Fyre Festival & EA Game Changers: Effective & Ineffective Influencer Marketing

I love watching others fail . . . seriously, and I don’t mean it in a tongue a cheek kind of way. In social media marketing, and life for that matter, we learn far more from our own, and other people’s, failures than we do from success. 

2017’s Fyre Festival, and the Game Changers Program developed by Electronic Arts (EA), are terrific examples of this, and strange case studies for using influencer marketing in social media. Both had incredibly successful social marketing campaigns but failed to reach their ultimate goals.

Fyre Festival’s Boom and Bust

For those unfamiliar, Fyre Festival was a luxury music festival in the Bahamas that never happened. It was founded by Fyre Media Inc. CEO Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule, and people paid thousands of dollars for tickets to a tropical music festival, on a remote island, with fine dining, nonstop live concerts, and models as far as the eye could see.

Unfortunately, neither of the festival’s creators had any experience with planning an event, much less on that grand of a scale, and it didn’t help that McFarland was defrauding his investors and ticket holders. Needless to say, the event itself was a total failure - if you want all of the crazy and hilarious details, check out the documentaries Netflix and Hulu have to offer.

Despite its failure in execution, and the lawsuits that followed, the Fyre Festival was unique in that all of its marketing was done using influencers on Instagram. Think of influencer marketing as an Instagram account, posed as a billboard on a highway. You put it up for the world to see, and gain daily traffic (followers) when they are exposed to your advertisements during their routine commute. The difference is people only see your billboard once a day, whereas IG users check their accounts 22 times a day on average and are passionate about the billboards they follow.

Using influencer marketing, the Fyre Festival creators were able to attract a young and engaged audience for a fraction of the cost of traditional marketing. That, in and of itself, is not remarkable - influencer marketers and agencies have been on the rise and are particularly popular for pushing products through the e-commerce space. 

Their promotion strategy was simple; whether it was genius or incompetence is anyone’s guess. The Fyre Festival duo simply told influencers to post a full-screen image of an orange square to their IG page and reference the fest however they like . . . tickets sold out within 48 hours.

frye festival influencer marketing

Rather than telling the influencers how to engage with their audience, these paid models and celebrities were given the freedom to interact with their followers and promote the festival however they wanted. It made sense because they were the ones who cultivated these audiences in the first place. People follow Beyoncé because of her brand - if you saw a Disney ad on her feed with messaging that was obviously not in her voice, it would feel like Spam and Beyoncé’s follower count would take a hit.

The orange square, out of place on feeds that normally featured stellar influencer content, got people’s attention, but it was the influencers’ own words that converted into engagements with the Fyre Festival brand. For most marketers, this kind of lazy/anarchistic way of “NOT” managing a brand sounds like sacrilege. (We marketing types tend to be a little OCD about consistent messaging and branding.)  

I suspect the success of this marketing campaign stems from the old “two heads are better than one" axiom. By leaving the messaging to the influencers, they increased their marketing team from a collaboration of two minds into one with hundreds of talented and creative people, each with a slightly different spin on how to package the message.

However, as impressed as I am with the effectiveness of this simple strategy, it did fail to accomplish its goal of driving people to the Fyre app. The whole purpose of the festival was to drive attention to an app that would allow users anywhere in the country to hire celebrities and influencers to attend parties and events. When I first heard about the app at Portland’s 2019 Digital Summit, a presenter asked the crowd, “Who heard of the app?” 

There I was in a room of 300 or so marketing professionals, and the presenter’s question got nothing but crickets.

At A Better Jones, we plan events to draw attention to our client’s products all the time. It’s a tried and true strategy for increasing brand and product awareness. Fyre’s influencer marking did a phenomenal job of increasing brand awareness but was an abysmal failure in driving their audience to a product that not only fills a very real gap in the entertainment market, but also was just a really cool idea.

The Micromanaged Marketing of EA Game Changers

Compared to the Fyre Festival, EA did the exact opposite with their marketing and, despite getting in their own way, continue to profit from its success.

EA is a company that produces a slew of video games, and their Game Changer Program is a striving YouTube star’s dream come true - it’s essentially influencer marketing, done through YouTube. The tradeoff is simple; produce content on YouTube that promotes one of EA’s games, build up a following, then sign ups for the program. If a content creator is accepted, they receive exclusive gameplay content they can use in their videos, and a test account so they can beta test changes to the games and provide exclusive reviews and insight on their channels. 

Using the program, hundreds of content creators have made YouTube their full-time job. One of the Game Changers I follow earns more than $7,000 a month and finished law school debt-free thanks to his channel about EA’s Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes (SWGOH) mobile app. 

EA has benefited from this relationship, making SWGOH one of the top grossing mobile games in the world, and then officially shut down the Game Changers program for SWGOH in June 2019. As a marketer, this made zero sense, so I did a bit of digging. I read the forums, watched former Game Changer commentaries on the cancellation, and the reason became staggeringly clear. EA was happy with the success Game Changers brought to their products, but they couldn’t control what was being said, and nothing scares away a multimillion dollar corporation like people airing their bad laundry.

During SWGOH’s ongoing three-year-run Game Changers repeatedly made the mistake of actually expressing their opinions . . . you know, the reason people follow their channels, to begin with. 

Whenever EA released new footage or a new character to the Game Changers first, it was hit or miss as to whether they actually enjoyed the changes to the game (the very thing they were testing for), and they were very vocal about it. If they didn’t like the mechanics of a new character, or something about the new interface, they started a dialogue with their subscribers about it.

Despite the negative reviews, more and more people sign up for the game every day, because of this unapproved content. This is an issue EA has tackled with every game in the program. A year ago they tried to reign in Game Changers by not giving them new content to publish, but they continued to make videos on their own and everyone - including EA - has profited from this tenuous relationship.

EA finally threw in the towel and ended the program, most likely due to Disney’s increasing need to control the Star Wars Franchise, which also spells impending doom for several other titles. This old corporate way of thinking about marketing doesn’t fully take advantage of the reach social media marketing has when you’re willing to let the reigns go and spread your brand through many voices, instead of just one calculated ad campaign full of “yes men”.

Final Takeaway

You can’t micromanage influencers, but you can and should give them guidance. 

I’ve covered how influencer marketing can be an extremely, if not the most, effective way to spread awareness of your product or brand, but there is a risk that you have to be comfortable with. You cannot control the message. If you use the right influencers for your audience, it will probably work, regardless of what you do or don’t tell them, but you have to be ready for negative content. Influencers have to be honest with followers because it’s their business and brand on the line, as well.

Just remember, if you’re afraid of failure, or the opinions of Instagram celebrities, you’ll never grow.