Alternate reality games suck consumers into your brand’s world

Imagine having millions of consumers worldwide live, breathe and even become obsessed with one of your ad efforts for weeks at a time. That's the goal of a new alternate reality game (ARG) that 42 Entertainment unleashed last month to build up to the launch of the new Microsoft Vista Operating System.

Imagine having millions of consumers worldwide live, breathe and even become obsessed with one of your ad efforts for weeks at a time. That’s the goal of a new alternate reality game (ARG) that 42 Entertainment unleashed last month to build up to the launch of the new Microsoft Vista Operating System.

This new genre has been facilitating impressive interaction for big clients such as Microsoft, Warner Bros. and P&G by creating elaborate mysteries for participants to unravel with clues planted via websites, phone calls and even live events.

While most ARGs are designed to be collaborative, the Vista effort will be competitive because it targets the very technologically sophisticated, people who are able to decode embedded clues around the world. The game kicked off in January by hijacking the Bellagio Fountain in Las Vegas during the Consumer Electronics Show, projecting the image of a mysterious woman onto the fountain to spark interest in the ARG. Physical clues will also be deployed in Sydney, Frankfurt and Singapore, using a range of techniques, from fireworks to skywriting.

Prior to kickoff, sites for fans of ARGs had begun to buzz with speculation of the new game’s existence, based on a mysterious message posted on the news section of MSDN (Microsoft Developer Network) IE Blog. Cybersleuths had already discovered cipher codes, a link to the website Vanishing Point, a strange countdown clock, a video on YouTube, and other clues all meant to augur a complex riddle.

The first mainstream ARG, called ‘The Beast,’ was developed by Microsoft in 2001 to generate hype for the Warner Bros. movie AI. Consumers were drawn into a ‘murder mystery’ narrative via three entry points: a fictitious credit on posters and movie trailers, a phone number in trailers, and a hidden message on select posters. Observant consumers went to their computers and phones to check out the mysterious oddities, and then got sucked into the mystery.

‘We had originally hoped a couple hundred thousand people would get involved…we had three million active participants,’ says Jordan Weisman, who led the project while he was Microsoft’s CD, adding that the frenzy created by the ARG landed a lot of mainstream press coverage by outlets like CNN, Time and USA Today. ‘These three million people created over 300 million impressions for the film.’

Following the runaway success of ‘The Beast,’ Weisman left Microsoft to launch his own agency, L.A.-based 42 Entertainment, which creates ARGs for marketers eager to get their brands noticed by jaded consumers who’ve become oblivious to traditional advertising. ‘There was a shift from a push-based marketing system to a pull-based system,’ notes Weisman, explaining the insight behind ARGs. ‘[Marketers] should hide things and whisper and allow the audience to find them.’

42 Entertainment also crafted the offbeat ARG ‘ilovebees,’ teasers leading up to the launch of Microsoft’s Halo 2. It was a radio documentary based on Halo storylines, delivered via ringing payphones around the world. Players could find clues online or collaborate on message boards. The effort attracted 750,000 active participants, and another 2.5 million casual players, not to mention coverage in the New York Times and on CNN. Last year, P&G sponsored the ARG Cathy’s Book, which spread excerpts of a young adult novel across various websites. The game also involved cell numbers to call for clues, and created MySpace pages for the lead characters. The diary-style book appeals to teen girls, so P&G tied its CoverGirl and feminine hygiene brands to the ARG-related web pages. The book, written by Weisman and Sean Stewart, CD/story director at 42 Entertainment, was published last fall and landed on the

New York Times bestseller list.

‘We believe that every company has a network that entertainment can be transmitted through – print, TV, packaging. Any outreach you do is an opportunity to release content,’ says Weisman.

Weisman says the cost to build branded ARGs varies greatly, from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, depending on the scope. ‘You need to be a brand that’s willing to take risks.’

If crafting an elaborate ARG isn’t in the cards – or your marketing budget – another way to reach enthusiasts is by advertising on sites dedicated to discussing the genre. One such site is ARGNet, at argn.com, which is based out of La Broquerie, Man. It has an average monthly traffic of about 15,000 unique users, but that spiked to 30,000 at the height of the big ‘Art of the Heist’ ARG in spring 2005. About 70% of visitors are from the U.S., 10% from Canada and another 10% from the U.K. Advertisers can go through Blogads or Google AdSense to buy space on the site.