Do you ever feel alone? Does it seem like no one really understands you? Do some people just make you sick? Are you afraid? We can set you free. We will make you strong. We want you.
That is how American Horror Story: Cult first targeted followers of the FX anthology series, but that was only the beginning of the courtship. The website for the seventh season of Ryan Murphy’s horror show is now encouraging the AHS fan base to join its cult by signing up for an eight-week long, interactive journey. Each week, the creative minds behind the series will unlock more content and clues about the election-themed season, which will remain somewhat of a mystery leading up to its Sept. 5 debut. (Head here to keep track of all the season seven details.)
The Hollywood Reporter signed up for the Cult journey and spoke with the FX team behind the marketing campaign about what viewers can expect. Last season, showrunner Murphy changed things up and kept the title, theme and cast of the sixth season, Roanoke, a secret until it premiered. As a result, the FX marketing team, led by Stephanie Gibbons, entered uncharted marketing territory to launch 24 “misdirect” teasers about the question-mark season. The risky campaign paid off, and this year Gibbons’ team was again tasked with coming up with a unique way to target the rabid AHS audience.
“We wanted to take a different approach after least season. We didn’t want to not give people the theme or any information and felt they would be tired of that approach,” Joseph Paulding, FX vp social media, told THR. Paulding has worked on the marketing for the last four cycles of the Murphy- and Brad Falchuk-created anthology. “We wanted to find a new approach that would still carry the same weight and create the same kind of fan engagement, but also give the fans something along the way so that they know what the season is going to be about, and roll out information over time throughout the campaign.”
The campaign first launched at San Diego Comic-Con, a frequent destination for AHS and its fans in season’s past. Using a water projection adjacent to the network’s activation space, AHS played a video teaser that directed fans to visit AHS7.com. Once there, a second video revealed the title to be Cult. (This was the show’s only Comic-Con presence as FX opted to skip a formal panel presentation.)
“We wanted to make this announcement at Comic-Con because our fans are huge participants in that convention,” Kenya Hardaway, senior vp integrated promotions, tells THR. Hardaway has worked on the Comic-Con and real-life activations since AHS‘ launch in 2011. “We wanted to make sure that without a panel we had the opportunity to get in front of people with something that would grab their attention and ultimately have them walking away with the information they would need to be able to follow us on this journey for this campaign and get further reveals leading up to the season premiere.”
When viewers first visit the website, the promo unveiled on Comic-Con night takes over the homepage. The footage is the first look at the nightmarish clowns that Murphy had been teasing on his social media leading up to the July 20 title announcement. The music continues to play as the web of clowns dance in cult-like formation. When the movement stops, they look directly at the web visitor with a message: Click Here.
Once entered into the site, visitors were prompted to a second page telling them the journey begins now and to click “Continue.” Doing so launches the visitor into Facebook Messenger, where they proceed to engage in a chat with a cult member and are told they have officially joined and will receive further information soon. The last message reads: “You will be contacted again.”
“This campaign is about making the fans a part of the experience early,” Jason Phipps, FX senior vp digital media marketing, tells THR. Phipps has also worked on AHS since its launch. “Ultimately we want to have them come with us on this journey as we drive to the premiere, bring them into our fold and really make them a part of our experience.”
When an enrolled visitor returns to the homepage, they will notice they have been given a cult identification number and that the remaining seven weeks on the journey are currently locked.
Murphy, who is also using his own social media accounts to reveal season details, created the campaign idea with Gibbons and remains a collaborative member as it continues to unfold. “All of this is done with his blessing,” says Paulding. “He’s fully involved and aware with what we’re doing.” Phipps adds that the interactive, multiplatform experience is a result of years of Murphy and Gibbons’ ideas, with he, Paulding and Hardaway falling under Gibbons’ umbrella: “You’re seeing, basically, the evolution of the creative partnership between those two.”
Each year presents a challenge for the team as they assess Murphy’s season theme and work together on new ways to engage the show’s fans. “This particular show lends itself to a high degree of fandom — you have folks that are creating fan art, that are hanging on every bit of news before the premiere,” Phipps adds. “The sky is the limit with regard to the creativity and the concept that we develop for the show.”
This year, however, he says they arrived at an idea for long-form engagement that they aren’t seeing from the other networks.
Without getting into too much detail — as to not spoil the fun of the journey — the site will be updating on a weekly basis, as is indicated by the navigation. “There’s going to be a new landing page each week with new content available on it,” says Paulding. “Our intention is to dovetail that at various points into real-life engagement” — that’s where Hardaway comes in. “Through various mechanisms, we’ll unlock content to reveal more information about the season.” (See the results of Week Two here.)
Phipps encourages viewers who are playing along to think of the website as the hub for both content distribution and community leading up to premiere. Facebook will continue to be a part of the interactive experience, with the Messenger app being a “conduit” into the show’s 12 million fans. “We really wanted to provide a community and reward them for their fandom,” he says.
Facebook will provide curated content — like the conversations seen in Week One — and serves as a place where the team was able to merge their concept with the schedule and flow of preseason rollout. But don’t expect the leader on the other side of the chat to reveal himself in the end. “Right now, we’re keeping things in the royal ‘we,'” says Paulding. “We don’t want to define it too much.”
Paulding can confirm, however, that there will be messages sent to Cult followers on a regular basis throughout the eight weeks. Though each week doesn’t have an outright theme, there will be a “different feeling” to each, building on the introduction at signup. Viewers can also expect clues to continue to drop on social media, including Murphy’s account, and with real-world activations in different locations that will direct viewers back to the site for more information.
Are the eight weeks building towards a big reveal? The trio, in tight-lipped Murphy fashion, wouldn’t comment. “After the eight weeks, I hope that the audience has really been entertained, that they have enjoyed the experience and have found the content to be valuable,” says Phipps. Adding, “And that they will be really excited about the new season of American Horror Story.”