It’s No Dark Night for The Dark Knight

I saw The Dark Knight at the first IMAX midnight showing Thursday night.

In the long line of fans and fanboys, some dressed in Joker or Batman costumes, I kept thinking about the viral marketing and alternate reality game, or ARG, that has now come to an end, I assume, with the release of the movie. Depending upon who you ask, people either saw a lot of marketing for The Dark Knight or just a few commercials here and there. For those who were listening, there was plenty to hear.

I speculated awhile back that this campaign might be looking to blow the top off traditional marketing if Heath Ledger’s death turned out to be some kind of trickery. I wasn’t the only one who thought that either. Of course, faking Ledger’s death would have been an extremely controversial part of any marketing plan, but I think there would have been an insane amount of buzz surrounding the film if they had spun the gossip readers around in their chairs.

Unfortunately, Ledger’s death was not any sort of hoax, but the ARG and viral marketing done for The Dark Knight still represents some of the best outreach for the hardcore fan crowd that I have ever seen. By stringing together ARG events, several websites, outdoor signage and more traditional advertising, The Dark Knight‘s marketing gave fans just enough to stay hungry until the release of the film.

Chris Lee of the LA Times went over all the many facets of the campaign back in March. Rather than being one deep alternate reality game or one simple viral website to promote the film, The Dark Knight marketing team and 42 Entertainment provided several big reveals.

By using several websites to run numerous small ARG projects, the marketers kept fans pining for the movie’s release. I am convinced that someone involved with the marketing for The Dark Knight is an insider at GoDaddy just looking at the complete list of all the sites affiliated with the movie.

The campaigns started off pretty small. One of the most noteworthy early on was making a game out of revealing the first photo of Ledger’s Joker pixel by pixel. Fans had to translate puzzles in email messages which unlocked just a pixel of the image until the entire photo was revealed.

Staged events like the street side campaign stands for Harvey Dent seemed to almost go unnoticed, but those true fans that ran into them on the street or sought them out through IBelieveInHarveyDent.com got free Harvey Dent swag and a reminder of the film.

While it looked like a perfectly legitimate campaign site for the fictional Gotham District Attorney at first, IBelieveInHarveyDent.com was defaced — we must assume by the Joker — as the film’s release grew closer. Prior to the “vandalism,” The Community Guy praised it for staying in character.

Defaced I Believe in Harvey Dent Site

To get the full story on the Dent campaign, you should also check out IBelieveInHarveyDentToo.com. Don’t ‘Select All’ in your browser, or you might discover something there as well.

The Joker set up shop at whysoserious.com to lead a scavenger hunt at San Diego’s Comic-Con and then provide the locations of bakeries around the United States where fans could receive a cake. Each cake was packed with an evidence bag containing a cell phone, phone charger, Joker gear and instructions to keep the phone on you at all times.

A similar piece of the ARG puzzle ran through the Clown Travel Agency, leading fans on another scavenger hunt for the Joker. In the end, a select group of fans who got there first received bowling ball bags containing a Joker-themed ball and a cell phone.

With all the various online and off-line marketing projects coming together, The Dark Knight had plenty of buzz opening weekend.

Early reports from E! Online are that The Dark Knight passed up Spider-Man 3 by grossing $155.3 million in its first weekend. The movie also set the records for opening day and single day.

While people all over the world may love their Batman, the success of The Dark Knight and especially this big opening weekend is a result of their innovative and consistent marketing. Even with the death of Heath Ledger endangering the project, the studio and 42 Entertainment put together enough rabbit holes to keep fans in the Batman universe and to keep the mainstream media reporting about their movie right up until the release date.

I know the ARG definitely pushed me to go see it early. I don’t normally rush out to see a movie the first weekend it comes out, but because of all the marketing and the IMAX showings, I jumped on board to get a ticket early.

How did the ARG and viral marketing influence you? Did you rush out to see the movie this weekend, or do you have no interest in it? Have you even ever heard of Batman? Continue the discussion by dropping a comment below.

“Dear Sister”: The Anatomy of an Internet Meme

First, it was just a silly scene at the end of The O.C. episode “Dear Sister” — I know, of all TV shows to create a meme, The O.C.

