There have been a lot of stories recently about how a few movies have resonated with smaller, more niche audiences. Both Love, Simon ($23m as of this writing) and I Can Only Imagine ($38m ibid) have been covered from the perspective of the appeal they’ve made to their audience. The former has reached people who have latched on to Hollywood finally making a mainstream coming of age story featuring a gay lead. The latter is part of the faith-based genre, a label applied to mealy-mouthed Christianity that talks more about spirituality than God.

In both these and many other cases, the industry press narrative is that there lessons to be learned by the successes (or failures) of movies that aren’t $100m opening weekend spectaculars. That’s true, there are. It’s also bullshit.

The only lesson to learn from the success of a movie whatever the distribution platform is that it managed to reach the right audience with a compelling value proposition that was hopefully bolstered by subsequent word of mouth.

It’s the same buyer’s journey any other product tries to go down: Awareness > Interest > Action > Advocacy. The segments get smaller as you move from one to the next, of course. But those who are moved to become advocates for the product are pretty powerful since, as study after study shows, peer recommendations hold great sway on people’s actions.

Instead of trying to draw out a series of lessons that, it’s implied, can be followed by others to achieve success, it’s instead worth looking at how the audiences which turned out for those movies moved through that buyer’s journey.

Awareness: How big was the campaign that sold the movie and how effectively did it convey a compelling message to its intended audience. This is more or less what I try to do with my marketing recaps.

Interest: What portion of the audience exposed to the message was moved to actually consider it as an option for their time and money? While it’s not perfect, the current tracking forecast system tries to do this by estimating a movie’s opening weekend take.

Action: What portion of *that* audience actually converted their interest into action, the buying of a ticket for the movie. This is the most objectively measurable portion since dollars and dollars. Even more accurately, tickets sold are tickets sold.

Advocacy: This step is one that’s usually dropped or overlooked save for the occasional report from Twitter or other online network about the volume of social chatter around a movie. Even when this data is made public it’s rarely specifically about post-release word of mouth, but that’s more powerful than pre-release anticipation.

Examining success from the perspective of appeal to niche audiences fails to account for the scope of what’s being analyzed. There’s no hard and fast rule around how much of the audience falls off at each stage of the buyer’s journey, but common sense tells you that if the product itself is only going to appeal to a group that’s, say 20,000 people then a campaign reaching 100,000 is 5x too broad. If, on the other hand, your campaign was only sent to 50,000 people it was only 2.5x too broad, which is more efficient.

Maybe the entertainment press would be well-served by moving away from the “niche audience” perspective on movies like this – basically anything other than super hero and Pixar films – and do a bit of analysis on how they were sold and how successful those campaigns were. That might require a little more context to be offered, but it’s a more accurate representation of what happened at the box office.

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist who lives in the Chicago suburbs.

Written by Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.

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