There you are, online, tirelessly researching a lead. It's late, and you're encountering one dead end after another. Unwilling to give up, you return to Google, try
a few new terms and peruse the results. Ah-ha - an interesting blog entry worth checking out. You haven't seen this site before, so maybe you're onto something. As you begin clicking through
the entries, you wonder if this time you'll find the answers that will unravel the mystery: What is the Dharma Initiative, and where did that island go?
For avid fans of Lost, ABC's hit TV show, this could be considered a normal post-show Thursday night activity - taking new clues from the night's episode and searching for answers to the show's story line in a network of Web sites, blogs and fan sites full of hints, theories and even more questions. Some fans (including me) have learned to watch for hidden content within each episode, making sure to always TiVo the show for careful analysis afterward ("nerd alert," I know).
During one scene in the most recent season's opener, a toll-free phone number flashes across a character's television set as a news reporter breaks the story about the apparent discovery of Flight 815 on the bottom of the ocean. Fans who noticed this small detail and called the toll-free number were greeted with a recording for the fictitious airline that plays a key role in the show's story line.
Lost is not the first show to expand a story line by leveraging the Internet (J.J. Abrams' previous show, Alias, used a similar strategy). But the degree to which Lost's producers have woven online and offline content into the show's experience has not only proved popular among viewers, it's also drummed up interest in the concept of using fake content to promote real products.
Among entertainment companies,
this immersive-experience strategy continues to grow and take on different forms. Disney's Wall-E leveraged virtual content to quietly introduce audiences to Buy n Large, the apparent
manufacturer of the film's small, robotic star. In addition to a collection of '50s-style postcards, the company also boasts a robust Web site (buynlarge.com) that features a number of other
robots and more content that helps set the tone for the world in which Wall-E lives.
Many marketers question whether this strategy can work for brands or campaigns outside of the entertainment industry, ones without the luxury of weekly hourlong episodes or full-length movie story lines. Good news: Yes, it can, if you understand and employ the basics that make it work.
Look no further than the computer gaming industry and its use of a "challenge and reward" system. Successful game designers know how to ease players into a game's story and mechanics, then slowly increase the game's challenges and required skills over a period of time, rewarding players with new weapons, levels and more as they continue to play. This balanced approach can cause gamers to play for extensive periods of time, as they believe their mastery of the game lies just around the corner. Even if a player wins the game, another level of game play or a new release emerges to continue the engagement. The Lost creators heavily employ this technique in the form of questions (the challenge), eventual answers (the reward) and the introduction of new questions (leveling up).
Next, your "content" is, of course, a critical component. Without it there's no story experience to extend and immerse consumers in. Creating good content is no small challenge. Content for this type of strategy often fails in its eventual connection back to a marketing initiative, so marketers should resist the urge to push the campaign's agenda to the forefront. It may seem counterintuitive, but avoiding the oversell can increase your initiative's effectiveness and perhaps spur it to become memorable and viral-worthy. Imagine if, after calling the toll-free number, you received a discount code to buy a Lost T-shirt or a promotional message for the show on DVD. Sure, it might still be viral, but you wouldn't like the message.
Finally, remember to keep it fluid. A successful campaign isn't often the result of a detailed, set-in-stone master plan. Instead, be prepared to measure your efforts and adapt as your virtual content campaign plays out. A well-timed curve ball, like making an island disappear, may serve you well.
Kirk Drummond is cofounder of Drumroll, an interactive agency creating innovative brand experiences and strategies. (firstname.lastname@example.org)