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The puppet masters of viral marketing

November 10, 2006 14:54 IST

He woke up in a pool of sweat, with bruises on his arms, his ankle badly swollen. He'd had another terrifying blackout, the kind he'd been experiencing ever since he began beta-testing Sega's soon-to-be-released ESPN NFL Football 2K4 video game.

Now his neighbor was banging on his front door: "My wife's been crying all night! Why don't you try a move like that with me, tough guy?" One more innocent victim. No doubt he'd attacked her, too, like an animal going in for the kill.

Beta-7, as the twenty-something man came to be known, could find no explanation for his horrifying behavior, unless the Sega game was somehow torquing his brain. And so Beta-7 began his desperate attempt to prevent the game's release and expose the company's conspiracy and lies.

As he searched for a reason for his sudden violent surges -- his compulsion to tackle perfect strangers -- he found himself tracing a labyrinthine trail of evidence. He hacked into a Web site that contained medical records of twisted experiments performed on fellow gamers.

He found and reconstructed shredded Sega memos that admitted the game should not be released. He even unearthed video outtakes of spokesman Warren Sapp insisting that the game would not cause violence in its players.

Beta-7 spent three months searching for answers, answers that never arrived. A week after Sega released the game, Beta-7 -- along with his computer and Xbox -- disappeared, leaving behind only a few photographs of his ransacked apartment, uploaded to his blog by a distraught friend.

Elaborate stunt

It's a dark and disturbing tale. And, of course, it's utterly bogus, a fiction engineered in a strip mall in Orlando. There, surrounded by tiki mugs and other high kitsch, Mike Monello, a hefty 37-year-old with bulbous hazel eyes, and Jim Gunshanan, a local writer he'd hired to play Beta-7 day and night, lived the charade in real-time for 90 days.

The elaborate 2003 stunt was a viral marketing campaign dreamed up at Monello's postmodern production shop, now called Campfire, and ESPN's ad agency, Wieden+Kennedy, to help their client mount a challenge to Electronic Arts' Madden NFL, the most popular sports video game on the market.

By creating a pseudo-controversy among gamers about the new Sega release, they figured, they might be able to carve off a little name recognition and jump-start sales.

Monello and his partners at Campfire, Gregg Hale and Steve Wax, have become the high-wire stuntmen of viral marketing. In the past few years, the tiny outfit with offices in Orlando and New York has been the invisible force behind the country's most groundbreaking viral campaigns -- nonlinear, interactive advertising that starts out niche and then metastasizes.

Creating a successful viral campaign

Besides "Beta-7," their work includes Audi's "The Art of the Heist," as well as campaigns for Levi's, Sharp, Hewlett-Packard, and MSN. And now the Campfire trio is trying to spread a bug for its latest client, Pontiac.

These days, creating a successful viral campaign -- that addictive, self-propagating advertainment that lives on Web sites, blogs, cell phones, message boards, and even in real-world stunts -- is the dream of every marketer and ad shop.

It's a way to reach an ad-allergic audience and get it not only to notice your brand but to physically interact with it, to live it.

Cracking the viral code is no small feat, though. JupiterResearch recently reported that while marketers are increasingly trying to insinuate themselves into social media like blogs and MySpace, 69% of users are skeptical. And as willing as consumers may be to suspend disbelief for a compelling fiction such as "Beta-7," they'll turn on you in a heartbeat.

"The bottom line is that viral marketing is so not trusted by people that marketers can go a long way toward making people hate your guts if [they] don't do it right," says Lee Ann Daly, ESPN's former executive vice president of marketing.

Or as Hale puts it, black socks under his black Velcro sandals: "Viral is the opposite of brute force. The more brute force you try to use, the less viral it becomes, because people don't want to pass on pure marketing messages."

So what's the trick? Obsession. Observation. Overkill. Creating a viral campaign isn't like filming a 30-second spot and then sitting back and letting it run. It's a marathon, one that takes mastery of numerous media and the creativity to spin out a form of open-ended, multilayered, living entertainment that will keep an audience engaged for as long as possible.

