What did Reznor do that is so smart?
1. He spread the campaign across many platforms — a network of websites, but also t-shirts, the cd itself, USB drives left in bathrooms at shows — and many of those platforms were not on the internet. By hooking into live audiences and t-shirt wearers, he directly targeted his fans’ offline social networks, which he wove seamlessly into online communities. He recognized that his audience is found on the internet and also hanging out wearing t-shirts with their friends, and his strategy recognized the overlaps between those networks and used each to enhance the other.
2. He crossed genres by getting fans to engage with a record the way they have been engaging with many television shows. Writing a concept album isn’t new, but making it an alternate reality game (ARG) that people could really play is. He developed a (semi)coherent narrative whole into which the pieces fit like puzzles. It echoes Lonely Girl and Blair Witch Project as well in that it set up web sites that gave just enough to make people want to actively seek out more.
3. He took full advantage of people’s sociability. Unravelling the story depends on social engagement. At the very least, the people who found the USB drives had to be socially oriented enough to leak the songs they contained. But people also had to tell each other about the sites. And more importantly, in order to really piece the story together, they have to collaborate. It reminds me a lot of watching Twin Peaks in 1990 and reading alt.tv.twinpeaks and trying to collaboratively solve the crime (or Lost today). In those cases and in this one, there is so much ambiguity in the ‘narrative’ that everyone can develop a theory of their own, which makes it much more fun to have access to other people’s ideas and perspectives as well.
4. He figured out new ways to do things. CDs that change color? Cool! USB drives in bathrooms? Clever! Cryptic quasi-religious armageddonesque websites? Neat-o. But next time a band leaves a digital form of a leaked song in a club or a concert hall what will people say? “Nine Inch Nails rip off, how lame.”
Having the vision to see a complete and novel project, figure out how to leak and distribute that vision throughout the fan base, and doing it as well as he did requires smarts, no doubt about it. But he also had some other things going for him, not least of which was an already present huge loyal fan base with a long history of building online community around his productions.
Short story? Great campaign but very hard to replicate, especially for bands without a fan base who’s already got a strong sense of what you’re all about. But there are some clear lessons: Use multiple interconnected platforms, including material ones that connect offline activity back to the internet, give fans clues to piece together that they’ll piece better together, understand and work the fact that fans have friends they like to talk to on and offline, and think way outside the box about distribution channels for your message. Word of warning: avoid Lite Brite displays.
I have been thinking alot about viral campaigns lately. I think the NIN example (and the AFI example from a couple years back) were great examples of the campaign matching the audience. Halo, Lost and Heroes also had successful “viral” campaigns to look at as well. Blair Witch sets the tone, but there are plenty examples nowadays to look at (Blair Witch was, like, a decade ago and stuff 😛 ).
I like the post above for stressing the “out of the box” mentality that marketing depts need to take to thinking about how they are goign to make the campaign viral. Try to challenge yourself and your team. If it’s been done before, either tweak it or use it for inspiration, don’t just copy it. And if you lack the resources to do so (time, money or creativity), don’t do it.
One thing that I see happening more and more that I do not think is a good idea is marketing depts trying to fold these sorts of tactics (or web 2.0 tactics for that matter) into every brand, regardless of it’s audience, just because it was effective somewhere else. Viral campaigns need to think of the people they are targeting – will your target consumer actually have the desire to seek out more clues? will your elaborate backstories be seen by more that a handful of uber-fans? Is that ok with you? Are you looking for a PR stunt or true fan engagement?
Looking to study this a bit more in the upcoming months. If anyone has any leads on research or articles about viral campaigns, please send them my way.
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