normal because it was filmed at a red carpet premiere (held at Halloween Horror Nights). But it offers Halloween eye candy, pardon the weak pun.

4. “Behind The Screams” videos

We also produce a series of videos looking behind the scenes/”screams” at how the event attractions are made.

The above video features Alice Cooper (who knew he was so funny?). He’s been involved in the creation of attractions (or “mazes,” as they’re known) the past 2 years.

We try to mix up the content to offer new insights each year, for example, previous years’ videos have looked more specifically at makeup and special effects.

5. Television commercial

The television commercial my colleagues produced is of great importance too (of course) and we promote it online.  I am listing it 5th in this list only because I was foremost highlighting the content we create primarily for digital marketing.

In summary..

These videos have played a significant role reaching potential guests on our event website, YouTube channel, Facebook and those of our partners. In  combination they are viewed hundred thousands of times and generate lots of social media interactions (comments, likes, shares).

We also like that they stay live on social media channels year-round, which helps maintain ongoing awareness of the event during the 10.5 months that Halloween Horror Nights is not taking place.

As mentioned above, that our approach to videos has been copied by others in the industry is a compliment — but it also means we need to get even more creative to stay a step ahead.

Meanwhile, I hope you enjoyed the video content and that it helped build the Halloween spirit for you as 10/31 fast approaches. Happy Halloween!