On the Sega campaign, which Monello compares to "a three-month-long Saturday Night Live skit," the team began by writing months' worth of backlogged blog entries to give Beta-7 a history. When it decided to create the medical Web site, it researched how video games might affect the brain -- and had an art director scribble the doctors' notes -- so the documents would look legit.

It even taped ambush video of the game's real programmers denying Beta-7's charges.

As all of this pseudo-content made its way online, the dance grew even more complex. At one point when the team thought the tension on the message boards was dissipating, it created Gamer Chuck, a character playing the role of a Sega employee trying to pass himself off as a hip gamer.

As Chuck trashed Beta-7 and his conspiracy theories on his Web site, the boards went wild. Everyone who had been leery of Beta-7 -- suspecting that he was a marketing tool -- started bashing his new nemesis, who was clearly a corporate Trojan horse.

"It got pretty meta," Monello chuckles, "but as soon as the site launched, it worked."

"Beta-7" ultimately clocked some 2.2 million followers and, for $300,000 (excluding TV spots), helped Sega top sales projections by 25% in a category overwhelmingly dominated by Madden. Along the way, however, Campfire had done something else: It proved that a young, cynical, media-saturated audience just might be willing to listen to marketers as long as they showed some respect.

"The virtue of their work," says ESPN's Daly, "is that if you're on the side of the equation that believes [the hoax], then it's fascinating, and if you're on the side that gets that it's not real, then it's just great entertainment."

Drawing in the gullible

In other words, Campfire expands its audience by drawing in the gullible, the curious, and the merely bored -- simultaneously. According to Chip Heath, a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford's B-school and author of Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Random House), that's the same broad appeal that pulls people into tabloid gossip or urban myths. Campfire's work, he says, capitalizes on the "curiosity gap," a term coined in the 1990s by George Loewenstein, a Carnegie Mellon academic who studied the psychology of curiosity, and which refers to the addictive pull people experience when their preconceived ideas are challenged.

For the gap to work, though, the audience needs enough backstory and a sufficient flow of detail to keep it guessing. Campfire maintains this tension by creating ever more gaps and, crucially, never sliding into low-grade fictions.

It's easy to get people curious, Heath points out, it's keeping them that way that's the challenge. "I think that's where companies fall prey," he says. "We see a lot of people trying to use the same curiosity-gap technique, but then not delivering value or entertainment. It's like when someone tells you a bad punch line [to a joke]. You're kind of irritated because they haven't delivered on the anticipation and expectation they set up."

Contagion 1

As it happens, Hale and Monello know about entertainment and audience building. They got their initiation with none other than The Blair Witch Project, the lost-in-the-woods horror flick that they, along with three other partners, made for $22,000 and parlayed into a $248 million take at the box office in 1999, an indie-film record.

Hale and Monello talk about Blair as if it were a school they attended, and in a sense it was. In making it, they essentially broke all the rules of filmmaking and marketing: They used no-name actors, no script, and in 1998, a year before the film was released (or was even purchased by its distributor, Artisan), they inadvertently took their marketing. . .  online.

At a time when Web sites and message boards were a tiny part of the publicity machine, the Blair crew created both for a group of film geeks who'd heard about the film's "truth or myth?" premise on a 1998 Bravo special.

The filmmakers channeled all their attention to this tiny fan base and soon noticed that whenever they engaged somebody one-on-one, or fed them new elements of the Blair mythology (pages from the missing students' diaries, say, or interviews with local police, all created ad hoc), the discussion board exploded.

"When it started to die down," Monello recalls, "we'd look at each other and go, 'What are we going to do to pump it up?'"

What they did was tease out the story further and further, creating an ever more elaborate warren of "rabbit holes," or seductive entry points into the narrative. To prime the palates of the conspiracy junkies, a month before the film premiered, they cut a deal with the Sci Fi channel to run a one-hour pseudo-documentary about the Blair myth, which, like Bravo's special, played the story straight.

Even the film's trailers were designed to intrigue, not to explain: They ran for under a minute with only a black screen, grinding noises, the protagonist's terrified monologue, and the film's URL.

