With the help of Firstborn, the "first thorough archeological" exploration of the Titanic brought some friends along
The latest Titanic adventure took years of planning as well as cutting-edge technology and marketing - but hurricanes were almost the project's undoing. Last August, a group of scientists, archeologists and historians set out on the RMS Titanic Expedition. Working with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, the Expedition planned to document the entirety of the world's most famous shipwreck in 3-D, probing a two-by-three-mile debris field where hundreds of thousands of artifacts remain scattered. (The bow and the stern of the Titanic, which separated during the sinking, now lie one-third of a mile apart.)
The North Atlantic weather, however, seemed to have other plans.
Scientists were excited about the potential of the expedition's high-end sonar equipment, underwater robots and 3-D cameras. For everyone else, the juiciest part of this expedition was the marketing element. To drum up interest in its Titanic-themed programs, RMS Titanic's parent company, Premier Exhibitions, decided to share the real-time exploits of the dive on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and a dazzling new Web site. Essentially, it invited everyone online to see what the crew saw and talk to the onboard experts as the adventure unfolded - high seas and all.
Facebook, September 11, 7:08
RMS Titanic: It is still really rough out here this morning. We have gale-force winds and sloppy 10-12 foot seas. The best comparison we can make is that for the last 18 hours it felt like living inside a clothes dryer. If the seas cooperate we will deploy the [underwater equipment] later this morning.
Sure, plenty of other Titanic dives have been conducted over the last two decades. Plus, in 2003 James Cameron followed up his movie, Titanic, with a 3-D documentary, Ghosts of the Abyss, showing wreck close-ups. But those previous trips were for "exploration or adventure," says Dave Gallo, director of special projects at Woods Hole. This new expedition was "the first thorough archeological" survey of the Titanic. It was also "the first attempt to create a 3-D model of something so large and irregularly shaped, at this depth of water," he adds.
To handle the digital parts of the expedition's marketing plan, Expedition Titanic teamed with digital agency Firstborn. The shop crafted an immersive Web site that seems to transport viewers to the ocean floor and gives them a 3-D virtual tour of the wreckage. Clicking on areas of the wreckage brings up historical tidbits. A month before the dive, videos of crew interviews were seeded within YouTube and Facebook. On Aug. 12, 10 days before the dive started, the site went live with a countdown.
During the expedition, the Titanic team used Facebook and Twitter to update followers. "Twitter offered a play-by-play, and Facebook gave a richer experience of the trip," says Chris Greco, vice president of digital at Premier Exhibitions. All the social channels were fed back to the home site. Twitter and Facebook content appeared on the site within minutes after it was posted and "people began putting up comments [on the site] seconds afterward," says Firstborn president, Dan LaCivita.
In the meantime, hosts of NBC's Today Show announced the upcoming dive in late July and hyped NBC's exclusive partnership with the expedition. Today's correspondent Kerry Sanders was stationed onboard the dive ship and filed reports about the trip. Blogs on NBC.com and MSNBC.com also covered the trip with regular updates.
But then there were the hurricanes. In late May, the Canadian Hurricane Centre forecasted a "very active" hurricane season, with up to seven major storms expected in the North Atlantic during the summer and fall. As a result, "our strategy was to create a platform where the team could communicate all the twists and turns of the expedition to their fans," says Firstborn's LaCivita.
The month-long trip started on Sunday, August 22. In barely a week, the ship was headed back to Newfoundland with Hurricane Danielle bearing down right behind it, kicking up 40-foot swells at the wreck site.
Facebook, Aug. 28, 5:04 p.m.
"It's official. Hurricane Danielle will force us to temporarily halt operations at the wreck site as of early Sunday morning. The team is working through the night to complete as many mission objectives as possible."
For the next week, the crew was stuck ashore as Hurricane Earl quickly followed behind Danielle. Late on Sept. 6, the team finally left St. John's, Newfoundland, for the second leg of their journey. They enjoyed clear skies and gorgeous sunsets that they happily photographed and shared online. But the calm was short-lived. By Sept. 10, waves got choppy and winds reached gale force again, limiting how much the scientists could use the underwater equipment.
Facebook, Sept. 10, 11:42 a.m.
"It doesn't look like much, but those whitecaps indicate that the water is unsafe to perform auv recovery: Our robots, dubbed Mary Ann and Ginger, will likely stay on board the ship for the remainder of the day as 10-foot swells are predicted. More amazing Titanic photos will be posted later today."
Conditions never fully improved, but work continued anyway as the crew surveyed the stern area and shared video taken east of the stern in the "heavy debris field."
Facebook, Sept. 14, 6:12 a.m.
"Another day, another beautiful sunrise; however seas are still rough and this is the 4th straight day of getting tossed around. All is well with auv and rov operations, but calm seas would make their work faster, easier and help keep our coffee in our cups. No complaints though, this is the hand we were dealt and we are fortunate to be back on site."
What the crew didn't know was that Hurricane Igor was on the way. Within a few days, the newest storm made its presence felt and the scientists had to face the fact that their time for exploration was at a close. The farewell was bittersweet.
Facebook, Sept. 15, 6:05 p.m.
"Safety first. The accelerated movement of Hurricane Igor means that we are leaving the wreck site earlier than expected. Even though we're leaving early, we still have plenty of great photos and videos to share ... Stay tuned and thank you for joining us on our journey."
So how about the numbers? Did the online marketing do its job?
Not surprisingly, video via social media proved the most popular form of outreach. By Sept. 23, the expedition's 32 videos on YouTube attracted 894,730 total views, according to Firstborn. The expedition's site, which introduced visitors to the videos, garnered 476,007 visits and 5.5 million page views. People spent an average of nine minutes on the site. Online traffic spiked dramatically when photos and video of the wreck were released, says Premier Exhibition's Greco. "For instance, when the first high-def video was posted, we had more than 250,000 views on YouTube in two days," he says.
In the meantime, the Facebook page had 58,721 monthly active users and 33,927 fans. Interaction rate was 1.1 percent. In contrast, Twitter had only 2,426 followers.
Looking back, Greco says hurricanes were in the back of everyone's minds. "We knew that weather was a dramatic element, but rather than being sensational about it, we opted to use social media to track the storms and how they impacted our mission. We saw it as a way to help the audience feel like they were expedition team members." Indeed, online comments showed that people seemed to be deeply concerned about the crew's safety. In other words, the storms that frustrated the scientists actually turned out to be a boon to the expedition's marketing efforts, thanks to social media. Adversity built a deeper engagement among fans.
The biggest surprise was how media outlets - both online and offline - were using social media posts to track what the expedition was doing, even quoting posts in their news stories, says Greco. "Our social marketing campaign [went beyond marketing.] It became a source for news," he notes.
And, yes, Danielle, Earl and Igor deserve part of the credit.