Give your customers the chance to play detective by marketing your products with ARGs.
Have you ever heard of Slenderman? A tall thin figure with no discernible features wearing a black suit lurking somewhere in the forests, ready to kidnap unsuspecting people? At one point in the internet’s history, Slenderman was a horror staple featured in several real-seeming horror series (also called alternate reality games) on YouTube as the main antagonist.
Alternate reality games, or ARGs, are a form of storytelling that combine digital and real-world elements to create an immersive experience. Because of their immersive nature, ARGs aren’t just great for narrative building but also highly effective marketing tools. With that said, here is a breakdown of ARG elements, why they are effective for marketing and some unique marketing strategies created around them.
Before we take a closer look at ARGs, it is important to understand the difference between “augmented reality” and “alternate reality” games. An example of an augmented reality game is Pokémon Go, where you would need to go to real-world locations to find and collect Pokémon through your smartphone. However, ARGs don’t augment or add to reality; instead, they give you the opportunity to experience a new and different reality. In an ARG, you would be watching something on YouTube, and through it, you would find clues that would lead you to another part of the internet on a quest for more information.
Most ARGs use unique ways to interact with their audience, like subtitles of a video or tags, and have elements of horror or mystery. While there are an innumerable amount of ARGs, the one that best explains what I’m talking about is the Twitter ARG “The Sun Vanished”. This ARG documents the life of a man in a world where the sun no longer shines and the alien life that has now occupied Earth. What separates this ARG—and all other ARGs—from typical fictional stories on the internet is the use of multiple media to narrate a story. Not only does the protagonist of The Sun Vanished post tweets but also newsreels from his world, videos and photos of what’s happening outside his house and text messages between survivors.
Why ARG marketing works
Keeps the audience hooked
While this might seem like a novel concept to those who aren’t particularly interested in horror media, ARGs have been used in marketing fairly frequently. The most crucial reason ARGs work is they build a connection between the consumer and the marketed product or service. It gives people a mystery to uncover by looking for clues in every nook and cranny with their critical thinking skills.
A great example of ARG marketing is the “I Love Bees ARG” used for marketing the video game Halo 2 in 2004. The trailer for the game had clues that led viewers to I Love Bees’ website, which had been taken over by artificial intelligence (AI). By solving puzzles left by the AI on the website, players could gradually learn more about the story of Halo 2. It was so successful that the website received more than three million unique viewers in its heyday.
If your ARG has a great concept, you might end up with loyal fans who engage with everything you put out. One of the real-life parts of the “I Love Bees” game experience was that players would get the coordinates of payphones in different parts of the U.S. and have to answer them for more information. The fact that a player from Florida went to answer the payphone in the middle of a hurricane should give you a fair idea of how far loyal fans go for the ARGs they are interested in.
Makes viewers come back for more
In a world where more and more businesses are popping up each and every day, it continues to get harder and occupy space in a customer’s mind and budget. This is precisely why an ARG is such a good tool for marketing. If ARGs match well with the product or service you are trying to sell, they can help create a long-lasting positive image for the brand in the customer’s mind.
An example that illustrates the power of ARG marketing is the horror film franchise The Blair Witch Project (1999). While the film never used the word “ARG” in its marketing tactics, it had all the essential elements.
In 1997, they released a promotional reel of the film’s concept on the American TV show Split Screen, where the showrunner ended the segment saying, “So are the Haxan guys [the film studio behind The Blair Witch Project] pulling our leg or is there really a witch out in the woods of Maryland killing film students? Go to SplitScreen.com and let us know.”
In 1998, a year before the film’s release, the team made a website—blairwitch.com—to share its legend, including interviews with supposed experts, police evidence photographs and a message board for people to participate in solving the mysteries of the film.
All these, coupled with the documentary-style production, made the viewer experience more immersive than other horror films at the time. It had such a significant impact on people that some made their own websites to go through the clues. In addition, after its release, other films replicated The Blair Witch Project’s ARG-style marketing, and one example is Artificial Intelligence (2001).
While ARGs do indeed work for some projects, it is essential to remember that they aren’t for everyone. Make sure your target customer base is actually interested in interactive online treasure hunts before spending your marketing budget on them. Another issue with ARGs in marketing is that they tend to attract a niche audience, whereas a typical advertisement would appeal to the general public more. Make sure you consider these factors before deciding to leverage ARGs for your brand’s next marketing campaign.
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