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At Marvel HQ in NYC, we peek behind the cape at the brand’s approach to digital

We toured Marvel’s office in New York and talked to the New Media team about its superheroic digital strategy.

At Marvel HQ in NYC, we peek behind the cape at the brand’s approach to digital
Lauren Bork, VP, New Media marketing & sales integration [Photo: Jonah Rosenberg for Fast Company]

“Wanna know how the movie ends?”

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The movie in question is next March’s Brie Larson-starring Captain Marvel, the centerpiece of Marvel Studios’ future and the subject of nuclear-grade global anticipation. Of course, I want to find out how it ends. But that’s not going to happen.

The person asking–Ron Richards, VP and managing editor of Marvel’s New Media division–is only asking as a joke, the punchline being that I have a better chance of leaving Marvel’s offices with a nascent genetic mutation than any juicy tidbits about future films.

Ron Richards, VP & managing editor, New Media [Photo: Jonah Rosenberg for Fast Company]
Long before Richards makes the joke, I’d already come to the same conclusion. All the secrets contained here within the Marvel offices in Midtown Manhattan are heavily protected crown jewels. The security runs deep. In addition to a standard printout lobby-badge, I’m given a Marvel lanyard that announces my outsider status to all. A sign we pass reads, “Guests must be escorted at all times,” as though I might wander off at some point and discover Thanos’s ultimate fate deep within a filing cabinet.

Marvel, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, didn’t get to be perhaps the world’s top pop culture brand by being sloppy. They know how to keep their information economy on lockdown. The reason I’m here today, touring their offices for Fast Company’s Innovation Festival, is because Marvel’s efficiency in guarding what they don’t want fans to know is rivaled only by its wizardry in offering what they do want fans to know–which is: just about everything.

Over the past 18 months, the company’s online presence has transformed from a traditional digital marketing arm for its many distinct forms of content into a true stand-alone business opportunity and an authoritative source for All Things Marvel. The brand’s penchant for innovation has already disrupted the comic book industry and the film industry–making interconnected universes the new norm. And now their goal is to be just as disruptive in New Media.

“Marvel as a brand encompasses movies, TV, video games, family content, theme parks, and the comics themselves,” says Sarah Amos, VP of development and production management. “New Media is where all of those different lines of business, and the fans that interact with us, converge digitally. We have to make sure we’re representing Marvel Entertainment the right way in that space.”

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The challenge at the dawn of this digital transformation–when the New Media team took over the eighth floor of Marvel’s New York City HQ–was to start creating a daily cadence of content, cultivate a digital identity, and bring in revenue independent of other streams. The strategy for fulfilling these goals ultimately involved a flurry of podcasts and streaming video programs, an aggressive social strategy, and a redesigned website. Oh, and it also took roughly 18 months of intense experimentation.

(From left) Sarah Amos, VP of development and production management, Ron Richards, VP & managing editor, New Media, and Bork [Photo: Jonah Rosenberg for Fast Company]
Walking through the office, we occasionally pass austere conference rooms named after Marvel characters–the title slates containing only, say, a small, perfectly spherical Spider-Man mask. The hallways are lined with framed images of action panels from comic books or posters from astronomically successful movies like Black Panther. After weaving a labyrinthine path I wouldn’t be able to trace back on my own (if I were even allowed, which I’m definitely not), we arrive at an area where the Marvel New Media sausage is made: the creation station. It’s a bright, colorful studio space, the walls slathered in character insignia, where the team films between 3 and 10 pieces of video content a day and records a deluge of podcasts in an adjoining, similarly colorful room.