Stanford's Heath says such piecemeal storytelling is completely counterintuitive to traditional marketers, whose instincts are to tell stories as efficiently as possible, to reveal everything they know about a topic at once ("the curse of knowledge," he calls it).

By contrast, Heath explains, "what these guys are doing is strategically hiding parts of the story in an interesting and entertaining way, and getting people motivated to figure it out for themselves."

Soon enough, an obscure geek obsession with Blair spilled onto larger fan sites. Deejays started discussing the "legend" on drive-time radio. Then Artisan picked up Blair, re-created the grassroots buzz machine on a mass scale, and the rest is movie history.

The Blair experience taught Hale and Monello that the Internet wasn't just another advertising billboard (a lesson Artisan failed to retain in churning out Blair Witch II, a sexed-up, formulaic bomb). Because the Web can knit together numerous media platforms, and because it allows a story to unfold in real time, they recognized it as a new extension of the entertainment experience.

As Ty Montague, chief creative officer at JWT, who hired the team for the "Beta-7" campaign in 2003, puts it: "They were the first ones to really embrace a story that arced across multiple mediums and all came together. It was a seminal moment in communications."

As Campfire perfected that mode of storytelling on "Beta-7," the team realized something else: The virus they discovered on Blair catches on only if it forges a community where none existed. The infection has to start small and feed on fascination.

"You can't start by thinking about what's going to appeal to the mainstream," says Monello. "You have to ask, 'What's this narrow target market going to embrace and absolutely make its own?'"

To create that kind of bond, Campfire immerses itself in the unspoken etiquettes and motivations of different target communities -- Internet anthropology with a commercial twist.

Monello spent weeks before "Beta-7" loitering on gamer fan sites and message boards, learning the local language and culture. There he discovered, for example, that unfinished bootlegs of new games are highly prized among fans -- so Campfire had Beta-7 send bootlegs to a few voices whom Monello had identified as leaders of the tribe.

The seeds took: Those players uploaded screen shots to all the big gamer sites. "All of a sudden, this thing everyone thought was a marketing campaign bled into the real world," Monello remembers, "and that's when things started to get electric."

Contagion 2

Campfire's success with "Beta-7" opened the eyes of corporations to the stealthy potential of a viral campaign. And last year, Audi recruited the firm to draw wealthy young trendsetters to its new "compact luxury" A3.

It's a particularly tough crowd, says Stephen Berkov, Audi's director of marketing. "As soon as this group feels targeted, they turn away." So Campfire jacked up the campaign's scope, depth, and complexity, working with McKinney-Silver (Audi's ad agency) to engineer an elaborate three-month cross-country scavenger-hunt-cum-whodunit to take place online and in the real world.

"The Art of the Heist" premise was that two agents were trying to prevent the largest art theft in history at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence; the master plans were embedded in SD memory cards planted in several A3s just in from Germany.

The sleuths -- actors playing the parts of Nisha and her partner/boyfriend, Ian -- were requesting the help of the public in tracking down the SD cards. Unlike traditional product placement, where a product is jammed into a storyline, the A3 would become a central character.

Where the Sega hoax had tapped into an already game-centric culture, this time Campfire faced a far more amorphous group.

So during the final weekend of the New York International Auto Show, it "stole" the A3 on display and replaced it with a mysterious sign asking people to call a number if they had information on the theft.

("It's like, Who the hell could have stolen a car out of the Javits Center?!" Monello laughs.) When people did call, a voice mail told them to file any tips at an obscure Web address; there, they found a password-protected site, but clicking on "password" took them past a firewall, giving them the illusion of having hacked into the email system of the two field agents.

Suddenly, they had access to hundreds of private emails and files, even Nisha and Ian's MP3s and personal photos -- things that were peripheral to the narrative but gave it the texture of truth. "The next thing you know, you're 40 minutes into this and you're in way too deep to pull out," says Monello.

Within hours of the sign going up at the auto show, car blogs as far off as Japan were posting photos of the missing A3, and a gritty security video began circulating online of a car being stolen.