Then Saturday Night Live (SNL) made it into a digital short.

After seeing it spoofed on SNL, YouTube users made remixes of popular Internet videos based on the “Dear Sister” spoofs like this “Charlie Bit My Finger” remix

From there, it esploded all over the Internet. Just look at how many search results you can find for “Dear Sister” now — many of them completely recreated by users.

Has it now come full circle with a remix of scenes from The Office into a series of “Dear Sister” spoofs?

That’s a sample anatomy of an Internet meme — or in this case, a viral video — that I discovered today.

The things I do with my evenings. *sigh*

How to Game YouTube and Go Viral

Dan Ackerman Greenberg’s guest post on TechCrunch sparked heated discussion about the ethics of gaming YouTube to get more views.

I am not a fan of gaming the system with fake comments and trickery like changing titles, tags and thumbnails, but there is no doubt that many “viral video specialists” use these tactics to get their videos viewed.

If you really want to generate a following and positive karma for your brand, I think it’s best to let the good videos rise to the top and go viral. Call me a dreamer. Natural selection FTW!

Here’s a little tongue-in-cheek video that shows you how it’s done by the people that brought us Ooh Girl!:

I personally miss the “Wild West days,” as Greenberg termed them, when a great video on YouTube would rise to the top with no tampering. I think the best videos still do, but the space will certainly be cluttered by those who will try to manipulate it in the coming years just like the blogosphere.

Web Culture 101 via South Park

If I am going to open a conversation on social media and community building on this blog, we are going to have to discuss Web culture from time to time. Hence, a new category!

Want to know what makes a video go viral? Just look at the history. Here’s a quick Web culture test to start off your education–or continue it. South Park recently tackled the life of an Internet superstar in the “Canada on Strike” episode.

Can you name every meme/viral sensation featured in this clip?

WARNING: This clips is not entirely “family friendly.” It IS South Park after all.

Bonus points if you knew what a meme was before reading this post. Maybe we can all learn something from South Park after all.

via Veronica Belmont’s Pownce sharing 🙂 (You do know Pownce, don’t you?)

Why I thought Heath Ledger wasn’t really dead: viral marketing theories and epiphanies

When I heard the news that Heath Ledger was found dead yesterday, I couldn’t help being a little skeptical. Not to be disrespectful of the dead, but I thought in the first minutes of the reports that it might all be a clever ruse by a very risky marketing team.

Let me take you back in my experience leading up to his death.

I had been researching the viral marketing campaign for The Dark Knight in preparation of doing a post about the numerous things they were doing right to get fans involved. Not having even participated in any of the ARG–or alternate reality game–action, I was still excited to read about all of the various games put together for fans of the movie.

The campaign is being done by famed 42 Entertainment, known for the Halo 2 ARG ILoveBees. It has created a deep reality spanning both the Web and real world for the fans. You can read all about the various elements of the viral marketing efforts in the “Marketing” section of the Wikipedia entry for The Dark Knight.

Recently, clues from the viral marketing campaign led fans to various bakeries in cities around the country where they received cakes containing hidden evidence bags with a real cell phone inside. After following the given instructions and calling a phone number from the cake, fans were left waiting for the Joker to call.

The second factor in my skepticism came from a podcast by Revision3 called The Totally Rad Show. In a recent episode, co-host Alex Albrecht mentioned how he felt Christopher Nolan was really taking up the idea that the Joker was “undead” since he is killed before coming back to life as one of Batman’s greatest villains. Many reports online were citing the many surprises awaiting moviegoers in Nolan’s imagining of the Joker.

Now that we are up to speed, enter the news of Heath Ledger dying just weeks later. The idea crept into my head that this news might be part of the campaign as well.

Obviously, this theory was blown out of the water after numerous official, confirmed reports of Ledger’s body being found and the reactions of his family. For those few minutes before more information was known, I theorized that 42 Entertainment might have blown the ARG open.

Can you imagine how insane that level of depth and immersion would have been? People were rushing to CNN.com to see the breaking news headline that Heath Ledger was found unresponsive and possibly dead. In that moment, what if, as the Joker himself says, “It’s all part of the plan.”

