Pre-Launch and the Marketing of Suspense: The Hobbit History Case

Pre-Launch and the Marketing of Suspense: The Hobbit History Case

13th December 2012

The day has come.

I waited almost 35 years to see it made into a movie, but – finally – between today and tomorrow The Hobbit – An Unexpected Journey will be released all over the world.

Expectations, suspense.

These two words are typically cinematographic; so much that almost all the entire movie marketing is based over them.

Only the movie marketing?

Not really, if you think about it. Our own Search Marketing industry relies a lot on expectations and suspense in its efforts, and the startup world is almost as good as the movie industry in titillating the expectations of its end users in order to gain brand recognition.

But, before, let’s return to the movie industry.

Almost inevitably in the case of cinema – and of any other product previously announced – rumors precede the fruition of a movie: the public does not enter in a movie theater completely unaware of what he is going to watch, and the vision of the first images comes always in a dialectical relationship, in terms of the creation of expectations, with the information that the viewer has before the start of the film.

Christian Metz, a famous film critic, once said: There is no other solution [in the motion picture industry] but implementing instruments, which have as their purpose and effect to give the viewer the “spontaneous” desire to attend the cinema and pay the ticket for it.

For this reason, the interest aroused by the creation of a film generates per se a very important universe of expectations. In some way, since the first news about its preproduction phase, the viewer of the film has an experience of suspension that is not compensated up to the moment of entering and sit in a movie theater  when this suspension is progressively alleviated by satisfying, or not, his expectations.

The authors of any movie – essentially the producers, distributors and the director – know how much profitable this period between pre and postproduction of a motion picture can be.

They know it so well that movie marketing relies all its efforts in creating a genuine pre-narrative around the movie, in which certain expectations produced by the voices on different possible developments of the screenplay, the sudden changes of certain actors, the inclusion or exclusion of certain scenes, have a retrospective impact on how the film is received by the viewers both from an artistically and economical point of view.

Hey! Gianluca… weren’t you supposed to write about web marketing? What the heck is this disserting about movies?

I know I know… but, I assure you, it has a lot to do about what you do, because “suspense marketing” is mostly conducted online (and from offline to online) nowadays.

Return to The Hobbit

Google Trends   Web Search Interest  the hobbit   Worldwide  2004 2011

The Google Trends here above shows how the interest about The Hobbit is present since before 2004. The genesis of the movie was quite troubled (legal disputes on copyrights, then the MGM bankruptcy, the loss of Guillermo del Toro as director), but those troubles helped creating a sense of suspense in the fans and a sort of mythology around the movie.

But a better indicator of the trend popularity in the movie industry is the MovieMeter of IMDB.

the hobbit moviemeter IMDB

In the chart you can clearly see how from 2011 The Hobbit is in the Top 100.

Not casually the official Facebook page of the movie started on the 15th of February of that year and the official blog was revamped around that time.

Only later a YouTube channel, a Twitter profile and the official website of the movie would have been created.

Since the beginning the marketing focus was all centered on the fans, both of the LOTR saga and Tolkien’s novels, because they were (and are) the base from where the success of the movie relies.

And the fans are hungry and must be fed with constant updates.

This is maybe the most important “why” of The Hobbit Production Diaries and Video series, started first on the blog then – more officially – on the YouTube channel and which were shared also in the social profiles of the movie.

Ironically it is the personal Peter Jackson YouTube account the one that most success had in promoting the two series: 4,285,513 views (we count almost all them to The Hobbit related videos).

But the videos weren’t justified just by the need of feeding the fans (and obtaining visibility all over the web and offline), but also because instrumental in creating a narrative around the movie itself and give those hints about how the film would be going to be.

In fact, they play wonderfully in managing the expectations of the fans, following the basic rule of suspense: inform without really showing anything about the story itself. Yes, we see the actors during the shootings, the FX specialists preparing the CGIs effects and so on, but no real sequences of the motion picture or, better, bits of them that we will remember when watching the movie.

During all 2011 the videos, the photos from the set and the news served to create an increasing expectation, which cannot be hold too long. And here it comes the best trick of Hollywood: the trailer.

Have you ever asked yourself why we start seeing a trailer of a movie one year before it is released? Exactly: the suspense created can have a relief with it. It is not strange at all to see that pick in the Google Trends chart shown before at the end of 2011, when the first The Hobbit Trailer was presented. But it is a false relief, because – as a drug – fans will feel even a bigger need for more information once the trailer effect ends.

But we have to wait until July 2012 to start seeing what Hollywood marketing can do to promote a movie using fans as brand evangelists:

the hobbit movie fan page and the 75th Tolkien anniversary

  • Merchandising (i.e.: the Lego “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” sets or video games as “The Hobbit: Armies of the Third Age”);
  • Wallpaper generator, which unfortunately was, from an SEO point of view, in a Warner Bros subdomain (92 linking root domains), plus many other fans goodies, as the partly UGC generated Bombur Recipe Book;
  • Fans events as the “Hobbit Day Fan Photos”;
  • Viral videos, as the “An Unexpected Briefing” with Air New Zealand;
  • Apps for iPhone and iPad
  • Etc. etc.


  1. Since the beginning of this month The Hobbit is ranking 1st in the IMDB MovieMeter. Surely it is the most awaited for movie of the Christmas season and that ranking is a real promise for the box office;
  2. The American Facebook page of the movie only has now 943, 526 fans and more than 418,819 people are talking about it;
  3. The Hobbit is trending topic on Twitter almost everywhere since one month
  4. The videos first published by Warner Bros have been viewed more than 10 million times thanks to their sharing and syndication in other YouTube profiles;
  5. The official site has gained links from 1,310 root domain names accordingly to Open Site Explorer.

hobbit on Twitter   Trendsmap

Creating a pre-launch marketing based on nurturing the sense of suspense in the fans seems having obtained the objectives… and remember it is just the first movie of The Hobbit trilogy, so from now it will be more a question of growth marketing and nurturing the existing fan base feeding its sense of suspension.

But The Hobbit is a blockbuster, you are surely thinking. Yes, it is… but working on nurturing the expectations of the targeted users is a powerful tool also for people like you, or me, who cannot rely with the budget of the Peter Jackson’s movie.

Let me list few cases of pre-launch success executed by startups or sites in niches different than movies:


What we can learn from The Hobbit history case? This

If you want to have instant success thanks to successful pre-launch campaign:

  • Find your target and discover its real needs;
  • Reach it there where it is. It will come later on your site;
  • Create a narrative in your pre-launch strategy based on:
    • Why your product has been created (i.e.: we produced The Hobbit because nobody brings to life the heroes of Middle Earth as we do);
    • How your product satisfies its Why (i.e.: because we are as fans of Tolkien as your are);
    • What your product will offer thanks to that How (i.e.: we offer you an unique experience thanks to our digital effects, the 3D technology, a cast of incredibly skilled actors, a screenplay faithful to the novel and a soundtrack you won’t forget).
  • Feed and nurture the state of suspension with a wise presentation of the information given to the end user.

Launch and… boom.


Written By
Gianluca Fiorelli is an SEO and Web Marketing Strategist, who operates in the Italian, Spanish and English speaking countries market. He also works regularly as independent consultant with bigger international SEO agencies.
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