30 January 2008

The Making of a Viral Monster

By Rodney Lim

(Published in ‘Campus & Beyond’, a weekly column written by Swinburne academics in the Borneo Post newspaper)

A powerful network marketing technique known as viral marketing has gained a lot of attention in recent years. Viral marketing refers to self-propagating advertisements where users pass on marketing messages.

Although many of us may know it as the video clips, jokes, funny ads, news items and other messages that we get daily in our in-box (and which we mindlessly forward to the ends of the earth), viral messages have potent commercial value.

A new Hollywood blockbuster film is showing how highly innovative viral strategies are changing the way entertainment products are marketed and consumed.

Cloverfield, the creature-feature that has hit our local theaters has a unique marketing plan. Instead of pouring millions into big named stars and glitzy ads, it went with a clever low budget online strategy aimed at creating a viral effect never seen before in the movie business.

Shrouded in secrecy, the film’s promotion campaign debuted last July with a very curious trailer in front of the Transformers movie. Done in shock-and-awe style (Lady Liberty’s decapitated head crashing down the streets like a bowling ball), it was untitled, and it teased audiences with a single line- 1-18-08, its opening date.

Filmgoers scrambled online to find information about the movie and ended up in http://www.1-18-08.com/ the movie’s official website containing clues in the form of photographs.

With no title, no information about the monster, a sketchy story line and short bits of fuzzy video clips online, fans speculated and demanded to know what the heck this movie was about.

On January 18, with the buzz reaching frenzied proportions, the movie opened to gigantic weekend numbers.

Internet word-of-mouth marketing in Hollywood is not new. The most publicized viral-marketed film was probably the low budget The Blair Witch Project (the other movie famous for its dizzying shaky-cam style), which propagated a fable on the web and actually got people into the theaters.

Other films like Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and 2006’s Snakes on a Plane all incorporated their Internet fan base to promote the films, with varying degrees of success.

With Cloverfield, the film’s producer J.J. Abrams – creator of the popular TV series Lost, also known for its myths, cryptic symbols, and dedicated online followers – has unleashed an unprecedented viral marketing strategy that infuses the movie with a real world, web-based reality game.

Cloverfield’s marketers created an Alternate Reality Game (ARG) – an interactive, multi-media story-telling platform which runs parallel to the movie – to build an immersive story experience.

Among Cloverfield’s web-based ARG elements are MySpace webpages of the main characters in the film which allowed fans to follow the back stories as they occurred, and which are supported by frequent updates and clues to help them solve the various puzzles.

A product in the ARG story called Slusho (http://www.slusho.jp/), has its own fully functioning website which sells Slusho merchandise.

Its parent company, Tagruato Corporation (http://www.tagruato.jp/), a deep sea drilling conglomerate, even ran real online contests to promote Slusho drinks.

Tagruato also has a nemesis, an environmentalist group called T.I.D.O Wave.

All these off-screen components developed in real time, gathered momentum in dramatic fashion and converged with the movie’s storyline on its opening.

The brilliant use of the ARG provided the story a depth and fan experience that is not possible with a normal length movie. Its extraordinary contexts generated a lot of excitement and intrigue, and a sense of discovery and immediacy not found in conventional movies (imagine receiving an email from Tagruato, weeks before the movie opened, showing undersea sonar images of something gargantuan heading toward the city).

The ARG dimension also allows Cloverfield to exist beyond the movie.

After watching the film, in websites and blogs and message boards, fans are filling in gaps, plotting alternative storylines and feeding back ideas to help expand franchise.

Thus, there is really no gap between this movie and its impending sequel, which could be a product co-created with the fans.

As the fans become absorbed by Cloverfield’s ARG experience, they automatically become its most rabid advocates. Thus, the movie markets itself and the Cloverfield product turned into a viral beast.

Cloverfield’s low cost, big hype viral strategy has positioned the film to reap huge margins. Produced for under US$30 million, its marketing budget is a fraction of other Hollywood blockbusters’.

In contrast, 1998’s Godzilla spent about US$50 million on its marketing budget alone. That monster tanked at the box office, proving that marketing budget size does not matter if you have a crappy product.

Whether Cloverfield becomes a blockbuster hit or not, we are bound to see more innovative viral marketing of movies in the future. Upcoming fares like the Batman sequel, The Dark Knight, and another J.J. Abram’s movie Star Trek have strong and interesting viral-ARG campaigns already underway.

As the various media continue to converge and as web users demand more entertainment value, extreme promotion techniques like the ones in Cloverfield will probably become the norm rather than the exception.

Rodney Lim is a lecturer with the School of Business, Swinburne University of Technology Sarawak Campus. He can be contacted at rlim@swinburne.edu.my.