The #Westworld Word of Mouth Marketing Miracle


By Mark Schaefer

How do you create excitement for a television show that has no advertising … that is on a network that is advertising-free … among viewers who generally hate ads?

The answer is buzz — GIGANTIC BUZZ — and that was accomplished this week at the annual SXSW Interactive Festival when HBO recreated the Sweetwater Village from its epic television series Westworld.

The brainchild of Giant Spoon, HBO invited social influencers and media to immerse themselves in a “world without limits” and experience the creepy coolness of a world hosted by human-like androids.

A two-acre city was built with incredible detail on the site of a ghost town outside of Austin. Features of the “set” included:

  • westworld

    No detail overlooked.

    A pre-experience meet-up in Austin that included elements of the television show.

  • An “initializing experience” similar to the TV show where you walk through a portal to the gritty reality of Westworld.
  • Opportunities to stroll through familiar scenes from the TV series including The Mariposa Saloon.
  • Western-style food, drinks and entertainment.
  • Dozens of actors, in character, playing the android hosts who challenged you, flirted with you, and invited you into their stories.
  • Secret “easter eggs” that opened up new experiences.
  • Story lines that actively engaged the guests. For example, I had a personalized letter waiting for me at the Westworld post office from one of the characters. She had a desperate message to tell me — but I had to find her (Which I did. She needed my help starting a suffragette movement).
  • Lots of action all around you. The “hosts” were fighting, gambling, and inviting you into their “stories.” A fellow guest was more than a bit spooked when a cowboy ran up to him and told him to hide because the sheriff was coming for him.


Everywhere you looked, hundreds of people were creating content about the event. Influencers were filming, broadcasting live, interviewing the “hosts,” and posting a flood of Instagram and Snapchat images.

But I think the most interesting story about this event is HOW it happened. Who thought of this? How in the world did a marketing activation of this scale occur? How did the millions of details come together to create one pulsating, gritty, Wild West village?


Well, I have a treat for you. I was able to interview Trevor Guthrie of Giant Spoon, the mastermind behind this epic event. Trevor told me that his command to his team was to “Build the THING. Do not build a ‘sort of’ thing. Do not build the thing beside the thing. Build the damn THING.”

And they did, with breath-taking accuracy and flat-out fun. To learn the behind-the-scenes story of this word-of-mouth-marketing miracle, you won’t want to miss my video interview:

If you can’t see the video above, watch here: Mark Schaefer interview on Westworld activation.

The final piece of this activation was the follow-up. The morning after the event, I received an email with personalized assets I could use to further tell the story. So, the photos I used in this post, the “poster” I included, and even that letter I received was sent to me as a way to make it easier to tell the story. So well done.

Did it work?

We’ll probably never have that insight. But there is one story that may provide a clue. Business superstar Elon Musk — one of the most influential people in the world — made a surprise appearance at SXSW. Before nearly 3,000 fans (and untold thousands streaming online), he opened his comments from the stage by revealing that he took his kids to the SXSW Westworld installation. “Wow! What was that? Was it a theme park? Whatever it was, it was great!”

I’d love to hear your comments on this incredibly bold marketing event.

Mark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Disclosures: I did not receive any compensation of any kind from HBO or its affiliates. It’s just a cool story.

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