Of course, they would have had to retract the staged death quickly and made sure that the correct information was known. It would have been controversial.

If Ledger had prepped his family and close friends for the news and the ARG team was ready to go with the next stage–a Joker call from the beyond perhaps–that would have been an epic ARG event. If they had staged the faking of his death in a few months, just before the movie’s release, the stunt might have made a huge impact with fans and the mainstream public as well without breaking fans out of the ARG state of mind.

Despite how impossible it seems, part of me almost wishes that this theory was the truth. We wouldn’t have lost a talented actor so young in his career, and the move would have completely blown any ARG to date out of the water by bringing participants down to reality with the idea of death before pulling them deeper back to the game with the reveal.

What a great way to re-introduce the character of the Joker for longtime fans looking for new life in the Batman saga. It would have been interesting.

Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are a great way to tell your marketing story online

I love ARGs–or alternate reality games–as a marketing tool. I personally find them fascinating when used effectively. Two of my recent favorites have been the ILoveBees campaign from 42 Entertainment for Microsoft’s Halo 2 release, and the “Ethan Haas was Right” mystery currently marketing J.J. Abrams’ new movie codenamed “Cloverfield” online. If you haven’t seen either one, read about ILoveBees and Ethan Haas was Right on Wikipedia.

Part of the reason they are even more successful these days is the socialization of the Web. With an online ARG, one person who becomes fascinated with the hooks and mystery of the game end up sharing links virally through social networks and outlets like Facebook, MySpace or Twitter. The viral movement makes the scope of the campaign much larger than if you had to personally find and attract each person to the campaign.

The ARGs are also a great way to educate consumers and interest them in your product. The ILoveBees campaign leaked parts a side story of the Halo saga, and the Ethan Haas was Right campaign had a huge pull already because of the mystery surrounding J.J. Abrams new film and his background from Lost, the television series. ILoveBees ended up creating one of the largest media launches in history–until Halo 3 was released.

The Escapist highlighted an even more intricate campaign done by Lance Weiler to promote his film Head Trauma with a blog called Hope is Missing. The blog follows a storyline similar to the movie with the sole author logging his efforts to find the missing “Hope.” According to Weiler, with these types of games, the site feeds his creativity for the film and vice versa.

“They’re wild times right now in terms of storytelling,” says Weiler. “I’m approaching all my work in a new way – I’m creating a world. It’s not just enough to create a script anymore.”

The world is what end users and consumers cry out for these days.

The ARG isn’t Weiler’s first effort in the space. He experimented with promoting his films by integrating them with Web sites back in 1998 with his first film The Last Broadcast. His experience shows as he is smart enough to provide various levels of involvement for the passive observer or for the conspiracy theory junkie.

“Sometimes ARGs are dense and take a quite a bit of time to get into,” says Weiler. “With this we were doing media-integrated gameplay. You can enjoy it at multiple levels. You could dig as deep as you want, but you can just look at the web videos if you want. You don’t have to play the game.”

ARGs are one of my marketing passions, and while they take a great deal of effort and planning to execute, their effectiveness with the young, Internet generation has to be noted. Weiler is one of the bold few experimenting with ARGs and involving fans in the presentation of his films by interacting through cell phone text messages and remixing music and scenes live while the movie plays.

“We live in a remix culture, an on-demand culture,” says Weiler. “Media consumption is changing, and because of that media creation is changing. Everything now has become decentralized, controlled by the end user. When that happens it’s about discoverability. It’s all about empowering that user and finding ways to interact with them, and the language of that storytelling has changed.”

While Weiler focuses on the storytelling aspect of involving the fans in the ARG, the marketing aspect is visible in all parts of his site’s presentation.

ARGs can be as simple as a YouTube video or as complicated as a full-fledged puzzle site and email campaign like Ethan Haas was Right. In grassroots marketing, ARGs are cost-effective despite the effort required because of their large scope and conversational/viral value.

Be sure to consider an ARG next time you have a marketing story to tell, but make sure it’s properly introduced so as not to make a bad or scary first impression.