Viral marketing has moved on from being about posting videos on YouTube. These days it can also be a long-term strategic business tool to build brands
I dare you to deny that at some point in your childhood, you didn’t want to be a superhero. Not surprisingly, masses of people became enthralled in 2008 with the arrival of the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight.
But it wasn’t just the anticipation of the movie, heightened by the premature death of its star Heath Ledger, which got so many people excited. The buzz had been building since May 2007, when creative marketing agency 42 Entertainment unleashed a viral marketing campaign featuring the film’s ‘Why so serious?’ tagline, and launching a fake political campaign on behalf of the film’s fictional character, Harvey Dent.
First billboards arrived innocuously across several of the major cities in the US. Months away from any presidential elections, the boards simply bore the messages: “I believe in Harvey Dent”, and “Harvey Dent for District Attorney”. The message was laid over a stately image of Dent, (portrayed by actor Aaron Eckhart), standing in front of the American flag.
A few days later, each billboard had been defaced and vandalised by identical graffiti. Dent’s eyes had been scribbled over with black rings, his mouth grotesquely smeared with red paint into a clown-like grimace. And finally each of the board’s messages had been altered to read: “I believe in Harvey Dent TOO”.
So what were these billboards promoting? Remember, this was more than a year before the film’s release. Most people would have seen either the sudden political aspirations of a Hollywood actor (oddly using an assumed name) or some guy called Dent (if they didn’t recognise Eckhart).
Mirror of physical posters
For the core target audience for the Batman film, however, who might be termed ‘comic-book geeks’ or ‘early adopters’, the posters made perfect sense. With previous experience of Alternate Reality Games (ARGs), such as ‘I love bees’, created to market popular Xbox title Halo 2, they quickly caught on. They entered the phrase: ‘I believe in Harvey Dent’ as a URL online. It took them to a single page website that mirrored the physical posters hung around American cities.
Several days later, when the billboards had been defaced, people typed in the new URL – adding the word ‘too’ – which took them to a similar web page but featuring the now-vandalised image. This time they were asked for an email address.
Fans were then kept up-to-date by email about various puzzles, activities relating to the film’s plot or information from the fictional businesses inthe movie.
In the 14 months before the film was released, 40 separate, related websites appeared to publicise it. Some were obvious, such as Whysoserious (featuring the film’s strapline) and The Gotham Times. These had major clues to lead fans to them. Others were far more obscure, including Bettyshouseofpies.com and Pasqualesbistro.com. They served no real purpose other than to populate the fictitious world of Gotham City.
The offline part of the campaign was equally grandiose. It had begun with the billboards, but this was a mere taster of what was to follow. ‘Jokerised’ dollar bills, faux kidnappings, cakes with mobile phones hidden inside and bowling balls with phone numbers etched into them all added to the immersive experience.
Did it achieve anything? Yes. First, the information about the online and offline marketing was passed on from person to person, building interest in the film even among those not seeing the pieces of creative.
Second, it allowed the film’s distributor, Warner Bros, to separate fans into three core groups participating with its material – the Jokers, the Citizens for Batman and Harvey Dent campaigners. This not only introduced an element of competition to the marketing, making people more interested in getting involved, but increased the entertainment value too. As a result, news about the tactics to promote the film reached the media and were spread to a mainstream audience too.
To date, the movie has grossed around $1bn (£673m) worldwide. The production budget was allegedly $185m (£126m) which, while considerable, is a fraction of the returns. What was the budget for 42 Entertainment’s marketing? I’ve got no idea, but you can guarantee that the percentage spent on the Dark Knight ARGs was considerably smaller than the production costs.
Another film marketing campaign running at roughly the same time as the one for Batman promoted science fiction film Cloverfield. The teaser trailer featured no plot outline, no branding and not even a title. Being a film from JJ Abrams, who also created TV show Lost, the teaser was followed by other viral marketing. Several websites were created along with profiles of the characters placed on social networking site MySpace.
Abrams had also run a number of viral campaigns for Lost when it began, revolving around the Hanson Foundation website (the Dharma Initiative), a company mentioned in the TV show.
Spanning both the US and the UK, like The Dark Knight it had numerous ‘fake’ websites, blogs, social networks, TV adverts and offline content. Clues and hints were imbedded in each with the ultimate goal of finding out exactly what Lost was all about. Interestingly, it was the first ARG to incorporate real-world brands in the campaign. Sprite, Jeep and Monster.com all played a part in the conspiracy.
Enhance a campaign
But while it is easy to see how ARGs can work for sexy, desirable film content, can they really have an impact in other areas?
Viral campaigns are often seen as a cheap, short-term alternative by brands to a ‘real’ advertising initiative. Yet, in the right hands, an ARG may be able to enhance a marketing programme, not just because of its price but because of its impact.
ARGs are long term. There is a degree of financial investment, strategic planning and a lot of creative thinking. This is about generating brand awareness over an 18-month timespan, not a two-week period where people swap your videos.
Have faith in your brand and your consumers. The internet can no longer be viewed as a tool; it’s an experience, which has far from reached it’s full potential. And brands today have to earn the right to play a role in people’s lives. Brands such as Procter & Gamble, The Red Cross, Hasbro and Audi have all used ARGs to great effect. Audi’s ARG, ‘The Art of the Heist’ involved ‘leaked’ security camera footage uploaded to a microsite, showing a figure placing puzzle pieces (on SD cards) in six Audis.
The audience was then challenged to track down the cars, piece together the information and find out the full story.
The storyline also used mobile phones, given to members of the public who entered a competition. These people were contacted when appropriate to go to locations around the US to retrieve the SD cards. Live TV interviews, roadblocks and much more also intrigued consumers. For a brand like Audi, building its reputation on being innovative, it all added up to a marketing programme that fitted the marque.
In a recession, where companies have less money to spend, viral marketing may receive more attention than ever before. But to do it well, businesses need to remember that the most effective campaigns are those treating it as a long-term, strategic tool, not a short-term gimmick.
Facts & Figures
£1bn Approximate world gross of The Dark Knight after 18-month marketing campaign.
3m Number of people who viewed Halo 2’s ‘I love bees’ marketing site.
$3m Reported cost of Audi’s ‘Art of the Heist’ game.
95% want ability to track virals better, says Feed Company research.
The full case study for TDK ARG can be seen here http://youtu.be/cD-HRI-N3Lg