Have you ever played an ARG? You might have and never known it. And it could be the most addictive thing in marketing in the last few years. ARG stands for "Alternate Reality Game", as written about in the January issue of Wired magazine. Just this past weekend, I stumbled upon one while trying to figure out what the heck the movie Cloverfield was about (after clicking the link, see the "viral tie-ins" section at the bottom).
First, let's get rid of the name. Alternate Reality? This ain't the mid-90s. Besides, it's not even accurate; there is nothing alternate reality about this process. I propose Online-Life-Game Amalgamations: OLGAs. Besides being more accurate (that these products operate online, in real life, and within a game in tandem), from a marketing perspective, doesn't OLGA present a more pleasant image/sound in the mind than ARG?
OLGAs differ from other marketing efforts because rather than trying to breach the consumer's interest through volume (push), they draw people in (pull). As the Wired article states, "That's why [Weisman, the 'creator' of OLGAs] opted for a 'subdural' approach: Instead of shouting the message, hide it." Thus, the consumer becomes a detective. Much like National Treasure, The Da Vinci Code, or anything by the immanent Paul Auster (especially The New York Trilogy), the author becomes part of the story, deciphering clues s/he had not realized were in plain sight, and needing to know not just where to look but to look at all. Again, from Wired:
"These narratives unfold in fragments, in all sorts of media...the audience pieces together the story from shards of information. The task is too complicated for any one person, but the Web enables a collective intelligence to emerge to assemble the piece, solve the mysteries, and in the process, tell and retell the story online. The narrative is shaped - and ultimately owned - by the audience in ways that other forms of storytelling cannot match. No longer passive consumers, the players live out the story. [my emphasis]"
You can read the article for background, examples, and a history of OLGAs, but I would like to flesh out three principles in this emerging field.
- Definite entry points: All of the OLGAs I have read about have definite entry points, though ideally multiple mediums would be used. The examples of the Nine Inch Nails Year Zero campaign used multiple websites, a message on an answering machine, and flash drives hidden in restrooms at concerts. The multiple mediums almost act as second opinions - they build off of each other and support the legitimacy of each other.
- Seamless integration into life: OLGAs derive some of their appeal from the way the games fit into a player's life. After a threshold of suspension of disbelief, these games feel very real. You are not going to a "puzzle" webpage and "playing." You are solving puzzles in real time with other people online.
- Less Is More: OLGAs succeed from a marketing standpoint not only because they do not feel like marketing, but because they do not beat their message into the head of the consumer. In this instance, whispering is better than shouting.
- OLGAs must be fair and have (some sort of) a conclusion: OLGAs tap into a primal human desire to solve things. From a dissertation on Paul Auster's novels: "As another version of teleological classic art, detective text is obsessed with closure; the end comes not only as a salvation of the reader but at the same time gives reassurance that the reader is not be wandering in a wilderness of ambiguous signs. Everything that happens in a detective story must be placed under the perspective of a final truth."
OLGAs are not for everyone: both creating and playing. Companies should realize the immense amount of work involved - from scheming it up, to creating content, to placing clues in the real world, to monitoring players' progress. OLGAs burn through a lot of time and money. Likewise, companies should understand that their OLGA may not reach a huge number of people. Gauge response less on the number of people involved and more on their fervor. Remember that the fanboys are the ultimate evangelists.
Finally, here's an article from MTV detailing some recent OLGAs. The critic confuses OLGAs with stupid publicity stunts, putting them both under the rubric of unconventional marketing. Truly unconventional, yes; but also in a class all of their own.