The story slowly unspooled in TV, print, and online spots. Every few weeks, a classified ad ran in various cities, urging the public to join Nisha on a critical real-world mission to retrieve an SD card from one of the A3s.

Each volunteer was required to submit to a background check, and the missions -- which took place everywhere from the Coachella Valley Music Festival, in California, to a waffle house in Atlanta -- were streamed live to as many as 500,000 people at a time.

Finally, after three months of code cracking and plot twists (which included Ian's becoming the prime suspect), the chase concluded at the Viceroy Hotel in Santa Monica, where 15 audience members helped nail the thief.

The art of storytelling

David Baldwin, the executive creative director at McKinney-Silver, describes this style of storytelling as "shining the light from the inside out like a lantern -- and the moths come to you."

But a critical part of ensuring that such a stunt spirals out to the masses is recognizing that not every moth has the time, or the interest, to trek to an Atlanta waffle house. So Campfire designs multiple layers of rabbit holes for people with varying levels of interest: the "divers," who participate minute-by-minute; the "dippers," who casually tune in on the message boards once a week; and the "skimmers," who accidentally read about it while surfing the likes of BoingBoing.net.

Rather than cross its fingers and pray for the audience to pass the tale on, Campfire pushed people along by inventing a "fan" to track the saga on his own Web site, summarizing the story for casual observers. "You let the hard-core audience figure the story out and tell it to each other," Monello explains, "then archive it for people who are following along from the sidelines."

For Audi, the payoff for all that attention to detail was pretty impressive: 2 million unique visitors to its site, and 4,000 test-drives within two months.

And, in a "compact luxury" category where Mercedes and BMW had tried and failed, Audi sold more than 5,000 cars in the A3's first seven months on the market and saw 75% more dealership leads than on any previous model launch. "It's marketing that pulls in, instead of turns off," says Audi's Berkov.

Hale is stroking his grizzly, ash-colored beard in the corner of a war room in Troy, Michigan. He, Monello, and Wax have been brought in by Pontiac's marketing director, Mark-Hans Richer, to come up with a campaign for the new GXP series -- and Richer wants an idea as groundbreaking as "Heist."

This time, instead of inventing a narrative, the guys want to build a community around the carmaker on Second Life, the online virtual-reality community of 700,000 players that's growing by a startling 20% a month. On Second Life, people live virtually through their avatars and can do everything from shopping at American Apparel to having sex.

This is a new platform for Campfire, but the art, as ever, is to ensure that Pontiac makes the experience of Second Life better for the community that's already there -- then transfers that luster to its real-life brand.

The strategy so far is to have Pontiac financially support virtual car-related businesses, such as racetracks and drive-ins, in an online universe where people can create anything but need real-world dollars to do it. (Pontiac won't let us disclose the real-world twist slated to come at the end of the campaign.)

But before the group can get into hashing out specifics, the Campfire guys offer a warning to the ad team at Leo Burnett, Pontiac's agency, about the sensitive socio-economics of this unusual microcosm.

Another carmaker, Monello tells them, nearly committed a massive faux pas earlier this year when it started giving away virtual cars to Second Lifers, instead of charging the market rate of about $5. "People who had been on Second Life for years, building cars and selling them, would have immediately gotten pissed off because this big corporation came in and totally crashed the car economy," Monello explains.

Make a similar mistake, he says, and the only thing Pontiac would be known for is how its "marketers are messing up Second Life."

Yes, it is a treacherous world for marketers -- and getting worse. Suspicious consumers are now making the job even harder by flooding the Web with their own content. As Jess Greenwood, a writer at Contagious, a British magazine that tracks viral campaigns, points out, "You're trying to insert a viral video, but you're competing with homemade films of kids putting Mentos in a Diet Coke bottle." Talk about authentic entertainment.

Worse, as this meta-marketing niche gets more crowded, the very word is losing its meaning: Marketers now proclaim their campaigns "viral" before they've even been released. Proving once again that if there's a way to miss the point, they'll find it.

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Danielle Sacks, FastCompany