I like building things that don't exist yet. I like creating things that don't exist yet. I like inventing things that haven't been invented yet.
That’s a good set of interests for someone whose job title is Head of Growth Marketing, the role filled by Katie Soo at HBO Max.
For anyone who’s unaware, HBO Max is a US subscription streaming service, owned by by AT&T through the WarnerMedia Direct subsidiary of WarnerMedia. It offers a combination of original programming, such as The Flight Attendant and the forthcoming Friends reunion special; co-productions, like the acclaimed It’s A Sin; and archive content from well-loved brands, such as The Big Bang Theory and Doctor Who.
The service launched in May last year and had hit 41.5 million subscribers in the US by year-end, with a stated goal now of reaching up to 150 million global sign-ups by 2025. That’s an ambitious growth target, up from the figure of around 90 million which was bandied around pre-launch.
It's also one that will be attainable only if consumers are drawn in by the content on offer. That means having a really close finger on the pulse when it comes to trends and preferences, which is where HBO Max’s use of Qualtrics Experience Management tech comes in. This is also an area that Soo, who sees herself as being “at the intersection of storytelling and technology”, regards as a personal sweet spot:
I’ve worked in subscription for a long time. I really had a deep understanding of just putting the customer at the center of everything that you do and that was something that I felt was missing [at HBO Max]. What I wanted to do was to re-shape it so that every single touch point was speaking to the customer, was helping them discover content, helping them fall in love with things that they would have never otherwise found. That took a lot of re-building and re-shaping and re-tooling...At the end of the day, the most important thing that we do...is really helping fans discover stories. That requires a build and a philosophy, as well as just a marketing approach, that was inherently new for the business at the time.
One thing that was critical was to move past the structured ways that many companies run their business, she adds:
When I first joined the business, it was really about re-thinking and re-framing the next generation of how we would reach consumers through a Direct-to-Consumer experience and it was really about re-building that structurally, putting a 'performance first' lens into it. A lot of times when you think about building and you think about inventing and you think about innovation, so much of it is about being agile and moving at the pace of culture, moving at the pace of the marketplace. The only way you can do that is if you are nimble enough to respond. The first task to get done is [to ask] how do you change the ways of working, how do you make the teams think differently? Then [you ask] how do you inspire a culture for innovation and then use that culture to springboard yourself into the evolution of what became HBO Max?
Scaring the horses
That’s a bold approach, but one that might ‘scare the horses’ in a certain type of organization. Certainly there needs to be a series of trade-offs in approach, admits Soo, with the key question being which trade-offs are going to benefit the team, the corporate culture and, of course, the business the most. One of her own toughest decisions was how to make marketing distinctly different at HBO Max:
My own passion and purpose as myself is that I really believe in a communities-oriented marketing approach, which means that you think about diverse audiences, you think about diverse ways to reach them, and you think about ways that enable them to discover stories and characters they love. That sort of purpose and impact will actually help grow a business over time.
It isn't always easy though, because a lot of the way traditional marketing is set up is that you have immediate strategy and you move forward based on the signals and patterns you see. What I wanted us to do was to be able to take a step back and say, 'If we were to re-build this and marry art and science together and relentlessly test and learn, could we do it in a way where we put communities first, diverse audiences first, and tell a story that wasn't just good for the experience itself, but felt good on a domestic and a global level, just as a person?’.
Sure enough, there was some nervousness internally about this approach, says Soo:
Any time there is change at any company, in any category, you're always going to be up against people who may not necessarily understand it. I don't necessarily think it was so much naysayers. I think a lot of it was just the idea of growth marketing, and the idea of building something that was that customer-centric, didn't necessarily exist. It was almost like merging two schools of thought together. Once you were able to just get aligned on the fact that you were doing this for the business, for the fans and for the customer at the center of everything, it became a lot easier to get to consensus and alignment
But transformations are challenging in that way.There's never a clean and easy transformation overnight. A lot of it is about education, helping people understand the whys and also helping people get comfortable with the idea that if we do this right and if we build correctly, people are going to watch our content and fall in love with our product experience and everything that we do across growth marketing. Knowing that as your North Star actually helped a lot of people get on board, and help drive us forward.
Keep moving on with curiosity and resilience is her advice to others who find themselves in similar circumstances:
A lot of times we run into situations where we feel like we have to operate in a box and that this box has been pre-set for us - this is how we should market, this is how we should do creative, this is how we should do 'x', this is how we should be selling razors. I don't think that that is the case. I believe that you have to understand the rules of the game, but our job as marketers is to change the game. How do you change the rules of engagement, how do you break it apart and re-build it and how do you make it better?
If you look at a lot of the times in my career where it's truly been a David and Goliath story, it seemed like an impossible situation. Probably everyone is not rooting for you to succeed, because it hadn't been done before. I think those are the moments that you should lean in and pursue it…Resilience is a really key part of it but it's also a mindset, to know that you can overcome it and achieve it and on the other side you will make it a better product, a better experience, a better category, maybe even a better world if you aspire to do that. I think it's all possible, but it's all mindset.
A good example both of tapping into the zeitgeist and going against the ‘this is our box’ way of doing things has been HBO Max’s use of interns to create engaging content to attract new customers. This was driven by a desire to get on top of the potential of TikTok as an outreach platform, says Soo, to give people something to discover, such as conversation topics, that would lead them into the service.
Recruiting suitable interns to execute this strategy was supported by the CEO at HBO Max, who tweeted out the job description, which was itself deliberately not like a standard type of role spec. Soo explains:
We were trying to reach interns and creators and creatives who live and breathe this content. You cannot be a company that doesn't represent that. So being able to write that job description, being able to create that sort of connection, helped me filter out a lot of applicants and people responding to it. I wanted people who ‘got it’. They submitted videos on TikTok. It was definitely unconventional for a recruiting team but we all had a lot of fun doing it.
In the end, the firm hired five interns who started work by tapping into their own experiences of the TikTok community as Soo had envisioned:
That's the most important thing - you're trying to reach people authentically. You don't want to just re-purpose video, size it down and drop it into another platform; you want to make bespoke experiences that speak to them. I love so much of what they've created. And if you look at some of the comments, people didn't even realize they were ads. They weren't ads in the traditional sense. They were just talking about Wonder Woman, they were talking about Euphoria. That's the best kind of ad because everyone is having fun with it and it's sparking this curiosity around programming that they would have fallen in love with because of their interest; we just gave them a topic of conversation to sort of congregate around…That’s the best way to reach fans, by actually just partnering with creators to let them do the work and actually speak authentically to the consumer.
In some respects, launching a new content streaming service which carries a lot of old audience favorites during pandemic-induced lockdowns, when people are trapped at home, isn’t necessarily a bad thing - audio-visual comfort food perhaps? But as the Vaccine Economy takes shape, there are new challenges ahead to meet HBO Max's ambitious subscriber goals. Soo has her own view here, with experiential awareness at the heart of it:
I think it's really important for brands to remember that the only way is forward. A lot of times, especially in a world that's gone through something on a global level like [COVID], empathy is really key. We as brands need to think differently, but people are thinking differently as well. So understanding that everyone is experiencing this together and reaching them, that now means something different.
That's what we should all be thinking about, because the world is not linear in that way. So much of what needs to happen post this environment is to just listen and learn and meet your customers where they are. All of what you knew before most likely has changed - and that's okay. I actually would encourage everyone to take it as an opportunity to think differently and build again. By doing so, you get to be a part of building a future everyone can live in and experience the things that you want them to experience. That is an incredible challenge to be a part of…The playbook isn't set - build your own and let that define the future.