CTAM Live: Embracing Viral Marketing Campaigns

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BOSTON—For successful multi-platform marketing campaigns, be everywhere, be discoverable and be prepared for anything, advised the designers of effective network campaigns for HBO and A&E.

Campaigns may be all but taken over by fans adding content to marketing microsites and they may demand more of marketers than was planned for in the original campaign.

For instance, a casual online game designed to pique interest in the A&E series Parking Wars, an episodic profile of the Philadelphia Parking Authority, has become so popular with users that they have organized a campaign to e-mail Abbe Raven, president of A&E Network USA to demand the game be expanded and upgraded. The game allows gamers to create cars to navigate the game, ticketing friends and other players while avoiding tickets themselves.

The game now gets more total users than the network’s main Web site, according to Guy Slattery, senior vice president of consumer marketing at A&E. As a result, “Now we’re in the gaming business,” he said.

Also, viral campaigns can result in publicity an executive never intended, he added. A campaign this year for Paranormal State, which discussed the existence of ghosts, was the subject of a wallscape covering the site of a multi-story building on Prince Street in New York City. The building was near a church graveyard, and the top of the building was equipped with a sonic transmitter which could make passers-by hear whispers as they passed the graveyard.

Slattery said the sonic element garnered great word of mouth, but the stunt ended up being mischaracterized by Web site Gawker, which reported A&E was beaming audio inside people’s heads using their skulls as a transmitter. But that mistaken report resulted in other media covering the stunt, resulting in media calls and coverage from as far away as Japan, he said.

HBO used a plethora of viral elements to promote its new series True Blood, launching a campaign back in May for the September series debut. Corteney Monroe, executive vice president of consumer marketing for the premium service, said marketers had the support of series creator Alan Ball, who allowed the department to write a “prequel” to the series, the scripts for which were vetted by Ball and his writers.

The concept of the series: vampires live among us, enabled by the creation of a synthetic blood product that provides them with nutrients without the need to feast on humans.

First, the HBO marketers partnered with the New York agency Campfire (the folks who helped make the Blair Witch Project a sensation) to create a list of 1,000 “vampire taste makers.” These superfans (culled from blogs and Web sites on vampires, horror films and game aficionados) got the first, unbranded marketing piece: a mailing written in an ancient language with no other explanation.

A second wave of marketing involved the “synthetic blood product.” HBO created ads that treated the plot device as if it were a real product sold in stores, arranging to have advertisements, embellished with a “sold out” disclaimer, placed in the windows on convenience stores and even vending machines. The print ads for the product offered the first clue that the ad was a stunt for an HBO series: a fine-print warning at the bottom that “HBO advises vampires to drink responsibly.”

Web sites accompanying each of these waves had their content supplemented by fans, which showed their enthusiasm for the upcoming series by creating and posting their own videos. The sites got 100 viral videos and 250 comments posted, she said.

The True Blood effort entailed more creative elements than any past campaign, and helped the series toward its average 6.5 million viewers weekly and resulted in four million video views and an “engaged community” surrounding the series on HBO.com, she said.

Noting the summit took place in Boston, the panelists said viral marketing has undergone a profound shift since the debacle in 2007 when light panels promoting Turner Broadcasting System’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force were mistaken for terrorist devices, prompting a tactical alert in the city. Monroe and Slattery said campaigns now are vetted by the highest levels of corporate legal departments.

“We want to maintain a fiction without really fooling anybody,” Monroe said of the viral campaign.

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