March 7, 2008
Crossing Over: Viral Marketing and Alternate Reality Games (1 of 2)

One of the things I enjoy about working with C3 is that you actually get to see many of the concepts and tools that we study applied in practice. How I discovered a new ARG, Find the Lost Ring, made me think about four common elements of viral marketing and alternate reality games (ARGs) - two things I've been thinking about of late - and how these concepts can be used together to build a franchise or a brand.

The two terms I'm talking about get thrown around a lot, and can have multiple meanings. Although by no means definitive, here is what I mean by viral marketing and ARGs:

  • I am discussing viral marketing here as the planned or spontaneous diffusion of brand- or product-specific digital content, information, or applications by audiences to their social networks via online communication channels.

  • I'm referring to alternate reality games (ARGs) as the interactive and often participatory narratives that audiences discover incrementally, either individually or in groups, to solve a puzzle.

Find the Lost Ring

I heard about three times between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning. One of my Flickr friends put up pictures of the mysterious package she got in the mail; I got an email from someone else; and a mention showed up on my Twitter feed. Later, I saw an article in Wired, which reported that this was an ARG and a promotional effort around the Olympic Games, possibly sponsored by McDonald's. Then I sent the URL to two friends via IM.

Naturally, I went to the site. The story is told through a blog apparently written by Ariadne, one of the six international characters the narrative is built around. They all woke up with amnesia a month ago in a mysterious labyrinth, with a mysterious tattoo that reads "find the lost ring" in Esperanto. In the first post, Ariadne asked for help from the audience to figure out who she was and what was happening, and comments appeared with URLs to people who seemed to be going through the same thing. On the next post, users can click on links for each character's name that lead to a variety of different sites (Flickr, YouTube, etc) where the different characters tell their stories in their native languages. So far, there is also a friendly stranger named Kai, and a man who might know something, named Eli Hunt, who has his own website and podcasts available through iTunes.

Seeing things

Find the Lost Ring is another example of a growing trend among advertisers to create engaging stories, participatory elements, and a puzzle or mystery to solve in order to capture the audience's attention although they are not all ARGs in the purest sense, they retain many of the same elements, as well as many characteristics of viral marketing. In some recent cases, the lines have started to blur.

Some of the first high profile examples of ARGs appeared in 2004: Audi began it's well-known Art of the Heist campaign to launch the A4, and Microsoft commissioned the I Love Bees alternate reality game that dispensed clues through ringing payphones to promote Halo2. Another notable example is the 2007 Nine Inch Nails ARG called Year Zero designed to tell the story around a new album.

More recently, there have been a couple of interesting examples that look like viral marketing but encompass the mystery and puzzles akin to an ARG. Earlier this year, it turned out that Coke was behind a mysterious, ARG-esque website about a character called Real Ray, originally featured in their TV ads. The box office success of the J.J. Abrams-produced film Cloverfield was at least partially attributed to the online viral marketing campaign that created considerable buzz around the film, in the blogosphere, in fan communities, and in the popular press as people scrambled for clues about the movie and the story behind it.

Some concluding thoughts will be available in a followup post later today, in which I look at what I see as the five key components shared by successful viral marketing and ARGs. Thoughts? E-mail me at