One such video example is Earth’s Mightiest Show, whose enthusiastic cohost Lorraine Cink greets us wearing the sweater equivalent of Captain America’s shield (at least in terms of color and design, if not indestructibility). Earth’s Mightiest Show is a weekly celebration of Marvel fandom and culture, with much-beloved guests like Jessica Jones star Krysten Ritter in tow. Shows like this one and its spin-off, the Marvel-themed cooking show Eat the Universe, are the direct result of the New Media team’s willingness to experiment. They cast a wide net when bringing in talent (ETU‘s Justin Warner comes from the Food Network; Marvel Voices host Angélique Roché is a lawyer who worked for Gloria Steinem) and obsessively monitor the results. The shows are regularly mined for segments that then reappear in Marvel social campaigns.

“We look very closely at performance data, at how audiences react to our shows and how our shows interact with other lines of business,” Amos says.

She is particularly fond of post-mortems, conducting exhaustive diagnostic sessions after every new event and product rollout, in search of actionable data. A post-mortem after this past summer’s San Diego Comic Con, for instance, led to a completely new distribution strategy for Marvel’s live streams at New York Comic Con earlier this month. The latter ended up with a 400% increase over the previous year. (Any other useful learnings from the event will surface at the NYCC post-mortem, scheduled for tomorrow.)

Sarah Amos, VP, development [Photo: Jonah Rosenberg for Fast Company]
“We’re not just thinking of how we can support New Media,” Amos says, “but how we can support Marvel overall. Some things work, some do not. We’re not looking for a five-year plan or even a three-year plan, because things in this space tend to change too quickly. We may not have all the answers, but we’re setting ourselves up to be able to capitalize on changes as they happen.”

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The rapid pace of change–both online, in general, and in the world of comics, specifically–is what brings about a pointed question from one of the tour-goers.

We’re visiting with Ryan Penagos, VP and creative executive of New Media and also longtime host of the podcast This Week in Marvel, when an assistant passes each of us a comic book. The woman standing next to me runs her fingers over the glossy cover of the latest issue of Deadpool, an uncertain look on her face, and speaks up.

“This is an embarrassing question, but can you still buy these?” she asks. “I haven’t seen one in ages.”

Penagos is extremely polite as he recites a list of many remaining sources for physical comic books without betraying how much the question hurts his soul. The question is not entirely without merit, though. It’s true that comic books are no longer guaranteed to pop up in every corner 7-11 as they might have in the past. But while the ease of obtaining comic books may have decreased over the years, so has the barrier of entry for new readers interested in poking around that world.

Ryan Penagos (right), vice president & creative executive, New Media, with Fast Company Innovation Festival attendees. [Photo: Jonah Rosenberg for Fast Company]
The redesigned, mobile-responsive Marvel.com has a section exploring each of the brand’s 8,000-plus characters, with dedicated pages offering definitive histories and factoids, like who is allies with whom. The hope is that potential fans will turn to the website, rather than Wikipedia, to find out Loki’s backstory before watching Thor: Ragnarok, while seasoned fans also show up in search of what’s going on right now–and what’s on the horizon.

“Part of our job is, we’re kind of out there with these huge fishing nets, grabbing what we like to call the Marvel-curious: Fans who have a light understanding of who these characters are,” says Ron Richards, who was integral to the website’s July redesign launch. “We’re looking for how can we grab them with the attention that comes with a new movie and bring them into the Marvel ecosystem and maybe introduce them to Marvel’s Spider-Man for PlayStation 4 the Marvel: Contest of Champions mobile game, or our comics, or just content celebrating the Marvel lifestyle.”

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Fast Company Innovation Festival attendees tour Marvel’s New York HQ with Bork. [Photo: Jonah Rosenberg for Fast Company]
And finally, we’ve come full circle, back to the reason I brought up the March release of Captain Marvel in the first place. I’m curious about how the hype around that movie will help drive fans to other areas of Marvel New Media.

Sarah Amos is very careful with how she answers this question: “We’re constantly talking with the Marvel Studios team to make sure that everything they’re thinking about and working on is celebrated in the way that it has the potential to be.”

The only way I’m getting more information right now is if I suddenly develop mind-reading superpowers, which, given my surroundings, seems at once entirely impossible . . . and also not.

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