Last June, mysterious posts began appearing on forums frequented by gamers. They seemed to come from an artificial intelligence, and each was accompanied by a logo of unknown origin.
This was the beginning of Project Iris, a viral marketing campaign for the massive Xbox hit Halo 3. An e-mail message drew players new to the game to halo3.com, which became the hub for video that was layered with secret messages to appeal to both newbies and hardcore fans. Five episodes sent players on treasure hunts with clues across online and traditional media, such as store circulars.
Microsoft tied its retailers' stores to the online campaign, by hiding clues on Xbox kiosks there. Meanwhile, Amazon built a fake Halo 3 book, complete with an ISBN number and readers' comments.
And Samsung and MSN collaborated on a mobile page where fans could download a ringtone - but only if they were willing to jump through some hoops. "We hid a clue on halo3.com where you had to hold your phone up to your computer to unlock it," explains Aaron Elliott, the Microsoft online marketing manager who drove the campaign. Playing the ringtone into the computer unlocked a special part of the Web site that contained another clue.
Project Iris was the expression of Microsoft's strategy for the release of this new game: "Feed the Core, Captivate the Masses." And it shows what most young ladies already know: Challenges and mysteries excite the psyches of men ages 18 to 34.
"Halo has a built-in base of rabid fans. We not only wanted to reward them for being so loyal, but also get them started with the activation of our market, and pulse outward until we reached mass consciousness," says Elliott.
The campaign tweaked younger men's delight in tests of their knowledge and love of trivia, luring 1 million unique visitors to the site and sparking 400,000 ringtone downloads. "We have a very perfect demographic, a lot who are really into engaging with our IP at a high level," Elliott says. "These guys are willing to go the extra mile, they like to be challenged - and they share the experience with others."
A Big Bunch of Guys
While Halo 3's core audience extends from 18-year-olds - and even younger - up to age 34, at least, for many marketers, this traditional segmenting doesn't make a lot of sense. How much is a recent high-school grad like a 34-year-old father of twins? A look at their online behavior shows plenty of consistency, but also some divergence.
ComScore, the audience measurement and analysis firm, compared the top 50 sites visited in September by men ages 18 to 24 with those visited by men ages 25 to 34. While the top sites were fairly consistent between the two groups, with Yahoo the most-visited and Google the second most-visited, the biggest difference was in visits to financial sites.
Citibank.com and capitalone.com were among the most highly trafficked sites of the older guys, with PayPal also showing up only in the older demographic's traffic pattern. The more mature men seem to be more bargain-conscious, as well, with visits to bizrate.com and coupons.com showing up in their top sites.
Interestingly, while YouTube was almost equally popular among the two groups, Netflix only showed up as a top site in the older demographic slice, while the no-holds-barred broadcaster.com was where the younger set got their video kicks.
Big advertisers still do see this group as one demographic slice, so creatives need to do some fancy footwork to reach all of them. Miller Genuine Draft wanted to reach 21- to 34-year-old men with the interactive extension of its "The Craft" campaign, which ties the passion and craft of songwriting to MGD's brewmasters.
The online campaign began as a destination site where fans can watch video and interviews with some of the artists featured in live concerts produced with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Now, it's moving into a social networking phase, thanks to partnerships with MySpace and Yahoo Music.
Because the series features a wide range of artists, from Elvis Costello to Ben Kweller, there's something for everyone in the age group, says Greg Johnson, vice president and creative director for Digitas, MGD's interactive agency of record. In today's mass-niche world, one big star can't anchor a broad campaign. "You have to think about a cast of characters you can bring to the stage," he says.
Keeping in mind the male nature of the fan base, the MySpace presence will provide opportunities for the kinds of structured expression guys prefer: rating and ranking music, and searching for emerging artists. Says Leyla Dailey, Digitas vice president and associate creative director, "For fans, we're saying, 'Write in, tell us about your favorite musical experience.' With bands, we feature the band of the week, to tap into undiscovered talent."
The push into MySpace and Yahoo Music acknowledges the biggest trend in the way young people use online media. These dudes aren't about to click through from a banner to a Web site. Says Johnson, "There's a lot of untapped desire to have media come to them. If I'm on MySpace or My Yahoo, I want my experiences there. It's not passive entertainment, it's very active - but the brand isn't going to control where it happens."
Tease Me, Please Me
While interactivity is the forte of online advertising, it's especially critical when trying to reach the younger part of this demographic - men 18 to 24.
"The retention level of Web sites, particularly for a younger audience, aren't very good, and return rates aren't very good," says Jonathan Sackett, chief digital officer for Arnold Worldwide. "You literally have less than 18 inches and less than two seconds to get them to interact with you."
A heavy dose of humor doesn't hurt. For TAG Body Spray, Arnold created a Web site with the tagline, "Do you have what it takes to hang as a testee?" Banners on maxim.com and fark.com, plus an e-mail blast to Maxim's house list, sent guys to the site to prove themselves. Tests, administered by a hot woman in a lab coat, include trying to tell whether a photo shows a girl, guy or goat. That's not as easy as it sounds: A pink plastic hairclip in golden locks turns out to be holding back the mane of a billy goat.
The site abounds with Easter eggs and hidden content. For example, if you roll over the image of a security camera, the site's hostess strikes a sexy pose.
Once they find one piece of mystery content, these young men can't stop looking for more. Then they're bragging on blogs, and the site really takes off, Sackett says. "People like to feel like they're getting away with something."